Belles and RingersApril 23, 2010
A funny thing happened to me early this year: I read about twenty Nero Wolfe mysteries in a row, and then was completely unable to finish a book for more than two months. There were other contributing factors–a very busy time at work, the fact that I’ve been muddling through Montcalm and Wolfe on and off for most of that time, etc., but it was kind of terrifying.
Hawley Smart’s Belles and Ringers was, honestly, not a great book to come back with. It’s not a great book at all. It’s so pleased with itself, for one thing. And it’s got very little to be pleased about, for another.
One of the interesting things about picking up my kindle again is that I’ve forgotten why I downloaded most of the books on it, so when I start one, I don’t remember if I did any research on it, or even if I know anything about it beyond the title. Sometimes that works out well, as with Sewell Ford’s Torchy, and I get a pleasant surprise. Other times not so much.
So: I have no idea what prompted me to download Belles and Ringers, although I’m guessing it was the title. I have no idea who Hawley Smart was, aside from probably being kind of a jerk. He writes like a jerk. I don’t even know when it was written. I’m guessing 1880s-ish; it has that kind of feel.
Basically, this is a book about a house party full of vaguely unlikeable people, most of whom are scheming to make each other uncomfortable in come way. There’s Lady Mary, who wants to marry her daughter Blanche to a young man named Lionel Beauchamp, and also would very much like to thoroughly humiliate anyone who gets in the way of her plans. There’s Pansey Cottrell, the inevitable aging dandy type. I think he just wants to make Lady Mary miserable out of spite, but I’m not entirely sure. The third schemer is Sylla Chipchase, an attractive young woman who just kind of delights in sowing discord, apparently. And not in a fun way. I keep feeling like this book could have been really wonderful if the author liked people at all, but I don’t think he does, and that makes it next to impossible to like his characters.
The house party ends, the partiers go to London, and eventually things are sorted out so that everyone is at peace with each other. But when the characters aren’t hateful, they’re bland, so the happy ending is just sort of dull. The only place where the book really comes to life is in one description of a game of polo.
And yet, I feel kind of bad about how much I disliked this book. I mean, it seems like Hawley Smart thinks Belles and Ringers is full of incisive social commentary, with a side of good old-fashioned romance to make it more fun for everyone. And who am I to say that, in the 1880s or whenever, it wasn’t?
(Hold on. I think it’s time for me to actually look up when this book was published.
Okay. 1881. Proceeding as planned.)
The whole book feels kind of played out to me, but it’s totally possible that in 1881 the cardboard characters were secondary to the excitement of reading about rich, titled people who charter boats for the afternoon and have cigarette cases engraved with Latin mottoes as gifts for casual acquaintances. And that making fun of mothers scheming to find husbands for their daughters wasn’t as completely clichéd as the mothers themselves. And I don’t want to blame Mr. Smart for my inability to place myself in an 1880s sort of mindset.
Fortunately there are a lot of other things I can blame him for.
Bottom line: Don’t read Belles and Ringers. Seriously. After I read it, I found myself getting suspicious of the people around me, wondering what their secret plans were, and whether they were saying things about me behind my back. This book is dangerous.