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Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham
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Up at the Villa (1941)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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A thoughtless choice triggers a tragic chain of events, unexpected insights, and steps into an unpromising future. Well-written; rings true; emotionally heavy. ( )
  slaterfamily | Jun 14, 2014 |
Well, that turned into more of an adventure than it looked like at first. (It's not just a society romance; there's a fair bt of adrenaline.) And it really did take less than an hour and a half to read - shouldn't have been fooled by the page count of 209. (This was another of the books I'd left unfinished earlier this year, which I'm trying to work through before the end of 2013.)

Another independent female character from later Maugham, flirting with unrespectability with the support of the narrator. And set at that curious point in twentieth century history where women could have a fair amount of adventure by themselves, yet reputation and who one married still mattered quite a bit. (Though, to be fair it would probably always be some cause for scandal if a high ranking government official's partner was mixed up in a suspicious death.

Also, an odd parallel with a book I read a few days ago, both novellas about glamorous Englishwomen in Italy: man commits suicide with an intent that's to one extent or another malicious, and a potential threat to her reputation.

Wonder to what extent Maugham based caddish Rowley on himself.

This was basically a throwaway bit of fun; Maugham is a very easy read, that clean style yet always with a couple of errors that stop him seeming too high-falutin. Classic popular fiction is what you'd have to call it, I guess. ( )
  antonomasia | Nov 18, 2013 |
W. Somerset Maugham was a master of the novel as well as the short story, and here he manages to cover the elusive middle ground. This is a very short novel, weighing in at a scant 209 Harry Potter-formatted* pages, and it reads like one. Not that that's a bad thing! Where other Maugham classics like Of Human Bondage develop slowly, refusing to be rushed, this book moves at a ripping pace.

Most of Maugham's formidable strengths are here, fully realized: an ear for authentic, snappy, gently funny dialogue; vivid powers of description; and above all, wonderfully believable characters. I think Somerset Maugham wrote female characters better than any male writer who came before him, not to mention many females who came before him and most males who came after. In addition, much like The Razor's Edge, Up At the Villa manages to poke a sardonic, yet affectionate finger at upper-class society. I think Maugham was the perfect author to chronicle the long, slow final decline of the British Empire.

All in all, this was a surprising, exhilarating, and very fun little book that I read in about three hours, and I highly recommend you do the same. It's an easy, worthy introduction to Maugham, or an excellent addition for someone who's already read one or all of his big three (Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, and The Moon and Sixpence.)


* Huge typeface, huge margins, huge line spacing. ( )
1 vote benjamin.duffy | Jul 28, 2013 |
I remember being in a café with a friend once when a guy walked in who obviously had some kind of mild disability to do with his legs – he hobbled over to a table and sat down heavily, and then looked around him at the greasy spoon with an air of deep depression. Amy stared at him and sighed and said, ‘I wish I was really really pretty so I could be a little moment of happiness in his day.’ I remember being surprised, because it sounded, somehow, like something a female character would say in a book written by a male author, rather than in real life.

This sort of cool assessment of how the other sex might see you is quite hard for anyone to pull off; and also, men and women experience it very differently. Hence you often hear men (Kingsley Amis among others) complaining that they can't understand why women find it so offensive to be seen as a sex object when they'd love to be seen that way – apparently not grasping the possibility that it's a lot easier to enjoy some well-intentioned sexual objectification if you're not being subjected to it 24/7 by society at large.

I am thinking about all this because Up at the Villa involves a character who has a similar impulse of – well, call it generosity or condescension, depending on your mood – concerning her own attractiveness, and which proves pivotal to the plot. She's a young window, who's just had two proposals of marriage, and doesn't feel particularly inspired by either of them. But it's made her very aware that she has something men want.

‘I should be a fool if I didn't know I was prettier than most women. It's true that sometimes I felt that I had something to give that might mean a great deal to the person I gave it to. Does that sound frightfully conceited? […] My poor Rowley, you're the last man I would ever have had an affair with. But I've sometimes thought that if I ever ran across someone who was poor, alone and unhappy, who'd never had any pleasure in life, who'd never known any of the good things money can buy – and if I could give him a unique experience, an hour of absolute happiness, something that he'd never dreamt of and that would never be repeated, then I'd give him gladly everything I had to give.’

If you're objecting that this sounds unworkable, or patronising, or that sex should be a mutual experience rather than something ‘given’ by a woman to a man, then this slim novella may well be for you, because it explores the possible consequences of this attitude in detail – not without a considerable touch of melodrama, but nonetheless in a way that raises some interesting issues.

The setting is the hills around Florence, sparsely but nicely described, and the period is apparently just before the Second World War, or possibly sometime near the beginning of it. The war itself is never mentioned, but the setting must be after 1938 because one character has fled Austria after the Nazi invasion, two of his friends having been shot in the process. (‘It all sounds rather horrible,’ comments our heroine…um, well yes, Mary, I suppose that's one way to describe the Anschluß, yes, ‘rather horrible’.)

Sexual politics among wealthy Brits abroad might sound like the height of inconsequential bullshit, but although this is a little heavy-handed in parts, I thought it was enjoyable. It's slight enough that you can bomb through the whole thing in a ninety-minute train journey – from King's Cross to Lincoln Central, say, including a change at Newark – and it makes me interested to read some of Maugham's better-known works. ( )
1 vote Widsith | May 29, 2013 |
A pleasing - if slight - tale. This is the fourth book I have read by W. Somerset Maugham, and follows Of Human Bondage, Ashenden and Christmas Holiday which were all excellent. I am now intent on reading all his works.

This is a long short story, or a short novel, and I read it in less than a day, and really enjoyed it.

The other books I have read by W. Somerset Maugham were, to one degree or another, autobiographical. I doubt this contains any biography - although the location (Florence and the surrounding countryside) are doubtless drawn from first-hand experience.

The story manages to touch on love, tragedy, violence, loyalty, career, responsibility, politics, and refugees. W. Somerset Maugham manages to pack a lot of plot into just 120 pages. ( )
  nigeyb | Apr 23, 2013 |
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The village stood on the top of a hill.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375724621, Paperback)

Now a major motion picture from USA Films starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn, and director Philip Haas (director of Angels and Insects).


In Up at the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham portrays a wealthy young English woman who finds herself confronted rather brutally by the repercussions of whimsy.

On the day her older and prosperous friend asks her to marry him, Mary Leonard demurs and decides to postpone her reply a few days.  But driving into the hills above Florence alone that evening, Mary offers a ride to a handsome stranger.  And suddenly, her life is utterly, irrevocably altered.

For this stranger is a refugee of war, and he harbors more than one form of passion.  Before morning, Mary will witness bloodshed, she will be forced to seek advice and assistance from an unsavory man, and she will have to face the truth about her own yearnings.  Erotic, haunting, and maddeningly suspenseful, Up at the Villa is a masterful tale of temptation and the capricious nature of fate.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:36 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A wealthy young Englishwoman who finds herself confronted rather brutally by the repercussions of whimsy.

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