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Celia by Emily Hilda Young

Celia (1937)

by Emily Hilda Young

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This novel is a story of domestic simplicity that explores the intricate exchanges of relationships in quiet and mundane family settings. Celia is the protagonist, a middle aged woman with two children, married to a man she doesn't love. She married Gerald just before he shipped off to war, and did so out of sympathy and pity rather than passion. Her emotional disconnect is revealed at the start of the book.

Celia still lives in the town where she grew up, along with her brother and sister. May, her sister, married a childhood friend. They also have two children. Celia feels much closer to her brother-in-law, a lawyer with a quick wit. As for Celia's brother, John, he married the pretty and perfect Julia, a woman who glories in her role as mother and wife. The whole family considers Celia good-natured but dim-witted, all except Stephen, who sees the intelligence behind the languid nature and droopy eyes. Celia is content to foster this illusion, as it spares her from being unnecessarily involved.

As the story progresses, all three marriages encounter rough patches that reveal some of the darker secrets hidden within. Stephen takes an unexpected holiday that is completely out of character, and he doesn't tell May or their two daughters where he is headed. Julia decides she must take a stand against John for the sake of her oldest son, Richard, but when she does, John unexpectedly comes around and offers the boy what he wants, leaving Julia in the cold. Celia becomes an unexpected source of advice and support for both May and Julia, and even has her moment with John. Although all the situations are resolved - Stephen returns from his holiday, and John and Julia eventually reconcile - Celia and the reader have learned that these marriages have serious flaws. Stephen admits to Celia that he left to meet Hester, Celia's only other sibling who refuses to live near John and be under his thumb. Stephen and Hester discovered they were in love after he had already married May, but it was too late then and it is too late now. They go their separate ways after spending one afternoon together. John and Julia see their true nature for the first time, the ones beneath their habitual masks, but they can't accept that reality and retreat into their illusions. The couples will keep trecking along, and try to bury these inconvenient moments without dwelling on them.

Then there is Celia and her husband. She may have a great deal of intuitive wisdom about others and herself, but that does not help her to establish domestic bliss with Gerald. She doesn't love him, scorns his work as an architect but tries to hide it, and can't stand having sex with him. While Gerald was away during the war, Celia fell in love with another man, the brother of her best friend. They never consummated their love, but she has kept it alive all these years in memories and fantasies. When her love falls ill, and is thrust into her life more than he has been for years, she is faced with the horrible possibility that the love has been one-sided for many years. As her illusions are crumbling around her she also discovers new things about Gerald, and learns that her estimation of him may have been wrong all these years as well.

While a novel can be character driven and still captivate with its literary prowess, I found this one to be underwhelming. The characterization is wonderful, but it wasn't enough. The writing doesn't have the artistry to carry off a story that is so introspective. Honestly, I crawled through the reading, and was sometimes bored. It also didn't help that I gradually began to dislike Celia. By the end, I had more sympathy for Gerald. On the positive side, the book did have its moments where the suspense and action picked up and I was pulled in for a few chapters. The author superbly handled the nuanced multiplicity of relationships, and also let the reader infer information without being heavy handed. The writing is good and clean, if not masterful. Celia is a fine little story, but not one that inspires me to find more by this author. ( )
  nmhale | Jul 26, 2015 |
I have been avoiding writing a review of this novel because my take on it keeps changing. The book is like an onion. You keep peeling away at it and when you come to the center you find, not an onion, but a strawberry. (Bad analogy, but the best I can think of).

CELIA is the story of three marriages, none of which is a good marriage or a bad marriage, just middle-class people living out their lives in the 1930's. Celia is married to Gerald Marston, an indifferent architect who designs tacky little houses and doesn't make much money doing it. They married at the beginning of WWI, glassy-eyed with patriotism when couples wed because the boys were going off to war and it might be the only chance they had for happiness. Unfortunately, for Celia and Gerald, when he comes home they find they have nothing in common, except two wonderful children.

While Gerald was away, Celia had found her soul-mate in the brother of her best friend. He, too, was a soldier and he spent months recuperating from a leg amputation at his sister's home. Although their affair was not sexual, she knows that she could never love another man and for twenty years she has lived with the memory of their love. In her rather ugly flat (converted without grace by Gerald from a larger, private home) she becomes lost in her thoughts and often will mutter what she is thinking aloud, much to the chagrin or amusement of her husband and children. She escapes to her perfect little sitting room, just the right size for herself, and cherishes her memories of the beloved man who now lives a solitary and lonely life abroad,

The second marriage is Celia's brother's. John married a much younger woman, Julia, whose purpose in life is to be the "perfect" mother and best friend to her six children. She appears not more than a child herself, despite having a teen-aged son. She twists her husband around her finger with the ability to weep beautifully when she wants something or when she is chided for doing something inappropriate. In reality, she has a hard core, knows what she wants and uses her wiles to get it. Her chief delight is being the bearer of bad news and then helping the afflicted person to cope.

The third marriage is Celia's sister May and her husband Stephen. May is "stupid", but with the natural ability to create a beautiful environment around her. Stephen is a solicitor who has loved someone else from before he was married. The crisis in the novel is precipitated when he, on the spur of the moment, decides to take a trip without his wife.

This family is close and the women are constantly visiting each other. Their children drop in to Celia's house for her sympathetic ear because Celia has a way of helping the younger generation understand the painful process of growing up. She is the perfect mother and aunt who gives wise counsel, maybe because she is so divorced from her own life that she can manage to view young love objectively.

How these three couples work out their relationships and face their futures is the story in this book.

As I was reading, I bemoaned the situations of these three women. Celia cannot be with the man she loves, cannot stand her husband in bed, and is disappointed in his career of designing those unlovely houses. May is unimaginative, even though she has the gift of making everything around her beautiful; she runs a smooth house and bores her husband. Julia is a manipulator and cannot admit that she is an adult; she tries to be the child wife she thinks her husband wants.

BUT, after mulling the book for two weeks, I believe that Young had much more to discuss than the ennui of these marriages. Are these women victims of their social class or are they victims of their own ideas of themselves? Are the men keeping their wives in their place or just trying to do the best they can with what they can to make a home? Is everyone discontented because they talk to each other, but don't communicate with each other? . Should the ideals and dreams of youth be kept as a sacred flame or doused in the practicalities of life?

This is an inadequate review of a wonderful book. Each reader must decide if these characters are shallow or deep or just six people doing the best they can. ( )
3 vote Liz1564 | Nov 8, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Emily Hilda Youngprimary authorall editionscalculated
Knight, LynnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Celia Marston was standing on a wooden stoool and looking out of the high-set window.
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At forty-five, Celia is tired of the marital bed, tired too of the scrimping and saving to bring up a family, and contemptuous of the unimaginative houses her architect husband designs. Years ago she fell in love with someone else. This memory sustains her and, keeping her own counsel, Celia stands aside while her relatives - themselves caught in ill-suited marriages - scurry from one house to the next, preying on one another's misdemeanours. For all of them, domestic stability is a tenuous and fragile thing, and infidelities of the heart can be as destructive as those of the flesh.
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