Sunday, June 3, 2018


The Beginning of Spring
Penelope Fitzgerald
Harper Collins

Ms. Hen bought this book at the library she frequents – the audacity – to buy a book at the library – but it was inexpensive, and she had read another book by this author, so she bought it and read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is a small, charming novel about a British man living in Russia in the pre-World War I era, during the spring of 1913. Frank Reid’s wife has just left him to go back to England, and she put the three children back on the train to Moscow by themselves. Frank is distraught that the children travelled on the train by themselves, and he has to manage them by himself when they get home. Even though he has a house full of servants, he has to find someone to watch the children while he is at work at the printing press he owns.

Strange things happen in this novel. Frank is looking for someone to watch the children when they get out of school, so he asks his neighbor who also has children to look over them. The day they arrive at that house, a baby bear cub is given to the thirteen year old boy as a gift, and the boy gets the bear drunk on vodka, the bear dances around, and then the servant throws hot coals on it, and sets it on fire. Ms. Hen thinks this is one of the most tragically dark humorous scenes she has ever read in a book. It’s disturbing, and even though it’s fiction, she believes that things like this could have happened in Russia at that time, since they were a wild people.

Frank eventually hires Lisa, an employee at a department store, who does not speak English, to watch the children. He falls in love with her, and so do all the other men around her. She is an enigma that Frank cannot comprehend until the end of the novel.

This novel is called THE BEGINNING OF SPRING, and it takes place in a few weeks at the end of Lent in March and April. The novel has a definite odor to it: Frank muses about when the ice melts on the river at a certain time of year, and it's the mark that spring is coming, and it’s his favorite time of year. A chosen day comes when the windows are opened in Moscow and the fresh air gets into the houses. There is also an odor to the people: Ms. Hen could smell the cabbage and the cold coming off them when they enter the house.

It is said in this book that Russia is a place of contradictions, and this novel is a book of contradictions. When Ms. Hen thought one thing would happen, something completely different happened, and nothing seemed to follow a path of certainty. Sometimes life can be full of surprises, and the events in our lives cannot be plotted out, and some things aren’t what they seem. This novel proves that can be true.

There are several hens and chickens mentioned in this novel, which made Ms. Hen happy. The student Volodya breaks into the printing press, and Frank confronts him, and Volodya starts to make a speech, “Then he makes a wide gesture with both arms, as if scattering food for hens.” Ms. Hen thinks this is a colorful way of describing a gesture.

Ms. Hen loved this little book. She read it because it was short, and she wanted to finish something fast, but there is substance to the story about a family and their problems. Even though the author is not Russian, and did not live in Russia during this era, she captured a time and place with certainty and confidence and color. Moscow in 1913 came to life for Ms. Hen, and she lost herself there for a while.

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