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A brilliant, lost feminist classic that is equal parts domestic drama and international intrigue. Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are a A brilliant, lost feminist classic that is equal parts domestic drama and international intrigue. Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. He recognizes her by her costume: a respectable black dress and string of pearls; his appearance, however, is changeable. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley (who prefers to be known as “Lola Montez”) to Toronto, the last place she wants to go. There the trail leads her through the sites of her impoverished immigrant childhood and sends her, finally, to her own house, where she discards her pearls and trades in her basic black for a dress of vibrant multicolored silk. Helen Weinzweig published her first novel when she was fifty-eight. Basic Black with Pearls, her second, won the Toronto Book Award and has since come to be recognized as a feminist landmark. Here Weinzweig imbues the formal inventiveness of the nouveau roman with psychological poignancy and surprising humor to tell a story of simultaneous dissolution and discovery.


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A brilliant, lost feminist classic that is equal parts domestic drama and international intrigue. Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are a A brilliant, lost feminist classic that is equal parts domestic drama and international intrigue. Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. He recognizes her by her costume: a respectable black dress and string of pearls; his appearance, however, is changeable. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley (who prefers to be known as “Lola Montez”) to Toronto, the last place she wants to go. There the trail leads her through the sites of her impoverished immigrant childhood and sends her, finally, to her own house, where she discards her pearls and trades in her basic black for a dress of vibrant multicolored silk. Helen Weinzweig published her first novel when she was fifty-eight. Basic Black with Pearls, her second, won the Toronto Book Award and has since come to be recognized as a feminist landmark. Here Weinzweig imbues the formal inventiveness of the nouveau roman with psychological poignancy and surprising humor to tell a story of simultaneous dissolution and discovery.

30 review for Basic Black With Pearls (New York Review Books Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... From its first few pages, Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig’s arresting and unforgettable “Basic Black With Pearls” seems as though it’s going to be an exotic, erotic spy thriller. Shirley, our intrepid protagonist who is also a Toronto housewife, has for years been carrying on a tempestuous affair with a man called Coenraad, an affiliate of an international organization known only as The Agency. Their secret trysts around t My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... From its first few pages, Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig’s arresting and unforgettable “Basic Black With Pearls” seems as though it’s going to be an exotic, erotic spy thriller. Shirley, our intrepid protagonist who is also a Toronto housewife, has for years been carrying on a tempestuous affair with a man called Coenraad, an affiliate of an international organization known only as The Agency. Their secret trysts around the globe — in Tikal, Guatemala, Marseille, France, and Vienna, to name a few — are prearranged by way of a complicated code known only to the two of them, passed on through issues of National Geographic. Shirley prefers to be known — on her passport, in hotel registers — by the name “Lola Montez,” but dresses in the respectable bourgeois uniform of a tweed jacket, a black dress and a string of real pearls. Coenraad, on the other hand, is a master of disguise — sometimes a bellhop, sometimes a wino — who, “when he has no other safe means of communication” will signal her “with a deep look” into her eyes, “blinking three times between unwavering stares.” But after a few pages, one begins to realize that Weinzweig’s story is something else entirely, a hard-to-classify tumble into the mind of an intelligent, passionate, underestimated and unpredictable middle-aged woman’s attempts to grapple with her frustrated dreams and thwarted desires. When Coenraad summons her inexplicably back to her home city of Toronto — site of the Jewish neighborhoods of her deprived immigrant childhood — Shirley feels set adrift, beginning to behave provocatively as she forces herself to consider the prospect of “starting anew.” In her afterword (wisely placed because this is a plot that could be easy to spoil), Sarah Weinman calls the book “an interior feminist espionage novel.” She also notes that upon its 1980 publication, the book “was greeted with a mix of praise and misunderstanding” for “critics sensed its daring and applauded its formal inventiveness, but those qualities also kept people at bay.” Now, eight years after the author’s death, this new edition from New York Review of Books Classics offers readers in the United States a not-to-be-missed opportunity to rediscover an important and underrated voice. A seemingly conventional housewife, herself, married for more than six decades to the Canadian composer John Weinzweig, Helen Weinzweig did not begin writing until age 45, when a therapist suggested it as a way to combat depression. The first of her two novels, “Passing Ceremony,” came out when she was 58. “Basic Black With Pearls” was worth the wait: The book is singular and without flaw. Weinzweig’s slim and increasingly surreal volume defies easy comparison, but like Jane Bowles’ off-kilter cult classic, “Two Serious Ladies,” this tale of a woman on the edge revels in its own absurd logic and its protagonist’s daffy yet deeply committed perverseness. Like Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” the novel’s atmosphere is steeped in darkly comic conspiracy and paranoia. And like Muriel Spark’s metaphysical shocker, “The Driver’s Seat,” the book is a feminist exploration of alienation and the instability of selfhood. The book’s confidential tone holds the reader almost suffocatingly close to Shirley’s perceptions. Weinzweig depicts with acuity the flanerie of those who want to kill time, as well as the strength needed to wait and the determination required of the passive. Shirley’s cracked diamond of a mind draws readers in as they follow her physical and verbal perambulations. On one of her walks, waiting for a Coenraad who might never arrive, she notes of her loneliness, “Acts of fellowship … take place only during bombings and public hangings. Under normal conditions strangers must avoid the other’s strangeness.” Early on, Shirley observes that Auden defined poetry as “the juxtaposition of irreconcilable elements.” This book is absolutely poetic in that regard, beautifully written and difficult to reduce to a single, easy meaning. Perhaps better than any spy thriller, it invites readers to contemplate the mystery of how, in a society where the pressures and expectations put on wives and mothers are great enough to drive anyone mad, maybe so-called sanity itself is the greatest deception and putative normalcy the flimsiest disguise.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    The more I think about this book, the better I like it. Who knows, by Monday, I may be ready to give it a five-star rating! This author, apparently one of CanLit's hidden gems, was mentioned on a radio programme last year. This title (one of only two novels which Weinzweig published) is purported to be the first Canadian feminist novel. Intrigued that I had never heard of her, I furtively sought out the book -- and I do mean furtively. Three months after I had requested the book from a local lib The more I think about this book, the better I like it. Who knows, by Monday, I may be ready to give it a five-star rating! This author, apparently one of CanLit's hidden gems, was mentioned on a radio programme last year. This title (one of only two novels which Weinzweig published) is purported to be the first Canadian feminist novel. Intrigued that I had never heard of her, I furtively sought out the book -- and I do mean furtively. Three months after I had requested the book from a local library whose catalogue showed that it was "on the shelf", it was reported to have been "misplaced" by a client. How mysterious! An inter-library loan copy was requested for me. More waiting. Meanwhile, I discovered that the book had been reprinted in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the author. So why was it so elusive? Well, I had begun to seek a copy just a few days before the reprint was released but, having spent several days stumbling through this very short book, I think that it was destined to be elusive. The story takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Toronto - not chronologically, mind you - that would be too simple. The reader accompanies the protagonist on a roller-coaster of memories as she traverses the neighbourhoods where she once lived. Why is she revisiting her old "stomping grounds?", you might ask. Excellent question! She is looking for her lover. It appears that he is a spy whose habit it is to provide her with clues about the location at which he (in disguise, of course -- he's "under cover") will meet her. Well, can you imagine how many times she guessed wrong? I lost track, but I did visit some areas of Toronto which were familiar to me - and some which weren't. Chalk it up to experience. If you have read this much and you have the impression that I felt confused and frustrated by this story, you are very astute. I was both confused and frustrated but . . . the final 15 pages make the entire baffling romp around Toronto completely worthwhile. Yes! Those final pages are like a spotlight suddenly illuminating centre-stage, making me believe that the author did have a story to tell. I just haven't figured it out yet. But I will . . . yessirree, I will!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nate D

