Category Archives: world literature

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

17th May 2011

Review copy info: I requested this book from NetGalley, and thankfully, Penguin USA approved my review request.

Trinidad in the 50s. A verdant landscape. Racial and class tension. In the middle of it all, a white woman rides her green Raleigh bicycle, drawing stares, criticisms, and admiration.

Sabine and George arrive in Trinidad for George’s job, a promotion he never would have secured in Britain. Here, George has a career ladder to climb, and Sabine is along for the ride. The couple initially sign on for three years, and once Sabine arrives at her roach-infested habitation, three years may as well be an eternity. As George acclimates to Trinidad, Sabine withdraws, resentful and uncomfortable in her new surroundings. George is blind to the political tension, but Sabine sees it – up close and personal – in the form of the charismatic Eric Williams, Trinidad’s hope for change.

George plants his roots deeper and deeper, and as Sabine pulls back from him, he turns to other women. What, for Sabine, is so much worse, though, is the island’s grip on her husband – something she cannot fight.

The couple grow older and have children, disappointing one another, as Eric Williams disappoints the island who saw him as a champion. Sabine begins writing letters to Williams, letters she never sends, but which have her anger and desperation poured out onto the pages.

…But this isn’t how Roffey tells the story. No, she begins at the end of George and Sabine’s lives, when they are old, angry, sad, and regretful. George is now working as a journalist, trying much too late to make his wife love him once again. Sabine sits in despair, long past ready to leave the island and its people she knows don’t want her.

Though I loved so much of this book – the idea of a leader who promises so much and disappoints time and time again; a woman angry at herself and her husband for pretending to understand the issues the islanders face; a man so enamored of a place he tries to make it his own without heeding his delicate place in its environs; a family forged of different stations, races, and blood; the descriptions of an incredible, intoxicating island – I cannot quite figure out why Roffey chose to structure the novel the way she did.

Visually it looks like this:

Ending ——————> Climax (3rd person)

Beginning —————> Different climax (1st person – Sabine)

The telling felt abrupt and odd. Playing with structure is quite popular at the moment, and I know it can be effective, but I didn’t like it – the structure, that is.

The elderly Sabine and George were much more interesting to me than their younger selves, simply because I felt their characters were more true (this may partially be because of the shift in narrator). Sabine’s obsession with politics and suffocation were palpable. George’s desire and love for his disappointed wife broke my heart. At one point, Roffey writes, “George still never knew what to say. He took himself out into the garden, where her sighs hadn’t spread.” Above all the politics and dissension, this book is about a marriage, the intricacies, the candor, the secrets, and the love that accompanies it all.

Roffey’s writing is magnificent. (This book made the 2010 Orange Prize shortlist). I just wish someone had told me to pick the book up, skip to Book Two, read it, and then flip back to Book One to finish it up.

Have any of you read this book or Roffey’s other work?  If you’ve read this, did the structure bother you? And the big question: who now wants to visit Trinidad?

jenn aka the picky girl

Monique Roffey’s website

Other opinions:

Ellen at Fat Books, Thin Women

Nomad Reader

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy

4th May 2011

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico opens in 1961 with 11-year-old Verdita on her birthday. Her father makes her a special treat and then tells the beautiful story behind her nickname – because in Puerto Rico, “everybody ha[s] two names. One was printed on a birth certificate. Another was the one you were called … and that name always came with a story.”

Puertoriqueno. Isn’t that such a beautiful word? I have always been drawn to Latin cultures; some of my favorite reads are Latin: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, The Memory of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. I have been a salsa dancer for years and can’t help but sway when I hear a Latin beat. However, I had not heard of this book, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy. No, I met the lovely Sarah McCoy on Twitter and only heard of her book after she initiated a conversation with me and I visited her blog. Then I saw the cover of this book and had to buy it. Isn’t it gorgeous?

