The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

Published by Mantle

17th March 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make . . .

And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice.

The longer the marriage, the harder truth becomes . . .

What I Say

When Camilla at Picador very kindly sent me a copy of The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson, I knew right away that it ticked a lot of the boxes of things I love in a novel.

Obnoxious characters? Check.

All about love and marriage? Check.

Looking at women as mothers and wives? Check.

A plot about art? Check.

The fact is, The Exhibitionist has all these elements, and is also a very incisive and funny novel, filled with moments that make your toes curl, and nod your head in recognition.

The Hanrahan family live in a rundown house in North London. Lucia and Ray Hanrahan have three grown up children – Jess, who is emotionally and geographically distant, stepson Patrick, who is awkward and uneasy and has moved to a caravan in the garden, and the precocious Leah, who has appointed herself Ray’s guardian and protector.

Lucia and Ray are both artists, and on a weekend in February 2010, Ray is having an exhibition of his work.

Here’s the thing. Ray Hanrahan is quite frankly one of the most awful, self absorbed, narcissistic and controlling characters you will ever meet. He is so hideous to everyone around him – especially Lucia, that it is painful to watch.

His belief in himself as an artist and the adoration he demands, dominates everything in the Hanrahan household. Lucia is a successful artist in her own right, yet she has spent her life suppressing her own dreams and ambitions to ensure everyone else in the Hanrahan household can achieve theirs.

Now that the children are grown up, for the first time she is realising that not only do people recognise her artistic worth and prowess, but is also acknowledging that she has her own needs and desires. Her involvement with a local MP called Priya is making her see that underneath all those years of subjugation, there is a woman who has a whole world of possibilities just waiting for her. Lucia just needs to find the strength to assert herself.

As the weekend builds to an unexpected crescendo, Lucia starts to see her life through the gaze of others, and feels upset at what others may believe to be her life. All her children are struggling to articulate what they actually want as they are afraid of upsetting Ray in any way, while Ray blusters around behaving like the egotistical maniac he is. We also discover from Lucia’s narrative that Ray cheated on her when she was recovering from cancer – and has invited his former mistress to the exhibition.

The unveiling of the lauded exhibition provokes many different reactions from those who have been assembled by Leah and Ray, and to say too much would spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that the grand reveal also seems to ignite something in Lucia and her children, especially Patrick and Jess, and it is as if being confronted with the reality of Ray’s work wakes them up and leads to them to making decisions they may never have believed possible.

The Exhibitionist is a brilliant and thought provoking novel, that I really loved. Charlotte Mendelson has created a character in Ray Hanrahan that will make your jaw drop and your skin crawl, but I think we needed to have a character like him to make this narrative so effective. Ray is emblematic of those men who believe that their creativity and talent is always superior to the women who love them, because the thought that their partner might in fact be the more talented and more lauded person is more than their artistic ego can handle. Watching Lucia slowly recognise the innate power she has had all along in the marriage and in her art is a joy to behold, and Charlotte Mendelson slowly and deliciously unfurls Lucia’s self awareness with incredibly satisfying results.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for a finished copy of The Exhibitionist.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

 

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Swan Song

Published By: Hutchinson Books

 Buy It: here

 

What The Blurb Says:

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.

In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans.

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

 

What I Say:

‘And perhaps it was then that he had his great idea to seek us out.  To befriend us.  To punish us for a crime we hadn’t the faintest idea we’d committed.’

I had a copy of Swan Song on my shelf which I had bought as soon as it was published.  I had also treated myself to the audio book of Swan Song, narrated by Deborah Weston, and it is divine.  Truman Capote and his Swans burst out of the stereo and into my head, but it wasn’t enough.

I pulled my copy off the shelf and started to read, and lost myself completely in the sumptuous world of Truman Capote and his Swans.

Swan Song is the story of the American writer Truman Capote, and the six women in his life, who provide his social calendar, masses of gossip and scandal, and give him the social acceptance he needs to secure his place in the ever changing, vicious and glittering world he longs to be part of.

