Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Honestly, I didn't like this book, but I am going to try to be fair.

I mean, McLain scored a big hit with The Paris Wife that I didn't much care for either because it failed to do what I thought was a necessary thing. In a book about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, it failed to convince me of Hemingway's genius, and it didn't entice me into reading an either.

In conjunction with this book though, perhaps I need to rethink McLaine's objectives. In some ways, she is trying to reclaim women who have been shortchanged by history. I can certainly get behind that. I mean, Hadley Hemingway's story has mostly been cast as her husband's story, or the story of the first wife where the later wives were much more glamorous. Or she was merely a minor attendant to the glamorous figures who also populated Hemingway's life in Paris. Poor Hadley, home with the baby while Ernest and the Fitzgeralds and the other glamorous expat were drinking it up in the bars of Montparnasse.

Beryl Markham might also be a similar project. While she was an early British settler of Kenya--moved there by her parents when she was 4 years old in the very early days of the 20th century, she was a remarkably modern woman--she married three times, trained horses, learned to fly, had affairs,  was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (harder due to prevailing winds). Her story is somewhat of an adjunct to the story of Isak Dinesen and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, told so cinematographically in the Oscar winning Out of Africa.

Markham also has a famous memoir called West with the Night, which even Ernest Hemingway praised for it's writing (and Ernest hated praising anyone who wasn't himself). So her story was told the way she wanted to tell it, but there are presumably gaps? And to give her credit, it seems that McLain did a fair amount of research into the minutae of Markham's past and life of the British in Kenya in the 1920s.

And yet.

Maybe this book needs to be read as a companion piece to Markham's own work (which I have not read). Maybe the tedious focus on her early teen years, the dreary digging into the names and habits of many of the horses she trained, while at the same time the near failure to cover her famous fltrans-Atlantic flight or anything after that--was because all that was well covered by Markham herself.

It's just--so boring. She was a wild and obstreperous child, allowed to run wild with the local population of Gikuyu after her mother returned to England when she was about 5. Her father was a horse man, training, breeding and racing thoroughbreds in African races. At some point, when she was about 12, he brought another woman to live as his wife, and Beryl was sent to school (which she hated) and some effort was made to civilize her. She married a few days before her 17th birthday to a local landowner when her father's business went bankrupt. She remained in Kenya; her father and semi-step-mother moved to Cape Town.

Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't work out very well, but it took some seven years or so for it to fail to the point of divorce. Meanwhile, Beryl had a few affairs, got certified as a horse trainer, met Isak Dinesen and Denys Finch-Hatton, fell in love with Finch-Hatton, had an abortion, felt torn between her desire for Finch-Hatton and her loyalty to Dinesen, remarried, had a child, lost the child to wealthy in-laws, returned to Kenya and learned to fly. Denys Finch-Hatton died in a plane crash. The epilogue is the last 50 miles of her trans-Atlantic flight, where she doesn't die in the crash landing.

There might be some beautiful writing about Africa of the 1920, but she is not a very interesting character to describe it to us. She loved the farm of her childhood, and so she actively resisted learning anything new that wasn't about being on the farm. She fell in love with Finch-Hatton who's most salient characteristic seems to be that he is beautiful. Her life had incident, but ti  is hard to shape it into any kind of narrative arc. Things happened, and then I kissed Denys/my husband divorced me/my reputation got damaged and it was the end of everything except then it wasn't.

McClain seems to want to rescue Markham's reputation from the scandalmongering of nearly a century ago. There was some whispering that she had an affair with Henry, the Duke of Gloucester (fourth in line to the throne, younger brother of both David who abdicated for Wallis Simpson, and George the father of the current Queen Elizabeth). So McLain shows us scenes where they are perfectly platonic and lets Beryl rail against gossip. She is known to have had an affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, even while Denys was involved with Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) so McLain shows us Beryl wracked with guilt but also a better match than Dinesen was.

Beryl was linked a little bit with the "Happy Valley set"--the African version of Waugh's Bright Young Things, people with too much money and too little to do, who drank and drugged and swapped partners. Beryl is dragged along by a man, but refuses to take any of his cocaine and while she sleeps with him, won't change partners when everybody else does.

Do we know these things to be true? I don't know. Do I like her better for not having done the things she was "accused" of? Not necessarily. She comes off as priggish and reflexively anti-drug, reflexively unwilling to accept a different sex partner, not out of any particular aspect of her character. She's drawn as weirdly hedonistic and then moralistic, with no real explanation of why the lines are drawn where they were. Why is champagne acceptable, but cocaine is not? Why is it okay for her to sleep with some men but not others?

Perhaps it was the reader--I listened to the book and the distanced, mostly monotone reading leeched any nuance out of the character. Written in first person, a gifted reader would have shaded Beryl's character, made me root for her. Instead, I just got tired of her.

At several points, she discusses poetry with Finch-Hatton, or waxes lyrical about the effect of his death on her, and I just got irritated. Glittering vaguenesses, basically.

I mean, I think I respect McClain for the research she did, and it's not easy to write an book, but I wish there had been more of a point of view, more of a point at all. It was barely worth the time, and mostly I listened while doing other things anyway.

In short, I can not recommend it on it's own terms. Maybe if one has already read West with the Night, this would be a worthwhile addition. It did make me somewhat curious about reading that book, to be fair.

No comments: