V for Victory by Lissa Evans (Fiction)

Completely heartwarming novel about London in the latter stages of WWII (taking over where Crooked Heart left off). Noel Bostock (15) and his “pretend” Aunt (Vee) are living in the large house Noel inherited from his “pretend” godmother, the famous suffragette Mattie Simpkin. It has become a boarding house where boarders pay rent in both cash and tutoring for Noel. When a room becomes vacant, they search for a boarder with specific knowledge to impart. Noel is the most wonderful character — smart, capable, kind, and curious about absolutely everything. Mr. Reddish teaches him math while quoting his own rather bad poetry; Dr. Parry-Jones teaches science (giving him a dissectible rat for his birthday); the one-eared Mr. Jepson teaches him Latin; and Miss Appleby mixes her French lessons with more personal lessons about the heart (her heart to be precise).

In the odd way different lives seem to come together haphazardly, an American GI drives a lorry on the wrong side of the road, the more fashionable (and obnoxious) twin of an air-raid warden writes a surprising novel about her sister, and Noel’s origin story comes out of hiding.

I really like her writing — some nice quotes below:

“He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”

“Impossible to explain Vee’s myriad antipathies, her constantly updated list of prejudices and judgements.”

“She had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.”

“Since the end, just a year ago, of his own, terrible marriage he found himself studying other couples, like someone conning an aircraft recognition chart — spotting those tics and phrases that signaled contempt or boredom or fear, and when he saw those, he wanted to take one or other of the pair aside, and say, ‘Finish it now.’

“Jepson was present but unlit, so that in the dining room he was more furniture than inhabitant, talked around and over, but never to. But in lessons there were glimmers — he had seized Noel’s first essay and pushed the words around the page like backgammon counters, showing him how to introduce a subject, how to make a neat and satisfying ending, how to prune, and rearrange the content.”

“It was so easy, she thought, as he led her towards the music; he was so easy — a printed postcard, when every other man she’d ever known was a sealed letter filled with blank pages or mystifying codes”

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.