The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels

mens-clubA nice issue of Shiny New Books is coming out later this week, and I’ve still got a couple reviews I’ve not sent you towards. So you’ll get a couple in quick succession – tiding me over while my wrist recovers (which also accounts for how few reviews I have in Issue 13, sadly). Firstly, here’s a very strange, somehow also very good, book from 1978: The Men’s Club by Leonard Michaels. The whole review is here, and here’s the beginning of it:

There have been quite a few reprints, in recent years, from the interwar period and thereabouts. We are familiar with Golden Age detective fiction coming back into print, or the likes of Persephone, Virago Modern Classics, and others looking to the 1920s and 1930s for forgotten gems. Less often do reprints emerge from the 1970s – and so it was intriguing that Daunt Books have looked to Leonard Michaels and The Men’s Clubfor their latest offering (originally published in 1978 according to the inner flap, and 1981 according to Wikipedia – who knows?).

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (guest review)

My RSI has come back so my one-handed typing is being restricted as much as possible – perfect timing for my housemate Melissa to write a review I can use over here – this time of a much-loved classic. As always, do make her welcome! Over to you, Melissa…

thefirstfouryearsIn my family home, the Little House on the Prairie books are a massive deal. They’re legendary. They’re practically Scripture. (Not actually Scripture though. In my family we take actual Scripture very seriously indeed, and it most definitely does not get confused with other stuff.) From the time I could first read to when I left home, I must have read the entire series every couple of years at least, which adds up to an impressive number of times.

The Little House books take the reader on a journey through the challenges of a little pioneering family venturing into the uncharted American West in the late 1800s. They’re told through the eyes of little Laura, for the most part based on the author’s life, and the books grow with her. Not only does her perspective change, but the language becomes more complex, the number of pictures gradually reduces, and even the font gets smaller from one book to the next. What I love about these books is the delicious level of detail. If I could handle an axe, I could quite happily build my own log cabin based purely on the description of Pa building one. Alternatively, I could make hats from loose straw, or cure venison, or sew a rag rug (that last one is actually on my list of projects this winter).

The First Four Years, though, is a bit of an oddity. Look up the box set of Little House books online, and you’ll see it tacked on the end, less than half the size of any of the others in the series. Unlike the rest, it was not published in Laura’s lifetime, nor even finished; although it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s really just an early draft of a book that was never completed. As a child who had loved the earlier books, I read it and disliked it. It reads clumsily, spoils scenes from the previous book by repeating them less well, inexplicably uses a different name for one of the main characters. As for the story, which picks up where the last one left off with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo Wilder, it feels just like a long list of disasters. The neat closure of the previous book is destroyed and all in all it leaves a bit of a bad taste.

But I’m not here to diss the book. In fact, quite the opposite. Over the last week I’ve reread the entire series, and thoroughly enjoyed the who thing, but this last book stood out as by far the most interesting read, for the very same reasons I didn’t enjoy it as a child.

Like I just said, the book reads like a long list of disasters. The fact is, however, that the other books also tell of many hardships. The entire plot line of The Long Winter, for instance, is simply one blizzard following another while the whole town gradually runs out of coal and then food – not exactly cheery. The difference is mainly that the other books are more detailed; a higher proportion of the pages are given up to descriptions of the wild prairies, family gatherings round a cosy fire, and how to make a fish trap. There’s also a much thicker coat of perspective. Laura’s approach to life, learnt from her parents, is built around simple faith, strict codes of behaviour and a solid work ethic. There is no time for questioning the way things are, no option but to work hard and trust that all will come well in the end. This may sound harsh to modern ears, but it is the only way to survive in an untamed world. And within this clear-cut structure there is room for love and happiness to flourish; there is joy to be found in hard work and accomplishment, in good food and beautiful surroundings, in music and laughter, in the harmony of a caring family where each one is valued and needed by each of the others.

