Making Conversation is, for me, one of those Persephones, like Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle, that are readily recommendable: it’s the sort of book that will appeal to a wide variety of readers and has little to discourage. And, just as these books do have more serious ideas beneath their surface, they can also be read with a light-heart, and they sometimes provoke outright giggles or, at least, audible smirks.
The title is rooted in the main character’s difficulty in doing just that, making conversation; it seems a slippery art and there are many comic moments surrounding her attempts to grasp it. The humourous bit quoted in full on Persephone’s site is one of my favourites — I had to stop and read it aloud to Mr. B.I.P. when I came across it in the book — but there are other standout moments as well.
One difficulty, however, of summarizing a book like this is that it inevitably sounds a bit superficial and, in some ways, this novel is just that and, certainly, making conversation is certainly often a superficial process.
Martha seems, as often as not, to say less when she should say more and then, in the next moment, says too much; she is constantly taking another run at something, and when she is not trying to elucidate what she’s just said, she is trying to obfuscate it, always trying to repair and amend.
The comedy surrounding Martha’s attempts is not all froth, however: underneath the spare statements there is a deep current of insecurity that has little to do with dialogue and much more to do with identity.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the young girl as she moves out into the world, struggling to fit in and struggling to get out of uncomfortable fits, so that readers will be smiling as often at memories of their own insecure growing-up-ness as they are smiling at Martha’s.
Just as Martha found herself saying “Oh, yes” too many times during her interview for Oxford, I found myself jotting down too many quotations that provoked the same response from me as I read along: if you want to read them, click the Continue link that follows, and prepare yourself to say “Oh, yes” until you’re weary of your own enthusiasm.
Anyone else read anything lately that would be easy to recommend to a variety of readers? Or how about something that you admire but can’t imagine yourself recommending (or not often) anyhow?Quotes:
“I sometimes think it would be nice to be a Homeric scholar or an archaeologist or something, and devote my life to it, and not bother about anything else, and get lice in my hair.” (Martha to Cecil) 112
“I hate housekeeping…I think it’s waste of time. I don’t want to apply my knowledge to vegetables.” (Martha to Cecil) 117
That started her reading translations of Russian novels; and she was interested in everything rather than the philosophy. She adored a chapter called “Lacerations” in the Brothers Karamazov, and she loved The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. his was life. She read Anna Karenina, and imagined how she would feel as an unfaithful wife; and there was War and Peace too, but she skipped a lot of that. 118
She would renounce all the lusts of the flesh. It would save a lot of trouble, and as she wasn’t a success on the carnal side, she might as well give it up. 142
So in October she went to Oxford, where her first impressions were of autumn leaves, and of mist at the end of every street. 170
“A religion without dogma is like a parcel tied up without any string.” 177 Miss Dobbie to the Christian Fellowship representative
She looked so much like a school-mistress that she gave Martha a dentist-feeling in her stomach. 185
“What a lovely time men have compared with women,” said Elizabeth. “Lovely sitting rooms and bedrooms and / lunch-parties. They can enjoy themselves without women, but women can’t enjoy themselves without men.” Elizabeth 196-7
The next time she saw Henry at a lecture he avoided her eye, and she felt like a woman with a past. 228
“Does the spring make you feel melancholy?” (Simpson) “Yes, the autumn is better.” (Martha) 238