Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Indian Summers - Season 1, Episode 1 - Recap

Episode 1 – March, 1932 – set in India during the last years of the Raj, this is a series about intersecting English and Indian characters, with a few interloping Americans for good measure.
The British ruling class has escaped to the hills for the summer, but they cannot completely escape the growing unrest in the country as Gandhi and others seek independence. On the other hand, we viewers haven’t seen scenery this beautiful since The Jewel in the Crown, although Outlander provided some pretty stunning scenes of Scotland. Indian Summers was apparently filmed in Malaysia, not India, but it is beyond sumptuous and well worth watching. It begins with a lovely but pensive young woman who is traveling by train with a baby, while opposite her is a grumbling woman in a pink dress, with her son. Both women observe a parade of Indians out in the fields, carrying what appear to be luxury items, including what looks like a rocking horse. A poor Indian boy in the fields also observes these men.

Julie Walters, who played Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter, is a well preserved older woman named Cynthia Coffin who runs the local English club. She is trying to get the place ready for guests but a bunch of monkeys got in the windows and messed everything up. Don’t you hate when that happens?

The train stops suddenly and, mysteriously, the young Indian boy is on the tracks, avoiding death by an eyelash. Pink dress is furious that the delay means they are likely to miss their connections at the next stop. She starts interrogating the younger woman who answers cagily, but when Pink Dress starts making inquisitive comments about the absent husband, the young woman gets up abruptly and tries to get off the train for fresh air while it is stopped.

“She left her hat!” exclaims Pink Dress. More to the point, she left her baby behind without a backward glance! Nowadays, she’d be reported for neglect! Or not.

Pink Dress’ husband, somewhat Old Testament-looking Douglas, runs the local orphanage and seems nicer than his wife. He jumps off the train to see what happened and finds the boy. His assistant (love interest?), a beautiful young Indian woman (Amber, who won no friends by correcting Pink Dress’s pronunciation of Persephone), also leaps from the train. They get left behind, much to the disgruntled wife’s annoyance. Douglas and Amber rescue the boy and eventually bring him home to be nursed.

Back in what I assume is Simla, an Indian is defacing a British picture with red paint. I am guessing it says something like, “Indian Independence now!” Ralph Whelan, an Englishman, who works for the Viceroy, seems to have the responsibility of dealing with the Indians who no longer seem willing to accept British rule. His job includes things like handling vandalism and reports of cholera. He is offhandedly rude to the natives, including to the apparently worthy, Aafrin Dalal, an ambitious young Indian clerk, who arrives with important dispatches while Ralph is trying to impress his peers.

Aafrin’s family is very respectable and well spoken. He has a younger schoolgirl sister and a pretty sister about his own age who is an ardent nationalist with red paint on her hands. Aafrin guesses what she has been up to and warns her to be careful. She is scornful of his desire to work for the establishment.

Pink Lady who turns out to be Sarah was right – they missed their connection because of the train stopping. As she, her son Matthew, her attractive companion and baby are chugging along in a sort of rickshaw, a fancy car appears with a servant calling, “Miss Alice! Miss Alice!”
Much to the annoyance of Pink Dress, Miss Alice abandons her and is swept away in the Rolls Royce.

The driver turns out to be a childhood friend of Alice’s, insofar as the British and their servants are friends. He explains that the car belongs to the Viceroy and was loaned to pick Alice up. Alice is clearly at the top of the English pyramid and I suspect Pink Dress is far below if her husband is a missionary. This is confirmed when Alice arrives with her baby at a huge and gorgeous house, and hands off her son, Percy, to a handy completely unfamiliar ayah. “He’s not good with strangers,” Alice murmurs but Percy doesn’t complain, perhaps recognizing his mother is about to begin her adventures. This house is full of servants – I wish they would share!
Alice is then welcomed by Ralph Whelan, who turns out to be her devoted older brother. They have not seen each other since she was 8, due to the British tradition of sending their children back to England for health and education reasons. He seems very fond of Alice, despite their separation (too fond? He is very touchy feely for someone who hasn’t seen his sister for 12-15 years and says he ever runs into Alice’s so-called husband, the fellow will regret it! Alice tells him she has made a mess of things – clearly, there is a secret involving this no-goodnik. In the meantime, he is delighted to see her and has even had their childhood rocking horse restored – surely this is what she saw from the window of the train, although how it reached the house so quickly I can’t imagine. More parallel between the carefree ruling class and the laborers.

Pink Dress is still wondering where her husband is. She is also trying to get her favorite silk dress cleaned by an Indian lurking near her home.  She must not have as many servants as Ralphie and Alice.

Aafrin’s mother gives him news about a Hindu girl they know, pretending not to know he is in love with her (has he been gone for four years learning how to be a clerk?). When he reminds her of his feelings, Mother says it’s not a suitable relationship, that he needs a nice Farsi girl. He immediately seeks out Sita and embraces her – no one in this show is very discreet but she says she has no reputation anymore, so perhaps more than Aafrin’s mother knows about their relationship.