In The First Four Years, much of this veneer is stripped away, leaving the bare bones of the story obvious. It’s a reminder that life was simply very hard and what we would now see as abject poverty was the norm. To me, it was a humbling reminder of how little most of us have to contend with these days, with our indoor plumbing and central heating and effective healthcare; and, quite frankly, what a bad job we often make of it. I know it takes considerably less than a grasshopper plague destroying my year’s work to reduce me to a shivering wreck of anxiety.

I have a feeling that the difference is something to do with how solid our worldviews are; in a pluralistic world, my generation has learnt to question everything and to build our own truth, which can make the simplest things in life incredibly complicated and exhausting. It makes me question the value of questioning things. It almost makes me jealous, although I don’t fancy the food insecurity. Finally, it’s yet another reminder that difficult circumstances absolutely do not have to define your life, if you believe in something that runs deeper.

The other thing that made this read interesting was the insight into how Laura wrote. The story may be complete, but the book is unfinished. Descriptions and reflections are present, but they don’t flow. The characters aren’t really developed; we know Laura well, and Almanzo less well, from the rest of the series, but we don’t get the chance to really meet anyone else. It seems that Laura’s approach was simply to get the story down on paper first, then add the flourishes later. I think I could learn from her here – my first attempt at the NaNoWriMo challenge has yielded a paltry 1,866 words, partly because I spend so long fussing over getting each sentence right rather than getting on with the story.

As a wannabee writer (like literally every other arts graduate I know), I also found it encouraging that the book was, frankly, not great. In case you didn’t catch this at the beginning, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote some of my very favourite books, and the rest of the world seems to rather like them too, but it seems her drafts didn’t cut it. If even the best have to start by producing something unimpressive, then I needn’t balk at my own poor attempts. This leaves me with no excuse not to try. I like that.

Maybe I’ll see if I can hit that 2000 word mark tomorrow.

The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

My theme of paperbacks-I-took-to-Edinburgh continues; on the way back, I read most of The Bird of Night (1972) by Susan Hill, and then finished it later that weekend.

The Bird of Night

I’ve read quite a few of Hill’s novellas over the years, though mostly the ones that have come out more recently – so it was interesting to see how she was writing 40+ years earlier in her career. There is even a very young, quite morose, picture of her on the back of my 1976 Penguin paperback, when Hill was presumably around my age. Unlike me, though, Hill had already published six novels by the time The Bird of Night hit the shelves.

The opening sets the tone of the novel:

Once, during the summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for a whole night. I found him there, at five o’clock the next morning, huddled up beneath the pulpit. It was cold. He could not feel safe anywhere else, he said, and then he began to weep, as so often happened, and shouted at me through his weeping, to understand the truth, that he deserved to be locked up, why would I not admit that and see to it, why had I driven him to do it for himself?

That is what I remembered this morning but I do not know why one bubble should break upon the surface rather than another. I should be content that I remember.

Francis is Francis Croft, a renowned and garlanded poet (though Hill wisely gives us, as far as I can recall, no lines of his poetry – his greatness is not tested on the page); the narrator is Harvey Lawson. He is describing their relationship from the distance of years – where he is the protector of Croft’s reputation. Or, rather, he keeps mostly schtum about Croft and insists that there are no papers to share (though there are). And his reflections take him back to their shared history: they meet incidentally, and develop an intense and restless friendship. It is intense chiefly because of Croft’s mental illness and descents into madness.

And this is the trajectory the novel follows. Somehow it is hard to describe the plot; it is more a portrait of a friendship (or more? It is never clear). But the faint structure matters little, and that is because of the strength of Hill’s writing here. I always think she’s at her best when she is looking in detail at the minutaie of relationships between individuals, or characters’ introspections and self-analysis (and how rare is that? Usually that’s where authors fall down). Here is Harvey describing looking after Francis during his most troubled times:

But the cycle of Francis’s madness was never a regular or predictable one. I had prepared myself for days, perhaps weeks, spent closeted in that dismal flat by candlelight, having to comfort and support him through his deepest apathy and depression. Certainly, for the next two days he stayed in bed or sat slouched in a chair looking as though he were half drugged, his eyes blank and all his attention turned inward upon himself. He hardly spoke to me and when he did answer a persistent question, it was with a monosyllable. He would not shave or eat or read, but only sat up once in a while and muttered to his own hands. “It’s all wrong, I tell you, it’s all wrong.” Once I caught him staring at himself in a mirror, his face very close to the glass. He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced,” he said to his reflection. “I do not know your face. Should I know your face? Is this a good party?”

