To be completely superficial let me start by saying that for a book concerning ugliness, Skylark has a beautiful cover. The colors are gorgeous and fine -dark ochre and robin's egg blue- and the sans serif type and Hungarian accents top it off like fragile, delicate bones.
But looks aren't everything. I was also bowled over by the story, which is both heartbreaking and very funny. It's set in a distinctive time and place, but what's portrayed is accessible to anyone.
Before going into it, it’s important to say that this book has a lot of laughs. I laughed out loud at the theater scene. I laughed at how the writer poked fun at the characters’ sentimentality. I laughed at the drunken “ride” in the chair, the father’s confrontation with a man he’d hoped would wed his daughter, the funny title headings, and at many exchanges between the couple. It’s the humorous touch and the irony that makes it surprising how sad this book is.
The story is about a couple and their 35-year old unmarried daughter, Skylark, who is their life's focus and its albatross. Because Skylark suffers, they suffer. Because Skylark has no way to escape her sad, uneventful life, they resolve to a sad and uneventful life, cutting themselves off from the community and friends and everything else that brings sensual or intellectual pleasure - the theater, good food, cigars, music.
This self-imposed deprivation is painful for the characters, but tedium in its sameness is a great soother, and the alternative would throw Skylark's situation into stark relief. That's what happens when she goes away for a week, leaving her parents alone. They loosen up, and the thought of Skylark loses its grip, until they are confronted with her return.
Though ugly, Skylark seems an average, able person; unfortunately she lacks any gifts, talent or any particular characteristic that would make her attractive, or redeem her inner life, like a keen mind or a love of music, say, or poetry. Significantly the father’s only pastime is studying genealogy, as his own family tree is about to stop branching.
Skylark’s ugliness comes across almost as a disability, as when we first encounter her in the garden in the posture that is “best” for her, or when she walks flanked by her parents. Although she never really seeks to manipulate anyone, Skylark’s presence is oppressive. The family doesn’t eat in restaurants because she has a sensitive stomach. Her frugality means they use only one bulb in a four-bulb chandelier. Her parents love her dotingly in an effort to ease her loneliness, and they hate her because they are powerless to change it.
I usually don't post my book reviews here, but I thought this book especially worth talking about. Ambiguity (love vs hate)! Nuance (mouse grey vs dove grey)! Despair! It's got 'em.