I've read quite a few wonderful Persephone books over the past couple of years, but I've just finished what might be my favorite--Mariana by Monica Dickens, granddaughter of Charles Dickens.
Mariana is the coming of age story of Mary Shannon, an English girl who grows up in a state of shabby gentility during the inter-war years. She spends summer vacations at the country home of her dead father's family, who own a successful London restaurant and move in somewhat high society circles. During the school year, she lives with her mother, a dressmaker, and her maternal uncle, an actor of variable success, in a modest flat in the city.
The light, funny depiction of Mary's childhood and young adulthood is framed in a more poignant, serious way. As the novel opens, Mary and her dog are spending a stormy night alone in a rural cottage. Mary's husband is off serving in the Navy. Hearing dire radio reports about the ship he's stationed on, Mary spends a sleepless night dreading the bad news that she knows will come her way in the morning. To distract herself, she reminisces about key moments in her life, mostly marked by various misguided decisions or beliefs. We see her romping around her family's beloved country house, pining away for her older cousin Denys. In her later teenage years, we witness her miserable acting attempts during a stint at a dramatic college. And as a young woman, we watch her get swept up in Parisian life and narrowly escape a marriage to a charmingly irritating Frenchman.
It's obvious that Dickens has a great affection for her characters, and appreciates the momentous importance small or even silly moments have in their lives. Yet she doesn't idealize her characters too much, vividly detailing all of their flaws. Mary isn't excluded from this treatment. Her shortcomings run the gamut from a stubborn streak that causes her to cling to bad situations long after they're doomed to a sensitive stomach that, in one of the sweetest scenes in the novel, leads her to meet her eventual husband, Sam. The mistakes and minor embarrassments that plague Mary throughout her life make her all the more relateable and likable for us as readers, and keep this sentimental story from veering into saccharine territory.
Simply put, I think Mariana is coziness in book form. I've been remembering it with a smile ever since I finished it. Definitely worth bumping up to the top of your Persephone reading list.
And if you are already a Persephone fan- which book of theirs is your favorite so far?