There are six women he considers closest to him, who earn the title of Swan.  They are Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli. He is their confessor, their friend and the one person that gives them unequivocal love and support. Each of them give him something different, and he has no qualms about using them to gain what he wants too. He is adept at flattering and cajoling each of them, to make them feel that they are the most important women in the world to him, and to make sure that they grant him access to the most exclusive social circles and help him become a darling of the social scene.

Swan Song takes us all the way back to Truman’s childhood, and his complicated relationship with his Mother.  From an early age, Truman is determined and driven when it comes to his career, and we also see how his physical limitations and childlike voice are the very things he uses to create his larger than life and eccentric persona.

As Truman becomes more and more involved with his Swans, you understand that behind the seemingly glamourous facades of their lives, they face the same issues and insecurities as we all do.  The real lives of the Swans are laid bare to Truman, and he makes sure he becomes indispensible.  He is always there to accompany them to lunches at places like The Plaza and Le Cote Basque, and to be their plus one at parties and on holiday too.  The women need Truman as much as he needs them.

When he decides to hold The Black and White Party, very quickly it becomes THE social event of the decade. People are desperate to be invited, and will do anything to secure one of the crisp hand written invitations.  Truman’s place as a doyen of society, with his jubiliant Swans at his side, finally seems to be within his reach.

Truman has been riding high on a wave of notoriety since the publication of his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, and is desperate to ensure he stays in the limelight.  His desire to be loved and adored, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the lives and loves of his Swans, culminates in him publishing the most incendiary writing of his career, but for all the wrong reasons.

His work called Answered Prayers is serialised in Esquire Magazine, and is essentially very thinly veiled attacks on the very women who have helped him get where he is today.  The New York Social Scene has no difficulty in identifying the ‘stars’ of this particular story, which pushes the Swans into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Truman’s decision to effectively commit social suicide leaves him isolated, bereft, and spiralling downwards in an ever increasing haze of drugs and alcohol.  From being a celebrated and admired novelist, he is reduced to making appearances at the notorious Studio 54, where he is more a figure of ridicule than an esteemed writer. For Truman now, the very women who could rescue him, are the ones he can never talk to again.

There were so many things I loved about Swan Song. Truman’s perfectly calculated detonation of his articles, were so vividly brought to life by Kelleigh.  It is impossible not to feel the devastation of the Swans about what has happened.  You feel their betrayal, their disbelief that the man who had been taken so easily into their confidence could hurt them all so knowingly and deeply.

Kelleigh’s own non-fiction fiction novel is one you simply sink into, and lose yourself in completely. It is a world of privilege, of decadence and beautiful people and clothes, where you were judged by what you wore, who you lunched with and who dressed you.

I think this is one of the interesting and relevant issues throughout Swan Song, that although it is very much of its time, many of the themes around the notion of celebrity, the role of women in society, and how important it is to be liked, and have followers who dote on your every word, is still as relevant if not more so today.

Swan Song may have been published last year, but it will be in my Book of The Year list for 2019.  It is a stunning and revelatory exploration of celebrity and how Truman was desperate to stay relevant within a world which is ever changing and looking for the next big thing.  Once you pick up this novel, it is impossible to put down. The way in which Kelleigh weaves not only the main narrative, but also the stories of the Swans too, is a feat of storytelling that will leave you wondering where the time has gone!

It is so difficult to put into words how much I loved this novel.  I sat with a copy of The Party of The Century by Deborah Davis next to me, because this book is such an immersive experience, you don’t just want to read about the women, you want to see them, to determine what attracted them to Truman.

Kelleigh’s exquisite writing and pitch perfect social commentary, helps us to understand why they unquestioningly accepted Truman into their lives, only to be voiceless bystanders as he set alight the very world he was so desperate to be part of.

I loved it.