    Unfolding like a slightly more elegant version of Eva Figes existential dissolving pulp Nelly's Version, this also follows a middle-aged heroine traveling alone and who may or may not be involved in a thriller plot (there, a suggested crime novel, here espionage). There's a constant collapse of terms from the taut and mysterious into the mundane and back, leaving the reader off-balance and intrigued for the next turn, even if, more often than not, it proves prosaic. As in Figes' novel, this find Unfolding like a slightly more elegant version of Eva Figes existential dissolving pulp Nelly's Version, this also follows a middle-aged heroine traveling alone and who may or may not be involved in a thriller plot (there, a suggested crime novel, here espionage). There's a constant collapse of terms from the taut and mysterious into the mundane and back, leaving the reader off-balance and intrigued for the next turn, even if, more often than not, it proves prosaic. As in Figes' novel, this finds a heightened mysterious hyperreality in the exploration of precisely these prosaic places, tinged as most are by loss, historical tragedy, and desperate lives, many of which unexpectedly emerge from and disappear back into various threads of side plot.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Like no other book I've read, but if I had to compare it to something, I would say it's like Jane Bowles crossed with Muriel Spark. More than once I was confused as to what was going on, characters behave strangely with little explanation, but a little patience please, it's worth it in this case. What seemed at first to just be a fun romp, a play on the noir genre, or some other such category turns out to be something much harder to classify and profoundly moving in the end. I do not want to give Like no other book I've read, but if I had to compare it to something, I would say it's like Jane Bowles crossed with Muriel Spark. More than once I was confused as to what was going on, characters behave strangely with little explanation, but a little patience please, it's worth it in this case. What seemed at first to just be a fun romp, a play on the noir genre, or some other such category turns out to be something much harder to classify and profoundly moving in the end. I do not want to give anything away, but the last 30 pages or so are so poetic, so beautiful and sad and weird at the same time. I loved it way more than I thought I would. Spoilers follow, do not click if you have not read the book: (view spoiler)[The ending, and other thoughts: The image of the husband stroking the horse juxtaposed with these scenes of marital bliss/submission was very poetic/suggestive without being overly stated. The idea of the mistress (Franscesca) staying in the house and introducing herself to the main character, a kind of unspoken bond between them. And them staying in the same bed, surreal and poetic. Also, the mistress's speech. The description of the sex was perfect. The idea of the man's routine, though a bit dated, was very poignant here. The woman's function was to be part of his routine and to make his routine smoother. It does not matter which woman it is. We realize that Shirley's relationship to Coenraad (her lover) and to Zbignew (her husband) are not that different. In both instances, she is at their beck and call, just in different ways. Shirley returns to the streets of Toronto after leaving her house & husband. Then she goes to Andy, this new guy she met. Not sure what I think of this last part, is she liberated? Or is she just repeating the cycle? Does it make it less "feminist" if she is, or just more realistic? Afterall, Shirley herself isn't a feminist. I would say the book is feminist in that it shows the plight of Shirley. Apparently Weinzweig was also unsure about this ending, struggling with it for a long time, according to the excellent afterword."“I could find no solution for this woman who leaves home—whether she leaves home physically or mentally is not the point,” she said in a 1982 interview. “But she does leave her occupation, which is wife and mother, and goes out into the big world. And I couldn’t find anything for her to do out in that big world. That question has disturbed me as a person and as a writer.” (hide spoiler)]

  5. 4 out of 5

    The Master

    This book is like a Toronto version of Ulysses! Assuming your idea of Ulysses is a story of an insane woman aimlessly wandering around the streets and buildings where you live.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Homa

    Three stars while reading, five stars while pondering.