The opening of the book is just as beautiful and idyllic as the cover, but the novel is also a coming-of-age story, and at 11, Verdita is very much on the brink of young womanhood. She sees her parents lying together intimately on the couch, and her mother yells at her to go away. After that, for months, Verdita harbors anger toward her mother without really understanding why.

At the same time, the political climate in Puerto Rico is charged as the possibility of incorporation looms over the heads of Puerto Ricans eager to safeguard their own culture and government. Verdita buys into American culture, though – hook, line, and sinker. Her cousin lives in Washington D.C., and though at first she makes fun of him for forgetting aspects of Puerto Rican culture when he visits, she soon longs to “look” and “feel” more American. She loves reading the Dick and Jane stories and seeing the blond girl with white skin. She forces herself to eat a hamburger she doesn’t really enjoy because it’s “American.” She treats her mother condescendingly for her island traditions and inability to speak English. I ached for Verdita to enjoy what she had, but she cannot reconcile who she is with what she sees around her.

No, instead Verdita fights it. At the same time little girl and growing young woman, Verdita is confused, embarrassed, angry, and hurt. She doesn’t always understand the way she acts, but by the end of the story, she seems to have come to terms with much of what has happened to her and around her. When I turned the last page, I simply wanted more. The ending is not abrupt, but it certainly left me wondering about this young girl with curly dark hair and the green eyes of a parrot.

Have you ever visited Puerto Rico? Do you remember being absolutely horrid to your mother? (Unfortunately, I think every little girl goes through a little bit of that.)

jenn aka the picky girl

Madame Bovary, Part Two

21st October 2010

I am sorry for posting this a bit late. I meant to do it early this morning, but A. I had a lot going on and B. I had no idea what I planned to write. I was tempted to write: “Emma, shut up and stop bitching” but thought surely I could come up with something more literary than that.

I have stewed most of the day about it and have come to a conclusion. The older Emma gets, the more angry she becomes. Her anger bubbles over, and she snaps at her child, her husband, her maid, everyone around her (that’s not the conclusion part). Frances focuses on the web of lies Flaubert spins for his characters, and though I think it’s a significant part of the book, I think the worst lie is the abstract one Emma focuses on. Emma thinks the world has lied to her, and she hates life because of it (there it is).

Life isn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Every moment leading up to her marriage, she lived in anticipation of that fulfillment, that idea of love she has carried around. She tries to discover “just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Tucked away in a convent as a young girl where she is rewarded for her spiritual ardor, all the while sneaking highly-romanticized novels, Emma lives in an alternate reality. It is a mystical place, and Emma embraces it fully. When her mother dies, she writes a letter to her father, and the contents of the letter so worry him, he visits her, and

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel that she had, at her first attempt, reached that rare ideal of pallid lives, which mediocre hearts will never attain. And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf … [until] [s]he became bored with this, did not want to admit it … and was at last surprised to find … that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.

Her dramatic nature has never been curbed, and through the ever-disappointed Emma and her love of novels, Flaubert swiftly eviscerates romanticism and its dangers. Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it. When she attempts to be a good mother and wife, it’s draining, yet she feels better having almost (at least on pretext) been a loving wife and mother. Flaubert does not allow the reader any illusions, though. When Emma pushes her daughter Berthe away from her and Berthe cuts her cheek, Emma seems suddenly maternal. She insists on remaining with the child, but in her quiet moment she looks at

a few large teardrops … gathered in the corners of her half-closed eyelids, through whose lashes one could glimpse two pale, sunken pupils; the adhesive plaster, stuck to her cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side.

“How strange,” though Emma. “The child is so ugly!”

She is detached, even in that second, and cannot make herself feel as she should. She is an actress, never fully involved in her own life and therefore, she is unable to enjoy it as well. Upon receiving a letter from her father, she becomes nostalgic, and again, it’s almost as if she’s viewing her life on a stage:

How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in illusions! There were none left now! She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love; — losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.

But what was making her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that had overturned her life? And she lifted her head and looked around, as though seeking the cause of what hurt her so.

