Valeria’s Last Stand – Mark Fitten

This was an impulse buy at a library sale – gorgeous jacket, a story that sounded fun, worth a shot.  And it was fun.  Mostly.

The Valeria of the title is a woman in her 60’s who one day, while pursuing her usual self-imposed quality-control patrol in the village market, falls in love at not-exactly-first sight.  She has long been renowned as the village’s bitterest, crankiest soul, and now love – or at least lust – brings an unexpected softening.  But love’s path is not smooth: the long-widowed potter (whose name slips my mind – and apparently everyone else’s, as I haven’t found a review that names him yet) is already engaged in a fling with the tavern-keeper, Ibolya, who is not going to let him go easily – and then into town comes the chimney-sweep, and that’s a whole new situation.

It’s a slight story, following the temptations and petty revenges of a group of older folk with an attention and lack of “aren’t they cute at that age” that doesn’t seem to be very common.  If categorization is wished for, I believe this book’s category would be magical realism; I’ve seen comparisons out there, and mine would be to Like Water for Chocolate, without the food.

I enjoyed the tale of the elderly spinster in love.  I enjoyed the angle of the village trying to both maintain its identity and claw its way into the mainstream.  The characters, while almost universally mostly-unsympathetic (the potter being the main exception), were well-drawn and well-rounded.  But I never warmed up to the book, and the ending left me with a small knot in my stomach.

Paper silhouette of a chimney sweep by Hans Ch...

Image via Wikipedia

Spoilers following …

It was never a fully lighthearted story, as every character had his tragedies, and the country itself claimed as one distinction (and one they took offense at) the fact that German tanks rolled right past the village, not through.  But for the most part there was a cynical humor to it.  Then that chimney sweep rolled into town, and things took a darker turn.
It was never a fully lighthearted story, as every character had his tragedies, and the country itself claimed as one distinction (and one they took offense at) the fact that German tanks rolled right past the village, not through.  But for the most part there was a cynical humor to it, through a fond but clear-sighted commentary on the goings-on.  Then that chimney sweep rolled into town, and things took a more serious turn.  Valeria experimented with him.  Ibolya grew obsessive.  The potter began to find his art.  Slightly heady stuff, as Valeria evolved from a crotchet to a muse. 

But then it all grew darker as, for no good reason except personal dislike, Ibolya wrecked the village mayor’s marriage in the most painful and humiliating way she could think of.  Not that he didn’t have it coming, in a way, cheating on his wife – but it was a low, mean thing to do for low, mean reasons.  The chimney sweep was hateful throughout the village – again, partly instigated by Ibolya.  Generally things began to crumble around the edges.  A whiff of violence began to make itself noticeable.  I expected that to manifest when a rumor began to circulate that the potter’s apprentice was gay: a possibly dangerous nightmare in a tiny isolated village like this.  But when the violence exploded, it was in a drunken, stupid brawl at the end of the book, in which the potter was viciously attacked by the chimney sweep – and his hands were slashed open.  The book ends with Ibolya and a long-time (married) admirer leaving the village together as the tavern burns.  Valeria is triumphant, holding her bleeding potter in her arms.  She will nurse him back to health, there is no doubt – but whether it will continue to be a triumph after he is back on his feet is very doubtful.  One of the main reasons the potter chose Valeria over Ibolya was that while the taverner was pleasant company, Valeria had become his inspiration, drawing out of him work such as he’d never thought he could accomplish before.  (Another distressing thing about the book: everything wonderful he made while so inspired ended up broken.  I hated that, and I don’t understand it; it’s mean-spirited.)  Now, though, the last words from the doctor who finally gets there to start looking after the potter indicate that he might never use at least one hand again, and neither will ever be what it was.  A painter might be able to work around that, given time and determination.  A potter needs his hands in original factory condition.  So will the two of them stay together when a big part of the basis of their relationship is destroyed?  Given the world Mark Fitten built for them, I doubt it. 

I’ve said, fairly often I think, that I don’t require a happy ending for a book to be positively reviewed.  But I require an ending that satisfies me, that resolves the issues raised for the characters in a way that makes some sense to me.  This didn’t.

 

(I just saw a line from a review blog that describes Valeria as a “50-ish curmudgeon of a woman” – which baffles me completely.  I lost count of how many times the reader is told of her 68 years, and nearly every review, while lacking the potter’s name, mentions her age.  Not planning on following that person’s reviews…)

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