The other two Mary Renault books I got from the university library

I am always trying to think of ways to maximize my reading pleasure when an author has written more than one book. Before I realized it was futile because everyone has different tastes, I used to go on Amazon and try to figure out what a shiny new author’s least popular book was, and then I’d read that one first so it would be all improvements from that point on. This did not work at all with, for instance, Salman Rushdie. I accidentally read his most-acclaimed book first, Midnight’s Children, and when (after consulting Amazon) I tried to read what seemed to be his least popular book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I ended up liking it way better than anything else I’ve read by him since. I have since given up this Amazon-reviews scheme. I have y’all now.

Still, when y’all haven’t read the books I want to read, and in fact nobody seems to have read the books I want to read, I find myself trying once more to predict ahead of time what unread books I will like best.

I checked out two of the three new-to-me Mary Renault books, and placed a hold on the third one. I suspected, without any evidence to demonstrate that this would be the case, that I was going to like the third one least. I began Promises of Love and found I wanted to live in it because that’s how hard I love Mary Renault. And then I was all, oo, I should stop reading this, and read one of the other two instead, because Promises of Love is obviously going to be good, and I should save it for last so if the other two disappoint me I will still have this to look forward to.

And then I remembered that the second book I had checked out already, Return to Night, was the one that won a big award, and I thought that one really was likely to be best because it won a prize, and I didn’t want to start with the best one!, so the one I really wanted to start with was the one I didn’t have, Kind Are Her Answers. But I didn’t want to wait, so I read Promises of Love straight away, and then Kind Are Her Answers, and then Return to Night.

I was at least partly right: Kind Are Her Answers was way the worst. It’s about this doctor called Kit who falls out of love with his wife, because she’s useless and manipulative and needy; and he falls in love with the niece of a patient, this flighty actress girl whose only qualities seem to be that she professes wild devotion to Kit and kisses other men out of pity all the time. Kit is crazy about her, probably because she spends every minute of their time together saying the kind of things I remember Richard Yates mocking rather mercilessly at the end of Revolutionary Road. It occurs to Kit that Christie (her name is Christie; yes, they essentially have the same name) might care as little about him as she professes to care about the other men she is always kissing out of pity; but he doesn’t care because she has big eyes and is manic and pixie and dream. I hated her and hoped that she would drown, but she never, ever did. There is also this, like, cult that Kit’s wife joins. I don’t even know.

When I finished this book, my prevailing thought was that Christie was nauseous (please note correct use of that word) and the adorable name Kit was wasted on this book. Mary Renault, may I respectfully inquire what the hell?

Subsequently I read Return to Night. It was better but still not that great. This doctor called Hilary who is thirty-five and rather closed off falls in love with a young patient of hers, Julian. Julian wants to be an actor, but his possessive mother is dead set against it and doesn’t think much of Hilary either. As in Promises of Love, there are some histrionics relating to illegitimacy. I think I was soured on Mary Renault from how awful Kind Are Her Answers was, because I wanted to stab Hilary and Julian in the face as soon as they appeared. It wasn’t really fair. For all I know, Return to Night was secretly wonderful, but Kind Are Her Answers put me off it.

Please do not think I dislike Mary Renault now. I don’t. I love her nearly always. When I was reading these two books, I kept thinking what a shame it was that all this lovely writing and (sometimes) keen insight was being wasted on two rather rubbishy books. I wanted to go home and read The Bull from the Sea and The Praise Singer, and maybe read the Alexander books again.

Other reviews: There are none. Nobody reads these books. In the case of Kind Are Her Answers, I recommend for your own sakes that you keep it that way.

  • I feel like I’ve read something by Mary Renault, but I can’t remember anything about it. Is she, like, 1960s pulp fiction? I’ve read an awful lot of 1960s (and 1950s) pulp fiction that I no longer fully remember.

    It’s also possible that I might have her mixed up with Frank G. Slaughter, who also wrote romances about doctors. Oh, and Biblical stories, and books about intrepid Floridians who fell in love with hot young blonde things who somehow lost most of their clothes to gator attacks (or something similar. You recall that I no longer fully remember?)

    • Nah, she is not pulp fiction at all. She started writing in the 1940s, I believe, and carried on for a number of years–these are some of her early novels. Later in her career she switched to writing historical fiction, and those are very good indeed.

      At first I read “Floridians” as “Florentians” and could not fathom why there would be gators in Florence. That is not how I pictured Florence. :p

  • Yay! I’m a total nauseous/nauseated nazi. I love that you pointed out the correct usage. πŸ™‚

    And I hate trying to figure out which books to read first by an author. That was my Sarah Waters situation recently. I still think I might have set myself up by reading Fingersmith first but I actually think that Affinity will be my favorite so I need to save it for a bit.

    • I always have a little private giggle when people say they are nauseous. I want to say “No you’re not!” but I don’t think they’d get the joke.

      To be fair I have proved quite bad at guessing what books are going to be the best before I read them. With Salman Rushdie, I put The Satanic Verses quite high on my list, and The Moor’s Last Sigh very low, because I thought I would love the latter and hate the former. I loved The Satanic Verses but am still saving The Moor’s Last Sigh–officially as a treat for later, though really because I’m afraid I won’t like it.

  • I’ve read two of her Alexander books and adored them, but I’ve never read her contemporary fiction.

    I try and read in publication order after what happened to me with Neil Gaiman; I adore American Gods and Anansi Boys (they’re my go-to Gaiman recs), but Neverwhere, while quite good, never really did it for me. I think it’s because Neverwhere is his first novel, and American Gods is so brilliant- it’s hard to step backwards and appreciate Neverwhere on its own terms.

    • The third one, I will warn you now, is terrible. I could not believe how boring it was.

      Neverwhere did not do it for me the first time at all, and almost put me off Neil Gaiman for life. But I loved it when I reread it, and I loved it even more when I reread it on the Tube the first time I visited London. So many Tube station jokes I missed when I was reading it the first time.

  • Heh, the first book I read by an author is almost always whichever book I can get my covetous little hands on first. On the rare situations in which I have the option, I’m like Omni and read in publication order, since first books (in my opinion) are more likely to be the weakest.

    Also, I know a couple that’s Erin and Aaron. That would drive me absolutely bonkers.

    • Oh, God, that’s actually worse than Andy and Andrea. You’d never know who you wanted to talk to! I guess when people call they say “boy Aaron” and “girl Aaron.”

      I like the idea of reading in publication order, but I very rarely actually do it. I did for Helen Oyeyemi, and it was cool to see her developing as an author, so maybe I will try to do that more frequently.

  • The only Renault I have read has been The Charioteer, which I liked, but was not crazy about. It sounds like she has some really good stuff out there, and also some stuff that’s better avoided. Thanks for your insight on some of these books!

    • I am sad that almost nobody loves The Charioteer the way that I do. :p Of her really good stuff I would most strongly recommend the Alexander books and The Mask of Apollo. I only read The Mask of Apollo recently, and it might be my present favorite of hers. I love all the ancient Greek acting stuff!

  • Uh, who’s Mary Renault? LOL πŸ™‚ Haven’t read anything of her yet πŸ™‚

    • You should hit it up. She was a gay writer in the mid-twentieth century; she started out writing modern novels, which seem to have gotten progressively more explicit about the queer themes in them. Then she switched to writing historical novels set in ancient Greece, which are great. She did two about Theseus, two about Alexander, and a couple set during Plato-and-Socrates time. The Alexander books are probably the best.

      (Although I like The Charioteer, her last modern novel. It’s very subtexty.)

  • Mumsy

    I am so proud to have a daughter who knows enough not to say she is nauseous when she is merely nauseated.

    After long and careful thought, I think that only MR’s historical novels should EVER be read. I bet she wished these losers had sunk to the bottom of the Dead Sea. Up with The Praise Singer! One of my favorites, tho’ not THE favorite.

    • It’s all down to you, Mumsy. I might never have learned the difference if not for you.

      I like how your long and careful thought does not include actually reading any of the books in question. I didn’t care for most of her modern books, but I enjoyed Promises of Love. And although you did not like The Charioteer, I like it a lot and I shall reread it again when I get home.

      • Mumsy

        Long and careful thought, that is, about your lovely insightful reviews. Are you saying I shouldn’t pay attention to your opinions? Except, of course, for The Charioteer, which you actually liked and I truly did not. I figure, if I don’t even like the one you liked, how would I feel about the ones you didn’t?

        As for nauseated/nauseous, I give Strunk and White the credit.

      • Yeah, but you didn’t say, I shall never read any of her modern novels (though I think you should try The Charioteer again). You said that only her historical novels should ever be read at all. And that is not the same thing.

  • Okay, I will NOT be reading these πŸ˜› But I do hope to read Mary Renault sometime soon.

    • I hope you do! It’s all about the subtext with her, and so she is my friend. πŸ™‚

  • I feel bad when people say they’re nauseous. And when I’m nauseated, I wish I could feel badly.

    Okay, Renault is going on my list of people to get around to reading.

    • Hahaha, I see what you did there! My friend insists that it should always be “feel badly,” and I am intuitively certain she is wrong. But the style manual I consulted said, basically, The debate rages on. :/

      I am glad Renault is going on your list! But, you know, don’t read these ones. Read a good one. It will make you happier.

  • trapunto

    Der Mann recently asked me what names I could think of that are mostly only girls names now, which used to be boys names too. And I totally missed Hilary.

    • What ones did you think of? Jackie maybe? Dana? Aaaand I’m out. :p

      • Mumsy

        Hm. ROBIN!!!!

  • In England we feel sick. It’s so much simpler. Now Mary Renault I have heard of but never read – message received loud and clear. I will stick to her historical fiction! πŸ™‚

    • That is simpler. And a less yucky-looking word. πŸ™‚

      Except The Charioteer, which apart from some alarming hostility towards effeminate dudes is very good indeed. In my opinion. And apparently nobody else’s. :p

  • I haven’t read anything by Mary Renault, but I agree that amazon reviews aren’t always a good indicator of what I’m going to think of a book. I hadn’t thought of leaving the best book by an author for last, but I do sometimes save at least one book unread from authors I really love. I save them for a special occasion or when I’m in a reading slump, then I treat myself to their book. It’s a sad occasion when it’s the last book of an author who is dead though – because then I know that it truly is the last book by them that I will read.

    • I do that too! Or sometimes I save several. I don’t tend to do it with fluffy authors, even if I dearly love them, but usually with more serious writers I’ll save some books for later. Reading the last book they’ve done is both sad and happy–though as you say, sadder when it’s the truly last book ever. πŸ™

  • I know I’ve read a few of her books, but now I can’t recall what they are. The Mask of Apollo? Then I tried Bull from the Sea and just couldn’t get into it, and after that I haven’t approached her again. But I ought to. She’s written such a lot of books there’s bound to be more I’d like!

    • The Bull from the Sea is the second in a series, and it’s not my favorite series. Read Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. She’s very very strong on Alexander the Great (though she has been accused of having a crush on him).

  • Schatzi

    He, she, it is nausized!

  • I have been trying to get her Alexander books for ages…in India she does not seem to be popular at all.

    I never knew she wrote romances as well, these books sound really awful. Your review reminds me of those milky Denise Robbins books that I used to read as a teenager. Uggh!

    • They aren’t exactly romances. They’re too depressing to be romances. They are more just…Novels. With a capital N. And they happen to have (weird, dysfunctional) romances in them. :/

  • I thought Mary Renault wrote historical novels set in Ancient Greece. I didn’t know that she wrote other kinds of stories too. I just checked in Wikipedia and discovered that ‘Promises of Love’ is her first book – it is amazing that her first book itself made an impact (from what I felt after reading your thoughts on it). Sorry to know that you didn’t like the other two books of hers. I loved your last line – “Nobody reads these books. In the case of Kind Are Her Answers, I recommend for your own sakes that you keep it that way.” πŸ™‚ I hope to read Mary Renault’s Ancient Greece novels some day. I will also probably try reading ‘Promises of Love’.

  • Puddingpie

    I misread “Hilary” as “Hilarity.” Yeaaah… that’s even weirder a name to give to a male protagonist than “Kit.” I have no intention of reading her contemporary novels. Her historical fiction is amazing, though. I’m working through “Last of the Wine” though. I’m a little dismayed now that I’ve found out “The Charioteer” is a depressing WWII gay romangst novel, and not about an *actual* charioteer.

    The order in which I read her books was completely accidental and botched, but worked out uncannily well. I discovered Renault in high school with “Funeral Games.” I then read “The Nature of Alexander,” because it was the only other book of hers in the library, then “Persian Boy” which I had to order from a different library, THEN “Fire from Heaven.” In retrospect I read the Alexander series completely backwards. But it actually made for a pretty cool effect, in that I started with his legacy, then met the man himself, and finally learned what made him.

    It’s like when you hear everyone around you humming fragments of a song you’ve never heard. Or relatives telling stories about a grandparent you’ve never met. When you finally encounter the real thing, it’s so much fuller and richer than you could have ever imagined.

    • The Charioteer is really, really, really good. Not depressing! Or anyway I didn’t think it was depressing. It’s about a metaphorical charioteer.

  • I really liked The Charioteer–not totally depressing, although it does deal with queeny men rather harshly, and it definitely puts stoicism on a pedestal (which is the case with all her good gay male love relationships, actually). And it does end tragically. (No spoilers, LOL.) The repartΓ©e in some of the social party scenes was roll-on-the-floor, Importance-of-Being-Earnest hilarious.

    I think the best of the romances that I’ve read so far was Middle Mist (aka The Friendly Young Ladies). Leo, one of the heroines (and much better than the sappy Ellie, her sister and the beginning heroine who is nauseous–truly), is awesome and is in a kind of open-ended relationship with another awesome woman, and they both have their own careers. The ending is tragic, but only because Leo’s gonna toss all that to the wind & go off with… well, you gotta read it!

    I did think that Kind Were Her Answers was sort of awful, along the lines specified; so don’t give up on the modern novels until you at least read Middle Mist and Charioteer, is my advice! πŸ™‚

    • Don’t worry, I have never given up on the modern novels. I didn’t love Middle Mist, but I absolutely adore The Charioteer. The Charioteer is the one of Mary Renault’s modern novels that is in my permanent rereading rotation. I’ve reread it a dozen times since the first time. You thought it ended tragically? I thought it ended — not WELL, but medium well. Well with compromises.

  • Let’s pretend for a moment that a screenplay of ‘The Charioteer’ exists and that money is available for production. Let’s cast the movie, shall we?

    Laurie ODell –
    Ralph Lanyon –
    Andrew Raynes –
    Mrs. Odell – (Lindsay Duncan) –
    Reg Barker –
    Alec Deacon –
    Sandy Reid –
    Bunny
    Dave the Quaker CO orderlies Supervisor –
    Nurse Adrian –
    Derek the Quaker CO orderly –
    Charlot the French soldier
    Willis the Missing Link –
    Mrs Chivers – (Imelda Staunton)
    Major Ferguson –
    Neames –
    Mr. Straike –
    Night Sister –
    Nurse Sims –
    Bim Taylor –
    Miss Haliburton the physiotherapist

    I only have two actors in mind for two female roles right now, so I need help from other fans of the book.ο»Ώ