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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What you didn't know about these writers...
I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader copy of this book a few months ago to review. I really enjoyed it! I happened to be reading Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim at the time, so that was a very happy coincidence. I had read her book before, but knew nothing about her. She is one of the artists/writers profiled in this book. There are seven sections for...
Published on August 18, 2007 by Kiki

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like People magazine? You'll love this too.
Fans of People magazine would be most likely to appreciate this book. The book differs in having fewer pictures (none in color) and more text. The intimate facts Roiphe ferreted out, describing these personages in their historical context and her graceful writing style made even persons previously unknown to me an interesting read. I do take exception, though, to her...
Published on June 10, 2011 by Surya Scholar


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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What you didn't know about these writers..., August 18, 2007
By 
Kiki (Birmingham, Alabama) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader copy of this book a few months ago to review. I really enjoyed it! I happened to be reading Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim at the time, so that was a very happy coincidence. I had read her book before, but knew nothing about her. She is one of the artists/writers profiled in this book. There are seven sections for each "couple" or "group." And definitely do not skip the opening chapter, Marriage a La Mode, th author's brillant and helpful introduction to the book and to the times these artists and their works existed.

I really loved the section on Vanessa Bell, "Bunny" and the Bloomsbury group. Simply fascinating. Her daughter Angelica later married her biological father's lover. The complicated family groups created by these people are often bizarre, even incestuous, but they seem to have worked for them to some degree. Reading about these people and their complicated lives, mostly being lived out of a desire to be free from conventional, traditional, expected roles in their times, was truly fascinating. We "tut tut" daily over Britney, Lindsey and Paris; well, they can't hold a candle to these folks! Katherine Mansfield was much more lady-like, educated and interesting than any of them. Also read about HG Wells, his long suffering wife Jane, and his lover, young upstart journalist Rebecca West.

This book seems to be very well researched and is very well written. With what I am sure is an overwhelming amount of information available on these prolific writers and their lives, Roiphe has managed to handle the subject both delicately and thoroughly enough without letting it be too much information. Certainly, the portraits in this book are compelling enough to warrant more exploration, but she manages to whet your appetite so that you want to learn more, not only about their lives, but more importantly about their work, which was their lives, and what was so desperately important to each and every writer and artist in this book.

A great read. A definite recommendation.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life imitating art, March 15, 2008
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If you've ever believed that modern relationships are more complex and unorthodox than those of the past, this magnificent book will quickly open your eyes to the truth. Katie Roiphe picks apart the tangled strands of seven couples' lives, looking for "the distilled wisdom of decades lived, of mistakes made, of love stirred by time." (p. 2) What did Katie learn?

The subjects of this book spent their childhood in the repressed Victorian age. Like some who grew up in the 1950s and 60s and came to early adulthood in the Age of Aquarius, the figures in Roiphe's book lived in a new age allowing them more freedom to defy convention -- and defy they did.

After a wonderfully expository opening chapter called "Marriage A La Mode," Roiphe devotes a chapter to each of her subjects. First we meet H. G. Wells and his wife Jane, whom he treated according to a Victorian ideal of fragile womanhood while carrying on a ten-year affair with Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young writer.

Roiphe explores the marriage of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Their love was, by their own admission, a "child-love" that was only passionate when they were apart. Elizabeth von Arnim and Frank Russell relied on "conflict and sparring as a prelude to reconciliation." Vanessa and Clive Bell lived in an ever-shifting menage that included her former lover, and her current lover along with his (male) lover. Ottoline Morrell, who may have inspired the character of Lady Chatterley, was outraged when her husband Philip confessed that he had two pregnant mistresses. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall had been a committed lesbian couple for eighteen years when Radclyffe (known to all as "John") fell in love with a Russian emigree and established what French gossip columns called a "trio lesbienne." Vera Brittain and Gordon Catlin and their children shared their homes with Vera's lifelong friend, Winifred Holtby.

The lives of these people were interwoven with family, social or sexual relationships; they were observers of and commentors on each others' dramas. The author has distilled a huge amount of primary material into this fascinating book, with no judgment or editorializing. Her notes are a treasure trove for any reader who wants to explore a wider context.

Roiphe's postscript takes the position that, however self-absorbed, the subjects of this book at least showed creativity and imagination in imposing their own mythologies on the drabness of daily life. She writes (p. 302), "This is storytelling in its most challenging medium: life itself."

Highly recommended.

Linda Bulger, 2008
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars tangled webs, December 7, 2007
This is such an interesting book and has so much going for it. Roiphe does a good job giving us enough background on the subjects to understand the nature of the conflicts in their relationships. I think she should have spent a little more time on how the "arrangements" may have been in conflict with the political positions and/or writings of some of the people involved, particularly in the cases of Rebecca West and Katherine Mansfield. The treatment of Vanessa and Clive Bell and Duncan Grant was well handled, though, and I appreciated the author's observations about how poorly the Bell children were served by not only their parents but also by the Bloomsbury circle. Roiphe also does a good job, for the most part, setting the social and political context of these relationships.

I didn't expect the book to be an exhaustive study of any of the subjects, so I had no sense of disappointment, as some reviewers have mentioned. Roiphe states that her intention is to sketch the relationships from the perspective of a significant point of conflict. I think she delivered on that promise. I enjoyed the writing style and the structure of the book. As the chapters move from one household to the next, Roiphe reveals in subtle ways the inter-relatedness of the literary figures of the period - through friendship, family, marriage, affairs, patronage - but the reader is never overwhelmed with the complexity of those entanglements. And beyond the primary subjects, many familiar voices of the period are heard commenting through letters, memoirs and diaries.

Roiphe rarely appears to pass judgment, which I admire. We do get a sense of her exasperation with Vanessa Bell, but in a group of such egocentric characters, Vanessa Bell seems particularly oblivious. And Roiphe didn't disguise her distaste for the manipulations of Una Troubridge, wife of Radclyffe Hall. With so many people behaving badly, selfishly, stupidly, and innocently - or sometimes maliciously - making bad life choices, the author does her best to stick to the facts. (For the record, it was Una's decision of destroy journals, manuscripts and letters that seemed to inspire Roiphe's wrath.)

In some ways, I thought the Jane and HG Wells/Rebecca West treatment was the least satisfying of the group and it seemed an odd choice to lead off the book. I'm wondering if the position has to do with Wells being reasonably well known today while the others are far from household names. This book left me perusing the bibliography for more complete biographies. Roiphe's notes are particularly helpful, as is the index. I would have liked more photographs, though.

I was drawn into these lives - all the creativity, the chaos, the intensity and passion. I don't feel the subject matter is distasteful or exploitive. These individuals consciously challenged the social and cultural mores of the day, not altogether successfully but mostly purposefully. One of the best outcomes for me was to be inspired to read, finally, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. These were people who wanted to remake the world even before the Great War did it for them.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like People magazine? You'll love this too., June 10, 2011
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This review is from: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages (Paperback)
Fans of People magazine would be most likely to appreciate this book. The book differs in having fewer pictures (none in color) and more text. The intimate facts Roiphe ferreted out, describing these personages in their historical context and her graceful writing style made even persons previously unknown to me an interesting read. I do take exception, though, to her stating from time to time that someone thought this or that without offering proof of what was in their minds from letters, diaries or third party sources. My assessment of this book: interesting overall but not great. I would not wait in a block long line or pay big bucks for it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing, August 6, 2008
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This review is from: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages (Paperback)
I am not sure how I became aware of this book in the first place or why I ended up buying it, but I am so glad I did. I hated for it to end and I savored every page.

It's so well written that you almost feel like you know these subjects better than their spouses did - and maybe you do.

In short, it's an insightful and well-researched look into the private worlds, thoughts, and marriages of some very interesting people - and also proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uncommonly Intriguing, July 21, 2008
This review is from: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages (Paperback)
"Some of the hand-wringing about marriage in the twenties remains eerily relevant to today's marriages." So says Katie Roiphe, the author of this most intriguing literary biography. She explores the marriages of seven of the most luminous writers and artists of the twenties -- including H.G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Von Arnim (who penned "Enchanted April".) Each vignette is centered around a moment of crisis that creates a need for a creative and unorthodox solution.

Katherine Manfield develops a "child-love" with her husband, who is not able to rise to challenge of helping her through the tuberculosis that kills her at age 34. H.G. Wells "creates" his wife Jane -- even giving her a new name -- and then indulges in no-responsibility affairs with Rebecca West, among others. Ottoline Morrell gives herself over totally to nurturing rising artistes, only to be stabbed in the back by those she most befriended. And then there's Radclyffe Hall -- otherwise known as John -- who is surprisingly Victorian, despite her long-time relationship with her "wife" Una Trobridge and her lover, Evguenia Souline.

As the author says: "One cannot fall into 'meagre repetitions', one cannot live automatically, one cannot simply live the way everyone else is living: one has to have the constant energy, the constant imagination, the constant refueling affection, because one is making up a life as one goes along."

This book is highly recommended for everyone who is navigating a marriage and who is curious about how others handled their own, and how they confronted domesticity and long-term emotional involvement. It's particularly recommended for anyone with a literary bend; it's downright fascinating to see how those famous literary individuals from 1910 to World War II lived their lives. And, as an extra plus, it's compulsively readable and "dishy."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating portraits, June 4, 2008
This book is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of seven relationships. Not just what happened but what motivated. If you're a feminist you'll need to put that aside and read as an objective bystander. It's hard to do!

The author does a brilliant job of making the people and their stories come to life. I felt like I got to know these fascinating characters. I found it very difficult to put the book down. I appreciate that the author doesn't judge her characters - this relationship or action was 'good' and this was 'bad - but tries to understand and relate to the reader why the characters did what they did.

We are often led to believe that previous eras were more honest, true, chaste. This book shows that that just isn't true. Each generation has to find its own way in the world.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hell is Other People, March 22, 2009
By 
MJS "Constant Reader" (New York, United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages (Paperback)
It's a tried and true narrative technique - start the book at the pivotal moment then work backwards and ultimately forward from the event. The biography of the famous actor starts when he wins the Oscar. The true crime book starts at the scene of the murder. The business expose starts when the FBI shows up with arrest warrants. Katie Roiphe uses the same technique in Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Literary Marriages. The challenge is recognizing the pivotal event that both encapsulate and unhinge the marriage in question.

If this book is any indication, literary marriages are very odd indeed. It's one thing to fret because your husband won't take out the garbage, it's quite another to wish he'd stop bringing his mistresses over for tea. These mini portraits run the gamut from seemingly traditional (H.G.Wells) to tragic (Katherine Mansfield) to litigious (Elizabeth von Armin) to groundbreaking (Vanessa Bell, Radclyffe Hall) to what I can only describe as "expansive" (Vera Brittain). At the center of these marriages is at least one enormous ego. Several feature multiple enormous egos (H.G. Wells and mistress Rebecca West, for example). If you're wondering whether an egomaniac can have a long, satisfying marriage this book is all the proof you'll ever need that peace and quiet won't be part of the equation.

Perhaps it's the era (early 20th century) but I was struck by how many of these people seemed to be playing at marriage. It wasn't that they didn't take it seriously, but they did treat it like a spectator sport whether the larger the audience the more authentic the effort. Vanessa Bell also seems to extend this logic to her baths - if her good friend Duncan Grant wanted to shave and she wanted to have a bath, why not all pile in together. All the couples here can't wait to tell friends or their diaries all about the latest unconventionalities of their marriages. Which is impressive - it's not easy to write and pat yourself on the back for your modern outlook at the same time.

The phrase "spoiled brats" came to mind several times while reading this book but to Roiphe's great credit not as often as it might have. Whether a husband is abandoning his gravely ill wife because sickness gives him the creeps or a husband is confessing that he has two pregnant mistresses on his hands, Roiphe manages to write with sympathy about these people while still maintaining a critical eye. One of her best lines is when she observes of John Murry "He seemed to believe .. that honesty itself would exonerate him." Also, while you're confessing, the spotlight is entirely on you.

This is an engaging book that is often as much fun as a fabulously trashy novel. Affairs, open marriages, lawsuits, interior decorating and shopping addiction are all on prominent display. Roiphe is entranced by "how ardently they tried" to make their non-traditional marriages work and there is something sweetly charming about, say, how proud Katherine Mansfield and husband John Middleton Murry are of their steadfast devotion to each other - even though they can't manage to stay in the same county together for more than a week. It's also a bit comforting to see that even when one stretches the boundaries of what "marriage" means, it's still hard work in any era.
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18 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exrtraordinary People, Ordinary Dilemmas, Extravagent Solutions, July 19, 2007
Just a great deal of fun -- Roiphe examine 7 marriages, shows what works and what doesn't, tells 7 stories, draws 7 lessons. Like "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "Flaubert's Parrot," this is literature as gossip and story. That is, literature as life. About as much fun as you can have on a bedside table or at the beach.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balanced, thoughtful, May 22, 2008
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The author does a good job of quickly relating the situations of a series of interrelated couples in early twentieth-century Britain. She manages, without judgement, to consider their marital and extra-marital relationships and pose questions about how these individuals may fit into a larger context of social changes that continue now. It's well written and moves along quickly.
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Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages by Katie Roiphe (Paperback - May 20, 2008)
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