Much of the novella follows this pattern – a detailed, nuanced, and interesting depiction of mental health and a troubled friendship.

Of the many ways in which Hill writes fiction, I think this might be my favourite – something like an extended character study. I have read somewhere that Hill doesn’t rate this amongst her best novels, but I would put it up with In the Springtime of the Year as containing the best of her writing that I’ve read.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The Bottle Factory OutingIt’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, guys! Somehow, I haven’t actually read any more books by Beryl Bainbridge since the last week organised by Annabel – during which I read Injury TimeSweet William, and Something Happened Last Week, reviews of all of which you can find under my Bainbridge tag by clicking on the tag above or choosing ‘Bainbridge’ from the dropdown Browse menu. Well, I’m very glad that Annabel resurrected this reading week, as it has brought The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) to the top of my tbr pile – and it was everything I would expect from Beryl.

I actually read the whole thing on train journeys to and from London – i.e. it’s pretty short. And I even finally managed to stop calling it The Bottle Factory Opening in my head; it is, after all, focused on an outing rather than a grand opening. That is the main ‘event’ of the novel: all the workers at the bottle factory are going to go on a picnic, from the families of immigrants who put up with the low wages offered to the two women who are the focus of the novel, and who stick labels on wine bottles (while maintaining that all the wines are the same).

The Bottle Factory Outing would work very well with other novels I grouped back when I was doing Five From the Archive regularly (I must bring that back) and grouped together five excellent books about pairs of women. It’s chiefly about Freda and Brenda, who have a typically Bainbridgian dysfunctional relationship. They’re not quite friends – they moved in together after a moment of misunderstanding, and they’re not particularly compatible as housemates. Not even housemates: they share a bed, with a bolster and a line of books down the middle.

Freda is forthright and confident; Brenda is nervous and awkward. But nobody in a Beryl Bainbridge novel deals well with others (it seems) and she lends the same spikiness and discomfort to The Bottle Factory Outing that I’ve come to love elsewhere. There is affection and well-meaning alongside, but of the sort that cannot survive the awkwardness of everyday encounters.

Oh, and Beryl is funny. This awkwardness definitely permeates into both humour and unpleasantness. This paragraph combines the two…

She couldn’t think how to discourage him – she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly ‘Please don’t, Rossi,’ but he tickled and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

‘You are a nice clean girl.’

‘Oh, thank you.’

It’s basically assault, of course, but the mattress comment is quintessential Bainbridge – a moment of levity thrown in that also illuminates the situation and gives a unique description.

And the outing? Well, it is not free from disaster. And it is the culmination of the different strands of the novel in a dramatic way that one feels Bainbridge has earned throughout; every moment leading up to it somehow both dramatic and mundane at once, wrapped together in her slightly distorted view of the world. She finds the bizarre amongst the ordinary, and somehow turns it back upon itself to seem ordinary too. It’s been great to get back to Beryl.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre

Secret OrchardMore from Shiny New Books! And it is becoming almost a tradition for me to read one of Slightly Foxed’s beautiful memoirs in almost every issue – this time an author I’d never heard of. It’s a brilliant memoir about a distant mother/daughter relationship – sometimes literally distant – and discovering that someone Diana thought was a family friend was actually her father. And it more of a study of those around her than a memoir, really, as she remains an enigma to the end. Heartily recommend!

As usual, here’s the start of what I wrote, and you can read the whole thing at SNB.

