This is a quiet, ruminative book set in England in 1956. Mr. Stevens is a butler. He has devoted himself to professionalism in providing service to an aristocratic household. He is aging and EVERYTHING is changing around him, forcing him to reexamine his work and his relationships.
England in 1956 resembled America in 2021 – recently traumatized and socio-politically divided. Why has so much changed so quickly? What is the essence of Englishness? Of American identity? What are the flaws of the system, and how may they be addressed? Issues of gender and social class abound in The Remains of the Day.
The plot covers only a few days, recorded as diary entries by the protagonist on a brief journey. It’s hard to comprehend the limitations Stevens lived with, despite his steady employment and relative financial security. There’s a romantic plot line, but it is so understated it barely exists.
In addition to analyzing his professional and personal life, Mr. Stevens tries to come to terms with a troubling aspect of England’s history, namely the complex interactions between Nazi Germany and some British aristocrats. American is presently trying to come to terms with its racist past.
The Remains of the Day has so much “atmosphere” that you could read it as a comedy of manners if that is your choice. But there’s much more going on.
See my blog entry of July 13 for comments on the first of these books, My Brilliant Friend.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels comprise a tetralogy, or quartet. My only other experience with a literary quartet is the magnificent Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet has been described as “sprawling”. I would say panoramic. The Neapolitan novels are intensely focused on one woman’s life, and within it, one intense friendship.
I read the three books that followed My Brilliant Friend (1300+ pages total!) in a fast and furious binge that took less than a month. Just couldn’t stop!
The Story of a New Name is about gender and relationships. Normally I’m not charitable towards authors who provide an index of characters. Clear and thoughtful writing should render that crutch unnecessary. But I forgive Ferrante because the complexity of her books, with their multitude of characters, reflects “real” life.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay continues the lives of Elena (the narrator) and her best friend Lila, as does Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child. Farrante doesn’t back off from shocking plot twists. The story continues until Elena is past age 60 and Lila has, apparently intentionally, disappeared, dropped out of sight.
What is stranger than a disappearance? In my long life, this has happened twice – two people, not “closest friends” but more than acquaintances, have disappeared – one almost 40 years ago, the other about 15 years ago. I have no intention of writing about them, or of seeking further information. But I cannot help being fascinated by Ferrante’s literary take on this.
One reviewer describes the Neapolitan novels as an “education in being female”. I recommend them to men on that basis. Very likely you will learn a great deal. Ferrante (whoever she is) is an author for the ages.
This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.
The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.
The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.
On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.
In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.
The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.
This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.
Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.