The Trick To Time by Kit de Waal

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Kit de Waal: The Trick to Time

Published By: Viking

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. On her first night out in 1970’s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

The Trick to Time is an unforgettable tale of grief, longing, and a love that lasts a lifetime.

What I Say:

This is not a planned blog post, where usually I will have taken notes, written out poignant quotations, and analysed the themes and narrative.

I have consciously been taking a break from blogging these past few weeks for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I have a LOT of books to read and review over the next few months and wanted to concentrate.  Secondly, I have been finding that keeping up with social media and liking and retweeting, and following (and in some cases unfollowing), meant one simple thing was getting overlooked.

I had stopped reading selfishly, for myself, and was in danger of going against everything Years of Reading is about.

I knew that I just wanted to read The Trick To Time without distraction.  I loved Kit’s previous novel, the astounding My Name Is Leon, and the premise of this one, ” If you lost the love of your life, what would you do to live again” sounded perfect for me.

Quite simply,  I loved The Trick to Time so much, I needed to tell everyone about it.

The Trick to Time is the story of Mona and William.  Mona, a young Irish woman on moving to Birmingham in the 1970’s, meets and falls in love with William, a young Irish man.  Together they live and love, decide to get married and tentatively navigate their way through their new life together.  Mona has had a good relationship with her father, after having lost her mother to cancer as a young girl, and William, initially evasive about his family, is determined that he will be a better father than his alcoholic Dad was to him. Kit masterfully details the day-to-day realities of life for a young married couple in the 1970’s, where three day working weeks were a reality, and there always had to be a supply of coins to feed the gas meter. As Mona and William’s story develops, we also see how the world around them is becoming increasingly hostile to Irish people following a spate of bombings.

The narrative switches between Mona’s younger life, and where she finds herself now.  Mona is alone, living in a block of flats in a nondescript seaside town in Kent.  Her days, and often nights, are filled with making dolls and their outfits for a shop she has in the town.  She thrives on imaginatively sourcing and creating outfits for the dolls she makes.  Aside from her bespoke dolls, Mona has also created a place where women who have lost babies come, to ask for the baby they have lost to be made for them.  Mona works with a local carpenter to create the dolls which weigh and feel like the children they have lost.  The dolls are given to the bereaved women, who tell Mona the story of what their children would have become, and with Mona’s guidance, they learn to accept what has happened.

How has Mona arrived at this point in her life, no longer with William or living in Birmingham?  The novel moves backwards and forwards, filling in the missing chapters of their life, revealing the twists and turns and overwhelming tragedy that has led Mona to this place.

Mona is now approaching 60, and she starts to question herself and the choices she has made – we see her struggling to decide whether she should finally move on from William.  Mona makes tentative steps to get to know a seemingly sophisticated neighbour called Karl, but her heart never really seems to be in it. As Mona decides whether or not she should get to know Karl better, she discovers that appearances can be deceptive.  It is apparent that we all have our frailties and faults, our fears and resentments as we attempt to determine our place in the ever-changing and unfamiliar world.

The novel is so exquisitely written, often very understated, but is filled with an overwhelming emotional power that draws you in and absorbs you completely.  Mona is a woman of immense strength, tenderness and resilience which means she spends the majority of her time ensuring everyone else is looked after, whilst constantly suppressing her own emotions. She has had no other choice but to keep soldiering on, and has never had the luxury of time to herself to be able to process and recover from what she has had to endure.

Mona comes to the realisation that she is tired of always having to survive, of living a life she has not chosen, and the final chapters of The Trick To Time show how she starts to take charge of her future.  She longs to return to Ireland, to finally go home, and her choice means that she also has to decide if she has the strength to find William and bring him back with her.

The Trick to Time is a beautiful, haunting and elegiac novel.  It shows us that although love is what we all need and strive for, that grief is just as important and needs to have a voice for us to be able to deal with it.

This novel will stay with you long after you have read it, as will Mona and William, whose story is testament to the compelling power of love.