Here she recognizes the illusion and in almost the same instant, pushes the blame away from herself, looking around to identify who or what is to blame for her intense displeasure. Finding no one, she places the blame squarely on her husband, who, to her, represents her entrapment. Flaubert tells us, though, to be prepared for this. In Part One, he describes Emma as

Accustomed to the calm aspect of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, — being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Emma seeks something fleeting, something on the air she cannot quite grasp. I fear it will remain ever elusive and that Emma’s hatred of her life and the world can only turn inward.

*But that’s just what I think. Check out Frances at nonsuch book and all the other links to see what other readers thought of Part 2. And thanks, Frances! I am finding the conversation most interesting.

Madame Bovary, Part One

14th October 2010

Charles Bovary – the monsieur to the madame, can be summed up in seven pages. That’s the length Flaubert devotes to Charles Bovary’s life, from childhood to adulthood. The young boy is nothing of note; neither is the man, though a doctor, until he meets Mademoiselle Emma. Flaubert gives the distinct impression that nothing has ever really interested Charles. His mother has orchestrated his life, and he has allowed her machinations. However, when he goes to set a well-to-do farmer’s broken leg, he certainly notices the farmer’s young, pretty daughter Emma.

As the book is named after the second Madame Bovary, I thought it curious she is not mentioned sooner. She begins her life as a character almost as an aside in this novel. It seems appropriate as (at least my prediction) is that she will never come to the glory the reader sees she seeks in her quiet moments. Emma seems quiet and subdued, but we get glimpses of her true character; she’s utterly bored with her life.

It seemed to her that certain places on earth must produce happiness, like a plant that was peculiar to that soil and grew poorly in any other spot….Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how does one express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage.

Her naiveté here is very apparent, as it is wholly unlikely a change of scenery is the true problem with the young Madame Bovary. Charles, on the other hand, thrives with Emma by his side. He came, in fact, to

respect himself more because he possessed such a wife. In the parlor, he would proudly show off two small sketches of hers, done in graphite, which he had had framed in very wide frames and hung against the wallpaper with long green cords.

But his behavior only grates against Emma’s already-thin nerves, particularly after she has a small but delectable taste of the life she has read of and dreamed about in sensational novels. Attending a ball with its requisite excitement and glamour, Madame Bovary is bereft at its close. She comes home and

reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satin shoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.

She bought herself a map of Paris, and, with the tip of her finger on the map, she would take walks in the capital. She would go along the boulevards, stopping at each corner, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. Her eyes tired at last, she would close her lids…

The more I read (and I read much farther than Part One), the more I felt conflicted. Charles is, as mentioned, a bit of a bore, but he’s just a simple man who takes pleasure in simple things. Emma, though, is not simple. She may be the daughter of a farmer, but novels or something much more basic has placed wanderlust in her heart. As irritating as I found her at times, I could also relate to that. She feels trapped, and I can almost guarantee as I keep reading, she will find a way around that – whether it ends well or not.

*Sincere thanks to Frances at Nonsuch Book. Without her fabulous giveaway, I would not own such a gorgeous copy of this novel. Check out her site for other initial views of Madame Bovary.

Other posts:

Dolce Belleza

Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

27th July 2010

Girls of Riyadh was released in Lebanon in Arabic in September 2005. The novel, recounting details about the private lives of four young women from Saudi Arabia’s upper classes, immediately became a sensation all over the Arab world. Hundreds of articles were written about it, politicians and pundits debated it publicly, online chat rooms were crowded with people hotly discussing it, and it sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first several months – not including countless black-market editions…. In this bold debut, Rajaa Alsanea reveals the social, romantic, and sexual tribulations of four young women from the elite classes of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Every week after Friday prayers, an anonymous female narrator sends emails to the subscribers of her online list-serv. In fifty such emails, spanning more than a year, the Scheherazade-like narrator unfolds little by little the comic-tragic reality of a small group of girlfriends…as they negotiate their love lives, their professional successes, and their rebellions, large and small, against their cultural traditions.

