Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

I’m afraid (to give you advance warning) this is going to be one of those reviews about a book that I finished ages ago. So, apologies if I get a bit vague. It’s also a review about a novel that I’d been intending to read for about a decade: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. Back when I joined dovegreybooks in 2004, it was the novel that everyone was talking about. Dutifully, over the following ten years, I bought five novels by Vickers – but had never read any of them until somebody chose Miss Garnet’s Angel for my book group. So, was it worth the wait?

Well, I remain conflicted. I didn’t love it as much as I thought it would, but that is largely because it wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it might be a charming tale of a spinster wandering around Venice, heartwarming and witty in turn, and perhaps not without a healthy dose of the fey and whimsical (which I am sometimes – nay, often – in the mood for). Well, that’s not quite what it was.

It does start off in a similar vein (as you may well know). Julia Garnet’s closest friend dies and, lonely and unattached, she decides to go to Venice for six months. Before long she has managed to become entangled with a handsome art dealer named Carlos, a young boy who runs errands for her and whom she unsuccessful tries to teach English, and a young man and woman engaged in restoring a church or something. Incapable of making friends in England, she seems beset with them here.

So far, so charming. But did I mention that Miss Garnet’s Angel mirrors the Apocryphal account of Titus? And that that story is also retold in sections between chapters (that, I have to confess, I started skipping)? This is a technique with some literary precedence – Stella Benson did it in the 1930s with Tobit Transplanted, which I’ve yet to read – but I don’t know the original story well enough to notice how close the influence was.

So, why was I not entirely sold? Well, I guess I found the writing and plotting just a bit blah. Here’s an excerpt I noted, though I forget why…

The notion which had come to Julia Garnet, as she lay looking at her fingers twisting the fringe of the pearl-white coverlet (which, she had learned, during the course of the Signora Mignelli’s care of her, was a survivor of the Signora’s once extensive dowry), was that there existed in life two kinds of people: those who tangled with their fate, who took issue with what life brought them, who made, in short, waves, and those who bore heir circumstances, taking life’s meaning from what came to them, rather than what they wrested from it.

It seemed to her, lying watching the bars of the sun cross the white walls and making them jump from side to side as she tried the child’s experiment of winking alternate eyes, that from her limited knowledge St George, Florence Nightingale and Old Tobit fell into the first class, while Socrates, Jane Austen and Tobias fell into the second. Jesus of Nazareth, she decided after further contemplation, belonged to both categories – and so possibly did Karl Marx.
And I suppose there’s no reason why Vickers should have created a sweet character in Miss Garnet; I have myself to blame for my expectations. I’d have loved either a sweet character or an amusingly cantankerous one. What we actually got was rather an unpleasant woman, I thought. She thinks, of a friend who visits, ‘There were horrible depths of meanness in her character – no wonder she found herself on her own now.’ Well, Julia G, you’re also on your own now. And how come you absolutely loathe your closest friend, who has made the effort to visit you?

These things I could perhaps have forgiven, but the tone of the novel takes a serious knock on a couple of occasions, where Vickers launches into sexual controversy (including paedophilia) for no obvious reason – and certainly no sense of consistency in the novel.

I’m aware that these may not be popular opinions, particularly given the praise I’ve heard lavished on Vickers over the years. I didn’t hate the novel by any means (if I had, I’d probably have reviewed it far more quickly! I love writing those reviews, when of sacred cows), but I did feel rather disappointed. It simply didn’t do very much for me, and left me a tiny bit underwhelmed. It was fine. Which does not a compelling review make, does it?

12 thoughts on “Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

  • March 25, 2015 at 12:58 am
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    Thank you for sparing me the time, Simon. My expectations would have been the same as yours, and the book cover is lovely, but I would have been disappointed.

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:22 pm
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      You're welcome! Obviously some people love it, but it just didn't meet my (our!) expectations.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 8:08 am
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    I read this donkey's years ago and remember really enjoying it. Pity I'm not still in the book group to argue with you. I think it was your expectations that got in the way. But who knows — if I read it now I might think something completely different.

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:22 pm
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      Yes, a shame you weren't there! You're right – it was my expectations. And if I'd known the sort of book it was, I probably wouldn't have bothered reading it.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 8:26 am
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    I was scared when I saw the link on Facebook that you'd loved this and I was in the minority yet again. But I really found it very blah, kind of obvious and a bit trite, from what I remember. I started another of this author's (about a therapist or something), threw it down in disgust and left her alone forever. I just bothered to look up my review (I spelt the author's name wrong – oops) – I read it in September 2006 and said, "I did enjoy it but I thought the story was a little predictable (I did a prediction to Matt half way through and I was right) although some of the little bits like feeding the dog towards the end gave just a frisson of recognition. I thought the Biblical bit was quite clever but I can’t believe her in her introduction where she said the critics didn’t notice the parallels like the ordinary readers did!

    All in all, like the heroine, quietly literary, pleasant enough, but not an earth-shatterer."

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:23 pm
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      We are of one mind, Liz! (Now, what do I do with the four other Vickers novels I have on my shelf? Maybe I'll give her another go… but not if it's about a therapist; I am warned!)

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  • March 25, 2015 at 4:12 pm
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    Oh dear – doesn't sound like one for me thanks for the warning Simon! :)

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:23 pm
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      Quite a few people like it… but if you do ever try it, bear in mind that it might not be what you'd be hoping for! :)

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  • March 26, 2015 at 11:55 pm
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    I also read it years ago, then went to Venice and was convinced that I'd found the restaurant in the book, so it's all tied up with nice memories – and how much of that is the book and how much was a lovely Christmas in Venice, I really couldn't say! All muddled up together in my mind.

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:24 pm
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      That's a very nice muddling! I would love to go Venice, and have not yet…

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  • March 27, 2015 at 3:34 pm
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    I loved that book and also her other book Mr Golightly's holiday I think it was called. What I remember most vividly in both books was the wonderful description of both Venice and Devon. I felt as if I really knew both places. Sorry but I think she is a very good author.

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    • March 29, 2015 at 4:24 pm
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      I'm very glad that you enjoyed it! A lot of people obviously did – and you have pinpointed one of the things that may explain why I did not; descriptions of place seldom 'work' for me, and perhaps that is Vickers' strength.

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