Exit stage left


I don't know if this happens to other book-lovers, but I often find that one book will trigger thoughts of reading others, until you end up with a line of vaguely related books. This has certainly been true recently with Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth which led on to other tales of the "superfluous women" left behind by the First World War, first in Dodie Smith's theatrical novel The town in bloom, and then with my current (re-)read Strong Poison. (I'm not going to review Strong poison having previously reviewed it on Bookhound, but you can find out what I thought about it here.)

I'm a huge fan of Dodie Smith. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of my formative reads as a child. It was enormously important in all sorts of ways, it fed and encouraged my love of dogs, and was the first full length novel that I ever read. I dragged my mother to the cinema so many times that she should have received a medal for putting up with me (and it!), and wrote my own sequel to the novel featuring a villainess with the glorious name of Delough Cyriushdeau (believe me, it sounded a lot better in my head at the age of 6).

Since then I've also loved Smith's own sequel The starlight barking (even if it wasn't a dalmatian spot on the original), and enjoyed I capture the castle a whole lot more than I originally did. In my local library the other day I discovered, to my delight, that most of Dodie Smith's novels having been out of print for years, are now being reprinted by Corsair. And I happened upon The town in bloom, first published in the year I was born, but set 40 years before in the 1920s.

Christopher Isherwood, who became friendly with Smith and her partner when they moved to the United States during the Second World War, praised The town in bloom saying "This is a book you can love". I can't wholeheartedly say that I loved it, but there was much to enjoy. And much to think about too, coming so soon after my previous read Testament of Youth

In Town in bloom, young "Mouse" moves to London determined to become an actress, with no family but a small inheritance she settles into life at "the Club", where most of the other residents are would-be West End stars. She is soon taken under the wing of Lillian and Molly, chorus girls looking for a better future. She fails an audition but gets a job working as a secretary in a theatre run by charismatic actor-manager Rex Crossway. But life is shortly to change for all the girls as Mouse falls in love for the first time, and a sudden storm leads to an unexpected meeting that will change all the girls' lives....

In many ways there are similarities with I capture the castle - the pains of young love, a coming-of-age tale (albeit with slightly older women). There's the move from innocence to experience that is painted so deftly in I capture the castle too. Unfortunately here, it's a whole lot clumsier, to the extent that there was sometimes (at least for me) the odd "Yeuch" moment. The innocence seems more like sentimental gaucherie than true innocence, and there are some moments which just seem plain wrong - the ruin of Zelle's life, for example, by a woman who has knowingly put herself in much the same position.

Oddly enough, I was rather reminded of Daisy Ashford's The young visiters. Of course there's a difference, Ashford was a 9 year old, writing about adult lives as lived through her child-infused spectacles. Smith was nearly 70 when she wrote The town in bloom, and yet, there's an odd childishness about it that didn't sit altogether comfortably with me.

In some ways I really enjoyed the book, as an overview of life for the post-First World War generation I think it's a fascinating snapshot; and yet somehow it failed to engage me. I suspect that long-time lovers of I capture the castle will probably enjoy this but I've never been such a great fan, I found The town in bloom a distinctly odd book. There are some funny moments, some decent characterisation, and I loved the sense of time and place, but this won't be joining One hundred and one dalmatians on my shelf of favourite reads.


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