Baby Percy is sleeping in a nice basket with the Ayah sleeping on the floor. You can see why it was a shock for the English when they retired and returned to England: it was cold, rainy, and the servants were expensive and less docile. Even at Downton, the staff would expect beds! In fairness, Alice must have coped with the baby all the way from England by herself, so who can blame her for taking advantage of the new nanny. Now, she is writing to her husband Charlie and tells him not to come after them. I assume this means he will turn up by Episode 3.

When Alice explores her brother’s luxurious house, she finds Eugene Mathers lying in hammock outside the house. He reminds me of the eccentric Englishman in A Room with a View – was it Daniel Day-Lewis? He and his beautiful sister Madeleine are staying with Ralph. It is obvious from a mile away that Madeline is interested in Ralph. Like Sarah, she asks about Alice’s husband and says she knows Alice was “let down” and that there was Another Woman. Alice makes it clear she is contemptuous of gossip, but Madeleine doesn’t back down; instead, helpfully pointing out that if Alice is going to pose as a widow (this is not really practical ) she needs to wear a wedding ring and so produces one. Well, Alice needs a friend that isn’t sly Sarah, but Madeleine has ulterior motives.

Cynthia, aka Mrs. Weasley, managed to clean up the mess from the monkeys in time to welcome all her beautifully dressed guests. In England, the proprietress would probably not socialize so freely with the guests but it sounds like Cynthia’s husband was a Good Old Boy from the regiment. Maybe she was left impoverished and runs the club so as to turn an honest penny? Also, it gives her a front row view for all the intrigue going on and even more that she orchestrates.

Several giggly young women tell Ralph, not knowing they are speaking to him, that they are looking for Ralph Whelan. He must be known as a good catch throughout the district but he is not interested. Alice appears at the right moment and tells them to go look on the verandah. Kaiser, a trusty servant (Cynthia’s, I guess) summons Ralph to a quiet room away from the party where Madeline is waiting for him. She said she was responding to a note. Ralph seems surprised, asking, “Kaiser gave you the message?” I missed the note but it must not have been meant for Madeline – however, he shrugs and kisses her. They make love while the servant waits outside the locked door. Later, it appears that Cynthia orchestrated this rendezvous. Cynthia, who is both motherly and possessive toward Ralph, tells him he could be the next Viceroy if he plays his cards right and comes across as “steady” to the right people. She says Madeleine is a rich American and would make a good wife.

While everyone is at the club, Doug and his beautiful Indian assistant, Amber, tend the boy who was nearly run over by the train tracks, and they name him Lazarus.

Back at the club, Sarah, Doug’s wife, is very, very curious about Alice, not knowing she should be more concerned about her husband’s infatuation with Amber. She quizzes Alice, who reveals that after she left India as a child she never saw her parents again, and hadn’t seen Ralph until now. I wonder when her parents died because, as I recall, most civil servants got a sabbatical to England every 5-7 years. If they were as affluent as their children seem, one would have expected Alice to get an occasional visit and not be foisted on an aunt every vacation. Poor child! Sarah sees the wedding ring and probably noticed Alice was not wearing one on the train. Alice foolishly tells Sarah that her husband is dead, so you know he is going to turn up! Sarah asks more inquisitive questions and says she knows they will be the best of friends. Alice knows this is not one tiny bit true. Alice, don’t you know that in addition to nonstop gossiping, these people write lots of letters – it’s not as fast as the Internet but even if Charlie doesn’t chase you to India, someone will reveal your secret. I just hope that Charlie’s secret wasn’t bigamy because even if Alice was an innocent victim, these Brits will treat her like a fallen woman.

Sarah is distracted from Alice when she suddenly sees her silk dress on one of the guests! According to Madeleine, the Indian Sarah trusted to do her dry cleaning has a side business of lending out the merchandise. No consumer protection laws in India!

At the end of dinner, it is time to sing God Save the King and to toast: “To the King/Emperor!” all the Englishmen and women declare.

Ralph tells Sarah he will never go back to England. “They’ll have to kill me first,” he says (I didn't notice any ominous music to warn of an imminent assassination attempt but there should have been!). They walk outside to meet Aafrin (Ralph spitefully told him to find some letters in his messy office and bring them to the club). As Aafrin gives Ralph the letters, a turbaned Indian in white appears and shoots. Ralph is covered with blood but it is Aafrin who was shot. Cynthia and Alice accompany Aafrin to a hospital, where he seems close to death. I wondered if Ralph the target or was Aafrin on someone’s hit list because he doesn’t support nationalism?

Alice thinks Ralph (why don’t they pronounce it Rafe? Isn’t that the English way?) was the target and asks her brother if he knew the assailant. Ralph says no. She persists, “It’s just what he said…” she repeats the word twice. “I know my Hindustani may be rusty but he was calling you demon, devil.” “I expect you misheard,” he replies without hesitation, and reluctantly, Alice responds, “If you say so.”

