Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.

Another beautiful book by Eve Babitz, a love letter to LA. The woman can flat-out write. Normally I’m bored by coke-fueled tales dotted with celebrities and other LA nonsense, but Babitz lures you, seduces you, brings you into her world and makes you taste the dust on a Bakersfield road, see the smog-enhanced sunsets over LA, and almost (!) join her in hatred of the dreaded NorCal foe, San Francisco.

It’s a hypnotic combination of intellectualism and hedonism. Eve yearns to turn to her virgin copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays instead of entertaining a friend to prevent the friend from getting a migraine. Henry James, Proust, are all name-dropped more than actual celebrities.

The book is a collection of memories/stories and each episode is introduced with a personal note to the man she wrote the book for, her lover Shawn, the sometimes gay designer who she falls head-over-heels for after one last disastrous relationship in SF. The inscriptions pre-chapter she claims are to serve as markers for Shawn to know which chapters of this book to read and which to skip (like “You won’t like this piece because you don’t like baseball so you can just skip it.”) But the intro that she wrote him for Sirocco is too sweet to miss:

God what a night. I was so glad you were home, standing up in all that wind while everyone else was blowing across the streets like tumbleweeds. I wonder if you wish you hadn’t been there, with the future looming up in such utter chaos before us. And meanwhile, the night was old and you were beautiful.

She’s a creature of comfort and doesn’t like to venture too far afield, but then will get a wild hair to tear around the state. I completely agree with her comment: “The idea of trying to ‘find yourself’ in some kind of geographical illusion is enough to make me so disgusted and bored that I am likely to get nasty.”

I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you’re talking about.

Simply perfect writing. Engaging delightful tales of life in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles.

Possible inspiration to There’s Something About Mary in The Garden of Allah story?

“There’s just something about Mary,” a guy told me once. “She’s too pure. She’s almost like a nun.” But Mary was much better than nuns. They only came in black and white, while Mary was all the colors.

Middlemarch

Mary Anne Evans (Marian Evans), writing as George Eliot, deserves the praise that has been echoing since she started speaking her mind through written words. Middlemarch came out in 1871-2, and if I read it before I remembered nothing of it, convincing me that it’s a necessity to read and re-read the classic works throughout your life, as they make different and stronger impressions as your own well of experience has grown.

Dorothea Brooke/Casaubon/Ladislaw is the shining angel of the story and is compared to the Virgin Mary multiple times throughout. We first meet her as an unmarried lass, strictly determined to focus on the important things in life and if possible marry a great man (someone of Milton’s stature) to help with his life’s work. Unfortunately, she chooses the dry and crumbly Casaubon, 30 years her senior, who at least has the good graces to be rich as well as pious. More fortunately, he’s only on the scene for a few years before kicking the bucket from ill-health. But the jealous old man puts a kicker in his will, that Dorothea is to lose his property should she marry his cousin Will Ladislaw, with whom she has only the barest of friendships. At this point, I screamed at the book that she should give her money to Ladislaw first, and then marry him, to get around this ridiculous clause. Instead, they strain at their innocent and budding relationship until Dorothea realizes she’s in love because of her jealous reaction to seeing Rosamund tête-à-tête and mistakes his intentions. Eventually, she throws away her fortune and joins forces with Will.

There are other couples as well, including the foolish Rosamond, married to Lydgate the doctor. And foolish Rosamond’s foolish brother Fred, who gets into debt and seems to be one of the usual layabout gents without a fortune, redeems himself to capture Mary Garth. There’s scandal aplenty, with Bulstrode the banker covering up his disreputable past, slightly murdering Raffles the wag who could spread the truth about him, and involving Lydgate in the scent of bribery.

Eliot was brutal in her description of Casaubon, making it no problem for the reader to hate this small-souled man. The description post-honeymoon captures this perfectly:

Mr and Mrs Casaubon, returning from their wedding journey, arrived at Lowick Manor in the middle of January. A light snow was falling as they descended at the door, and in the morning, when Dorothea passed from her dressing-room into the blue-green boudoir that we know of, she saw the long avenue of limes lifting their trunks from a white earth, and spreading white branches against the dun and motionless sky. The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low-hanging uniformity of cloud. The very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: the stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world; the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books. The bright fire of dry oakboughs burning on the dogs seemed an incongruous renewal of life and glow – like the figure of Dorothea herself as she entered carrying the red-leather cases containing the cameos for Celia.

