Friday, February 01, 2019

Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont -- January's best book

After posting my 2018 reading list, and pointing out those books I enjoyed the most, a friend ask if I could do something similar on a monthly basis. Each month, she said, indicate the single book you would recommend others read. She explained that she likes to read, but that — like most people — she would never read dozens of books each year. But a dozen, one each month, was within reach.

That request makes perfect sense to me.  And it’s especially easy to fulfill this month because I concluded my reading in January with one of my very favorite books — Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Like Willa Cather’s My Antonia, it’s a book I return to time and again.

The Guardians ranks Mrs. Palfrey, published in 1971, 87th among the 100 best novels.  Pride of place for a book, and an author, I suspect most people are unfamiliar with.  

It is a rainy January in London when Mrs. Palfrey comes to live at the Claremont Hotel. Her husband has died. Her relationship with her daughter is strained. An invitation to live with the daughter, a distant figure in the novel, has never been extended.

And so Mrs. Palfrey must rely upon her limited resources, living in reduced circumstances, at the Claremont. In such circumstances, she adopts a strict code of behavior: “Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital.”

Travelers come and go at the Claremont, but there are some half-dozen elderly residents; regulars like Mrs. Palfrey. These regulars are all women with the exception of one cranky old man, who constantly wonders where all the old men have gone.

Taylor charts the intricate social network in place among the Claremont’s regulars.   This is one of the great strengths of the book. Her close observation, especially the disappointments of old age — family falling away, the betrayal of the body and mind.  As one resident reflects: 

“It was only lately that she had become so absent-minded and she struggled to cover up her forgetfulness. It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.”

Mrs. Palfrey is a small book that conjures great emotion. The time captured in the novel has passed, but the vicissitudes of age have not.  Taylor’s tender observations echo through the years with a power and veracity perhaps only the elderly can truly understand.

This is a book well worth reading, time and again. 

Book read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Currently  Reading --
The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley

No comments:

Post a Comment