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Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Doubleday, £14.99)
It is 1928 and former suffragette Mattie lives in Hampstead with her friend, Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.
Mattie is 58, unmarried, writes a column for the Hampstead & Highgate Express and gives lectures on her days of political campaigning to halls of disengaged audiences.
She interferes unashamedly in other people’s business and is forthright, fearless and unconventional – when her handbag is stolen she hurls a miniature bottle of whiskey at the thief.
Then Mattie bumps into an old friend and former suffragette who is now, with her husband, running a fascist-leaning organisation for young people.
It makes Mattie realise she misses her campaigning days, so she sets up a feminist group for teenage girls who meet on the Heath for exercise, debate and political education.
We meet a rich and varied cast of characters across the social divide as Mattie endeavours to educate and empower her attendees. Mattie is a vibrant, formidable creation, beautifully drawn and fully realised by Lissa Evans. Headstrong and yet subtly vulnerable, she is a woman who, like so many of her generation, is clever and sharp yet lacks an outlet for her talents. The novel is joyously funny and the author has a fine eye for the comedic in everyday life.
But there is also much poignancy and social commentary.
Old Baggage is a gloriously entertaining and deeply moving novel about what courageous women do when society does not afford them a role and how one’s purpose in life can be found in the most unexpected places.
Love & Ruin by Paula McLain (Fleet, £14.99)
Paula McLain has a rare gift for bringing history alive.
The Paris Wife transported us to the champagne sparkle of the French capital at the height of its irresistible jazz-age glamour as she charted the whirlwind romance of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson.
Paula McLain confidently blends meticulously researched fact with fiction once more in Love & Ruin, taking up the story of Hemingway as he encounters the fiercely independent Martha Gellhorn.
This novel’s sweep is much broader as their stormy, tragic relationship plays out around a warring world, stretching from the ruined streets of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War to the opium dens of Hong Kong and the blood-soaked Omaha Beach at the time of the Normandy landings.
Recounting true events seen through the eyes of real people, including Ingrid Bergman and Eleanor Roosevelt, the novel never loses sight of the tangled emotional lives of Hemingway and the ambitious Gellhorn.
Both were talented writers and flawed individuals with a swashbuckling hunger for experience and an appetite for danger that seemed to make them a perfect match.
Gellhorn was at the beginning of her lengthy career as a distinguished war reporter and novelist when she met the author, a married man and father of three.
The novel captures the electric intensity of their attraction and her struggle to avoid becoming lost in the long shadows of Hemingway’s fame and volatile personality.
It often feels like a losing battle. Fast paced and compelling, this is a novel that screams out to be filmed, the bantering insolent dialogue and the sparring partner protagonists reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the film of To Have And Have Not.
A complex heartbreaker of a love story that makes for an enthralling read.
House Of Gold by Natasha Solomons (Hutchinson, £12.99)
Greta is unhappy.
She is a member of the Jewish Goldbaum clan, an international banking dynasty whose wealth, influence and power extends across Europe.
So her family has very definite ideas on whom she should wed – and they choose a fellow Goldbaum she has never met. Greta, rebellious, impulsive and strong-minded, is aghast at the prospect of marrying boring Albert whose “manners were as meticulous as his person”.
She tries “to imagine what it must be like to be an ordinary person and not a Goldbaum, and to be able to choose: a woman free to select her own husband; a man free to decide his own vocation”.
Greta’s brother Otto is similarly restricted, expected to become a banker when he longs to be an astronomer.
Natasha Solomons brilliantly sets the scene. The Goldbaums live a gilded life but a caged and claustrophobic one too.
It is a far cry from the world of Karl, a sewer rat who searches the tunnel beneath the Goldbaums’ Viennese mansion for lost or discarded coins, bones and assorted rubbish to sell. His life will become entwined with Otto’s as the world heads inexorably towards war.
The author follows Greta as she attempts to work out how to navigate her marriage.
It is a tricky task.
Greta is impassioned and emotional whereas Albert, a collector of butterflies and beetles, has very precise ideas about the role of women in relationships. Greta, on the advice of her mother-in-law, turns her attention to plants and begins to build “a garden of defiance” – wild, unruly and unregimented, a haven from emotional upheaval as war and loss make their mark on the family.
House Of Gold is a compelling read and full of lavish detail but undercut by the realities of war and what it means to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic world.