Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Good Plain Cook by Bethan Roberts

Serpent's Tail

WEALTHY and arty, Peggy Guggenheim slept with her many lovers (though perhaps not at the same time) in a bed with a silver bedhead by Calder.
Her parents had been supremely wealthy, but when her father went down with the Titanic she had a lot less money than her billionairish cousins, poor mite.
In the way of the bottom rung of richy-rich-land, she hung out with artists, and bought their work, and slept with them as she and they fancied.
Lovers included Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst (she married Ernst), and she bought the work of Picasso, Magritte, Calder, MirĂ³, Jackson Pollock, et al.
In The Good Plain Cook Bethan Roberts riffs on a little-known time when Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen lived in Sussex with one of her lovers, the Communist poet Douglas Garman, between 1934 and 1937.
Kitty, her heroine, lies her way into a job as a cook with the unorthodox family based on Guggenheim's - 'Ellen Steinberg', her daughter 'Geenie' and the poet 'George Crane'.
Kitty is gobsmacked by their sexy, undisciplined life, but more worried about how to cook what they want. Quiche: would that be a kind of egg-and-bacon pie, she wonders.
George gurns in the writing studio at the end of the garden, staring hopelessly at his typewriter. Geena, Ellen's feral daughter, tries to get her mother's attention by being fey. Ellen makes raucous love and talks about art.
Kitty fancies the gardener, the conservative Arthur, who is suspicious of George's attempts to convert him to communism.
It's several disasters waiting to happen. The only trouble with The Good Plain Cook is that they wait a little too long.
As Europe teeters on the edge of mass murder and red war, these self-indulgent people play with their political and personal ideas.
It's sensual and atmospheric, and it's awfully English and pre-war. Lovely style, though.

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