#BookReview Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor @ourclassicsclub

Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontAbout the Book

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies – boredom and the Grim Reaper.

Then one day Mrs. Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love.

Format: ebook (209 pages)                     Publisher: Virago
Publication date: 7th July 2011 [1971 ]  Genre: Modern Classics

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My Review

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont might well be subtitled ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ so keen is Mrs Palfrey to hide the fact she’s lonely and feels rather abandoned by her family. However, she’s determined to preserve her independence while she can.

The book provides an insight into a mode of living that is unfamiliar to modern eyes where a hotel is a place to stay on business or for pleasure, not to reside in on a long-term basis – and without the convenience of a bathroom of your own. The presence of so many long-term residents is not quite what Mr Wilkins, the hotel’s manager, wants for his establishment either. ‘His dream was Conference trade, drinking businessmen, a board in the hall saying ‘I.C.I. Pompadour Suite. 11am.’ He aspired to that.’

Alongside the reader, Mrs Palfrey accustoms herself to the routines that punctuate the residents’ days – the posting of the menus for lunch and dinner, gathering in the lounge before dinner, repairing to the television room after dinner to watch the latest serial. The author also gives us insightful, sometimes affectionate, portraits of Mrs Palfrey’s fellow residents, their habits and foibles. There’s Mrs Burton who makes frequent use of the bell to summon the aged waiter, Antonio, to take her drink order in the evening. Or Mrs Arbuthnot who has ‘ears sharpened by malice’ but is crippled by the pain of arthritis so that it would be a hard-hearted reader who did not have some sympathy for her. There’s Mrs Post who delights in feeling useful by running errands for others, Mr Osmond whose favourite occupation is writing angry letters on a variety of subjects to the Daily Telegraph, and Mrs de Salis who has ‘the best hearing at the Claremont’, which occasionally comes in handy.

One of my favourite scenes in the book was the party thrown by Mrs de Salis after she has moved out of the Claremont about which one guest recalls, “I’m glad I went… but I shouldn’t have to go again tomorrow“. (I think many of us may have been to parties like that.) Or the Masonic Ladies’ Night at which an entirely unexpected offer is made.

I found the friendship that develops between aspiring author, Ludovic, and Mrs Palfrey touching even if initially they are using each other: she to hide a deception, and he to provide material for the novel he is writing.  Through Ludovic the reader gets an insight into London life of the period for those with little money to spare: evenings spent at the launderette, careful calculations about how long the gas fire can be lit for, watching the feet of passers-by from a dingy basement flat.  On a lighter note, when Ludovic seeks to augment his income by getting a job as a waiter in a Greek restaurant, there is this wonderful passage. “The Plaka was in a basement throbbing with bouzoukia and smelling of charred lamb. In this deafening noise, Greek refugees became more Greek than ever before in their lives. English Philhellenes Kalisperassed about the place continually.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a charming story tinged with humour but also with moments of poignant sadness.

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elizabeth taylorAbout the Author

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is increasingly recognised as one of the best British writers of the twentieth century. She wrote her first book, At Mrs Lippincote’s, during the war while her husband was in the Royal Air Force, and this was followed by eleven further novels and a children’s book, Mossy Trotter. Her acclaimed short stories appeared in publications including Vogue, the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)

#BookReview Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar @PushkinPress

Vanish in an InstantAbout the Book

Virginia Barkeley is a nice, well brought-up girl. So what is she doing wandering through a snow storm in the middle of the night, blind drunk and covered in someone else’s blood?

When Claude Margolis’ body is found a quarter of a mile away with half-a-dozen stab wounds to the neck, suddenly Virginia doesn’t seem such a nice girl after all. Her only hope is Meecham, the cynical small-town lawyer hired as her defence. But how can he believe in Virginia’s innocence when even she can’t be sure what happened that night?

And when the answer seems to fall into his lap, why won’t he just walk away?

Format: Paperback (256 pages)                     Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication date: 25th October 2018 [1952] Genre: Crime, Modern Classics

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My Review

Mrs Hamilton, Virginia’s redoubtable mother, is convinced Virginia is innocent of the murder of Claude Margolis but not so sure about the abilities of Eric Meecham, the lawyer hired to defend her daughter. On the other hand, the view the reader gets of Virginia via Meecham isn’t quite the ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’ opinion held of her by her mother.

A late night encounter draws Meecham into the investigation of the circumstances of the murder with the picture becoming more of a puzzle by the moment as a web of tangled relationships is revealed. As he observes, ‘Another equation to be solved… and each new equation led to still another, and on and on into the infinity of the human mind’.

Alongside the murder mystery, the book also charts the beginning of a relationship that is intense from the outset, as if the two people involved were somehow fated to meet, and to be together.

Vanish In An Instant is a taut, well-crafted crime mystery sprinkled with red herrings but also with a few clues for the (very) observant reader to pick up on. As an author, Margaret Millar was renowned for her clever plotting and last few page reveals and Vanish In An Instant definitely lives up to both those accolades.

Margaret Millar Vanish In An Instant A Stranger in My Grave The Listening WallsMy thanks to Pushkin Press for my review copy of Vanish In An Instant, along with A Stranger In My Grave, which I have yet to read, and The Listening Walls which I reviewed in November 2019.

Vanish In An Instant is the penultimate book on my Classics Club list and one of the two books I plan to read for the latest Classics Club Spin. (The other is the final book I need to earn my place on the Classics Club Wall of Honour, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.)

In three words: Intriguing, ingenious, assured

Try something similar: The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

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Margaret MillarAbout the Author

Margaret Millar (1915-1994) was the author of 27 books and a masterful pioneer of psychological mysteries and thrillers. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, she spent most of her life in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband Ken Millar, who is better known by his nom de plume of Ross Macdonald. Her 1956 novel Beast in View won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. In 1965 Millar was the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year Award and in 1983 the Mystery Writers of America awarded her the Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement. Millar’s cutting wit and superb plotting have left her an enduring legacy as one of the most important crime writers of both her own and subsequent generations. (Bio credit: Publisher author page/Photo credit: Goodreads author page)