Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Margaret Millar’s Wives and Lovers (1954; 2016)

Readers familiar with Margaret Millar’s suspense novels, will immediately recognize her style and language in Wives and Lovers. (Just yesterday I discussed Vanish in an Instant, another volume in the Syndicate reprint series.)

collected-millar-mysteries-two“It was a shoebox of a room, with the ceiling pressed down on it like a lid, and Gordon and herself, two mis-mated shoes, tossed together into the box by a careless clerk.”

These mis-mated shoes are Gordon, the dentist, and Hazel, his assistant. It’s clear that they share an uncomfortable intimacy, and readers too are privy to too much information to be comfortable.

But the tension shifts quickly to other characters, primarily to Ruby, who has been renting a room from Mrs. Freeman.

“She lies, yes. People lie when the truth is too hard to bear.”

But it takes one to know one. So, okay, Ruby is a liar. “During her fifteen years as a landlady, Mrs. Freeman had become a fairly accurate judge of character and she could invariably spot a liar, all the more readily because she was such a plausible liar herself.”

Perhaps it’s not the lying itself which is the problem, but the motivation to do so. Perhaps the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

“But she had stretched the dream too far – there had never been a Christmas at home that she could remember without bitterness – and it snapped like an elastic band and stung her skin and brought moisture to her eyes.”

There is, after all, a fine line between lies and secrets.

“I like you better the way you are, so full of secrets you’re bursting at the seams.” a man (not a gentleman, I hasten to add) says to Ruby.

Throughout Wives and Lovers, there is a sense of something menacing. An atmosphere of dread.

“The sound reminded him of when he was a boy in Minnesota; in the spring the icicles that had hung stiff as quartz from the eaves throughout the winter started to melt until they fell loose and shattered, and the ice on the pond split open and water began to gurgle up through the cracks. Water sounds, dripping sounds everywhere. The first thaw in spring was almost as noisy as the first storm in autumn.”

There is a slow accumualtion of something powerful. And if it wasn’t disturbing enough to imagine this threat coming from afield, what if the threat is actually much closer to home? A personal betrayal? Something which actually seemed benign, innocent – but was actually the opposite?

“He had bought it, not for a special reason like a birthday, but in a moment of guilt and compunction, as if he could give to her in the form of this doll the happy babyhood she had missed. He had been able to buy off his conscience to some extent, but he hadn’t bought off Judith. Within two days the doll was naked and almost scalped, one arm was gone, its china eyes had been carefully pushed back into its empty head, and into its slightly open mouth between the rows of tiny perfect teeth, Judith had thrust Elaine’s ivory-handled nail file.”

Ultimately it is personal disappointment and heartbreak which caused the most severe and lasting damage. It’s what’s left behind when we believe we have escaped but we have only entered another kind of sadness.

“Now that they had reached Eden they were all the more discontented to find themselves leading the same old lives. The end of the rainbow was no longer around the corner; it was six miles north to the mountains and nineteen blocks south to the sea. Yet these blocks were more difficult to travel than three thousand miles across the country.”

Margaret Millar’s characters reach the end of the rainbow in unexpected ways; the pervasive sense of duplicity in California in the 1950s permeates the stories, and the era’s insistence upon conformity makes her misfit characters all-the-more surprising.

The cover image features the copy I’m reading, one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press) and I’ll have another post about Beast in View next week; when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. Doncha love it?!

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