Oddly enough, although I have nothing to do with theatre and go to one very rarely, my vacation time was uncannily theatre-themed last month. First of all, I spent the start of August in a kids camp where my boyfriend works, and the camp is being led by an actress who owns a theatre. So there were a few plays by the kids in the camp. Other than that though, as soon as I arrived, I decided to pick up the only book by Dodie Smith I owned – which was The Town in Bloom – and I didn’t even know remotely what it was about – I love Dodie Smith for her writing and I’ll read anything by her. Turned out? It’s about the theatre! And last but not least, even though I started giggling when I realized it was high time to read Playing to the Gods, a review copy about two rival actresses at the end of the 19th century, I picked it up and succumbed to my theatre-themed vacation. And it was great! Which is why I’ve decided to give a review to both of the books, because they’re just so good to be read together.
Why You Should Pick Up The Town In Bloom
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★★★★★ 5 stars
A typical Dodie Smith character – charming, young, precocious and incredibly odd, comes to the big city to pursue her future – a career in the theatre. However, since she IS a Dodie Smith character, she’s got these incredibly cute notions about the world and can’t help muddling everything up in the most adorable ways. Nicknamed Mouse and swept up into a jolly companionship with her theatre girls, she soon learns that perhaps she’s just not fit to be an actress and life isn’t quite what she thought it would be. But would Mouse ever give up? Not a chance. And it doesn’t even matter if soon being an actress isn’t quite what she’s going for anymore. Mouse will have what she wants. But so will the others… The Town in Bloom is an incredibly vivid, colorful and hopeful coming of age story – with all its ups and downs, seen through the lens of an older, wiser age. This book talks about how things are not always how they seem, about how the end is not always the end, and how even the darkest things can be bright and hopeful, if you only see them that way.
So What Did I Think of The Town in Bloom?
A GIF of a baby bunny, jumping around in a circle excitedly
Oh, I simply adored it. I am beginning to think that maybe I can’t react to a book by Dodie Smith in any other way. It’s both light and whimsical, but also profound and serious. When Dodie Smith tells you a story, she somehow manages to show you that you can be lighthearted in even the darkest situations, and that perhaps life is more playful than we’re used to seeing it. I’ve even dug through other people’s reviews to actually see if this book wasn’t autobiographical – it isn’t. But it sure feels like it is, and even if it’s not, I feel like the author did have experience in certain of the things she writes about because how else could she have made it all so real? Nobody knows the theatre inside and out unless one has been a part of it, however briefly. The setting is rich and colorful, full of detail you’d never learn any other way, and it kindles your imagination, as well as bringing the 1920-30’s back to life in front of your eyes. Dodie Smith just writes everything with so much vigor that you can’t help but gobble the book up.
The Positivity In Smith’s Style
I don’t know how Dodie Smith manages it, but it’s like even when she’s talking about problems, she’s doing it in an upbeat way, or even if something bad happens in her stories, the main vibe is that it’s not the ending and nothing bad really lingers in life. Reading her books is basically like an anti-anxiety pill for me. If I can’t sleep? I can read something of Dodie Smith’s and go to sleep smiling and have the best sleep ever. She’s just got this incredibly peaceful and calming style. Have you noticed?
A GIF of a corgi doggy in a bathrobe on pillows and a TV remote, very relaxed
Some people might say that it’s ‘not serious enough’ to read books like that, or perhaps it’s naive and whatnot. But it’s precisely that kind of attitude, I believe, that has half the world in a depressive state. If we think we can only talk about serious things with a frown, then how are we ever going to feel good about life at all? This must be one of the main reasons why I love Dodie Smith’s books so much – she illuminates characters that are so opposite to who I am, and they teach me what I lack to be a happier person – in my views, my choices and my reflections. This is why Dodie Smith is definitely reread material.Reading Dodie Smith is kind of like an anti-anxiety pill – even if she’s talking about problems, it's in an upbeat way and the main vibe is that nothing bad really lingers in life. That's the feel of The Town in Bloom as well: Click To Tweet
And Then There’s The Humor
Despite being so laid back and calm in her style, Dodie Smith also has the biting wit you will enjoy. It’s not outright laugh kind of funny – it’s more like Jane Austen’s writing – you appreciate it for the wit, smile and nod your head at it, feel amused by how smart that was. Dodie Smith also has the bitey tone, but it’s so subtle, you sometimes have to look for it. She subtly pokes fun at the main character, and in this book it’s the first person, so the narrator always slightly laughs at themselves, which is a pleasant tone to read. It’s a distinctly British kind of humor too – but not the dark kind. Oh, it’s so hard to pinpoint exactly what I mean, but if you’ve been around British people at all, you’ll know it. It’s very enjoyable and cheering.
