19 July 2010

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

  
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of
Mollie Panter-Downes

Writing a review that doesn’t bore the pants off of one’s readers sometimes feels as insurmountably arduous and impossible as writing the book itself. I got over my recent reading slump but I think I may have traded it for a reviewing slump. So let’s just see if I can do Mrs. Craven justice.

Mollie Panter-Downes was a correspondent for The New Yorker, writing over 852 pieces between 1938 and 1987. Some of that output included these 21 short stories about life in England during World War II. Panter-Downes manages to write social history in the guise of fiction but does so in a way that one never feels like one is learning a lesson. The factual details Panter-Downes includes about wartime life certainly do provide the framework for each of these stories but they are ultimately there in service of exploring more universal truths. And although the stories retain an upper-middle class gentility, Panter Downes doesn’t shy away from exploring the baser side of human nature and behavior. These are not tales of heroic actions and selfless dedication to the war effort.

The eponymous story is one of the most poignant in the collection. It focuses on the emotional state of a mistress who begins to realize the tenuous nature of her personal life while her married lover is deployed in the war zone. In “It’s the Reaction” Miss Birch is a government worker whose inability to connect with her comrades at work and at home leaves her isolated and lonely. Out of the several stories that deal with displaced persons “Combined Operations” brings a bit of humor to the collection as one couple tries to deal with the once dear friends who have been staying with them for four years after being bombed out of their London flat.

Present throughout many of the stories is a sense, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, that things won’t be the same after the war. That the social revolution begun in World War I has gone both wider and deeper as all manner of folks try to deal with altered circumstances. In “Cut Down the Trees” Dossie, an old servant is having a hard time dealing with Mrs. Walsingham’s decision not to dress for dinner and even worse, her decision to take meals in the warmer, cozier kitchen rather than the dining room. When Mrs. Walsingham’s son comes home on leave he recognizes how traumatized Dossie is by the changed circumstances.
The old woman’s eyes seemed to implore him to play their game for a little while longer, to pretend that things were just as they used to be, that their world, which had come to an end, could still be saved.
I liked this volume quite a bit. Although some of the subject matter is similar, I think it is better than the rather shallow House-Bound by Winifred Peck or the more humorous Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennis.
  

11 comments:

  1. Often I find that books I enjoy the most are the ones I have the hardest time writing about. I struggle with doing them justice, and wonder what I can really add to them with my own words.

    I'm really glad to hear you enjoyed this collection, as I actually own it myself! I keep meaning to increase my short story reading, which I have a hard time with generally, so I think that's the reason I've refrained from attempting this collection thus far. Your review has certainly inspired me to move it up the TBR pile!

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  2. I think you've done justice to this one Thomas! I hate reviewing books as I never seem to sum up what I feel about them, hence most of my blogging is bookish rather than reviewish.

    Anyway, do check out the other Persephone collection of Mollie P-D, more fascinating stories that I greatly enjoyed.

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  3. This is a great review Thomas and my pants have not been bored off at all! I like the fact that you have picked up the strong element of social change that is in all of these stories - I totally agree that this idea was on every page. A lot of WW2 literature touches on this, but I thought that MPD did it so well.

    Thanks as always for sharing

    Hannah

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  4. I can totally sympathize with a review slump, but yours is certainly not evident from this review! This collection shares the top spot on my Persephone wish list with Dorothy Whipple.

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  5. I love reading but I sort of hate writing about books (very bad when you blog, don't you think), but only because when I read something I love I know I won't be able to write about it in the way I want to. But you do justice to MPD--one of my favorite authors! I love this collection--she was such a wonderful short story writer. If you haven't yet read her One Fine Day--I very highly recommend it! I've yet to read the Joyce Dennis book, but I did try Housebound--it must have been timing as I ended up setting it aside. MPD shines in comparison!

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  6. I enjoyed this book a lot when I read it too Thomas, I think it was for last years Persephone week! I have to say that Dennys wins over this one for me but thats just because of the humour. This, whilst still being wry is much more real.

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  7. Steph: I tend not to like short stories myself, so it is rare for me to pick up a volume like this. Having said that, I just picked up a collection of Whipple short stories. Maybe my aversion to the form is softening.

    Verity: I will definitely look into more MPD.

    Hannah: Thanks, it turned out better than I thought I would given that it felt like such a chore.

    JoAnn: MPD and Whipple are certainly different but both of them are wonderful to read. I think MPD style is a little more subtle.

    Danielle: The key to making writing about books less onerous is to find a hook that resonates personally and not try and do the comprehensive recap. Although some bloggers are really good at the plot summary. I am not.

    Simon: I was probably wrong to compare Mrs Craven to Henrietta since the only thing they have in common is WWII. Like comparing apples and oranges.

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  8. I read this a few months ago and really enjoyed the tales. I did, however, leave a few days space between tales because they were so similar.

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  9. I loved this collection of stories and the way perfect little movies were created in my head by Panter-Downes fabulous writing.

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  10. Amanda: I thought they started to get more interesting and more varied about half way through.

    Darlene: They would make wonderful viewing wouldn't they.

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  11. Thomas: Thanks for adding me to your blog roll. I add people when I find tastes that overlap to some degree or another.

    BTW, if you liked Mollie Panter-Downes, I highly recommend her novel, One Fine day.

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