Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 4)

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Ah, young love: so smouldering, so passionate, so intensely felt. That’s the subject of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name. It’s his first book of fiction, though he’s published other non-fiction books and teaches literature, so I’m not sure we could technically call it a “debut”. It tells the story of a blooming romance between 17-year-old Elio Perlman, and 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver, who comes to the summer home of Elio’s parents in Italy, 1983. This book has become a pillar of the contemporary queer literature canon.

The story is told in retrospect, with grown-up Elio recalling the events of that fateful summer. He always resented his parents’ tradition of taking a doctorate student into their home for six weeks each year, forcing him to vacate his bedroom (that sacred space of a teenage boy) to make room for their guest. That all changed when Oliver, carefree and detached and beautiful, arrived. Without quite understanding why, his burgeoning bisexuality still a mystery even to him, Elio appoints himself to be Oliver’s tour guide, and their attraction (mutual, or not? who knows?) simmers.

Crikey, it’s intense – right from the very first page. Aciman doesn’t ease the reader in at all. Elio’s crush is all-consuming, overwhelming, obsessive and single-minded in an almost-scary way. I felt suffocated by Elio’s passion, trapped underneath the weight of it. Of course, that’s exactly how first love feels, so I think Aciman might have been Doing A Thing(TM) in mirroring that sensation for the reader, but still… maybe steer clear of this one if you’re narratively claustrophobic 😉

There’s a lot of push-pull in Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Elio rejects Oliver’s first overture, then Oliver pushes him away when he tries to get amorous. I know, I know, they were young and it was the ’80s, but sheesh – so much of the heartache could’ve been avoided with some open and honest communication! Elio pulls a very typical teenage boy stunt – he starts an affair with a local girl, Marzia (“see how much I don’t care if you reject me? I’ve got someone else!”), then slips a note under Oliver’s door being all “come meet me”. Unfortunately, it works, and they FINALLY do roots.





Despite the fact that it’s a coming-of-age story, Call Me By Your Name is hardly a young adult book. For one, it’s quite erotic, albeit in a highly literary way. All of the sexual encounters (including one truly smutty incident with a peach) are depicted in detail, but not to titillate – it feels more like Aciman is simply demonstrating the depth and desperation of Elio and Oliver’s desire.

Before he heads home to America, Oliver decides to take a little trip to Rome (as you do), and Elio accompanies him – a lover’s getaway. It’s bittersweet, though, because it’s over almost before it began. By the time Elio returns to his parents’ home, alone, all traces of Oliver have been removed. And, just to compound both the bitterness and the sweetness, Elio’s father intimates that he understands the true nature of his “friendship” with Oliver, and that he approves. I’m so grateful to Aciman for sparing us the parents-kick-him-out-after-coming-out trope!

Of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. A few months later, at Christmas, Oliver visits again – with big news. He’s getting married, to a woman. Obviously, that pisses Elio (still young and in the throes of first love) right off. They fall out of touch, almost completely, for over a decade.





We fast-forward fifteen years, with Elio (relatively) grown up but still unable to let go of that summer romance he had as a teenager. He decides to visit Oliver in the U.S., where he’s now a professor at a prestigious university. You’d think – both being older and uglier and better able to handle themselves – they’d finally sort their shit out, but nope! Oliver admits he’s been online-stalking Elio for years, following his career. Elio tells Oliver there’s no way in hell he wants to meet Oliver’s wife and children, because he’s seething with jealousy and he still has a massive hard-on. They entertain themselves with the could’ve-would’ve-should’ves for a while, then go their separate ways.

Finally, five years after that – so that’s twenty years after their first meeting, and one year before the narrator’s present – Oliver returns to visit Elio in Italy. Elio, in a fit of romantic madness, says that if Oliver remembers and still desires everything between them, he should once more “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name”. The ending is highly frustrating in its ambiguity – do they? don’t they? what happens next? – so Aciman released a sequel last year, Find Me, to fill in the blanks.

Call Me By Your Name isn’t about Oliver – it’s a strange thing to say, I know, given that Oliver consumes Elio’s every waking (and even sleeping) thought. It might be unromantic of me to even suggest this, but I feel like “Oliver” could’ve been literally anyone who crossed Elio’s path at that point in his life. It just so happened to be him onto whom Elio projected everything: his hopes, his confusion, his sexuality, his history, and his desires. In that view, it’s a fascinating character study of a young queer man coming-of-age through a formative love affair, and deftly avoids all of the tragic tropes with which the canon is littered.