As for the man himself:

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.)… For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Her thoughts on politics mesh well with today’s:

It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the ‘Pioneer,’ when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired a breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgement as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy—in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been least disposed to share lodgings.

Some other odds & ends I enjoyed:

  • “Has any one eve pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”
  • “But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clocks ticked slowly in the winter evenings.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Figured I’d take a break from real life controversies by dipping into a literary one and re-read Huck Finn. Parts are delightful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depiction of Jim, the slave that joins Huck on his swirl down the Mississippi, left me queasy. The squabble that’s been around since the book came out is around the question of Racist or Not and it drops so many “n word”s that the idea of whitewashing the book by search/replace with another word is laughable. I can only equate the feeling to when I read books about terrible things said about women, only usually those are couched with a glimmer of hope or irony, a strong woman character plotting revenge in the corner or muttering pithy replies under her breath. In this, Jim has no counterpoint to the stereotypical image of an enslaved black man. There are no gibes he gets in about the white men going to pieces all around him.

In my mind, the best parts are at the beginning, on the river, Huck and Jim. Even the parts with the “king” and “duke” joining the caravan are good at first, then become tedious. But the book clunks to a halt when Tom Sawyer arrives in the deep south to bungle the attempt to free Jim. Tom prefers to gussy up the plan by making it more dramatic, when they could have simply popped out a board to free him. This disrespect of the life of a man convinces me that the book is largely flawed, despite whatever intentions Twain had for poking fun at racism.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

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Mariana Enriquez is an Argentinian Shirley Jackson. Her stories have a dash of creepy, ghost stories that are grounded in normal life. The decapitated street kid, the plot to bury sausages in the hotel beds to create an untraceable stink foiled by the appearance of ghosts from the police state, the girl without a left arm who disappears into a haunted house, women who burn themselves to disfigure their looks away from what men want. A fantastic collection, translated by Megan McDowell.

The Ice Palace

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I put a note in the back of a library book I enjoyed asking future readers to send me book recommendations if they enjoyed that book as much as I did. So far, this is the only book that I’ve been able to get through of the handful that have been recommended via that method.

It’s a creepy book, two eleven-year-old girls on the brink of a friendship only to have one of them die in the ice palace of exposure to cold the day after they have their first confab. Siss is a local girl, the leader of kids at school, and Unn has just moved to town after losing her mother, now living with her aunt. Siss feels that there’s something different about Unn, and the two warily circle each other for weeks before finally Unn writes a note saying that she wants to see her. Siss walks over to Unn’s house at night, bravely facing her fear of the dark, clomping in the cold. The two girls shut themselves up in Unn’s room and struggle to find common ground. They ogle themselves in a mirror, and take off all their clothes before hurriedly getting redressed. Unn hints at a secret, but Siss goes home before she finds out.

The next day, Unn feels too shy about seeing Siss at school, so she plays hooky and goes to the ice palace, formed at the river by the waterfall. She slips inside through a small crack, wanders deeper and deeper, finally taking off her coat to squeeze into an even smaller space, and then can’t get back to it. She lays down, sleeps.

That night, Siss joins the search party and the men eventually go to the ice palace. Their lights dance from within the palace, but Unn is not found. Siss gets a fever and feels she’s been asked by Unn to keep a promise not to forget her.

In the spring, Siss asks the kids to go back to the ice palace because it’s about to give way due to melting. They frolic, but do not find Unn. Later, the ice palace cracks and gives way, sweeping all evidence into the river. Fin. By the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan.

The Pickwick Papers

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The Marx Brothers have nothing on Dickens, as proven in his scenes of ragtag madcap drinking, jesting, capering, punning, joking. This is his first novel, fully titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and you can actually watch as he progresses in honing his skills across the pages. The first chapters are universally despised as boring, but Dickens introduces the character of Sam Weller in chapter 10, breathing life into the story and carrying it to success for another 600+ pages. It gives off “an extraordinary sound, which being neither a groan, nor a grunt, nor a gasp, nor a growl, seemed to partake in some degree of the character of all four” (from chapter 52, where Sam’s dad is about to give the red-nosed preacher a beat down).