  7. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    The use of the word noir as a descriptor turned my expectations for this novel in the direction of a mystery or thriller. It's not exactly that. Noir can apply to the psychology of characters, I suppose, and as it probably can be applied here. At first, though, the novel's fairly straightforward. Shirley Kaszenbowski is having an extended affair with the secretive Coenraad, who works for some government's Agency. She travels to meet him in distant locations all over the world, all destinations a The use of the word noir as a descriptor turned my expectations for this novel in the direction of a mystery or thriller. It's not exactly that. Noir can apply to the psychology of characters, I suppose, and as it probably can be applied here. At first, though, the novel's fairly straightforward. Shirley Kaszenbowski is having an extended affair with the secretive Coenraad, who works for some government's Agency. She travels to meet him in distant locations all over the world, all destinations arranged by an intricate code passed between them through issues of the National Geographic. Now she's arrived in Toronto, Canada, which also happens to be her home, and where she sets out putting the clues together to complete her rendezvous with him. Near the middle of the novel the reader begins to realize there's a deeper mystery to Shirley. One begins to think of the David Markson novel Wittgenstein's Mistress. And so it's with satisfaction that the reader finds in Sarah Weinman's "Afterword" the insight that Helen Weinzweig was also aware of the similarities between her Shirley Kaszenbowski and Markson's Kate, and kept a copy of his novel on her shelf. Markson's novel was published 8 years after Basic Black with Pearls; it's not known if he'd read Weinzweig. I see less clearly another harmony pointed out, that of Shirley with Marjorie Morningstar of the 1955 Herman Wouk novel. There are more pleasures here for me than the rhyming of heroines. Also near the middle of the novel Ariadne is mentioned. The daughter of the Cretan King Minos, she helps Theseus find his way out of the Labyrinth after he kills the Minotaur. The Labyrinth in Weinzweig's novel is Toronto. In searching for her lover, Shirley's several passages through the high-towered streets of downtown Toronto is described in detail. As one who lives near Toronto and has walked down those cool streets and has descended into the warm breath of subway entrances Shirley enters, I found myself relating keenly to the novel. She captures the diversity of people on the street, too. If Weinzweig doesn't do for Toronto what Joyce did for Dublin, her love for the city shows even as she recognizes how it may weigh down some with a fragile spirit. I've made it sound dark because it is. Her search through the sunless, labyrinthine streets, the identity of the man she's trying to connect with, her past so much on her mind, are all shadows on the novel. But like any good mystery, it's solved in the end. Resolved, made clear. In the end Shirley Kaszenbowski isn't like Wittgenstein's mistress; she has found other rendezvous and has lit the beacon of her feminism to guide her.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jana

