Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

I receive advance reading copies (ARCs) from publishers for review purposes from time to time and I always make it a practice to read them in order of publication date.  I do this so my reviews will be as timely as possible and roughly coincide with each book’s release.  So when I finished The Early Stories of Truman Capote (November 23, 2015), I flipped to the next ARC on the list and came up with Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise.  Okay . . . so . . . the book I read immediately preceding the Capote collection was Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End.  Were the book gods really going to make me read two Twain-based novels nearly right in a row?   Apparently so.  If I weren’t so damned OCD about my hard and fast publication date rule, I would have just put the Hijuelos aside for a month or so and come back to it later, but I’m a little anal about these things so I hunkered down and prepared to dive back into the world of Samuel Clemens.

If you read my November 11, 2015 post on Lynn Cullen’s book, you know that her Twain was a rancorous dude not much interested in giving a rodent’s posterior about anyone but himself.  So I wondered what kind of light Oscar Hijuelos was going to shine on the old coot.  A radically different one as it turns out.

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise orbits around the actual, lifelong friendship of Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, controversial African explorer and supposed utterer of the legendary “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” line.  Twain comes off more like the revered figure most of us imagine, a better family man and friend than the one Lynn Cullen would have us know.  He’s a relatively considerate pal, a devoted husband and father, and just an all-around much nicer bloke to hang out with.  However, Stanley, not Twain, is the real star of the show here, as his voice is the principal one Hijuelos uses to narrate his sprawling tale.  The novel spans at least 50 or so years and we’re with Stanley every step of the way in his life, beginning with his arrival in New Orleans as a penniless orphan from Wales, to his first meeting with Twain on a Mississippi River steamer (Twain then being known only as Samuel Clemens and prior to his immense literary fame), to the sweltering jungles of both Cuba and Africa and finally to pastoral England.  We even backtrack a little to Stanley’s childhood before his abandonment by his mother and his eventual orphandom (okay, so the jury’s still out on whether “orphandom” is actually a word).

Hijuelos employs several narrative devices to relay the intertwining stories of Twain and Stanley.  At times he writes in the third person, giving the novel the feel of a Stanley biography instead of a fictional interpretation, and I frankly had to remind myself on a multitude of occasions that this wasn’t a biography.  Other times the epistolary voice takes over in the form of letters between Stanley and Twain and correspondence exchanged between Twain and Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s portraitist wife.  Yet other chapters are set forth in the first person as either Stanley’s or Dorothy’s journal entries.  This constant tone shifting has the whole thing coming off as slightly schizophrenic, and truly the thing works best when it’s simply Stanley doing the talking from the pages of his diary.

For those expecting Hijuelos’ usual exuberant, Cuban-American themed fare, Twain & Stanley is a divergence, although the two men do venture together into Cuba searching for Stanley’s potential adoptive father (NOTE:  The Cuba jaunt is completely fictional, not based on any actual trip taken by the pair, although much of the book is rooted in the facts of their relationship as best could be gleaned from Hijuelos’ extensive research).  In all fairness, the author died unexpectedly before he ever submitted Twain & Stanley for publication so one can only presume that he didn’t get the chance to further shape, polish and winnow down his manuscript prior to his death.  According to his wife’s afterword, Hijuelos had been fascinated by Henry Morton Stanley since his teenage years, and the research and travel that form the underpinnings of this book were a labor of love that spanned more than twelve years.  You have to wonder though, had Hijuelos lived, would he be completely satisfied with the rambling Twain & Stanley we’re left with or would he still have some tweaking to do?

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.