Pickwick roves the countryside with his band of merry younger friends in search of wisdom but adventures come knocking. Even in the early chapters we see glimpses of genius like “[the horse] wouldn’t shy if he was to meet a wagon load of monkeys with their tails burnt off.”

The scene with warring political parties also comes off well in chapter 8, where Pickwick cheers for the candidate that the mob just cheered and tells his friends, “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” Mr. Snodgrass asks “But suppose there are two mobs?” and Pickwick recommends to “Shout with the largest.” Later, a politician is making the rounds and told to kiss babies to make a good impression on the crowd, to which the politician (Slumkey) resigns himself.

One of my favorite techniques Dickens uses is the nested story, having a character relate a tale that he heard, like the Bagman’s ghost story (Ch 14). Inevitably the people in the story get drunk, which explains the weird stuff they see later. In the Bagman’s Story, Tom Smart thinks a chair in his bedroom is an old gentleman, and begins to have an argument with it/him. The chair brags of having lots of ladies sit in his lap, then proceeds “to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed.”

Another embedded ghost story in chapter 49 ended with a line that made me laugh out loud. The character walked home late at night, drunk (natch!), and sat in some dilapidated abandoned mail coaches, then woke to find them bustling about, brand new. He attempts to help one of the ghosts elude her captor, but wakes before they get to safety. The landlord who has listened to this tale asks “I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,” and the storyteller answers, “The dead letters, of course.”

We get the first hints of Dickens anger about lawyers, courts, and debtor prisons here (prisons more fully explored in Little Dorrit and courts in Bleak House). Pickwick is entrapped by his landlady who thinks he’s made a marriage proposal and who sues him for breach of contract. When a jury finds him guilty, he refuses to pay the amount and prefers to go to Fleet prison instead. After a few months, the woman’s lawyers throw her into prison for non-payment of their fee, wherein Pickwick pays her out in return for a letter saying that he never made such a proposal. Unaccountably, Pickwick also helps Jingle out of prison, despite being made the butt of his schemes earlier in the book.

Besides this aborted marriage, there are plenty of sneaking around and pinching of barmaids. Several of Pickwick’s friends end up married off at the end, bearing children for him to godfather.

Possibly my favorite parts were those witticisms of Sam. If I read this again, I’ll try to collect all of them. A sample:

  • “Come sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said, wen she remonstrated with the pastry-cook, arter he’d sold her a pork-pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside.”
  • “I rayther think you’d change your note, as the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”
  • “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”

Pickwick disbands his club with a farewell speech worth quoting, as it mirrors Dickens’ own farewell to the time spent writing this in monthly serials:

“I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character: frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”

Twilight Sleep

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For some reason I’ve never ventured past Edith Wharton’s prime time novels (House of Mirth, Age of Innocence), but Twilight Sleep was mentioned in a book I read last week so I figured I’d take it for a whirl. Pub’d in 1927, you’re immersed in the dazzling world of wealthy pre-Depression NYC, and immediately confronted by the complex character of Pauline Manford. This middle-aged matron has a schedule that does not stop: “7:30 Mental uplift. 7:45 Breakfast. 8 Psychoanalysis 8:15 See cook. 8:30 Silent meditation. 8:45 Facial massage. 9 Man with Persian miniatures 9:15 Correspondence. 9:30 Manicure. 9:45 Eurythmic exercises. 10 Hair waved. 10:15 Sit for bust. 10:30 Receive Mother’s Day deputation. 11 Dancing lesson. 11:30 Birth Control meeting…”

From this, you can see that she’s bursting with contradictions, praising motherhood and yet supporting birth control, attempting to find peace through meditation and yet cramming it into a hectic schedule. Later, she’ll start giving the speech she prepared for the Birth Control group to the mothers, only to catch herself in time and say that this is what “they” say about mothers. Pauline is a divorcee on friendly terms with her first husband, Wyant, from whom she has a son, Jim (who’s married to Lita). Pauline also has a daughter Nona by Manford.  Lita does her duty and pushes out a baby boy, with the help of drugs during the birthing process that render “Twilight Sleep”… “Of course there ought to be no Pain… nothing but Beauty… It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby.” Jim adores the baby and “Lita hadn’t minded in the least.”

But there is trouble in paradise, amid the bustle. Pauline’s husband Manford has fallen in love with Lita, or at least it’s quite obviously hinted at throughout, not declared outright. There was something missing in this treatment of the “affair” – it just didn’t sit right. Manford describes himself as having a fatherly feeling about Lita, but gets enraged when he sees a risque picture of her in a magazine and squanders a large part of his wife’s fortune trying to keep a handsome ne’er do well from arriving to lure Lita to Hollywood.

Nona is in love with her married cousin, and it comes to naught. She also is accidentally shot by her father who finds a “burglar” in Lita’s room (was it a burglar? who knows). The book ends with her dreaming of joining a convent of atheists, soured on the unraveling marriages around her.

The Razor’s Edge

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Not surprisingly, I did not “feel myself getting smarter, my brain expanding while I read this,” unlike the idiotic character in I’ll Tell You In Person, which is where I got the breadcrumb to check out W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel. I’m actually quite tired of reading books by gay men that make women into the shallowest of characters, ugly, grasping, with no redeeming qualities, while the men are heroic, handsome gods. This book strained every nerve of that kind.

If I identified with anyone in the book, it was Larry, the quiet and curious character who the entire thing is about, following his strange travels around the world “to loaf” by which he meant to study and read up and discover the meaning of life. He’s adamant about rejecting the normal path of office work and ends up losing a girlfriend/fiancee as a result. Isabel doesn’t take too kindly to the monkish aesthetic that Larry cultivates in his tiny Parisian apartment and can’t imagine herself without access to society, gems, furs, etc.

After a separation of two years wherein Larry heads to Europe from Chicago to find himself, they meet up, and Isabel asks what he’s been up to. “I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French.”

Isabel then cuts off the engagement, not wanting to face life without scads of money. (Larry has a small living that he can get by on without having to work, but that’s not enough for her.) In response to her rejection, he says “I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life.”

Much later, after he meets up with the author after burying Sophie (naked, throat cut, opium addicted prostitute from Chicago to Paris and almost married to Larry until Isabel tempted her into drinking again). Larry mentions his plan of giving away all his money and starting in America with nothing, taking a manual labor job because that’s how he’s able to think. “My mind is free when I’m washing a car or tinkering with a carburetor…”

 

The Village

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I’ve never wholeheartedly liked anything that Marghanita Laski wrote, including this novel, which is the only thing I’ve been able to finish of hers. Post-war destruction/erosion of the class system played out via the romance of an upper class yet poor as a church mouse woman and a hardy, hard-working, up-and-coming son of her old charwoman. They start seeing each other when they find themselves both stood up for movie dates on Friday night, Margaret with her girlfriend Jill and Roy with his ex-girlfriend. They carry on a clandestine relationship and once Roy finds them a place to live, break the news to Margaret’s parents who refuse to give consent to wed. Eventually, and by forcing the young couple to emigrate to Australia forgodsake, they agree.

Difficult Women

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Not the worst book, but not the greatest. I much prefer Roxane Gay’s non-fiction, if this collection of short stories is any indication. Seems like the most difficult part of the women was that they all enjoyed violent men and sadistic pleasures. Maybe the best story was the first, written in 1st person so you weren’t quite sure if the childhood kidnapping had actually happened to her and her sister. I suppose the next best would be the story of studying in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, falling in love with a logger and being the only woman grad student in the engineering lab. A bit of a letdown overall.

Effi Briest

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This forgotten gem by Theodor Fontane in 1895 is well-worth a read. Thomas Mann said in 1919 that it was among the six most significant novels ever written, yet it has been completely forgotten by most of the literati. The story involves young Effi Briest, a girl who’s married off to her mother’s ex-boyfriend (!!), Baron Instetten, many decades older than her. What could go wrong?! The story unfolds slowly but not ploddingly, she’s semi-abandoned in a frontier town while her husband climbs the ranks of official life. Along the way she has a flirtation/affair with one of his friends, and when they must leave for Berlin, she’s relieved to end it all. Six years pass, and when her daughter bangs her head on a stair, bleeding profusely, the maids crack open Effi’s desk to find some bandages. Later, out of the chaos, the Baron discovers a packet of letters and reads them. Despite so much time having passed, he immediately heads out and challenges the guy to a duel, killing him. Effi is then truly abandoned, stripped of her child and reputation, only surviving due to her parents’ largess. Later she has a doctor convince her parents to let her come back and live with them, where she later dies. Just before leaving this mortal coil, the Baron has some twinges of regret, realizing that he’s forsaken happiness forever.

