Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Exotic Part 2

with 6 comments

So, here’s the thing.  I’e been thinking, and what I’ve realized is that there really was a time in my life when I approached fiction looking for “exotic” settings.  I still wasn’t into historical novels.  I read plenty of fiction set in times other than my own, but those books tended to be Victorian novels by Victorian writers, rather than books by contemporary writers writing about the Victorian period.

With settings, though, what I wanted was Paris, New York, and “some others” that seemed to depend on how interesting the writer could make them.  My favorite novelist at that period of my life–between the time I was about twelve and the time I was fourteen or fifteen–was a British woman named Mary Stewart.

Towards the end of her career, Mary Stewart went in for writing historical novels almost exclusively, but at the time I was reading her, she wrote what’s called “romantic suspense.”  I hesitate to use the term, although it was the one used at the time, because these days it seems to be applied to two kinds of books, neither of which Mary Stewart wrote–the romance novel into which a little suspense has been thrown, and the genre Mary  Higgins Clark has invented for herself.

The Mary Stewart novels I loved tended to be written in the first person and set in the contemporary period, narrated by a central character who was always a reasonably well educated English girl who for some reason was spending some time abroad.  My two favorite novels–The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic–were set in Greece, but, blessedly, not the Greece of my relatives.

It’s interesting that I can still read these novels now and still enjoy them, even though a lot of what I read at that period I can’t make my way through any more at all.  The heroines were not the romance heroines of that era, or of any era at least up until the 1980s.   They were not virginal, or retiring, or in any way helpless.  They did things for themselves, they rarely had to be rescued by the guy in the picture, and their minds were on something else besides their feelings for the male characters.  They were also fairly knowledgable about thins like Shakespeare and ancient history.

What also interests me is that I know exactly why  I was so attached to those books, and Hemingway’s books about Paris, and a lot of other novels that took place elsewhere than where I  was–and that was because, at that period of my life, I truly hated the life I was living and the place I was living it in.

I don’t think I have ever been that violently repelled by any other environment I  have lived in since.  I’ve had good situations and bad, but I haven’t had that kind of reaction even to the bad ones.

And some of it was certainly being very young and not being in control of where I was and what I was doing.  Like it or not, I was living in Fairfield County and like it or not, I was going to the schools my parents sent me to.  I didn’t like either thing one bit.

I suppose what I’m trying to get around to asking here is this:  do those of you who prefer “exotic” settings (with that word defined however you want to) hate the places you are so much that you’re desperate to get out?

It doesn’t seem to me, from the way the posts read here, that that is the case.   Of course, posts are posts, and at home you may be all climbing the walls wishing you could et out of what feels to you like a cage–which is what life felt like to me at the time–but my guess is that most of the people around me knew exactly how I felt about all that stuff.  Maybe I was just not as good as most people are at hiding it.

Still, when I look at my situation and my relationships to those books, the most important part of the fantasy for me then was that it was actually possible that such a fantasy could be made a reality.  When I was older, I went to Greece on my own for the first time, the Greece I found, and the life I lived there, was very much like the fantasy one Mary  Stewart had presented to me in her novels, although the suspense element was (thankfully) absent.

The more I think of it, the more I think that this is always what I have required in my fantasies.   I don’t seem to be able to get interested in impossible settings, in books about eras  past that I can’t go back to actually live in, or about fantasy or sciene fiction worlds which will never be available to me in real time.

I do read quite a bit of history, and many works of literature written in eras much before mine, but I don’t project myself into any of them.  The closest I come is when I recognize that I seem to have more in common with the sensibilities of Sherlock Holmes than  I do with the sensibilities of MTV.

Written by janeh

May 31st, 2009 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Exotic Part 2'

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  1. You’ve inspired me to get out my battered old copies of Mary Stewart’s books. Maybe I’ll reread This Rough Magic when I get home from work this afternoon. I love that one, too. Stewart and Heyer are about the only authors whom I discovered in junior high (the same week!) that I can still read with enjoyment.

    I am very happy with where I am. I’d like to be able to travel more, but otherwise, this is the life I have chosen, not had thrust upon me. However, there have been two very bad periods in my life–the first in junior high, when I went through prolonged hazing (when I read Somebody Else’s Music, Liz’s tormentors looked awfully familiar), and the second from 25-39, when one or both of my parents were horribly ill with progressive, untreatable neurological diseases. During those periods, I could only get away inside my head. So maybe the exotic locales started as an escape. However, I’ve never felt the need that the escape be realistically possible–it’s enough that I can identify with the character having the adventure. I would just as soon not really be shoved off a boat into the ocean off Corfu, & have to be rescued by a dolphin!

    Lee B

    31 May 09 at 10:54 am

  2. Ah yes, I remember Mary Stewart but I haven’t read her books in a long time.

    No, I can’t say I’ve ever hated my life but I have been bored and I’m no good at face to face social interactions. I can’t make small talk or gossip.

    My escapism is very pure, I know I will never be a james Bond or Horatio Hornblower or Richard Sharpe but I still enjoy reading them.

    Good science fiction stretches my imagination by giving me new societies with very different structures to think about.


    31 May 09 at 3:22 pm

  3. I read and enjoyed Mary Stewart, too.

    I’m quite contented and happy in my life now. Some aspects of it have been ‘thrust upon me’, I suppose – I certainly have had my share of disappointments and trials. But I don’t feel trapped – I live in a city I love, and have always wanted to live in. I’ve travelled, and if I can’t do more right now, at least I’ve done it. I lead a busy and happy life, not trapped at all. And I still like to ‘escape’ with a good book.