    What did I just read? And who will talk to me about it now?!!! This would make a fantastic book club pick. See above. (Edit to add that if you’re going to read this book don’t read anything about it beforehand! I haven’t shared any thoughts here except some comments about the writing and mood, but now that I’m reading reviews...they’re out there. Beware. I’m so glad I went into it cold. You’ll want to discover for yourself.) I really enjoyed the writing. I could visualize the scenes and encounters What did I just read? And who will talk to me about it now?!!! This would make a fantastic book club pick. See above. (Edit to add that if you’re going to read this book don’t read anything about it beforehand! I haven’t shared any thoughts here except some comments about the writing and mood, but now that I’m reading reviews...they’re out there. Beware. I’m so glad I went into it cold. You’ll want to discover for yourself.) I really enjoyed the writing. I could visualize the scenes and encounters the woman (wearing the basic black dress w/pearls) had with her lover and various other people. And the locations she describes were amazing. Somehow NYRB has the ability to publish fiction that puzzles, challenges, entertains, and inspires awe. Someday I want to join their book club and read one per month. But first I need to get through my TBR. Which has a few more of these (hopefully) gems. Tomorrow I will be texting my friend Ryan. (Russell did you read it too? I'll be off to search my GR friends as soon as I save my thoughts here.)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    "We solitaries came towards one another, passed; other came up from behind and passed me; at times we walked side by side for a few paces. Soon I got a sense of common activity: I thought, I would like nothing better than to link my arm through yours and we would walk along together. Acts of fellowship, I reflected sadly, take place only during bombings and public hangings. Under normal conditions strangers must avoid the other's strangeness." "We solitaries came towards one another, passed; other came up from behind and passed me; at times we walked side by side for a few paces. Soon I got a sense of common activity: I thought, I would like nothing better than to link my arm through yours and we would walk along together. Acts of fellowship, I reflected sadly, take place only during bombings and public hangings. Under normal conditions strangers must avoid the other's strangeness."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Well, I am in the minority on this one, but I did not enjoy this book. I did not, in fact, finish it, though that was not entirely my fault; the e-book copy that I got from my local library expired last night and I do not care enough about what happens to Shirley/Lola to renew it. Really, nothing happens to Shirley/Lola in the book so it does not seem worth it to me to read more nothingness... I feel sad and disappointed that I did not enjoy this book, because I was looking forward to reading it Well, I am in the minority on this one, but I did not enjoy this book. I did not, in fact, finish it, though that was not entirely my fault; the e-book copy that I got from my local library expired last night and I do not care enough about what happens to Shirley/Lola to renew it. Really, nothing happens to Shirley/Lola in the book so it does not seem worth it to me to read more nothingness... I feel sad and disappointed that I did not enjoy this book, because I was looking forward to reading it. It is a Canadian book lauded as being a 'feminist landmark' from a time in my life when I was figuring out what feminism meant for me. But alas, the book seems to only come through on two of those promises and not well on them in any case. It is still from that of my life, but in a different, gloomier, blander way than I remember from those days. It is also Canadian, but in the worst way that Canadian literature can be. As for the feminist part? I fail to see it... how is a woman wandering around (usually literally) mooning about some guy who might or might not exist, and guy who sounds really emotionally abusive, 'feminist'. That's not feminist that's just plain old chick-lit and I avoid chick-lit because it is largely the anti-feminist trope of women wandering around mooning about guys. Blargh! Maybe I missed the feminist part, and definitely I have no time or energy or desire to renew this book from the library to see where it goes, because if the first 3/4 tell me anything it is that it goes nowhere and has no real feminism in it. Plus, I have too many books on my TBR list, and too little time to spend on books I do not enjoy. I am too busy at the moment building my businesses, all in male-dominated fields, because, you know, actual feminism*... *These are the fields I enjoy working in, am trained in, and wish to pursue, but it was actual feminism that helped me to have the opportunities to do it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    I picked up “Basic Black with Pearls” by Helen Weinzweig at the Boulder Bookstore while visiting a week ago. I didn’t know anything about this novel, but I saw it promoted by its publisher, NYRB, and I knew I needed it. This book doesn’t have a foreword, which is appropriate. Going into this book knowing nothing about it is the purest, best way to approach this novel which I couldn’t categorize or try to fit in a box if I wanted to. It’s a book that is so surprising and genre-defying that I can I picked up “Basic Black with Pearls” by Helen Weinzweig at the Boulder Bookstore while visiting a week ago. I didn’t know anything about this novel, but I saw it promoted by its publisher, NYRB, and I knew I needed it. This book doesn’t have a foreword, which is appropriate. Going into this book knowing nothing about it is the purest, best way to approach this novel which I couldn’t categorize or try to fit in a box if I wanted to. It’s a book that is so surprising and genre-defying that I can see it being very polarizing: either you “get it” or you don’t, either you love it, or you don’t. • Don’t let this novel of a slim 145 pages fool you. It’s not a fast read. Weinzweig was quoted in the afterword as saying it takes a year to write 20 good pages, and it makes sense that it took six years to write this. Unlike other plot-driven books, this one is delicately crafted. It’s a book that comes not from physical activity but is driven all by the interior, the mind, emotion, something mystical. To say that Basic Black is atmospheric would be an understatement and misleading. This book is not a stifling miasma settling over a story, but vital like breath, urgent, alive. This is not a summer book, though I enjoyed it in the heat of July. This piece encourages the reader to get under a blanket, pour a cup of tea, and devote a couple hours to the main character in the titular wardrobe. • Read the afterword, if you pick up the NYRB edition. You’ll get more information about Weinzweig’s career and family, which adds much more context to this novel. • Trade Paperback • Fiction • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ • Purchased at Boulder Bookstore.▪️

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jean Benedict

    I really did not know what to think. The writing was great but the story left me confused.Shirley Kaszenbowski is searching for her lover but is he real? Her search takes her from her past to the present. I won this book fro Goodreads First Reads.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Joan Barton

    What the heck was that! I can't really put stars to it because I'm not sure what I just read! What the heck was that! I can't really put stars to it because I'm not sure what I just read!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    It took me less than a month, but more than two weeks, to read this brief novel; it's incredibly interior-oriented, which isn't a bad thing, but it didn't allow for lazy, quick reading. Our narrator, Shirley, is clever, and you can't be sloppy to keep up with her. The feel of this novel is Erica Jong meets Kate Chopin. Shirley is a smart, passionate 40-something housewife who travels the world meeting her spy lover. But their latest tryst takes her back to Toronto, where she grew up and still live It took me less than a month, but more than two weeks, to read this brief novel; it's incredibly interior-oriented, which isn't a bad thing, but it didn't allow for lazy, quick reading. Our narrator, Shirley, is clever, and you can't be sloppy to keep up with her. The feel of this novel is Erica Jong meets Kate Chopin. Shirley is a smart, passionate 40-something housewife who travels the world meeting her spy lover. But their latest tryst takes her back to Toronto, where she grew up and still lives, and as we watch Shirley attempt to untangle the clues that will connect her with her lover, we start to wonder just how much of this might be real. And yet, that's not precisely the point of this novel. In her pursuit of her lover, we're exposed to Shirley's entire life -- her childhood, her marriage, her anxieties and hopes -- and a complicated-but-familiar portrait emerges. By the end, I found myself wanting happiness for Shirley, and I was unconcerned with what was real and what was imaginary. I just wanted her happy. I feel sorry for the girl who (still) wanders darkening streets carrying two or three library books, shifting them now and against from left arm to right and back again. Sometimes both arms hold the books across her chest like a shield. They belong together, she and her books, and as long as she carries them, she is safe. The writers of books will become her familiars and protect her from betrayal. Initial Thoughts This book is ... weird. Subtle. Straight forward. And also weird. Sarah Weinman, who does the afterword, describes it as an "interior feminist espionage novel" and that's pretty much accurate. It took me a long time to get through its 160 pages mostly because it's a wicked interior novel and I just haven't been in that headspace. But I was reminded of Erica Jong and Kate Chopin. (This review is so perfect I probably won't ever write my own formal review.)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jai

    The most frequently used words for describing Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black with Pearls are, "surrealistic," "feminist," and "espionage," which should give you a good idea about what to expect. Even still, Basic Black with Pearls was a delightfully surprising novel, with strange dream-like sequences playing out as if they were ordinary occurrences. Characters interact in highly stylized manners, where dialogue can swerve from ordering coffee to recalling traumatic memories within a few words. On The most frequently used words for describing Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black with Pearls are, "surrealistic," "feminist," and "espionage," which should give you a good idea about what to expect. Even still, Basic Black with Pearls was a delightfully surprising novel, with strange dream-like sequences playing out as if they were ordinary occurrences. Characters interact in highly stylized manners, where dialogue can swerve from ordering coffee to recalling traumatic memories within a few words. One of my favorite instances happens when the main character Shirley (aka Lola Montez) accidentally stumbles onto a two-person troupe singing Bela Bartok's opera "Bluebeard." Weinzweig has a way of introducing these bizarre situations in humbling, humorous, and exciting ways. In many ways, this novel reminds me of classic nouveau roman novels, especially those by Alain Robbe-Grillet. While Robe-Grillet experimented with style which turned his thrillers into menacing existential quandaries, Weinzweig takes the same approach but injects a good dose of feminism into her menace. The main "plot" of the novel involves Shirley looking for her secret lover, Coenraad, after a series of cryptic messages which they usually exchange. Coenraad himself is almost an omnipresent force in the novel. A man that is frequently described as being able to take most any appearance that he wants. Most all male characters immediately come under suspicion, both from Shirley and the reader. Though he is described as being Shirley's lover, all of Coenraad's actions seem distant, if not outright despicable. This is an ever-present patriarchal power that hangs heavy over all proceedings. Everyone has the suspicion of having this baggage of either hate or indifference to women that creates unease and gives Weinzweig's existential plotting more power. I can imagine, like other nouveau roman novels, Basic Black with Pearls might be a bit divisive. However, it seems like to was tailor-made to match a lot of my loves with literature. Some of it I found a bit oblique, or not as entrancing as other parts, but this mostly serves as a stronger reason for me to reread and decipher all that is going on. (Also, unrelated, but speaking of checking off things that I love, NYRB's cover is a still from Michael Snow's New York Eye and Ear Control, which in itself is great, but add in the classic free jazz soundtrack with contributions from Albert Ayler, John Tchicai, Sunny Murray, and others and I can't help but be a bit biased.)

  16. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    It reminded me of CRYING OF LOT 49. Sort of a phantasmagoric, wandering riddle where you're not sure if the mystery is meant to, or even can be, solved. Best to let it just wash over you, and enjoy the process. It reminded me of CRYING OF LOT 49. Sort of a phantasmagoric, wandering riddle where you're not sure if the mystery is meant to, or even can be, solved. Best to let it just wash over you, and enjoy the process.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    a kind of romantic m/f version of Waiting for Godot with a twist.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Becky Loader

    A complicated story about a complicated woman..... The woman, who has several names, has a mysterious lover who sends her obscure messages loaded with clues as to where to meet him next. That may be Egypt, Alaska, Guatemala....if she can figure out the clue he leaves her in a "National Geographic" magazine. They are both married to other people and have children, but their long term affair is mesmerizing to both of them. She always wears a black dress with a pearl necklace. He will be in disguise A complicated story about a complicated woman..... The woman, who has several names, has a mysterious lover who sends her obscure messages loaded with clues as to where to meet him next. That may be Egypt, Alaska, Guatemala....if she can figure out the clue he leaves her in a "National Geographic" magazine. They are both married to other people and have children, but their long term affair is mesmerizing to both of them. She always wears a black dress with a pearl necklace. He will be in disguise. Then, one day, she can't figure out the clue. She goes on a very convoluted trip back to her home town of Toronto, and she confronts her younger self while she meets new people. She goes through an awakening that has her leaving behind her basic black dress. Complicated, but worth reading.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

    This is an odd book. It is promoted as feminist, I suppose because the woman has a lover outside of marriage. But the woman's life revolves around this mysterious lover, she seems to have a codependent relationship with him. She is happy to just follow him around the world wherever he goes, waiting for him to show up. She seems to have no interests of her own, she does nothing but wait for him, and while waiting for him at one point in her hometown Toronto, she ends up going back to visit places This is an odd book. It is promoted as feminist, I suppose because the woman has a lover outside of marriage. But the woman's life revolves around this mysterious lover, she seems to have a codependent relationship with him. She is happy to just follow him around the world wherever he goes, waiting for him to show up. She seems to have no interests of her own, she does nothing but wait for him, and while waiting for him at one point in her hometown Toronto, she ends up going back to visit places from her childhood. The beginning of the book was somewhat interesting as we learn about the strange relationship she has with her lover and the odd ways they arrange to meet each other secretly. Unfortunately, as the book goes on, the woman seems to become more and more dissociated from reality and it becomes difficult to trust whether anything she is saying is true. By the end, I wasn't sure whether the whole story of the lover was just in her imagination. Her childhood was clearly traumatic and her husband was obviously a brute so I wonder whether she was just fantasizing how much happier she would be if she just travelled around and did nothing but wait for a lover....

  20. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Polansky

    A middle aged woman follows her lover, an American spy across the world, their liaisons arranged according to a complex code which only the two of them can decipher. Stranded in Toronto, the city where she was raised, ‘Lola’ is forced to come to terms with her personal history and her tortured relationship with men. Sort of. I found the book pleasantly opaque, refusing to offer answers to any of the myriad of mysteries it introduces, even in so far as revealing whether the protagonist’s lover is A middle aged woman follows her lover, an American spy across the world, their liaisons arranged according to a complex code which only the two of them can decipher. Stranded in Toronto, the city where she was raised, ‘Lola’ is forced to come to terms with her personal history and her tortured relationship with men. Sort of. I found the book pleasantly opaque, refusing to offer answers to any of the myriad of mysteries it introduces, even in so far as revealing whether the protagonist’s lover is real or a figment of her imagination. That said, the essential underlying theme – the ways in which women make themselves slaves to love, or how society forces them into this role – is presented in kind of a ham-fisted fashion, and for that matter it’s tough to entirely take seriously a scorching feminist critique which ends with the heroine (unironically, so far as I could gather) heading off to the apartment of a man she just met to spend the rest of her life happily in love.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mimi

    rather fascinating story, the narrator seems deluded or schizophrenic , but one is never completely sure. Something of a feminist novel. a 3.6

