REVIEW: Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Audio CD, 6 disks (7 hours)

Published September 1st 2009 by Random House Audio (first published January 1st 2009)
ISBN:  0739334166 (ISBN13: 9780739334164)
original title:  Homer & Langley
4 stars overall / 4 stars audio narration
Goodreads Synopsis: 

From Ragtime and Billy Bathgate to The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair, and The March, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langley, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer. 

My Thoughts:
When I reached the end of this book, I was struck with the utterly overwhelming sadness I felt for the Collyer brothers.  Their lives seemed to start out with some promise of normalcy.  They had relatively normal parents – a bit overly prim and proper, perhaps, but with a large group of friends with whom they socialized regularly.  They were wealthy, had a beautiful house in a posh part of New York City with a view of Central Park, and many valuable antiques and pieces of art.  There was so much promise for them to have fulfilling and eventful lives until Langley was physically and emotionally scarred from the war (and mustard gas), and Homer slowly lost his sight.  As the years past, the brothers became more & more reclusive, Langley became more & more paranoid, and Homer became more & more dependent upon Langley as he lost not only his sight but his hearing as well.  Couple their physical and mental deterioration with Langley’s uncontrollable compulsion to hoard EVERYTHING, and it became a recipe for disaster…which, of course, is what eventually led to their demise.

The utterly overwhelming nature of their hoarding provoked me to look them up online to see if I could get an accurate visual idea of their living conditions.  After looking at the pictures, it seems amazing to me that they were able to function, even at a basic level, for as long as they did.  I don’t think I have ever heard of or seen anything quite like it before, and likely never will again.  I thought Doctorow did a good job of bringing this story to life, and perhaps that most evident in the fact that when I came to the end of the book, I was looking around my own home with an eye for purging and reducing.  I can not imagine a more miserable end than that of the Collyer brothers.  It is extraordinarily sad given the completely unnecessary nature of it, and yet it makes for a mesmerizing story of how engulfing mental illness can be.

REVIEW: The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 27th 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 0151012881 (ISBN13: 9780151012886)
primary language: English
original title: The Servants’ Quarters

4 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:
Haunted by phantoms of the Second World War and the Holocaust, young Cressida lives in terror of George Harding, who, severely disfigured, has returned from the front to recover in his family’s stately African home. When he plucks young Cressida’s beautiful mother and her family from financial ruin, establishing them in the old servants’ quarters of his estate, Cressida is swept into a future inexorably bound to his.

In the new setting, she finds that she is, after all, indentured. She is conscripted to enliven George Harding’s nephew, the hopelessly timid Edgar, to make him “wild and daring.” And she takes on this task with resentful fury, leading the boy astray and, in the process, learning to manipulate differences in power, class, background, and ambition. Only slowly does she come to understand that George Harding himself is watching her. And waiting.

My Thoughts:
 ** spoiler alert ** A blurb on the back of the book likened this book to a Beauty & the Beast tale, and it certainly is that. However, it’s a somewhat disturbing story, in that the heroine is a teenage girl (13 at the outset) who became (eventually) the wife of the beast…in this case, a severely burned WWII vet who came home to recover. There was a definite undercurrent of something inappropriate there, and though it was made “relatively” clear that nothing untoward happened between the two until 1) she was of legal age, and 2) she made the first move, it nonetheless struck me as a little pedophelic, and as such a little creepy.

Most of the characters in this book were supremely unlikeable. Cressida was a flighty, emotional, snotty teenager for the majority of the book. She grew out of it to a great extent by the end, but I had a hard time liking her, though when it came to choosing between her and most of the other characters, it was impossible to root for anyone else. Her mother was not only useless, but amoral, selfish, and ridiculously snobby. Her sister was stupid and mean. Both were jealous bitches in the extreme. Mrs. Arbuthnot (Mr. Harding’s housekeeper) was an absolute shrew. Edgar was a creep and a pervert, as was his roommate (and tutor). George Harding himself was weird and a little creepy, but he ultimate proved himself to be a reasonably decent man.

Phineas was hilarious and blunt, and I loved him. But best of all was Elspeth, who proved her mettle and the truth of her heart by letting go of the man she loved (George Harding) so he have who he loved most (Cressida). I loved her for her unselfishness, and her true & freely given friendship to Cressida.

In the end, the book is a winner. It provoked an emotional reaction in me, and made me pause to evaluate exactly what makes a relationship work. In the case here, it was definitely a collection of unusual characteristics that perhaps in any other circumstance would not have worked. And perhaps that is, in essence, the beauty of Beauty and the Beast.