And, of course, Call Me By Your Name was adapted to a critically-acclaimed film, directed by Luca Guadagnino in 2017. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, even. I have no idea how they managed to translate such an interior, obsessive novel to the screen, but hats off to them! I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out the film, but I do highly recommend this book if you need something warm to savour with a glass of red wine (or three) on some freezing winter night…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Call Me By Your Name:

  • “Too little for too long” – Amazon Customer
  • “I recomend” – Sandro Guia Los Angeles
  • “This is a foriegn language book trying to return.
    Do not speak This language.” – David Hancock
  • “The writing was beautiful but I wish I hadn’t read it. I didn’t like it AND it broke my heart.” – KatMarie
  • “I’m no soft porn expert, but that’s how this book struck me. On the whole, it was OK but not one I’d recommend to a lot of people.” – Marti Johnson

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown (but the trope itself has existed far longer). Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the King and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. We all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


Girl Online – Zoe Sugg

With reading – as with most things, I guess – timing is everything. I saved this bit of fluff to give my bookish brain a break between Sybil and Ulysses. Girl Online is the debut novel from the young “beauty, fashion, and lifestyle vlogger” Zoe Sugg. I’ll confess right now that I’d never heard of her before picking up this book, but her author bio says she has millions of subscribers on YouTube, so clearly she’s killing it.

Girl Online was first published in 2014, becoming a New York Times Bestseller in the Young Adult category, and the fastest-selling book of that year. It also broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author. Not bad, eh? I guess that’s the magic of being an internet celebrity: you’ve got a built-in audience, ready and willing.

But, as always, popularity and sales aren’t always the best indicators of quality. Girl Online is hardly a literary tour de force. It’s the story of Penny Porter, a fifteen-year-old girl from Brighton (where Sugg currently lives, funnily enough), whose anonymous blog goes unexpectedly viral.

Penny mostly uses her blog to vent about her typical teen problems: school, friends, family, boys, and so on. Then, a video of an embarrassing incident at her high-school play makes the rounds on YouTube, causing her great distress… so, her parents take a convenient week-long trip to New York (why is it always New York? Why is it never Wagga Wagga or Woop Woop?). They decide to take Penny and her gay-best-friend Elliot along with them. Naturally.

I could tell straight away that Girl Online isn’t going to age well. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references that already feel outdated: Justin Bieber? What’s he done lately? And I’ll try my best not to sound like a blogging snob here, but it must be said: Girl Online is a terrible domain name! It’s so vague! Penny really needs to work on her SEO. There, that’s all I’ll say on that, but you should know that the romantic sepia-toned version of blogging depicted throughout this book drove me nuts, all the way.



Immediately upon arriving in New York, Penny meets Noah, a mysterious teenage musician (again: why? Why are they always musicians?). She falls in love with him in a New York minute, of course. Alas, her parents cruelly separate them – i.e., they take her home when their holiday/job is over, instead of suggesting that she stay there on the other side of the world with the teenage boy she just met. Noah gives her a CD with a song he wrote for her on it before she leaves (vomit).

When Penny gets home, Noah’s “big secret” is revealed (this doesn’t even warrant a spoiler warning, because it’s so bleeding obvious): he’s actually a huge YouTube sensation, with two million followers or something like that. He’s about to release his first album. He didn’t tell Penny about his “big secret” because it was so nice to be treated “normally” for once (puh-lease). Oh, and he’s supposedly dating some other big-time pop star.

Penny’s all “see ya!”, which is an uncharacteristically good call on her part. Unfortunately, she’d already blogged about the whole romantic drama in real time. A former-BFF mean girl from school manages to join the dots, and she outs Penny’s identity as Girl Online, lover of the YouTube superstar. As a result, the blog goes “viral”, garnering lots of attention (the nasty kind) very quickly. Oh, and she has a fight with Elliot, too, so it’s a rough few days for her.

Cue many, many teenage melodramatics from Penny… only they transition alarmingly quickly into genuinely severe symptoms of an anxiety disorder. And here’s what really got under my girdle: no one, not even the parents, suggested therapy or a psychological evaluation for the hyperventilating teenager. I found it deeply disturbing how nonchalant they all were about it.



Don’t worry: in the last 50 pages, Penny and Elliot make up, the mean girl cops a milkshake to the face (a shameless rip-off of that pivotal moment in The Princess Diaries), and Penny gets an avalanche of suddenly-positive blog comments. Noah shows up to apologise, and says he was never really dating the pop star, it was all a show for publicity (yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say). The song he wrote for Penny is going to be the lead single from his first album, which is just, like, totally the most like, romantic thing evahhh.

