Skip to main content

Review: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Pages: 246

Original date of publication: 1953

My edition: 1991 (Virago)

Why I decided to read: Heard about this while browsing the list of Virago Modern Classics

How I acquired my copy: Ebay seller, July 2010

The Orchid House is the story of three young white women growing up in Dominica, in a house called L’Aromatique, or the Orchid House for its conservatory. The point of view is from their nurse, Lally, who took care of them when they were growing up. Stella, married to a German but living in America, is now a mother; Joan, also a mother, is a political activist; and Natalie is a wealthy widow. The girls have grown up and moved away, but one by one each returns. It’s a novel in which women are the focal point of the story; each of the male main characters is weak, both physically and/or emotionally.

This is a weird one, both in tone and story. As far as plot goes, there’s not much of one; it’s mostly just a flurry of activity as one sister leaves and another one comes. The narrator, Lally, isn’t believable; she’s far more educated than I imagine someone in her position might be, and she has less of a presence in the novel than some of the male characters. She claims that she loves the three girls, but you don’t really get a feel for that in this book. Of the three sisters, Joan and Stella are the more interesting, since their role in the story is much larger than Natalie’s. As far as the tone goes, though, it’s atmospheric and brooding, which I enjoyed; I’ve never been to the West Indies, but I can imagine it very clearly through this book. You get this feeling of being suspended midair while reading this novel, much as the humidity of a summer afternoon hangs in the air. There’s almost a repressive feeling to the tone of this novel sometimes, which works for it in a way.

Nonetheless, this book is important in terms of its place in West Indian literature; apparently, Jean Rhys was influenced by this book in the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care much for The Orchid House.


Popular posts from this blog

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972 Originally published: 1944 My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press) How I acquired my copy:, 2004

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is…

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye

Pages: 667 Original date of publication: 2011 My copy: 2011 (Oxford University Press) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy:, April 2013
This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.
To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about pe…

Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

Pages: 259 Original date of publication: 2013 My copy: 2013 (Penguin) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013
In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.
At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but…