I discovered Monica Dickens over a decade ago because of the Persephone reissue of Mariana which I liked well enough that she became one of those authors I buy whenever I find her titles. Having written about 30 novels for adults, her books are somewhat easy to find in secondhand shops. I found this one several years ago at The Strand in New York City for $2 on one of the carts outside along East 12th Street. The old Book Club edition I found had no cover, so I really had no idea what I might find in the middle–this one didn’t even have a copyright date. When I’m hunting for used books in bargain bins (remember that in the Before Times?) I rarely Google anything. I’m always too worried people are taking books that should rightly be mine. I’ve developed a very quick scanning method where I run my hand over each spine (remember touching things in public?) to make sure my eyes stay focused on one row so I don’t get distracted and miss something along the way.
Of course collecting an author’s catalog without discernment means that books can sit on the TBR for many years before I crack them open. Especially those without any sort of identifying blurb on the outside. Such was the case with No More Meadows until a few nights ago when I was in my library trying to figure out what to read next.
Covid has shifted my interests even more towards dusty old books and away from anything new. Regular readers of Hogglestock will wonder how that could be possible, but it is. Just like I spent the first eight months of lockdown feeling like every day was a snow day or a holiday, making and eating every kind of comfort food I could think of, I have doubled down on my propensity for fiction I am fairly confident I can count on. Which for me, means something with a bit of age. I’ve realized that my thirst for descriptions of times gone by has morphed into a quest for reading that has no relationship with the 21st Century. What a shitty century it has been.
And with that, No More Meadows could not have been more perfect. I mean, it’s early 1950s and Christine works in the book section of a London department store. For those of us who can barely remember a time (especially in the US) when department stores sold books, imagine a time when they did and were actually staffed by five or so employees at a given time. I mean it feels one step away from brown paper packages tied up with string. Add a quirky father, three dogs, and a feisty, supportive, spinster aunt and things really start to fall into place.
As soon as Vinson, the uniformed U.S. Navy officer chats her up in a park you kind of know where this book is headed. As much as I wanted her to stay in London for my reading pleasure, Christine’s move to the U.S. becomes fascinating in its own way. Through Christine’s British eyes, Dickens describes America in the 1950s with anthropological detail that would have set off fact-checker alarms had it not been a contemporary account. Studying a period photograph can illuminate how people lived in a given time but still leave us wondering how people actually moved through, and interacted with those spaces. I’m constantly wanting to time travel (always backwards) to see how people really lived during various periods. Here Dickens does it brilliantly and in great service to the plot.
What made this trip back to the 1950s even more satisfying for me was that Christine’s life in the U.S. takes place in and around Washington DC. I often think about how this city functioned during different periods. I’m not talking official Washington–although we do get a look inside the social milieu of an aspiring naval officer–but how one actually existed in three dimensions. Descriptive fodder for the the historian/urban planner me who looks at the built environment and how people managed “back in the day”. And unlike some more recent novels set in DC, none of the place names or local detail come off as fake or name droppy. It really is a wonderful description for the historical record.
But this is fiction after all, once you pull the historical details out what’s left? Quite a lot. An exploration of relationship dynamics, families, and personal fulfillment. It would definitely stand on its own without my fascination for period detail, but the detail is part of the story. Enforced conformity, suburban ennui, hopelessness, fear, it’s all baked in.