Saturday, May 8, 2010

Persephone Reading Week: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes


I heard about Persephone Reading Week, a week devoted to reading books published by Persephone Books, from Frances at the great literary blog Nonsuch Book. It's hosted at the blog Paperback Reader. Since I have a number of Persephone titles waiting to be read, I decided to make a concerted effort to participate.

For my week of Persephone reading, I chose the wonderful Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. Panter-Downes was a prolific journalist and short story writer who was published regularly in the New Yorker magazine during the first part of the 20th century; the stories in this book appeared there October 1939 and December 1944. All of the stories take as their subject domestic life in Britain during World War 2.

Reading this collection was a pleasure, albeit often of the bittersweet kind. Tinged with sadness and irony, the stories feature many types of people- single, married, mistresses and adulterers, children, the poor and the wealthy and the middle class. The characters experience loneliness and brief moments of connection as they manage the isolation, privation, anxiety and more- all the many disruptions and chaos and helplessness of English life during the war. A young working woman living alone tries to reach out to a neighbor for companionship; a well-off woman cheerfully rids herself of a boarder who no longer needs her, only to feel an unnameable remorse at rebuffing another woman who does; an upper class woman simply cannot understand why the poor mother she tries to help can't seem to keep herself or her children in tolerable order. In the title story, a young woman having an affair with a married man who's left for the war must decide whether to contact his family to find out if he's still alive.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is a tender, affectionate portrait of people doing their best in difficult times- even if their best isn't the best. Panter-Downes shows loving empathy for her characters and writes with impressive economy. Each story is no more than six or seven pages but she creates vivid characters and immersing worlds. Of course, reading it straight through, the mood from one will shadow the next and what emerges is more than the sum of its parts. The collection reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Strout's wonderful novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge; this book isn't a novel in stories but detail and emotion slowly accrete as each story acts as a mosaic piece in a larger picture of wartime English life. It's a beautiful collection from a skilled craftswoman from whose work I hope to see more collections in the future.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

12 comments:

Paperback Reader said...

Lovely, lovely review, Marie, and thank you for participating in my and Verity's (my co-host) Persephone Reading Week.

Nymeth said...

Excellent review, Marie! I felt much as you did about this book. And yes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Anna said...

Great review! I've heard nothing but good things about this book. The really short stories plus the WWII angle...sounds right up my alley.

I've linked to your review on the Book Reviews: WWII page on War Through the Generations.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

JoAnn said...

I REALLY want to read this collection! I was at B&N yesterday hoping they might have a copy in stock. Every so often there is a Persephone Classic, but no luck....

Mystica said...

I have read several posts on different blogs on Persephone books and all the books seem absolutely lovely. I have collected all the titles now and its only a question of trying to get them!

Judith said...

I'm fascinated by your post and will search for this read! An extraordinary find!

Reader in the Wilderness

Marie said...

Anna- thanks for linking. I was thinking about the War Through the Generations challenge as I read this and I think it would be perfect!

dolcebellezza said...

I'm hoping to get to The Making of A Marchioness which you sent me for Christmas! It's been such a crazy, busy week that I think I'll have to continue with my own private Persephone Week for a bit longer. Thank you, though, again, for adding to my treasure.

Kathleen said...

I'd love to read a Persephone one of these days. That lovely dove grey cover gets me everytime I see it. This sounds like a good one. It is rare to hear the stories of women who stayed home and kept the home fires burning during the war.

....Petty Witter said...

A great review, everyone seems to be loving this book.

Zibilee said...

I have been wanting to read a Persephone book for a really long time, and have heard such great things about this one. I think that when the time comes, this is the one I will choose. It sounds like the stories have a myriad of complexities and that there is a lot to love in this book. Wonderful review, Marie! You have inspired me to try this one out!!

jewwishes said...

What a fantastic review! I must read this!