11 September 2011

Book Review: The New House by Lettice Cooper


For a couple of years I have been pronouncing Ms Cooper's given name "Lettuce". Then last weekend a friend suggested it might be "Le-teece". What say you all? Anyone have a Lettice in the family? Even if my friend is right, I think I will still call her Lettuce.

Anyhoo, enough about salad greens. The New House is the story of thirty-something Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother who are about to downsize from the large family house to a smaller, more middle class dwelling to conserve their limited financial resources. The whole action of the book takes place over the course of just one day--moving day--with the narrative split into three sections, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening.

Although the surface action is all about the move, we learn so much more about all the characters through both their current thoughts and their memories of the past. Our heroine Rhoda is in a  bit of a rut, one that threatens to last the rest of her life. Having not yet married or gone into any career, everyone, including Rhoda herself, assumes that she will continue to live quietly and take care of her mother. But things start to rattle around in Rhoda's mind and we begin to see a glimmer of hope that Rhoda may rebel against her fate.
Today, she thought is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack and if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin tomorrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.
Thankfully Rhoda's sister Delia stirs the pot a bit and it looks like Rhoda may break free. Or does she? As I said the action takes place over the course of a single day. One hopes for her future, but one also knows that the book is going to end before they all go to sleep that night. Will anything out of the ordinary happen or will Rhoda retreat to safety?

In the process we also learn about her mother and brother and aunt and others, each with their own dramas playing out over the course of the day. Her Aunt Ellen (her mother's sister I think) is one of the more interesting characters to me. Never having married and having devoted her own youth to taking care of her mother, Aunt Ellen lives a lonely life in a boarding house. She finds much joy in the moving activities which give her the opportunity to be useful. She contrasts the bustle of a real house with her own boarding house existence and yearns to be able to keep house again. To not have everything taken care of by a landlady. This is something that never really occurred to me before. Not only does a boarding house/retirement home existence engender loneliness, but it also enforces a kind of domestic straight jacket on residents. Some people may indeed like that. leaving the work up to someone else, but I think I would be like Aunt Ellen and actually miss keeping house.

There is also a fair amount of socialist sentiment sprinkled here and there and the general juxtaposition of the pre-WWI class system with the realities of modern (1936) Britain. Those bits stuck out a bit, but they were short enough to never feel like a political tract.

I am not going to tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. It doesn't rise to the top of my favorite list, but it is very solidly in the middle, upper-half of my Persephone reads so far. It was a book that I enjoyed taking a little slowly, and I miss it now that I am done with it.

8 comments:

  1. First of all, I LOVE the photos you posted -- very clever! And I quite liked this book, though I wondered how things would be the next day. I like how the author was able to get so many different perspectives and develop so many characters, just in one day. I thought it was well done.

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  2. [I hope this isn't appearing for a 2nd time; my first attempt seems to have aborted itself.]
    I remember there were similar discussions about pronunciation when Peter Shaffer's play "Lettice and Lovage" jumped the pond to Broadway a number of years ago.

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  3. The photos are so good and nice to see first thing monday morning to smile!!! and the book goes to my list. I like the backdrop of the story and set in one day sounds intriguing.

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  4. I don't think I'm personally acquainted with a Lettice but having watched plenty of period telly in the UK and seen "Lettice & Lovage" twice--once in London, once in Bristol--I can report the name is traditionally pronounced "LETT-ice" or Lettuce in the UK.

    Stateside, it's "Le-TEECE" for reasons I've never understood.

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  5. I enjoyed this book a lot, especially the bits about the servants - who were becoming a bit more human by the mid-1930s, but still kept at a distance.

    And I always call her 'Lettuce' but someone corrected me to 'Lett-eese' the other day. I'm glad to read Margaret's explanation - this is a case where you Americans have clearly chosen the superior pronunciation.

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  6. This is good news as I broke down and ordered three Persephone novels today to take advantage of the freebie and the prices before they go up. This was one of them (other two They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple and Miss Buncle Married). I'm looking forward to it very much.

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  7. Karen: I think it was especially nice how Mrs Lovell came around in the end. And I love the fact that Aunt Ellen gets to go live in a real house again.

    Steve: It looks like Margaret may have the answer below.

    Mystica: It is quite well done.

    Margaret: Very illuminating. Thank you.

    Simon: I much prefer the British Lettuce over the American Lett-eese.

    Litlove: You picked three good ones. I own, but haven't read Mr. Knight, but I have loved every other Whipple. And I ordered the new Miss Buncle as well.

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  8. I loved this book. It is one of my favourite Persephones. I read it back to back with Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street which also deals with women's role in the family in the early 20th c. Nice combination to read together.

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