I never thought I’d say this, but I miss long books. Huge, overwhelming novels I can fling myself into, emerging from between the covers a month or so later with messy hair and wild eyes.
My hectic one-book-per-week schedule for Book to the Future means that I have to restrict myself to reading reasonably short novels. There are several books I’ve been desperate to tackle, but I’ve had to avoid for now because I know there’s no way I could manage them in just a week. I am a slow, sloooow reader.
But oh, how I long to return to the chunksters.
However. Restricting myself to reading short novels has unexpectedly taught me so much about the way they work. Although I miss my huge novels, I have much to say in praise of the novella…
Up at the Villa
by W. Somerset Maugham
Published in 1941
There’s a peculiar kind of alchemy to the successful novella. It takes a certain craftsmanship to condense a rich story into the confines of, say, fewer than two hundred pages. It seems physically impossible, for instance, that Fitzgerald managed to squish The Great Gatsby into the space of a mere 170 pages. When I finished Gatsby, I found myself looking at the spine of my Popular Penguins edition in a state of awed disbelief. It defies the laws of physics.
The short novel is an art form all of its own. I’ve been lucky to encounter some particularly fine examples. I’m sad to say that W. Somerset Maugham’s 1941 novella, Up at the Villa is not one of them. I found no magic in these mere one hundred and twenty pages. Rather, this novel feels uncertain and unsatisfying. Although Maugham’s story is enjoyable in parts – but unfortunately rather forgettable.
When Mary Panton finds herself a widow at only thirty, she flees to a borrowed villa in the hills of Florence to gather the remnants of her life together.
Although her marriage was never happy, Mary doesn’t feel free. She ponders her future with a grim sense of boredom. Mary expects her friend, Edgar, will propose marriage any day now. It’s hardly a prospect she relishes. Although Edgar has loved Mary since she was a teenager, he’s much older than Mary. While Mary remains young and attractive, Edgar is a middle-aged man.
At a party, Mary meets Englishman, Rowley Flint; known for his bad reputation. Distressed over Edgar’s overbearing attention, Mary flirts outrageously with Flint, telling him far too much about her life. When Rowley proposes to her, Mary refuses, all but laughing in his face.
The love triangle is complicated even further when Mary meets a boy in a restaurant. Young, attractive and innocent, Karl worships Mary as a goddess.
Bored with everything, Mary makes a spontaneous decision which leads to a sudden act of violence that alters the trajectory of Mary’s life forever.
Up at the Villa has a point to make, but doesn’t make it particularly well. While Mary is free for the first time in her life, she is still bound by the manner in which society expects her to behave. She is expected to marry Edgar, even though she feels nothing for him. I can appreciate all that. However, Maugham doesn’t seem to commit himself to Up at the Villa. To me, the whole thing feels a little distant. Half-hearted, even. I couldn’t convince myself to sympathise with Mary – or feel anything for her, really. This is a problem, because she’s really the only character Maugham spends time developing.
Which brings me to another problem. Mary’s character is established with the help of a giant block of exposition that feels a little forced. Rather than showing us Mary’s unhappy marriage, Maugham forces her to sit down and tell her life story to another character. It sounds like a lecture. I’d have much preferred a little more subtlety.
Maugham’s rapid-fire, no-nonsense sentences reminded me a little of the way Hemingway writes. But the comparison isn’t a favourable one. While Hemingway uses his words sparingly, yet with spectacular grace, Maugham moves from dialogue to action with little room in between for the reader to pause, reflect and enjoy. There are few moments of rest.
But Up at the Villa is successful on one front: it is suspenseful. From the beginning of the book, we just know something dramatic is going to happen – it’s just a matter of when. Maugham does quite a good job at building the novel’s suspense. Once the novel reaches its climax, just try and stop reading. You’ll read the last half of Up at the Villa quite quickly. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling the novel for you.
I won’t talk about the ending, other than to say that I was left feeling dissatisfied. There’s a certain moral cloud that hangs over the novella’s final pages. To me, it felt awkward. Even objectionable.
There’s not much to Up at the Villa, unfortunately. While many of my favourite novellas give the sense of a much larger novel lurking beneath the surface, Up at the Villa actually feels like a very short novel. Yes, I appreciated the suspense, the drama of Up at the Villa. But in the end, I found this short novel left me feeling – well, short-changed.
I am disappointed, but not disheartened. I shall persist with Maugham. I’ve heard only good things about his works. Perhaps I just chose the wrong place to begin?
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
If you ask me, no. If you’re looking for a quick, suspenseful novel you can knock over in the one sitting, you might enjoy Up at the Villa. But there are so many other amazing short novels you could read…
In a word: