The Fountain Overflows (New York Review Books Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Yiyun Li

“You must always believe life is as extraordinary as music says it is,” says the mother to her daughter Rose, the child narrator of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. Upon finishing the book, I bought a copy for a friend and told two more friends about it.

The novel is populated with musicians enabled and disabled by music. Rose’s mother is a concert pianist who has left the stage too early for a family life for which she is ill-prepared; Rose and her twin sister and their little brother are born musicians; however, it is their elder sister who, with neither talent nor taste but a willfulness to make herself a famous violinist, asks a question that can be their mother’s match. “What’s the harm in cancer if there is all this music in the world?”

It’s not music alone that plaques the characters in the novel. Rose’s father, a great writer of political ideas and a poor reader of human relations, walks off when his words no longer sustain him, leaving behind him friends whose betrayed and hurt feelings have to be appeased by his abandoned wife. Interestingly, it’s a young cousin of Rose, who is entirely tone-deaf, who points out to Rose at a house party that the piano there is tuned: it takes someone without any sense of music to hear what’s beyond the notes.

“What a gamble it is to raise children,” Rose’s mother claims at one point, but she might as well say: “What a gamble it is to live.” And these characters are good gamblers, and each has lived an extraordinary life as Rebecca West says it is.

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A Year in Reading: Sarah Waters

Many of my most memorable reads in 2013 have, I realize now, been re-reads.

Having worked my way, over the years, through all the novels of the fabulous British writer Elizabeth Taylor, I decided to return to Angel, a novel that I’d recalled as not one of my favorites. This time I saw why so many people call it Taylor’s masterpiece. With its monstrous romantic-novelist heroine Angelica Deverell, it’s a study of extravagant self-deception that’s both achingly funny and heart-wrenchingly sad.

Patrick Hamilton’s novels are gloomier than Taylor’s; he’s a sort of 20th-century George Gissing, preoccupied with the frustrations and lonely passions of “ordinary” life. His hilarious The Slaves of Solitude, with its minute depiction of petty rivalry and thwarted ambition in an overcrowded Second-World-War lodging-house, was a joy to re-read.

Inexplicably, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows was a novel I’d remembered not quite fondly; but on this visit I was glued to it. The semi-autobiographical story of a shabby-genteel Edwardian family led by a brilliant but feckless father into one crisis after another, it’s a long, leisurely read, full of wonderful odd meanders — but all held together by West’s luminous prose. One lovely effect of this re-reading, too, was that it left me wanting to know more about its author. That took me to Victoria Glendinning’s Rebecca West: A Life — a magnificent biography, quite as enthralling as West’s own fiction.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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