    I don’t know if I ever felt totally trapped. The closest time I came to that would be between the ages of about 11 or 12 and 15. I was very unhappy in school, particularly in high school, but not for the reasons I always read about, such as those in SEM. We didn’t have that kind of social setup. I was mostly bored in school, when I wasn’t getting worked up over the behaviour of a few of my teachers. And I was lonely, because no one shared any of my interests. I think I was also becoming more aware of small town gossip – I know anonymity was something I longed for, although looking back, I can’t see that anyone could possibly have had any interest in gossiping about me! I wanted to get out so badly – but I could see escape looming, which reduced any ‘trapped’ feeling. The school system at the time was shorter than it is now, so I knew that when I was 15, I’d be leaving for some kind of post-secondary education. And I did!

    I think I didn’t begin to long to see the bigger world until about the time I hit puberty, and I was reading historical novels much earlier, at a time when I liked living there.

    I’ve gone through much worse experiences since. I’ve also never, since I was 15, lived in my original hometown, although as long as I had relatives there, I visited. I even managed to avoid living in any small town except for two periods in my life. So maybe my dislike of small town life affected me more than I generally like to acknowledge.


    31 May 09 at 3:31 pm

  4. There have only been a couple of fairly brief periods in my life when I have been desperately unhappy – a matter of weeks rather than months or years, at least until much later in life when I succumbed to the clinical depression that forced me into early retirement. Even that only lasted about a year until I was finally diagnosed and put on appropriate medication.

    Except for the first week when I was 7 years old, I loved boarding school and thrived there for the next 9 years. I had a bad few months just before I dropped out of university and another down period a few years later that led me to quit my job and go overseas to work in Papua New Guinea. Even living in virtual isolation for a couple of years in a bush school there was more of a highlight than a low period of my life, and I can’t recall any significant unhappiness at any other time during my working life.

    My brother, on the other hand, recalls our early years when I was happiest as years of unmitigated misery. Clearly it’s a matter of personality, not circumstance, when our virtually identical experiences are seen so differently.

    I can’t really recall anything that really grabbed me from what I was reading back then. Apart from pure escapism such as westerns (I loved Zane Grey), Ellery Queen, Leslie Charteris, Ian Fleming and the like, I read a bit of Georgette Heyer, Daphne Du Maurier, and god help me, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. Herman Wouk was another favourite, and I read everything Irwin Shaw ever wrote. I loved John O’Hara, and even enjoyed Robert Ruark’s books. A bit later I found Vladimir Nabokov, and still think he wrote the most beautiful modern English prose I’ve ever read. I always loved Shakespeare, Conrad, Jane Austin and Emily Brontë, and Thackeray, all of whom I studied in high school, but I was much older, probably in my early 30s, before I began to enjoy Dickens and Kipling. I went through a Robert Ludlum period and, to my ever-lasting shame, I couldn’t resist Harold Robbins. John Updike’s stories fascinated me for years, as did (does) Tom Woolfe.

    So, I guess from the above that I must love my exotic locales as much as anybody, but it stems from interest more than from any innate dissatisfaction with my own circumstances. Although I’ve done a lot of it, and have lived for extended periods overseas, I’m not a great traveller in that I don’t like travel for its own sake. My perfect world would be one where I had a Tardis so that I could go from here to where I wanted to be without all the hassle of getting there. Books are great for that.


    31 May 09 at 8:48 pm

  5. When I had to cut down to 100 books, TOUCH NOT THE CAT made the list. A good few others are in storage.
    Elizabeth Peters once wrote very similar novels, and the best of those are with me too.
    Caged? Not now, and I love work–but I do somethimes think of the observation “choose your rut carefuly–you’ll be there for thirty years.” Once I wanted many things. Now I just want my rut to last another ten years.
    In my adolescence, though, yes–very much caged, and while there was no real alternative to the long slow slog, I spent as much time on Barsoom, in Hyboria, on the Starship ENTERPRISE or in Marvel Comic Books’ New York as I could. New York still seems a place of wonder to me in a way that London does not.
    Looked at from one point of view, all my fictional places are ones where problems are resolved rather than endured. That’s a much more important distinction than whether they can be reached by time machine, starship or the 6:10 from Dulles. After all, I’m not going there anyway.


    31 May 09 at 9:17 pm

  6. An interesting question, Jane.

    As a kid, nobody can really make life choices for themselves, not effectively. I discovered SF and fantasy at about age 10, and I read almost nothing else until about age 25. This more or less went hand in hand with my desire to do things I was constrained from. I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy…in 1973. Wasn’t happening. I fought with my parents all through adolescence, for the usual reasons. I married at age 20, and of course after that life wasn’t my own, or at least that’s the way I lived it. Turns out to have been non-optimum for me. ;)

    My marriage ended and I gave birth to my son within months of each other. So once again, I had obligations that prevented me from doing anything adventurous. And now, though my child is grown and my husband supportive, I’m physically not able to do much. Severely arthritic knees and a weight problem that precludes surgery keep me in a wheelchair outside the house.

    But given all that, I’m as content as I can be on a daily basis. I know my life, with work I enjoy, adequate money, a comfortable home an a loving spouse, is very very good. For me the reading isn’t an amelioration of discontent, it’s a way of having adventures I wouldn’t be able to have otherwise, along with all the usual reasons of entertainment and mental stimulation. I still read SF and fantasy about 40% of the time, the rest is mystery/detective fiction.

    Robert has a point about the resolution of problems too. Fiction *has* to have an ending to be readable. A story that just dribbles off like real life isn’t terribly successful. Whether the ending is satisfactory or not is up to the individual, I suppose, but mystery readers tend to regard the Justice Seen to Be Done ending as the proper one.


    31 May 09 at 11:13 pm

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