The Characters Are Delightful Oddballs
A GIF of a 1920’s actress or dancer, jumping on huge piano keys and wearing a sort of pixie ballerina costume
That seems to be another trademark of Dodie Smith’s, and it’s one I truly enjoy. The main character is a girl raised by an aunt, rather sheltered in her previous life, but as a result, she is someone who’s developed an independent attitude to life and sees things slightly differently than anyone else. Of course, that makes her a really unreliable narrator – which makes it all the more fun. Mouse’s wardrobe is at least 20 years out of date, she looks at least 5 years younger than she is, and she projects herself unwillingly as quite a comical character, despite being completely honest and serious. She is infantile and charming, and she’s a delight to read. But she’s not the only one – the secondary characters are wonderful too. Mouse’s friends, although not talked about in great detail, all have something different about them, and they all have a problem to solve. And under the unusual facade, they do harbor deeper problems and histories which are delved into in the second part of the book.
But Of Course, It’s Not All Fun And Games
The book woos you with the bright tone, the leisurely pace and lack of apparent problems in life. But then it all descends. The main character will have more on her plate than some of you might have ever had. She has to make tough decisions, and ones based on her scanty experience in this odd world. And the ones she makes can be quite surprising.The Town in Bloom is like a backwards, 20th century kind of Jane Eyre - without half the sentimentality and with the salting of a true kind of reality we live in: Click To Tweet
Dodie Smith also talks about things that must have been taboo back in the day – women’s sexual freedom is quite openly discussed, although not in detail, but certainly like it’s a given. I was surprised, considering how much we talk about sex in this day and age – some of the things seemed brave to me, especially because Mouse is so young. And I don’t want to give things away, but there’s something that definitely merits good discussion in the plot of this book. It’s big, it’s serious and it’s even life-changing. I liked how it was treated in the book. I will not even hint at it, because it’s a surefire spoiler. So just read it for yourselves! I believe it’s still relevant in the theatre circles – just one of those things that never changes.
I absolutely loved this book and it was one of the best parts of my vacation, to be honest. I don’t think I will ever swear off my undying love for Dodie Smith and how much her books give me – so I can only recommend you to read more, more, more of them! Admittedly, they might be too sentimental or sweet for some, but if you need more positivity and a lighter look at tough things, or if you’re tired of reading books that are stressing you out, The Town in Bloom is the right choice for you.
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And now let’s talk about Playing to the Gods…
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★★★★☆ 4 stars
Such an intriguing topic! I remember grabbing this review copy months ago and being excited to read about something I wasn’t even aware of. Maybe it’s an odd choice, considering that I mentioned that I barely even go to theatre – but I think Playing to the Gods is relevant to all of us, rather than just theatre-goers. After all, we don’t just see acting in the theatre anymore – acting has crossed over into the cinema and shows, so basically, it monopolizes most of our free time right now. What would the world be like, if what we saw in movies was acting with pathos, poses and loud voices?
I couldn’t have picked a better timing to read The Town in Bloom either – because Mouse, the main character, fails at acting mostly because she likes acting ‘in the old way’ – she follows Sarah Bernhardt’s, one of the actresses from Playing to the Gods, style. Had Mouse tried the theatre at least 50 years earlier, she might have been accepted. But the way we understand acting right now has been mostly shaped by the Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who thought that to act, one has to transform into the character and become them emotionally. That radically differed from the acting style of all the days up to that point. So Playing to the Gods doesn’t just talk about the rivalry of the two actresses – it talks about how acting as a concept has changed at the end of the 19th century and how it became part of our current culture.
However, it’s also not fair to say that it’s just Eleonora Duse who shaped the way our entertainment works right now either – without Sarah Bernhardt, we might have never had Madonna, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga or other personality-marketing based cults – that’s something Sarah Bernhardt invented. The rivalry between the two women is certainly interesting to read about, and Peter Rader writes it in an almost fiction-like style, so you won’t have trouble following the story at all. It’s one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year. Definitely recommended!
I thank Simon & Schuster for giving me a free copy of Playing to the Gods in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion. You can buy Playing to the Gods here at Book Depository and buying using this link supports the blog.
Have you read a lot of books about the theatre and its history? And do you go to the theatre often?
I’m Evelina and I blog about books that made an impression on me. I love middle grade, women’s, scifi and some literary too.