Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Club: "Corduroy Mansions"

We only had three members in attendance this time (one was on a trip to Paris!) but we managed to discuss a book that didn't lend itself to much analysis.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the popular Ladies #1 Detective Agency series set in Botswana, plus several more series set in the UK. Corduroy Mansions is the first book in his latest series originally published in serial form for "The Telegraph." The author says he is more interested in the quirky characters than he is a plot-driven story. Anyone expecting a traditional story arc will be disappointed, but when read as a series of vignettes about the characters the book makes for a pleasant read.

Corduroy Mansions is the nickname for the boarding house where William French lives on the top floor above "the girls" (Dee, Jo, Caroline, Jenny) who share a flat on the first floor, and Mr. Wickramsinghe on the ground floor. William is a modestly successful wine dealer who is less than successful in persuading his deadbeat son Eddie to get a job and move out.

We agreed that Marcia the caterer instigated the "action" of the story by insinuating herself into William's life. She suggests William acquire a dog, since Eddie is afraid of dogs and they assume he will depart rather than share quarters with one. Thus, Freddie de la Hay, the Pimlico terrier, is introduced. (I googled the UKC and AKC and found no official listing for a Pimlico terrier, which I presume is a breed created by the author. The photos of Freddie greatly resemble a Jack Russell terrier, a lively breed deserving of first and last names.) When Eddie inexplicably accepts a canine in the flat, Marcia suggests that she move in with William by taking over Eddie's room.

William, being the kind but passive gentle man that he is, does not object. He rather feels that his life has been taken over, yet he allows Marcia to have her way. Eddie angrily picks up his belongings and moves in with his disreputable friends. Despite the shakeups to his settled life, William is pleasantly surprised that he is pleased with the changes.

As is often the case in our modern society, we recognize our neighbors as we go about our individual busy schedules, but never get to know them well. Freddie proves to be an icebreaker for William who becomes better acquainted with his housemates -- in particular the young working women who live downstairs.

Through Carolyn (the art student) and Jenny (the assistant to MP Oedipus Snark) the reader meets a wider circle of characters whose lives we observe. Snark is an egotistical, self-absorbed politician who neglects his editor girlfriend (Barbara Ragg) and takes for granted his assistant Jenny. Snark's mother, Berthea, is writing an expose biography of the son she dislikes. She takes a break from writing to visit her ethereal brother, Terence Moongrove. If you haven't already guessed, the author is having a little Dickensian fun with the names of his characters.

Because characterization takes precedence over plot, we discussed the loose ends left dangling at the end of the book, plus the unexpectedly neat wrap up of other story lines.
Marcia and William seemed to come to an amicable understanding that they would be no more than roommates, but will Carolyn win the heart of the confused James who magically acquired a girlfriend in the last chapter? Is Barbara Ragg's new lover, Hugh, too good to be true? What is Berthea's intention for the biography of her loathsome son? Why was Oedipus so interested in the new book Barbara had acquired for her publisher?

The second book in the series (The Dog Who Came In from the Cold) is available in the US and the third installment of serialized chapters (A Conspiracy of Friends) was recently concluded on "The Telegraph" web site. I have the impression that a more recognizable story arc occurs over the span of the other books in the series and the questions we were left with will be answered in them.

Throughout the book the characters express their views of our modern world and reveal the philosophies that help them contend with the complexities of life. I believe the theme of the book and series is expressed in William's poem that ends the book:  "Happiness flows most readily from friendship."

Although we had tentatively selected Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for our next read, the three of us discussed the advisability of choosing newly published books. Since bargain-priced paperback versions are not yet out, and the library often has long waiting lists for popular new reads, we browsed for books that would be easier for our members to acquire. I suggested Fannie Flagg and we came up with Can't Wait to Get to Heaven. We'll see what the rest of the group thinks about changing our selection.

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