Episode 1 ends with Aafrin gasping for breath in the hospital (no penicillin for about ten years-will he recover?) and the would-be assassin imprisoned.  Stay tuned for more, and try to catch it On Demand or on PBS.com if you missed the first one.

Images copyright to PBS

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Storms of War (Book Review)

Title: The Storms of War
Author: Kate Williams
Publication: Pegasus Books, Hardcover, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
 
Plot: What seems to be a carefree English family on the brink of World War I possesses a not very well kept secret – the affable father, Rudolf de Witt, a prosperous canned meat manufacturer, is German born, although he came to England many years ago and married a well-born Englishwoman. He has four children: Arthur, who spends most of the book in Paris; Michael, who is too sensitive to participate in a war; Emmeline, a spoiled beauty; and the youngest, Celia, who is the main character. When war breaks out, the de Witt family is shunned for its German roots, from Emmeline’s arrogant (and not in a charming way) fiancĂ© and the village children spurning a summer fĂȘte to the government treating Rudolf as an enemy of the state. Celia is the most interesting character. Like my favorite Vera Brittain, she can’t bear to be left behind when her brother and closest friend are serving in France, so signs up to drive ambulances despite never having driven a car.  This volume follows the de Witt family from 1914 to 1918

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and those who share my interest in women and war work. I have also added this book to my Downton Abbey Recommended Reading List.

What I liked: Author Williams is a historian, known for books about Queen Victoria, Emma Hamilton, and Josephine Bonaparte, and her writing is strong and historically accurate. I never had that moment, too frequent lately in poorly edited books, where one come across an anachronism that completely jolts the reader out of the book. The quality of the writing greatly contributed to my enjoyment of The Storms of War.

I have read dozens of books set during this time frame and, as I mentioned to a friend last night, I am very familiar with all the usual plot variations: heroine in love with family retainer, heroine wants to go to university, heroine misunderstood by family, heroine wants to serve in France like brother, male character can’t handle pressure of battle, shell-shocked soldiers, and many more. However, I felt that Williams handled these well-worn plot elements in a way that made them seem fresh, entertaining, and appealing. I particularly appreciated the vivid descriptions of Celia nerve-rackingly driving an ambulance in the dark in France!
What I disliked: I did not find Emmeline’s behavior convincing, and I became less fond of Celia as the book progressed. She became obsessed with her own concerns, and I found it annoying when she ignored her responsibility to her distraught mother or lied to Captain Russell, the dour but surprisingly understanding officer she drives in London. I guess I like my heroines unflawed, which isn’t really fair!

Source: I read about this book when it was published in England (in fact, I suggested to several editor friends that they acquire it quickly but I guess Pegasus beat them to the punch) and requested it from the Brookline Library. Looking forward to the next book in the trilogy!

(photo above of a woman ambulance driver is copyright to http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/ww-brit-women-prop.htm)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Celia's House (Book Review)

Title: Celia’s House
Author: D. E. Stevenson
Publication: 1943, original hardcover; Sourcebooks paperback, 2015
Genre: Light romantic fiction
Plot: In 1905, elderly Celia Dunne decides to leave Dunnian, her lovely home in Scotland, to her great-nephew Humphrey, with the understanding that his family can live there while he is away with the Navy. She assures him that his as-yet unborn daughter Celia will one day inherit Dunnian, and she dies soon afterwards. Once settled in their new home, Humphrey’s children love Dunnian as much as Celia did, particularly the eldest son Mark and a young cousin Deb, whose friendship with Mark influences her fondness for the house and helps her become part of the family. The story follows Mark and his siblings through WWI and to 1942, and sure enough, his youngest sister is another quirky Celia, named for her great-great aunt. The book does not contain much in the way of plot other than a competition for Mark’s affection but it is an extremely pleasant family story.

Audience: Stevenson has a devoted following and fans are delighted to see some of her books back in print. Similar authors include Elizabeth Cadell, Angela Thirkell, and Rosamunde Pilcher.

What I liked: This is a little different from other Stevenson novels: very focused on the family and house and less humorous than her other books (although it begins with an amusing interaction between Celia and her gardener), but appealing in a different way. I liked the descriptions of all the Dunnes and their gossipy neighbors, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Humphrey’s arrogant cousin Maurice learns Humphrey has inherited Dunnian instead of him. There are some allusions to more serious topics: an elderly retainer with nowhere else to go (luckily, she is needed and welcomed by Humphrey and his family), Deb is neglected by her own mother until her cousin Humphrey takes her into his own family, and Humphrey’s beloved wife becomes confused and frail before her time.

Source: I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I really enjoyed this reread and am so glad that Sourcebooks brought it back with delightful artwork and packaging.  
Here's another favorite back in print!