When I saw the cover of this book and read the jacket, I added it, without a second thought, to my library book bag. I am fascinated with women’s issues and thought this would definitely be a must read for me. How had I not heard of it before? Once I flipped to the actual story, though, I understood. Much like Gossip Girl, some show with a horrible actress all my students love, the narrator of Girls of Riyadh is in the business of gossip. The gossip does not appear to be mean-spirited, but she does divulge all the secrets of four girls: Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees. Each girl is privileged, coming from money and the upper tier of Riyadh. In a world of arranged marriages, where divorce is shameful, and women are chattel, the reader may think wealth can abate these problems. The girls certainly do have fun but although the girls and their antics could be entertaining, what follows is not great literature. BUT.

(And that’s a big “but.”)

I have thought quite a lot about this book. You’ve probably noticed from my 2010 reads, I don’t review everything I read. Some, to me, just don’t seem to be worth the time. Others, I need a little distance from in order to write a better review. Some just have to sit awhile. The thing about this book is, it affected me. It took me a couple of days to read, and after an afternoon of sitting with it, I ran to the grocery store. When I got home and walked toward the home that I own, as a single woman, having just stepped out of a car I bought without any help, I thought: I’m so lucky. These women cannot make a step without a. permission and b. judgment. They aren’t allowed to happily or foolishly fall in love without rules. Even when a couple of the girls broke out from their cookie-cutter roles, they were either punished, shunned, or made to feel guilty.

I know a lot of people just thought of this as a young girl’s (she was 24 when she wrote it) spoiled rant about not getting her way. And, yes, there certainly are spaces in the book where I thought the same. But it’s different. These girls may have wealth and beauty and status. The point is not that we should feel sorry for them. The fact is, in spite of their wealth and beauty, these women face obstacles to freedom. Big, huge, ugly ones. Give me all the wealth in the world, but if I cannot be in the presence of men, say, at a coffee shop or mall, without a chaperone or covering, I don’t want it.

Also, the book was full of small tidbits of Saudi culture. Having taught two Saudi students in my first summer session, I was eager to attain additional knowledge. My two male students had really opened my eyes to life in Saudi Arabia. Alsanea furthered that education. At one point, the four girls are going out to celebrate. The women arrive at a cafe in a car with tinted windows. In the late 90s, this was apparently standard for men who did not want their wives and daughters exposed to the eyes of men. Attracted to the car and what it holds,

[the men] jumped in their cars and surrounded the SUV on both sides. After the girls got the drinks they wanted from the drive-through, the entire parade started to move toward the big shopping mall in Al-Olayya Street, which was the girls’ second stop. Meanwhile, the girls were taking down as many phone numbers as they could. They did not have to work very hard, because these numbers were generously showered upon them by the guys. The girls could memorize those with catchy sequences and repeated digits as the guys stuck out their heads through their cars’ windows while driving and kept repeating them for the girls to write down. The girls also copied from placards the guys had hung on the windows of their cars so that girls in neighboring cars could see the numbers clearly. The truly bold knights among them held out personal business cards, passing them through the windows to be snatched up by the girls, who were every bit as brave as the aspiring Romeos. At the mall entrance the girls got out. Behind them appeared a rush of young men, but they all came to a stop uncertainly in front of the security guard. It was his job to keep all unmarried men from entering the mall after the call to Isha prayer that ushered in nightfall.

This sounds so utterly fantastical. Had I not learned so much from my Saudi students, I might have thought this an exaggeration. However, both told me it is common for people to meet this way. The traffic can be so bad, drivers can reach out and touch the person in the next car. One of my students said clandestine dates are often planned during traffic jams.

Overall, I would hold to my conviction about this book. It’s not great. The writing is poor; it is a translation. It reads much like a young girl’s diary. What elevated this book for me was the author’s bravery in publication and her desire to amplify the issues affecting young women in Saudi Arabia as well as the informative look at a culture so different from my own.