The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain

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I’m on a hunt for specific tips around the craft of story-telling, and who better to ask than Mark Twain? This collection features what the editor feels are the best of his stories, plus a snippet in the appendix “How to tell a story” comes from Twain in 1895.

Perhaps my favorite was “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” from 1882, wherein Twain relates a tale told to him (a frequent device) by a man who foolishly invested and doubled down and tripled down on his burglar alarm investment. Delicious first sentence, “The conversation drifted smoothly and pleasantly along from weather to crops, from crops to literature from literature to scandal, from scandal to religion; then took a random jump, and landed on the subject of burglar alarms.”

Also of interest, the extracts from Adam’s diary (and later, from Eve’s, which wasn’t as interesting).

But mostly I was there for the writing tips, and nuggets like this are sprinkled throughout: “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.”

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

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Isabel Greenberg does a graphic novel treatment of Scheherazade’s story. The main action revolves around a virgin wife who’s in love with her maid; her dumb husband bets his neighbor that he can’t seduce her even if given 100 nights to attempt it. The maid overhears the nefarious plan and she and the wife devise a plan to avoid entrapment—Hero will tell amazing stories for 100 nights and the neighbor will forget all about seducing the wife. Which is exactly what happens, and we flit around into various folk tales. Good stuff!

The Prodigal Women

I got swept up in the fast-moving currents of Nancy Hale’s dramatic masterpiece from 1942, a best-seller in its day that has now become moldering. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for stories with strong women who prefer solitude to anything else.

The story begins with a young Leda March looking back at her home and relishing the weekend’s release from school so that she can be alone. She comes from a poor branch of the aristocratic Marches of Boston and is an only child who finds comfort in the rollicking good time offered by her new friend Betsy Jekyll. The next 500+ pages follow the girls as they grow up and try on various identities—wealthy and beautiful wife (Leda) who bores of her marriage and chucks it all to become a poet, and Betsy’s bohemian spirit leads her to flapperism in NYC which she must renounce when she ends up with a wife-beating husband who loves to imagine all the various men she’s been with (so as to enrage himself). Leda falls in love with Betsy’s sister Maise’s husband, the artist Lambert Rudd. Maise herself gets sick in South America due to a botched abortion and becomes an invalid until she has her own child, and then loses her mind. It’s a real page-turner, delicious way to sink into the hours of the afternoon.

Enchanted Islands

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Sometimes you have a bad idea that you just have to follow through on. Today’s mistake was deciding that I’d slough off on work and simply read all afternoon, which I doubled down on by consuming this not so great book in a few hours. I was intrigued by the premise when I saw the book jumping out at me from a Chicago bookstore not long ago, so ordered it up and polished it off in one sitting, despite giving myself a tummyache in the process. It’s not good writing. It’s not good plot development. The characters are flimsy and unbelievable. Yet, I persisted, driven by the idea that some nugget of wisdom about female friendship would be waiting for me at the end. Nope.

It begins at the end, when Fanny & Rosalie are tucked away in an old folk’s home in the Bay Area, then yanks you backward through their childhood growing up Jewish in Minnesota, running away from home to work as a secretary in Chicago and then fleeing for farm life/suffragette life in Nebraska (of all places) when Fanny walks in on Rosalie with Fanny’s boyfriend Zeke, in an unnecessarily graphic and extremely detailed sex scene. Then Fanny ends up graying in San Francisco as a teacher, which she eventually chucks to go back to secretarial work in her 50s for the Navy. She gets recruited to pose/become the wife of a spy and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands in the lead up to WWII. Her husband, Ainslie, is gay, the “confirmed bachelor” hints broadly ignored by Fanny up until she catches him (of course) in flagrante.

The part of the story that unfolds on the islands is the flimsiest, most improbable, and least worth reading despite what you’d imagine. There are German spies on the island, drama drama drama, then the war, and Fanny’s shipped back to SF where she finally does fall in love (Joseph) but returns with Ainslie to the Galapagos when the war is over. It’s a muddy, icky, not-worth-your-time mess and I wish the author had had the kindness to keep it tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.