Alexandra Lange | Essays

Throw Pillows As Character

After disliking so many big-think, clever-structure novels this year, it was nice to sink into the comforting and amusing Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. If you like Masterpiece Theater and scones, have considered going to Bath after reading Persuasion (or seeing the lovely film), you'll like it too. Sure, it is a touch predictable and the types are broadly drawn, but I found the dialogue to be sharp and the characterizations via architecture and interiors satirical.

Take this approach to an in-law's abode:
Marjorie's house... was a boxy split-level that she had managed to torque into some semblance of a Spanish villa. The lumpy brick pergola and wrought-iron railings of a rooftop patio crowned the attached double garage. An attic extension with a brick-arched picture window presented a sort of flamenco wink at the seaside town that sprawled below. The front garden was given over mostly to a gravel driveway as big as a car park and the cars were lined up two abreast around a spindly copper fountain in the shape of a very thin, naked young girl.
Or this "modernized" country cottage:
...he stopped in his tracks to peer at a giant black bottle brush that he supposed must be a Christmas tree. It reached the ceiling and was decorated only with silver balls in graduated sizes. It glowed in waves of blue light from the fiber-optic tips of its many branches... She waved him to the low white leather couch. It had a short, rounded back and no arms, like a banquette in a ladies' shoe store... the Major tried to take in the white cropped fur of the rug and the wood-rimmed glass coffee table and the colored metal shades of a standing lamp that bristled like a temporary traffic light...

"We scraped off seven layers of linoleum and sanded off so much varnish, I thought we were going to go right through the boards," she said, looking at the pale honey of the wide planks...
Or even this vision of British McMansions (what are they called over there?):
The village, however, seemed to have sprouted a few too many versions of Dagenham Manor. They produced a strange mirror effect, with almost identical manor houses, each sporting a long carriage drive, squares of formal gardens, stable blocks set round with miniature cars, and even a round pond, complete with silver paint surface and three mallards each...

The Major peered closer at the village green, looking for the shop. The plate glass window was gone and the shop, faintly recognizable behind a new bowed window and shutters of teal blue said, "Harris Jones and Sons, Purveyors of Fine Comestibles and Patisserie."
I had to pause for a minute and roll "comestibles" around on my tongue, like a nice piece of soft cheese.

Most contemporary novels feint at design particularity with brand names, a strategic shopping trip, but Helen Simonson offers a series of lived-in living rooms, golf clubs, seaside promenades and real and fake estates. I thought she did a better job showing, not telling, with the rooms than with the people.

What other recent novels do a good job with decor-as-character?

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Comments [2]

What a sweet-sounding book. I'd never heard of McMansion! Ha!
Johnny Bull

These are hilarious descriptions. They parse British taste as only the Brits can do. I remember visiting a village once and seeing the sign "Doneroaming" carved lovingly on a piece of driftwood attached to a pole next to the front door. And then there is the "seaside Modernism" of Brighton where the Bauhaus meets Britishness (ie net curtains over porthole windows). As to your question, I leave the answer to readers with more nous than I.
adam harrison levy

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