Book Reviews by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
“Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” by Faith Sullivan; Milkweed Editions; October 2015; $26.00; 456 pp.
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was the author of nearly one hundred novels and more than two hundred short stories; he also penned lyrics for musical comedies. Born in the United Kingdom, he is considered to be one of the most widely read and best comic authors of the 20th century, giving readers “Love Among the Chickens,” numerous Jeeves and Bertie Wooster novels, and many others.
Minnesota author Faith Sullivan has been an “ardent fan” of Wodehouse for the past forty years; her new novel “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” has his books playing an important role. As in four of her previous seven novels, this new book is set in the fictional southwestern Minnesota small town of Harvester.
“Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” begins with a prologue, in which Nell Stillman, at age sixty-eight, has written her own obituary, despite her good health. It isn’t published in the Harvester paper until her death more than fifteen years later, but it gives readers an introduction to Nell, a brief snapshot of her life and, most clearly, her love of books.
Nell has had a tough time in her early years; her parents were poor Irish immigrant farmers and, after attending teachers’ college, she has married a crude man who moves the young couple to Harvester, Minnesota, where their son Hilyard is born in 1898. After the sudden death of her husband, Nell is offered a position teaching third grade at the school in Harvester. She hires a young farm girl to look after Hilly while she is teaching. Nell soon forms lasting friendships in Harvester, giving her support while dealing with the challenges of living in a small town as a widow and single parent in the early 1900s. She spends much of her free time reading classics, such as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” borrowing books from friends. In 1909, she finds a copy of Wodehouse’s “Love Among the Chickens” and is instantly captivated by the author: “He was delicious, lighter than air. Generous to a fault. He made her laugh as no man had ever.”
Sullivan takes readers through Nell’s life as she deals with the many trials and changes within her family and social circle. The sinking of the Lusitania, two World Wars, the Great Depression, electricity and telephones, and a love interest all figure in her story. Through all of it, Nell relies on books – especially Wodehouse’s -- to carry her through. Upon her retirement, after 37 years of teaching, she hopes she has left her charges with a love of reading, “one of the few things they could count on in life.”
Excellent writing and a storyline that book lovers’ will relish make “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” a wonderful read. Sullivan’s novels, including “The Cape Ann,” What a Woman Must Do,” “The Empress of One,” and “Gardenias,” contain rich characters and strong women in small town life. In her afterword, Sullivan states that it is a privilege to “celebrate the power of literature to comfort, enlighten, entertain, transform, and, doggone it, make us a lot more fun to be around.” Her latest novel is most definitely a celebration of reading.