I am always unable to pass on the chance to read a Slightly Foxed Edition and, having re-loved 84, Charing Cross Road in the last issue of Shiny New Books, it was fun to go and read something about which I knew absolutely nothing. Who was Roger Ackerley? Who, for that matter, was Diana Petre? And what was this orchard? The answers weren’t what I was expecting, but this memoir is none the less brilliant for that.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross RoadI’ve written about a couple of Helene Hanff books over the years – you can see them from that ‘browse’ menu over on the right hand side – but I don’t think I ever wrote about her most famous book, 84, Charing Cross Road. Well, a beautiful new edition from Slightly Foxed Editions brought about an excellent opportunity. I suspect most of you know this book already (and I can also recommend the lovely film) but, for those who don’t, I have written about it over at Shiny New Books. Below is the beginning of my review; if your appetite is whetted, you can go and check out the rest.

Slightly Foxed Editions – and I never tire of saying how beautiful they are – offer two different, wonderful things to the world. Either they are an introduction to brilliant memoirs that were undiscoverable and unknown, or they give the opportunity to have much-loved classics in that inimitably lovely series. And, of course, 84 Charing Cross Road appears in the latter category.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

I chose this as my ugly cover on Book Bingo... you can probably see why.
I chose this as my ugly cover on Book Bingo… you can probably see why.

My book group recently read The Human Factor (1978) by Graham Greene, and I had to whip through it in not very much time at all (since I only started it two days before we met). Coincidentally, it was published in the same year as the book we did the previous month – Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died – but it had very little in common with it. Almost immediately the group disagreed over which one was more realistic. I nailed my colours to the mast: Pym’s novel is more realistic than Greene’s, and it made me care about the characters more.

In The Human Factor, I will admit, the mundane is key. Maurice Castle is in MI6, and has to deal with various intrigues within the organisation, as well as the stigma attached to a mixed-race marriage with Sarah (incidentally – Maurice and Sarah were also the names of the couple in The End of the Affair… huh), and having to hob-nob with a man who had betrayed and blackmailed him in Africa. And yet Greene portrays espionage and double-crossing as a tedious life; one with the same dynamics of any office job, where people take sides and hold sway over the everyday lives of others.

Here’s my obstacle, and the reason why I couldn’t quite engage with this novel – excellent though Greene’s writing undoubtedly is. Yes, he achieved his aim to ‘write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service. I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions.’ But, though he does this admirably, the genre, as a whole, is one that leaves me cold. The stakes are just too high for me to believe in the people.

Yes, it felt like an everyday office job – but the truth of the novel is that a wrong step wouldn’t end up with a letter from HR; it would lead to a clandestine poisoning. It makes it impossible for me to acknowledge any of the characters as real people, let alone feel empathy for them. Even without the violence and glamour of a James Bond film, it has the removed parallel reality of one. Yes, some people are spies; I’m sure they can feel empathy while reading a novel like this. But sadly I can’t.

Curiously enough, despite my well-documented love for novels about normal people and unadventurous lives, I might even have preferred this novel to be high octane and silly. As it is, it felt a bit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I hope I’m not the only one who feels like this; make me feel I’m not crazy, people!

But I will say this: Greene is about the most versatile writer I’ve read. There isn’t much that links the four I have read (Travels With My AuntBrighton RockThe End of the Affair, and The Human Factor) and it’s pretty impressive. But does leave me a little unnerved about which I might want to pick up next, since my strike rate is now 2 out of 4!

 

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

The Sweet Dove DiedIt always comes as something of a surprise to me (and to those who know my reading tastes) that I’ve read so few Pym novels. I read Excellent Women in 2004, and liked it but not quite as much as I’d hoped (largely because it’s set in London); a couple of years ago I read Some Tame Gazelle and loved it rather more. The Sweet Dove Died (1978)… fell rather in the middle.

