Giant’s Bread: “It was New Year’s Eve.”
Main Character: Vernon Deyre
Published: April 1930 (14th published book)
Length: 437 pages
Setting: various: Abbots Puisannts, London, Germany, Holland, Moscow, New York, etc.
My chronological Agatha Christie read continues with Giant’s Bread, her first novel published under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. There is no detective work in this story, as Christie/Westmacott treats her readers to a very modern novel. In any case, it must have been a much needed break from the detective novels Christie was expected to write.
Covering a vast number of characters and spanning a few decades of years, this first contemporary novel written under a pseudonym, proves Christie wanted this genre of her writing judged on its own merits instead of being buoyed up by her previous successes.
Vernon Drywer grows up in Abbots Puissants, an estate in the countryside in England, with a withdrawn father and overdramatic mother who has a tendency to slather him with affection without any sincerity behind it. Jo, his cousin, is part of his childhood, as is Sebastian Levinne, a neighbourhood Jewish boy and Nell Vereker, a thin child who visits occasionally. Another more obscure character is called, “The Beast” which is the terrible feeling that is inspired in Vernon whenever he hears music.
Vernon, Jo and Sebastian remain friends into adulthood when their lives take them to town. Jo has become frantically involved in her “causes”, Sebastian is busy making money in his ventures, and Vernon is slowly discovering that music is part of his soul in spite of the effort he has made to avoid it.
The story progresses as Vernon courts Nell in spite of his attraction to Jane, a sultry singer whose personality is somewhat of an enigma, Sebastian is in love with Jo in spite of her adversion to his business success and therefore him, and Nell cannot decide whether she wants to marry Vernon who, in spite of his country estate, is poor, or George Chetwynd, a wealthy American who though much older, vies for her hand in marriage.
A tapestry of bad choices, unfortunate circumstances, and finally the First World War colour the lives of each character and they navigate them according to their characters and life experiences. Thus follows a number of dramatic occurrences, and improbable situations that drive the story at a breakneck pace. I can’t reveal more without exposing some of the plot cliffhangers that Christie delivers with surprising regularity. Music was the background theme which was woven throughout the narrative and ended with an epistolary burst at the end of the novel, dumping a musical philosophy upon the reader with an unsettling speed. I can’t say the ending of the novel was satisfying but given the whole of the novel, it was perhaps expected.
I was nearly beside myself with happiness and relief when I finished this book and could move on to her next mystery. While I appreciate Christie’s attempt at a modern novel, it’s exactly the type of book that I dislike reading, full of angst and bad choices and characters who one wants to try not to emulate, as they never seem to grow or change. Not to mention the drama; there was entirely too much drama for me. One critic in a 1930 review noted, “Miss Westmacott shows narrative talent; but would presumably be more original if she strained less after originality.” I’m not sure if that would be my conclusion as to the unsettledness of the novel. Reading it felt more like a racing around of occurrences, which perhaps stems from the form Christie was used to when writing detective novels. Overall, I desire more subtlety: instead of a rollercoaster ride where very little is fully examined, I prefer a leisurely cruise down the river to be able to view and enjoy the natural setting.
To give Christie her fair due, there is art and creativity in this novel. Her prologue is sufficiently mysterious and striking to draw you into the story. She portrays different character types and gives the reader a look-in at some of the aspects of WWI through Nell’s job at the hospital. She also examines love and marriage and makes an interesting commentary by juxtaposing a marriage between people for passionate love and a marriage between people who have an affection for each other but also (and perhaps more importantly) like minds who are able to understand and accept one another. Much of her philosophy of music passed by me, perhaps because of the unevenness of its place in the story, but at least it was there and an attempt to explain it made; the Beast is readily understood. I also liked the comparison of people with simpler lives with those who possess wealth and have all their wishes granted, the former being lighter and happier and more contented and the latter facing more challenges and trials and angst. I must say, I did very much enjoy the beginning of the novel describing Vernon’s childhood, but as it progressed it was readily apparent that it just wasn’t the book for me.
I must admit I feel that this review is somewhat disjointed but it follows the flow of Christie’s writing and therefore I feel satisfied. One thing I’m still puzzling over thought is the title. Does anyone know the significance of “Giant’s Bread“?
Now on to the next novel, Christie’s first one starring the beloved old lady, Miss Marple, The Murder at the Vicarage. I’m soooo looking forward to it!