Author: Abbi Mancini
Header image: The Persephone Books’ cover of the Monica Dickens’ novel Mariana.
Welcome to the second installment of the KXSU Book Club! This month’s book was a Persephone Books classic, Mariana, by Monica Dickens. Next month, I will be reading Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, the first book in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. You can find Red Dragon here if you’d like to read along for next month.
Mariana, the first novel by Monica Dickens was first published in 1940. This book, set during most of the 1930s, chronicles Mary thinking about her life, and the moments that lead to where she is now. The story opens with an adult Mary hearing the news of her husband’s ship sinking during World War II. It is late at night, and she is unable to return to her home in London from the Essex cottage where she is spending the weekend. Dreading a telegram that informs her of her husband’s passing, she chooses to return in the morning and take a trip down memory lane.
The novel is a coming-of-age tale but told in reverse, showing the audience how Mary came to be the woman she is currently. Mary spends her life trying new things, only to have nothing really stick. She spends a year as a young woman at drama college, only to realize she does not want to be an actress and moves on with her life. This detail has caused many scholars to believe the novel is semi-autobiographical, as Monica Dickens was kicked out of drama school due to a perceived lack of talent. Mary also spends time in Paris as a dressmaker where she falls in love with a young man named Pierre, but breaks off their engagement before marriage. Upon moving back to London, she meets Sam, the man she will soon marry.
Although the entirety of the story is told through a lens of reflection, there is no sense of regret in Mary’s life. She understands that her choices are what they are and although she thinks deeply about how she ended up where she did, it is with a cynical humor.
The character of Mary is incredibly round and has wonderful depth to her, with careless humor, simpering sweetness, and sometimes ugly moods. She feels strongly and never stifles herself when telling exactly how it is, which is something I greatly respect from a heroine based in an era of women taught to be quiet.
Mary is also quite fearless. She lives her life how she intends, and never apologizes for what she deems true. Mary is put through so much, growing up in every changing social standings and being constantly hurt by people around her. She learns to navigate the world in a unique way that works well for her as she takes in all she can, leading many lives before settling down.
Her mother is widowed when Mary is a young girl, meaning they are poor for much of her life, yet she gets to spend summer and Christmas with her paternal grandparents in their beautiful Charbury House. This quickly becomes Mary’s happy place, also thanks to her cousin Denys, the love of Mary’s young life. She feels the freeze from the social groups she experiences, and quickly learns how best to compose herself in these new situations. Mary is ever evolving and is astute when it comes to people, knowing just what they may want from her, and how she can get what she wants from them. It was a riot to watch Mary learn and adapt as quickly as she does.
I do have to say, although I enjoyed getting out of my reading comfort zone, this book was not necessarily my cup of tea. Although I will be happily rereading it later in life, as I do with most books that don’t right away tickle my fancy. However, just because it did not speak to me, doesn’t mean I don’t understand the eloquence and personality Monica Dickens poured into the novel. I think this book goes best with a warm mug of tea, and a rainy afternoon, which is not difficult to come by in Seattle.
If you’d like to let me know your own thoughts and feelings about Mariana, get in contact with me on Twitter @abbikxsu and read next month’s book along with me! Red Dragon by Thomas Harris can be found here.
ABBI MANCINI | Pomegranate Juice | KXSU Arts Reporter