Firstly, I’m not a big fan of the title – which, like Some Tame Gazelle, is from a poem; the poem, by Keats, is referenced within the text, but until that point, an ignoramus like myself is left wondering when the blessed dove is going to turn up. Instead, we start the novel with Leonora – who bumps into Humphrey and his nephew James at an antiques auction. Since the novel is set in London (sigh) and the only way to meet people outside one’s set is by unlikely coincidences, this is catalyst for a lasting friendship between the three. The men vie silently and politely for Leonora’s attention; perhaps neither exactly want a relationship with her, but they certainly want the attention – and she is more than willing to bestow it on James, so much her younger. To the world, she is charming and gracious – but the reader sees her selfish, unkind side.

Pym’s narrative floats in and out of all the characters’ minds as the novel progresses, and so we are seldom at a loss to understand a character’s motivations; it is all done very cleverly and thoroughly. To the three already mentioned is added two more people James has relationships with, and Leonora’s rather pathetic friend Meg. (Incidentally, the reader gradually realises how similar Leonora and Meg actually are, when not seen exclusively from Leonora’s perspective.) In fact, it was a description of Meg that I noted down to quote:

Leonora was her usual few minutes late, though not as late as she would have been if meeting a man. Meg was one of those women who are always too early and can be seen waiting outside Swan and Edgar’s, with anxious peering faces ready to break into smiles when the person awaited turns up.

Moments like this are extremely common in Pym’s writing – by which I mean, delicious moments of observation about small details of human behaviour. The plot of The Sweet Dove Died is slight, and even the theme – how being too overbearing can damage a relationship – isn’t ground-breaking, but line by line, Pym builds up fascinatingly real characters, and sheds constant light upon the minutiae of people’s lives. Her subtlety is brilliant, and the balance and perception of her sentences show why she is so often compared to Jane Austen.

I don’t really know how The Sweet Dove Died is held among Pym aficionados. I preferred the comedy of Some Tame Gazelle, probably, but this felt a more mature and sophisticated novel. It demonstrates what an excellent writer Pym was, and how sharp her knowledge of human nature could be. But I do wish it had been set in the countryside.

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read – Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section… and enjoy the review:

Small pleasures. I picked this book off Simon’s shelf at his
first words of description, without waiting for the rest: ‘That one is a
children’s book.’ I love books written for children; the unpredictable-but-safe
plotlines, the freshness of the detail, the firing of the imagination; and this
one did not disappoint.

Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t
really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood
memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s
everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books
about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s
only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty
of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.
This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together,
patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics
picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a
memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny
attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight
snack.
A child’s perspective is so different: everything is
fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between
make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no
disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by
dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a
crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up
story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to
take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges
slightly on the fantastic.
The individual salient events, people and places slowly
build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in
the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband,
and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of
her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book
together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the
quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches.
Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing
is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric;
an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box
she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see
the ladies in their beautiful costumes.
There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she
does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a
not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair,
cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is
delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took
the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for
Pinny:

It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the
worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing
she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and
more unhappy every minute she was not there.

Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every
turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the
process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes
belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s
curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget
to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:

I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I
was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my
mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save
what was necessary.

Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when
Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not
unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.
To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in
Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not
the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and
quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob
caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the
doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset,
wooden bridges curving over brooks.’
The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to
be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting,
glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and
Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the
fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the
long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam
powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however,
is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw
the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at
skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly
familiar.

Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than
that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would
not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at
all? 

The Fur Person by May Sarton

I can’t remember exactly how it came about – begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y’know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did – he’s a great guy, y’all – but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book – so, rather than strike out two for two, I’ll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.

How was I not going to love it, considering that it’s about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn’t enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and – while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment – in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat’s perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He – Tom ‘Terrible’ Jones, no less – is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct ‘housekeeper’, having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.

The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton’s cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:

The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house – by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed – but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:

“You’re not a nice cat at all,” she said, and she began to whimper. “You don’t like me,” she whimpered, “do you?”
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life – but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.

The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It’s quite a sweet ending, but it doesn’t fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting – everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don’t live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.