In A Perfect Spy, novelist David John Moore Cornwell, known to his fans as John le Carré, rummages through the debris of the British boyhood of Magnus Pym to explore what turned an eager-to-please lad into a spymaster.
The novel opens with Magnus Pym’s disappearance into a bolt hole in Devon shortly after his father’s funeral. It’s a refuge he’s been preparing for years.
Rick Pym had been an engaging rogue who made his living by conning people out of theirs.
Magnus grew up trying to win his father’s approval by being the sort of man Rick professed to admire and being it by using all the deceits he learned from observing his father’s behavior.
Magnus mastered the arts of deceit so well that the British hired him for what they viewed as his natural talent for espionage.
It’s only after his father’s death that Magnus feels free to look back on his life and assess his own personal culpability.
In his Devon room, Magnus writes his life story, addressing much of it to his son, Tom.
Le Carré intersperses Magnus’s story with perspectives from his wife and colleagues.
The result is a novel as complex, fascinating, and ambiguous as Magnus himself.
A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré
Knopf. © 1986. 475 p.
1986 bestseller #10; my grade: A-
©2019 Linda G. Aragoni
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a sunny novel, wholesome as granola, each chapter packed with the minimum daily requirement of aphorisms.
Aurelia Randall’s spinster sisters offer her oldest child a home. Aurelia sends Rebecca, her second child, instead. The eldest child is more conscientious and thus less easily spared by her widowed mother.
Rebecca is a basically a good child, but she’s also an imaginative, impulsive chatterbox.
Aunt Miranda, who likes things tidy, finds Rebecca’s imaginative chatter and impulsive behavior a sore trial.
Aunt Jane finds Rebecca’s liveliness a welcome relief from her sister’s unvarying routine.
After a rather rocky start, Rebecca turns her attention on getting a good education so she can help her mother pay off the mortgage and give the younger children a better chance in life.
In 1904, adults would have regarded Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca as good reading for young people. Today I’m afraid it would be regarded either as a dull, moral tract or as bizarre, fantasy fiction. Either interpretation shows how society has changed since 1904.
Wiggin’s Rebecca isn’t on a par with Anne of Green Gables or The Yearling but the story has charm and a quiet tongue-in-cheek wit that makes it still worth reading today.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
By Kate Douglas Wiggin
Project Gutenberg ebook #498
1904 Bestseller #8
My grade: B-
The book cover is from the Thorndike large print edition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, one of several versions of the novel available in print today.
© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the years just before and during World War I. Francie has a loving family, a library card, and little else.
Francie’s Mother is a cleaning woman, her father a singing waiter with a fondness for the bottle. Both parents want a better life for their kids.
After Johnny dies, Katie is forced to let Francie and her brother, Neeley, quit school to work, though neither is old enough to get working papers. Against the odds, Francie manages to work and get her diploma.
When Katie marries a well-off widower, Francie and Neeley feel sorry for their baby sister because she won’t have the fun they had.
The story outline sounds rather sentimental, but there is nothing sentimental about Betty Smith’s presentation. The characters are authentic individuals. Even the coincidences in the plot are plausible.
The book has a episodic quality that takes a little getting used to. It made me feel I was reading someone’s journal rather than a piece of fiction. The writing is not that of a teenager, but Betty Smith makes you feel you’re watching a teenager growing up.
For an optimistic look at real life, you can’t beat A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith
Harper & Brothers, 1943
My Grade: Grade: A-
Photo Credit: Tree by wense91 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1388096
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni