I’ll say one thing about Sarah Haywood, she is nothing if not self-aware. In The Cactus, her main character, Susan, has lent a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her neighbor Kate. “I quite liked it,” Kate says to Susan as she returns the novel, “but I didn’t get Miss Brodie. She didn’t seem very likable. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t warm to the main character.”
“I disagree,” Susan responds. “I’d rather read about someone interesting than someone who’s just nice.”
That passage is definitely delivered with a wink on the part of the author, because Susan could certainly be considered an unsympathetic heroine. As the title suggests, she cultivates cacti, which are prickly, just like her—again, very on the nose. But I really enjoyed The Cactus, which does a superb job of gradually rolling out Susan’s backstory and giving some insight as to why she became the way she is: an extremely self-contained control freak, the very definition of that British expression, “she keeps herself to herself.”
Susan, a Londoner in her mid-40s, has led a very well-ordered life, avoiding other people as much as possible. She’s the kind of person who is super-competent at her job but never wants to socialize with her co-workers, or even spare a couple minutes for a chat. Naturally, she avoids romantic entanglements, too, though for 12 years, she’s enjoyed a no-strings-attached relationship with a writer named Richard, whom she meets every Wednesday for an evening at the theater or the opera followed by a sexual encounter. It’s a satisfying arrangement, until one fateful day when Susan discovers that she’s pregnant. (“I’d always assumed that barriers methods were foolproof, but I’ve learned to my cost that they aren’t.”)
Susan decides to have the baby, which, of course, changes her life in a myriad of ways. As the book progresses, she is forced to renegotiate her relationships with a multitude of people, including her brother, Edward, with whom she has had an increasingly fraught relationship ever since their mother died and left him the family home. Susan vows to challenge her mother’s will, causing an even greater rift between the siblings. Despite that complication, her world starts to expand little by little, preparing her for the chaos that is destined to descend on the day she finally meets the most unpredictable person of all: her own child.
Was there ever a more glamorous era than New York City in the pre-war 1940s? Elizabeth Gilbert takes readers back to that heady time in City of Girls, a book that starts out as light and fizzy as a champagne cocktail but gradually becomes darker and more poignant. Vivian Morris, freshly dismissed from Vassar (“on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams”), is sent by her disappointed parents to spend the summer with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater called the Lily Playhouse, which serves its working-class audience by presenting escapist fare featuring corny jokes and glamorous showgirls. Vivian, thanks to her talent for sewing, soon becomes a crucial part of the Lily Playhouse ecosystem, but everything changes—and not always for the better—when the theater actually manages to score a massive hit show, “City of Girls.”
The novel’s first-person narrative is by a much-older Vivian, looking back at her life and addressing a younger woman named Angela. What is their relationship? That isn’t revealed until much later in the book, but along the way, it’s such a delight to just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the pleasure of spending a few hours in a long-ago world of Manhattan showbiz.