Yes, it’s a super predictable ending, but I guess it could’ve been worse. In fact, on the whole, Girl Online was not as cringey as it could have been (and probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be here). It’s far from the worst young adult book I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins: that gong would have to go to Divergent, or maybe The Maze Runner. Girl Online is definitely better than either of those. Thirteen-year-old me might’ve even enjoyed it.

There are, however, a couple of things that would hold me back from recommending it to the teens of today. Firstly, as I said, it’s very firmly anchored in the early 2010s, so with the pace of technology and culture today, it’s going to feel very dated very soon. Snapchat doesn’t even rate a mention! And secondly, again as I’ve said, I was deeply concerned by the implied messages that teenagers can treat and cure their own anxiety disorders through… deep breathing? Sheer force of will? Positive thinking? Just… honestly, where the fuck are the grown-ups here? It has the potential to be really damaging.



Sugg has said, repeatedly, that the book is “in no way autobiographical”… which just has to be a deliberate ploy to fuel the speculation that it is, in fact, autobiographical. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that, even if none of it is “real” so to speak, a lot off Girl Online draws heavily on Sugg’s own romantic fantasies. There’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment with the turn of every page.

And that brings us to the other elephant in the room: the nature of Sugg’s “authorship” is… controversial, to say the least. I don’t doubt for a second that Girl Online was ghost-written, but neither Sugg nor Penguin (the publishers) are willing to officially confirm it. Penguin’s only public statement has been to say that Sugg “worked with an expert editorial team to help bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story”. Surely even the most wide-eyed naive fan can read between those lines.

Sugg knows marketing, though, which is another reason the book saw such huge sales. The US and UK covers each feature different images provided by Sugg’s fans (I’m assuming for free), selected via a competition she ran on her Instagram page. What Sugg lacks in literary chops, she makes up for in market savvy! She also published a sequel the following year, Girl Online: On Tour, and another the year after that, Girl Online: Going Solo. Based on the titles, and the trajectory of Girl Online, I’m guessing that Penny goes on tour with Noah until fame tears them apart, and then she forges a new life for herself as a fabulous single girl, before either getting back together with him or falling in love with someone even better. Whether I’m right or wrong, I doubt I’ll find out for myself. Still, I’m grateful to Zoe Sugg for this easily-digestible fairy floss snack between two canonical binges…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl Online:

  • “Good book if you follow her online.” – david potter
  • “Ok, too much emphasis on her clumsiness” – Kindle Customer
  • “I gave it as a gift to an ex-friend. She truly liked it a lot too bad I don’t like her anymore.” – Lonya Leonard
  • “This story is so lit fam I literally can’t even like omg zoella huge reds to you girl yassss wow” – Bella
  • “Did she even write the book?” – emily
  • “O-M-G this book was a RIP OFF so BAD so terrible i HATED it i’m being REALLY nice boy rating it a three i wanted to rip the pages out of this BAD BOOK if you want to stay healthy and alive DON’T READ!” – Ashrey Cannonier
  • “amateur” – Amazon Customer

Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

You might know Benjamin Disraeli from his time as a conservative Prime Minister of the UK. He became a Tory MP in 1837, then Prime Minister in 1868. You might find it hard to believe that he also squeezed out a decent writing career – not just before, or after, but actually during his time in office. Yep, that’s right, he was running the country and writing and publishing books all the while. And today, I’m reviewing one of them: Sybil, or The Two Nations.

As far as legacies of politicians go, Sybil is a pretty good one. First, it’s where we get the political concept of “one nation”, frequently cited (and misused, *cough*Pauline Hanson*cough*) by politicians today. It alludes to the bitter divide between the “two nations” of England in Disraeli’s time: the aristocratic landowners lived lives of luxury, while the workers and underclasses lived in horrific conditions and extreme poverty. Disraeli was making A Point, you see, that we should aspire to be “one nation”: a government that represents and rules for all, not just a privileged few. Oh, and Sybil also gave us the trope of a villain stroking a white cat. So, there you go.

Sybil was first published in 1845, the same year as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Both books sought to draw attention to the plight of the poor, just in different ways. Disraeli wasn’t shy about shamelessly ripping off the ideas and research of others. In fact, a lot of the background information for Sybil was drawn directly from official government reports, to which he had access by virtue of his job. Disraeli wanted to make his political and philosophical points more palatable by shoe-horning them into a love story: “a tender love story linked to a gripping detective plot”, according to the blurb on this edition. That makes Sybil a “roman à thèse”, a fancy way of saying it’s a fictional book about an idea, a novel with a thesis. But don’t be fooled: the “love story” is the flimsiest excuse for a premise that I’ve ever encountered, and Sybil is a blatant critique of capitalism and industralisation.

