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Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
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Good Behaviour (1981)

by Molly Keane

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I have never quite read a book like Good Behaviour, and I read a lot of novels about life among the upper classes set in various periods in the history of the British Isles. This is a (very black) comedy of manners centering around an impoverished family of Irish gentry set in the interwar period. So far, so familiar.

What is not familiar is the tragic, blindly innocent, overlooked narrator, a fully-realized woman with extremely complex feelings that she isn't able to articulate and doesn't seem quite to understand. In a strange way Aroon reminds me a bit of the (stereotype of the) Millennial Generation: constantly navel-gazing, but without any true self-awareness. Throughout the book, she lies to herself, failing to see what is really going on because the proprieties of "good behavior" have left her sheltered and the coldness of her dysfunctional parents has left her emotionally stunted.

The skill of the book lies in Keane's ability NEVER to tell us what is going on but to allow us to figure it all out. She never strays from seeing things through Aroon's eyes. I mean, a lot of books are written in first person, but they don't always commit the way Keane commits. I was just blown away by how fully some of Keane's simple sentences conjure Aroon, with all her weaknesses and stupidities (and her occasional bursts of cunning), a real live character that you feel you really know. Outstanding. ( )
  sansmerci | Oct 27, 2014 |
bookshelves: booker-longlist, winter-20132014, play-dramatisation, radio-4x, britain-ireland, period-piece, published-1981, lit-richer, classic, families, suicide, filthy-lucre
Recommended for: BBC Radio Listeners
Read from February 06 to 08, 2014

BBC description: Behind the gates of Temple Alice, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family sinks into a state of decaying grace. To Aroon St Charles, the large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy, and love seem locked out by the ritual patterns of good behavior. But crumbling codes of conduct cannot hope to save the members of the St Charles family from their own unruly and inadmissible desires. This elegant and allusive novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, established Molly Keane as the natural successor to Jean Rhys.

I warmed up nicely to the storyline and especially liked the way things were by the end. Lovely, loved, Aroon! ( )
  mimal | Feb 8, 2014 |
For certain families, keeping up appearances in public is of prime importance. The St Charles family is one of these. Daughter Aroon, now the ungainly, unmarried daughter, looks back on her childhood at Temple Alice and how expectations of "good behaviour" ultimately brought unhappiness and even tragedy. Aroon and her brother Hubert grew up in the care of a cool and distant mother and a philandering father. Mummie preferred to look the other way, rather than confront Papa's infidelity. Papa loved his children on one level, but preferred riding, fox-hunting, and women to life at home. When Papa is wounded in the war, his convalescence provides Aroon and Hurbert an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a new level intimacy with their father. Mummie remains aloof, and can't hold back a sadistic glow when she realizes her husband is unable to ride.

As Aroon grows into a young woman, she sets her sights on Hubert's best friend Richard. She wildly misinterprets his behavior towards her, and convinces herself they are lovers. She fails to see what's obvious to the reader: Richard and Hubert are much more than friends. When Richard suddenly goes off to Africa, Aroon continues her delusion, sure he will return for her one day. When a letter finally arrives, she is at first disappointed -- until she finds a way to infuse each paragraph with hidden meaning.

Inevitably, the family's fortunes change. They have lived way beyond their means, with a bad habit of stuffing every bill into a drawer. Their solicitor knows the score and tries to help, but Mummie and Papa are compelled to maintain the illusion of wealth and society, so their irresponsible spending continues unchecked. Even in the most intense and private situations, good behaviour rules:
When the last speechless hand-grip was completed, Papa, Mummie, and I were left in the hall, with empty glasses and the empty plates; funerals are hungry work. We exchanged cool, warning looks -- which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others, the most ordinary in a choice of occupation? (p. 113)

Good Behaviour landed Molly Keane firmly on my favorite authors list. Her characterizations are classic examples of an author showing, not telling. At an early age Richard is "caught" reading poetry in a treehouse. Richard and Hubert go to great lengths to be together alone. Slowly, the reader comes to realize they are gay. It's brilliantly done. She conveys emotion with similar skill. When Aroon goes to a party alone and finds she's been paired with an older, misfit of a man, her pain is palpable. And yet there are also moments of delightful wit, such as Mummie's visit with neighbors, when she finds the primary bathroom already in use. Her host directs her:
'You'll have to try the downstairs. I'll just turn out the cats. They love it on a wet day.' I could imagine them there, crouched between the loo and the croquet mallets and the Wellington boots and the weed killer. (p. 157)

My Virago Modern Classics collection includes several more books by Molly Keane (who also wrote under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell). I can't wait to discover more of her talent. ( )
9 vote lauralkeet | Jan 21, 2012 |
Really good, but also really hard to take in places. ( )
  otterpopmusic | Oct 3, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Molly Keaneprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Keyes, MarianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the distance between us.
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Book description
Behind its rich veneer, the estate of Temple Alice is a crumbling fortress, from which the aristocratic St Charles family keeps the reality of life at bay. Aroon, the unlovely daughter of the house, silently longs for love and approval, which she certainly doesn't receive from her elegant, icy mother. And though her handsome father is fond of her, his passion is for the thrill of the chase -- high-bred ladies and servants are equally fair game. Sinking into a decaying grace, the family's unyielding codes of 'good behaviour' is both their salvation and their downfall. For their reserved façades conceal dark secrets and hushed cruelties . . .
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A comic novel about Anglo-Ireland that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A mistress of wicked comedy, this novel established the author as the natural successor to Jean Rhys.

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