Sunday, February 23, 2014

Such dulcet and harmonious breath

If you love words, read Julia Stuart.

I forget how The Pigeon Pie Mystery came to my attention, but it was such a delightfully quirky character assembly, with such enchanting word melodies (for lack of a better phrase), that I had to read two more Julia Stuart novels.

It isn't a mystery in the tradition whodunit sense. The daughter of a disgraced Indian Maharajah is given "grace-and-favor" (i.e., free) residence by Queen Victoria to live in Hampton Court Palace. Her fellow residents are an eclectic assortment of down-and-out oddballs from formerly elevated positions in society, victims of Fortune's furious fickle wheel. There's the young doctor, who tries too hard to fix his hair into the latest American fashion and who fights his nemesis the naturopath for the health and patronage of his patients. There are the catty but sisterly ladies living at the Palace, who vie both for each other's rooms and the honor of being the most eccentric: dove-loving, ridiculous hat-wearing, or fern-obsessed. And lastly, there is the universally despised retired Major-General, who dies of arsenic poisoning from a pigeon pie our heroine's maid cooks.

The characters are so deftly and wittily crafted, it was hard to put down. And then Stuart did it again and again in the next two books I read.

The Matchmaker of Perigord is Stuart's debut novel and my favorite of her three Stuart books. In stark contrast to the other two books of hers I read, which are so... whimsical and British, Perigord is so... whimsical and French.

The lone barber in a small village decides to become the town matchmaker, after coming to terms with the fact that the town's population is aging and balding. But the story is not just about his matchmaking efforts: it's about the tiny community's survival in the face of modernity, rare mini-tornadoes, and the man from the Census bureau. And of course, it's about food and the tiny but pride-challenging preferences for food preparation: a decades-old feud over the proper way to make a cassoulet, an ongoing fishing trip picnic rivalry between childhood friends, how to eat quickly but with some dignity while on a blind date with someone you despise. All the villagers have unspoken family histories or unrequited loves or unresolved existential dilemmas -- including the matchmaker, whose childhood crush moves back to the village to buy its old, decrepit castle.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... as the third of Stuart's books that I read demonstrates.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is the tale of a middle-aged Beefeater and his wife, who live in the Tower of London and are still getting over the tragic death of their young son when the Beefeater is tasked with reinstating and overseeing the Tower menagerie.

For starters, the title uses the Oxford comma, so I was immediately a fan. But like the previous Stuart books, the characters are so magically crafted that I couldn't stop reading. The quirks are both heart-rending and hilarious: the Beefeater who tries to collect different kinds of rain, the vicar who secretly writes award-winning erotic fiction, the ladies of the Underground Lost and Found who never waiver in their detective work to find the owners of items left on the Tube.

The three books are witty and capricious, to be sure. But because they focus on the interplay of love and loss, tradition and transformation, they give a timeless and bittersweet quality to seemingly dreary daily routines.

I wouldn't say these books are among my favorites, but they were so thoroughly enjoyable and so beautifully written that I highly recommend them.

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