Look, I’m all about political reform and uplifting the working classes. I can totally get behind Disraeli’s points about representative democracy and equality. But I must say, when it came to crafting a fictional story to make those points, Disraeli made a real pig’s ear of it. Sybil reads like he sat down with a checklist of everything that should be included in an “industrial novel”, and wrote until he checked off all of them, one by one: someone tours a factory and is horrified by the workers’ conditions, the workers go on strike, all the rich people panic, the characters have political arguments, someone tries to start a union…



The “story”, if we can call it that, follows Charles Egremont, a new conservative party MP (whose rich family basically bought him the election). His brother wants him to marry an heiress, Lady Joan, but Charles is ambivalent about that union (to say the least). While he’s trying to worm his way out of it, he runs into a bloke named Gerard, and overhears his daughter – Sybil – singing. And just like that, Charles is a goner! Just from hearing her voice, he falls head-over-clacker in love. Lady Joan be damned!

It sounds somewhat romantic, but bear in mind that it takes a lot of meandering chapters to get to this point – weird hybrids of character histories, and critical essays about British politics and monarchy rule. The book is set around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, but Disraeli rambles on and on about hundreds of years of history before that. So, y’know, don’t get too excited.

Once he’s “fallen in love”, Charles Egremont starts hanging out with Gerard, trying to get a whiff of his daughter, and sticking his nose in everywhere it doesn’t belong. Charles tells himself he’s just trying to find out first-hand what the life of the working classes is actually like. And reader, it is grim. He is astounded that it’s so different to his life as a member off the aristocracy (imagine!), with all the starvation and disease and general misery. After a big blow-up argument with his brother about cancelling the wedding planner, Charles decides to move into a house up the road from Gerard for a while. All the better to continue with his new hobbies: spying on the poor, and jerking it to Sybil.

This gives Disraeli ample opportunity to air ALL of his grievances with capitalism. He likens the exploitation of the working classes to serfdom. What a revelation! *eye roll* Okay, fine, at the time, it probably was a revelation, but reading this “groundbreaking” critique two hundred years later, I was just sitting there like… yeah, no shit, mate.



Ultimately, as Charles watches on, the working classes mobilise (yeah, boys!). They’re fed up with all the workplace deaths and no tea in the break room, so they go on strike. It looks like it’s working, but things start to go awry when the protestors turn into an angry mob, and groupthink takes over. They decide they’re going to lay siege to Marney Castle. But don’t worry, Sybil and Charles get away safely, and live happily ever after.

Ah, yes, Sybil, we haven’t said much about her yet – mostly because there’s not much to say. She was so two-dimensional, she was almost see-through (even by the extra-low standard I set for privileged male writers of that period). Her main job was to stand around being beautiful and believing in social justice, while wealthy white men like Charles made all the decisions and did all the politicking. She eventually hooks up with Charles, of course, but that’s about all she does throughout the whole book named for her. Sad.

The introduction to this edition promised me that “Sybil is, in large part, a novel about what it feels like to be in love with someone who disapproves of you”, but – as I’m sure you can tell by now – I really wasn’t feeling that. Sybil is far grittier than, say, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. It’s not as plot-driven, and it’s far more academic. That might be because, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli’s work was never published in serial form, so he didn’t have to keep it pacy and punchy to keep the readers coming back week-to-week.

I think I only soaked in about 10% of what Disraeli was pouring out. Sybil is probably better suited to readers who are already deeply familiar with the system of British government and the monarchy, and/or people who have a keen interest and some background knowledge of 18th and 19th century British history. Having an at-best rudimentary understanding of both, this book didn’t do much for me. I appreciated Disraeli’s ideas, but I wasn’t a fan of his execution.

There was only one part that stuck with me, my favourite line:

“I rather like bad wine,” said Mr Mountchesney, “one gets so bored with good wine.”

That’s drawn from the opening scene and, to be frank, I wouldn’t recommend reading much further than that. The beginning was the best and most interesting part of the whole book, which isn’t saying much, sadly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

  • “Could have done without icky sweet Sybil. Very powerful images of social inequities of the times. Are we heading this way?” – Quotarian
  • “I have only read the first bit, didn’t really grab my attention and hold it so the jury is still out” – TieDye Kid
  • “Benjamin Disraeli writes, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In Sybil, Disraeli attempts to explain the struggle of the Victorian working class. He spends a great deal of time justifying himself which is boring to read. The story itself is told by an obvious elitist masquerading as suffragette. Though it has many quotable sentences, I did not enjoy this book in its entirety.” – Ali


The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).

My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?

So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.

There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.

Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!



Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!

Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.

Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.

Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!



I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.

I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.

Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

  • “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
  • “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis

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