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This is the story of Shirley Kaszenbowski where her memories of a Jewish immigrant in Toronto are told by herself.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    An odyssey played out around Toronto, in shops, hotels, homes.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    I can understand why this book was called a feminist classic back in the day. I doubt that it would resonate with many women of today. It reminds me of the story of the yellow wallpaper with its trapped mad protagonist.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Erik Tanouye

    Got this in the mail through my New York Review Books Classics subscription.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    A slightly experimental feminist novel that lingers in the brain, afterward. Sure-footed writing, almost Woolfian, poetic and spare.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jane Hammons

    Thanks to NYRB Classics for publishing this novel with an insightful and intelligent afterword by Sarah Weinman. Reading this novel is like being inside an hallucination. The language is beautiful and surreal. The "espionage" involved is startling. It is feminist and historical and so many other things all at once. My first favorite fiction read of 2021. Thanks to NYRB Classics for publishing this novel with an insightful and intelligent afterword by Sarah Weinman. Reading this novel is like being inside an hallucination. The language is beautiful and surreal. The "espionage" involved is startling. It is feminist and historical and so many other things all at once. My first favorite fiction read of 2021.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sonia Francis

    Risky, daring , adultery espionage, page turner. At 150 pages, this novel is cleverly written leaving no room for prudishness, but for those who will like to step out and live loud.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Krystina

    Shirley travels the world in search of her lover, Coenraad, a spy who leaves clues to his next destination in the text of National Geographic magazines. At the start of this book, he has hinted that his next destination is Toronto, Shirley’s hometown where her husband and young children live. It becomes clear, quite early on, that Shirley is out of touch with reality and this trip to Toronto is her attempt to explore the awful memories of her childhood and to work through the duality of who she Shirley travels the world in search of her lover, Coenraad, a spy who leaves clues to his next destination in the text of National Geographic magazines. At the start of this book, he has hinted that his next destination is Toronto, Shirley’s hometown where her husband and young children live. It becomes clear, quite early on, that Shirley is out of touch with reality and this trip to Toronto is her attempt to explore the awful memories of her childhood and to work through the duality of who she is through her responsibilities and who she is in her spirit. In a way, there is no classic ending to this story. The story is finding out the background to how Shirley has come to her present moment. I think the basic black dress with a pearl necklace was symbolic of the different roles women can/must fill in society. It’s an outfit that’s appropriate for a critic, a scientist, a prostitute, a woman receiving an award - all things Shirley is confused with in her adventures, and roles she could successfully fake. When she finally does come to change her outfit to something that fits her personality, she finds it completely inappropriate for the real world, which I’m assuming is the author’s way of saying that women must wear a costume to fit into their roles. I may have gotten that all wrong because this book was a challenge to read. In every scene we are seeing the world through the same disjointed reality that Shirley experiences.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mia

    Knowing that this book won the Toronto Book Award and reading everyone else's 4- and 5-Star reviews (which of the ones I read were virtually all of them) left me feeling like I really missed the boat on this one. The writing is very good but the story just didn't hold my interest. The are very few books I don't finish or even consider not finishing, but I contemplated doing so several times while reading it because I began to feel frustrated with the narrator and, frankly, she started to annoy a Knowing that this book won the Toronto Book Award and reading everyone else's 4- and 5-Star reviews (which of the ones I read were virtually all of them) left me feeling like I really missed the boat on this one. The writing is very good but the story just didn't hold my interest. The are very few books I don't finish or even consider not finishing, but I contemplated doing so several times while reading it because I began to feel frustrated with the narrator and, frankly, she started to annoy and bore the shit out of me. Given this novel's status as a feminist "lost classic" and the high esteem in which it appears to be held, I have to confess that my dislike of it makes me feel somewhat inadequate--like I am not a sophisticated enough reader to "get" or even appreciate what the author was doing. But I guess I should just console myself that this is a feeling I've almost never had before and chalk it up to taste. This book was not to my liking but I certainly can't argue with anyone who has a different opinion. I do believe some books are objectively bad, but this was not one of them. It just wasn't for me. And since my own personal rating system is based on how much I like a book or not (and not based, in other words, on my belief in some objective quality or value of the book), two stars it is.

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