Book Review//My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes



Are you ever afraid to read a book because you love everything you have read by that author and what if this is the one to break the streak? What if it is just...all right? I know it is silly. After all, you will still love the other books, but somehow that is how I felt about My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes. She is a relatively recent discovery for me and the fact that there are not very many of her books in print has made the ones I have read feel even more special. One Fine Day is beautifully written and London War Notes fits exactly into my interest in WWII social history. Her short stories are also a joy. When The British Library sent me a copy of My Husband Simon I set it aside for a bit just in case the anticipation was better than the fact. Last weekend I finally read it.

In My Husband Simon Nevis Falconer (what a name!) tells the story of her short marriage to Simon Quinn. Nevis and Simon are very different but they fall in love almost instantly, mostly based on wild physical attraction. Nevis is a writer and bases her opinion of people on intellectual criteria.

Simon, I discovered almost at once, was the most baffling person to deal with, because he had any amount of intuition and no intelligence, as I understood the word. But Simon argued once that I understood the word all wrong. He said that I damned anyone as unintelligent who (a) had not seen the latest play and read the latest novel; (b) did not know who Virginia Woolf was; (c) could not look at a dress and say, "My dear, is it Molyneux?" Well, Simon certainly failed in (a), (b), and (c). He never read books; he didn't give a damn who Virginia Woolf was; he thought a dress either a bad dress or a good dress; and that was that.

 Nevis and Simon settle into married life and are alternately wildly happy and wildly argumentative. Nevis does not like Simon's family, especially his mother who expects her to produce children and make a happy home. Nevis needs to write and is intensely frustrated because since she married it has become harder and harder for her to do so. She is not happy with her latest book even though it is admired and feels she can do better. But how, with no peace and no time to herself? A publisher from the U.S. arranges a meeting with Nevis. They become friends and he tells her what no one else has; that her writing is not as good as it was.

I felt the queerest mixture of anger and misery and relief. It was the kind of feeling you might have if you said to a doctor: "Tell me the worst," and he answered: "Six months to live." It was as though, after a lot of evasive probing round a mortal wound, one swift thrust had laid it bare. A wrench of supreme pain and then a queer sort of peace. Now I know the worst. Now nothing can hurt me any more.It was what I had been wanting all the time, subconsciously. Someone with guts enough to say "You're a flop, and you know it." Not Simon coming back from the office with his tales of awful nice chaps who had thought Vulcan's Harvest damn good. I didn't want a comforting salve of lies and good-nature. I wanted a hard, surgical slash-slash; an incisive cutting agony that would either cure or kill. Only that morning I had been sobbing angrily under the Flemish flower picture for want of someone like Marcus Chard. 

Marcus Chard and his presence in Nevis' life becomes more and more of a catalyst for change in her relationship with Simon. I started the book thinking it was going to be the story of a marriage gone wrong and the man who broke it up (which is not my favorite kind of book which is possibly another reason I hesitated to read it.) It is the story of a marriage gone wrong but it is also the story of two people who love each other deeply and don't want their marriage to fail.  They are two flawed people but neither is presented as the villain. They are just people who make mistakes and love each other and break each other's hearts. I must admit, I did frequently want to shake both of them and bang their heads together until they came to their senses and worked out their relatively minor problems. The beauty of Panter-Downes' writing is that she makes you believe in all the fraught emotions while you are reading them.

Mollie Panter-Downes writes with the seemingly effortless grace that I have love in her other books. Her writing has a hint of nostalgic melancholy, for lack of a better phrase, that I particularly enjoy.

It poured with rain. The Michaelmas daisies in Frank's garden stood in sodden stacks, their watery mauve plumes bowed down to the earth with moisure; the plummy red of the brick wall against the fruit-trees were nailed with fluttering bits of rag, the dead gold of the dripping woods were blurred and softened by a veil of rain. The earth was sweet and rotten with decay. In the evening a white vapour rose from the ground; in it the familiar shapes of trees disappeared, the lawn became a steaming lake; slow wisps of mist curled menacingly round the house. And as though by magic, fires appeared and lamps glowed in the rooms. We sat secure in a little citadel of summer while autumn prowled outside, shaking the window-panes with gusts of irritable fury. 

I enjoyed this and would reread it at some point which is my totally arbitrary way of judging a book. I don't think it is as good as her later writings but then, of course it isn't. There are over a dozen years between the publication of My Husband Simon and One Fine Day. She had a lot of time to grow and develop her talent.

My thanks to The British Library for the review copy. I reviewed a previous book in this series, The Tree of Heaven, here.

4 comments

  1. I love her writing too so this is a must read for me. It's such an unusual and stylish cover design too. Thanks.

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    1. One of my favorite discoveries after I started reading book blogs!

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  2. Love that cover, and as a Falconer by birth, I may have to give it a try.

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    1. Well, obviously you are obligated to read it.

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