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The Friendly Young Ladies Paperback – May 13, 2003
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“Undeniably charming . . . has an enormous nostalgic attractiveness.” —New Yorker
“Written with rare insight.” —Boston Globe
“A very lively and human story.” —New York Times Book Review
From the Inside Flap
Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naive, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents' home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie's arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo's contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo's past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.
Mary Renault wrote this delightfully provocative novel in the early 1940s, creating characters that are lighthearted, charming, and free-spirited partly in answer to the despair characteristic of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness or Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. The result is a witty and stylish story that offers exceptional insight into the world of upcoming writers and artists of in 1930s London, chronicling their rejection of society's established sexual mores and their heroic pursuits of art and life.
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Top customer reviews
The book starts slow. The first time I read it I skimmed the first 50 pages, covering a sweet, dull teen named Elsie. The book hits its stride when she runs away from home and to her sister Leo's place on the Thames. Leo's a 28 (?) year-old tomboy who writes cowboy novels under the pen name Tex O'Hara. Easygoing and cool, she whiles away her days with her girlfriend (take note, Night Watch readers - named Helen) on their little houseboat. The book is striking for its casual portrayal of the couple's lesbianism. It possesses a freedom and assurance that has not been doubled since. Nobody (thankfully) seems to give much of a damn about it - least of all the women themselves.
Renault throws in a twist with the sudden attraction between Leo and her male writing friend of many years, Joe. (She doesn't say it in the afterword but I suspect she did it to escape the censors banning her book like Radclyffe Hall's). But considering this book came out ONLY 15 YEARS after the soppish Well of Loneliness, it feels effervescent and postmodern. The ending is "silly," as Renault herself admitted, but this is still a cool, chill glass of the future. The afterword itself is worth the price of admission.
Elise is a not-too-bright girl, nearly 18 but acting more like 14; nowadays she'd probably be classified as having some sort of mild learning disability. She lives in Cornwall with her rather odious parents; some years before her older sister Leonore ran away from home and her parents consider her dead--she is never mentioned. Elise finally gets fed up, goes through her mother's private papers and finds Leonore's address, and runs away from home.
She finds Leonore living on a houseboat on the Thames, writing Western novels, living with a nurse turned medical illustrator. It is never said in so many words, but the two women are lovers.
Good points--Renault depicts the two women as just that, two women. She isn't interested in the political, economic, legal, or spiritual implications of Lesbianism--merely two human beings who care for one another, have built a life together, and who just happen to be both women.
Renault admits in her afterward that she wrote this as a reaction to Radclyffe Hall's infamous "The Well of Lonlness", which takes precisely the reverse tack. I am told by those who have read both that if one is familiar with "The Well" this is quite obvious, the way Renault sometimes parallel's Hall and sometimes inverts what Hall did. I've never read Hall, and have no desire to, and therefore cannot further comment on this point.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters feel real. We are told what they are thinking and feeling, but we are never shown. This was an early effort of Renault's, and she hadn't mastered the rule of "show, don't tell." Elsie, especially, never really comes to life.
Comparing this novel with Renault's mature work, especially "The Charioteer", one sees how far she came as a writer, and one also sees the seeds of her subsequent work.
The two afterwards are, as another reviewer remarked, almost worth the price of the book. I especially liked Renault's remark about how explicit erotic writing is the literary equivalent of ketchup--covering the deficiencies of insipid writing, and desired only by people whose taste buds are anesthetized.
And then there is the love story. The friendship of two very likeable people unexpectedly intensifies, overwhelming both them and the reader. Very satisfying.
Mary Renault surely polished her craft over a long successful career, but this youthful effort has a spirit and immediacy that has held up remarkably well and still gives me a great deal of pleasure.
A huge weakness I have discovered so far is excessive narration and explanation of each character's emotional state, a fault Mary generally avoids in later novels. I really didn't need a minute-by-minute update of Elsie's fears and anxieties. At first this was interesting, but rapidly becomes annoying and redundant, as the characters are ruled by pretty much the same thoughts throughout.
Mid-way through the book, I just gave up and quit. Elsie is a total bore, a silly timid girl scared of her own shadow. When I started skipping paragraphs describing her doings and thoughts, I realized the book had ceased to entertain or enlighten. Leo and Helen are more original, but Mary just doesn't give them enough play.
And for Chrissakes, let the characters speak, instead of modifying their every pronouncement with a description of their emotional state. Such as - "She said, without sincerity." Or, "She said, with trepidation."
You may want this book to see how a great author like Renault started out writing boners. Writing is damned difficult work, and the only way to get good is to just keep doing it over and over throughout the years. It is one skill that seems to improve with age, unlike everything else.