I loved The Tower, the Tortoise, and the Zoo, so when I saw she had another book out I had to try it. More than that, when I saw the cover I was immediately attracted because I recognized the artwork as being by Allison Jay, and it was just perfect for this title.
Much like The Tower.. it is filled with fascinating details about a very specific (and very bizarre to a 21st century American) place in England, specifically the grace-and-favor cottages in Victorian England. These “cottages” are residences in a big estate, owned by the Queen, and given rent free to certain individuals. In this case one is offered to an Indian princess.In fact, she was born and raised in England, but her late father (who died in a rather bawdy manner) was an ousted Maharajah. So right there are all sorts of exotic details. So she moves into the residence with her stalwart servant and delves into the gossipy community of mostly widowers and widows and other genteely impoverished folk who bicker all the time. What’s funny and fascinating is that I read about three-quarters of the book picturing the princess hanging out with these elderly 70 and 80 year old women and then I found out they were in their late 30s!!
So after an Easter picnic a much disliked gentleman dies and it seems that he died from poisoning, specifically from the pigeon pie her maid made. It seems more and more likely that she will be arrested and executed for the crime, but the Princess is determined to solve the mystery. Meanwhile there are all sorts of very funny details and turns of phrase and the characters are a hoot. It’s a wonderful blend of peculiar history and fine writing. I really have no idea if she has a very wide audience, but she should.
I feel like I’ve been reading this book forever. I have read 2 or 3 other books during the course of this one. It is a charming, quirky, but slow novel. It got a great review in EW, which surprises me because I do not see this having mass appeal. That all sounds very negative, but I don’t mean it to be. There is tender emotion in this story behind the eccentric characters and oddly formal and repetitious (by that I mean certain phrases repeated often) writing style. satisfying. The characters in the novel are each little pictures of human eccentricities, and surely the Tower itself is a main character in this story. At its heart are a couple, Balthazar and Hebe Jones. He is a Beefeater (Yeoman Warder) and they, like the other Beefeaters, live at the Tower of London. Here is where I wish there was a map. I also need to know more about this. According to the book it seems that there are lots of families living at the tower, each in their own building, and they seem to have their own community. Living right there in the historic tower (with circular walls!) where prisoners were held, English history abounds, and ghosts haunt! It’s super fascinating. Hebe and Balthazar are a sad couple, once madly in love, driven apart by the death of their only and beloved son, Milo. Hebe works at the London Underground Lost Property office. I loved these scenes the best– Hebe and her friend and co-worker, Valerie, settled in amongst a great variety of lost articles, diligently working to find the owners, even years after things have turned in. Indeed, they are like librarians or detectives in all that they do!
The quiet sad life of Balthazar changes when word comes from the Palace that animal gifts given to the Queen will now be housed at the Tower in a Royal Menagerie and that Balthazar will be the new Zookeeper.
I enjoyed this story very much, especially its satisfying ending.
I was away on vacation last week, which accounts for a bit of my absence. When I was growing up the first step in getting ready for our vacations (which were awesome houseboating trips(note-this link is to a place which is in their 36th year-I am 36 and my parents took their first trip when I was just 1) in the beautiful 1000 Islands) was going to the library and checking out a giant stack of books. I’d read at least one book on the way up, maybe a bit more, depending on the length. And then the rule of thumb when my mom and I would try to figure out how many to bring would be a book per day. Our vacations were extremely relaxing–lie around on a dock reading, lie around inside the boat reading, sit at the picnic table playing Scrabble and reading. It was heavenly. Fast forward twenty years and I packed two books for our weeklong trip and only read one. However, I am delighted with the one book I did read and enjoyed reading at least a bit each day (in case you’re reading this and don’t know me–my kids are 3 and 1 so while we were at the beach it’s not like I could just lie there reading my book.) So, the Matchmaker of Perigord…
Chosen by the charming cover first of all, then the story. The story is set in a quirky French village filled with quirky French villagers (only 33 according the population sign.) Guillaume, the town’s barber for many years, one day decides to close his barber shop and open a matchmaking shop. With only 33 residents, all of whom have known each other forever, you’d think there would be no matching up, but somehow there is. There are ever so many descriptions of the foods everyone eats, including a hilarious ongoing contest between the barber and the baker as each tries to outdo the other with ever more elaborate picnics. Midway through I remarked to Paul that I could see this very clearly in my mind as a movie. It would be a very slow movie though with subtle humor. Paul suggested Merchant-Ivory had best get on it, then.
I loved this book and hope she writes something else. It was absolutely charming.
And while I’m talking about my vacation, let me put in one more plug for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. This book was very much on my mind when: I had to take my baby’s bottle out of her mouth to send it through the x-ray machine and also when I had my new tube of toothpaste and face wash taken away from me and thrown away because it was too big. I cannot begin to tell you how furious I was. Does anyone really believe that my toothpaste contains plastique? That somehow the bigger size is more dangerous? I just kept coming back to the part of the book where he talks about statistically how if some measure worked 99% of the time you’d still have to scrutinize 200,000 people to get to a few and no measures work that well. It’s infuriating. I knew it, the TSA guy knew it, we all knew. These security measures are not keeping us safe. And you want to know the worst part of it? I feel angry, but absolutely powerless to change anything. Perhaps that is why in the Little Brother they say don’t trust anyone over 25-not because the over 25s are down with the government, but because it’s too late for us. We’re already beaten down, given up, and dejected. You know what else made me angry? Thinking about homeless people and those in poverty and all the waste when the TSA takes things away and throws them away. Because they are not allowed to do anything with that stuff-it just gets thrown away. And if we really want to get thinking about it, let’s think about all the extra business for the past-the-security-gates shops that sell beverages like crazy because somehow they are safe, but your Coke from home is not. OK, enough of my rant. Read the book. Think about our country. Think about our future. VOTE.