Anna was the host for this meeting and started us off well with Prosecco which was a great way to kick off a Friday evening with friends. She had also made a special trip to The Cheese Shop so there was plenty of delicious food to snack on too. I was especially pleased to nab one of the white chocolate mice that come as an added extra with cheese orders from Louth’s cheese emporium!
Before we got down to book talk we caught up with each other’s news which morphed into our usual fairly eclectic discussion. Topics were varied as ever, including:
- Is there daylight on the moon or is it always dark?
- Refreshing an (almost) 30-year-old degree by taking Spanish conversation lessons.
- Political posts on Facebook and fact checking.
- Have we started making ‘bucket lists’?
The L-Shaped Room, by Lynne Reid Banks
We are continuing our theme of reading ‘favourite books’ recommended by members of the group in turn – this time it was Lee’s choice; The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks.
Set in the late 1950’s the book tells the story of Jane Graham, who having lost her virginity in a fairly botched sexual experience with a short-standing boyfriend, finds she is pregnant and as a consequence is thrown out of her family home. Unmarried, single, homeless and pregnant she ends up in a London boarding house. Jane’s is the bleak, top storey, L-shaped room of the title. The novel follows Jane’s pregnancy and her relationships with the other tenants of the boarding house all of whom are also those on outside of normal society.
Everyone who had read The L-Shaped Room was positive about it. Anna said that she “absolutely loved it.” The story had her hooked straight away and she read it really quickly. Kathryn said that she was surprised at how much of a page turner it was. No one had found this a difficult read at all but it wasn’t that there was no depth to the writing. The descriptions were “vivid” and the character of Jane came across as very real. Anna said that Jane was “feisty” and “likeable” and Lee said that she felt the author was honest in depicting the character’s flaws. George drew a comparison to Elena Ferranti’s My Brilliant Friend which we read some months ago. We had found in that novel too that the characters were intensely real with not only enviable characteristics but also flaws and human failings. Reid Banks’ Jane, like all of us, is full of contradictions, making her such a real person to the reader, and as Georgina noted, making one feel as if we are “with her all the way.”
Kathryn had found that she did not think about the author at all whilst reading The L-Shaped Room as she was fully engaged with the story and characters. She contrasted this to The Shack, the last book we read when she had been distracted by why the author had written the book, what had led him to it etc.
Theresa said she had been really surprised about how long ago the book had been written because of the themes – she had thought it was a novel about the past by a modern author. However, all of us had found a lot of the language jarring because it was very much the idiom of the time with words and descriptions that would be totally unacceptable now. Interestingly, whilst the language was of its time and a lot of the expressed views were what we would consider “old fashioned”, we discovered in our discussion that we felt that Reid Banks had presented quite a “modern outlook” through Jane. In some ways, Jane could be seen as a “role model” for women going into the 1960s. We talked about how having been written in 1960 about the late 1950s the novel reflected many of the contemporary attitudes. One that stuck out was how unquestioningly Jane smoked and drank through her pregnancy with no hint at all about this being a bad idea. George also highlighted that the shame people felt Jane should feel was not about being pregnant but that she had had sex before marriage.
In conclusion, George summed up the novel as being “emotionally intelligent” and Lee that there is “a lot of kindness” described in the book. This is definitely a book that we would recommend for others to read as despite being 57 years old the well-drawn characters and the still relevant themes make it as engaging now as it must have been when it was first written.
The book’s locations were the inspiration for the chocolate pairing this time: firstly London, where we find the run-down boarding house and then the south of France, the setting for the incident that sets in motion the chain of events that landed Jane in her L-Shaped Room.
All the bars for this session were sourced from Cocoa Runners.
Land, Milk Venezuela 55%
I couldn’t find any bean to bar makers in Fulham so I thought it was a good opportunity to try some chocolate from Land, based in Bethnal Green.
You couldn’t help but admire the elegance of the packaging. But then imagine our surprise when we unwrapped the bar to find the beautifully moulded L-shape on the bar: pure serendipity.
I chose the Venezuela milk because we had all fallen in love with the Soma Old School Milk we tried last time. It didn’t disappoint. It had a deliciously deep chocolatey aroma. Gorgeous. The mouthfeel was pleasantly grainy. It opened for some of us with a hint of saltiness moving into what we described as a ‘classic milk chocolate’ flavour. It was just how you think milk chocolate should taste: creamy, with hazelnuts, chocolatey and fudgey. Then Lee was tasting treacle and Gini toffee notes. It ended will quite a short and mild after taste. We all agreed it was delicious
Land, Malt Dark, Honduras 65%
Added malt barley was a first for us, so we weren’t at all sure what to expect. It had a sweet aroma with suggestions of coffee but then prompted quite an extraordinary reaction from Anna. She was in raptures: “Oh Kathryn, this is the most wonderful chocolate” (I aim to please!). For Anna, it was triggering memories of eating fruity malt loaf and black treacle toffee and George was tasting Christmas pudding. The flavours took a little longer to develop for some of us. For me, it undulated from sweet malt to darker, more treacle and coffee notes. Sally wasn’t quite so charmed by it but liked it better on the second tasting. It didn’t have quite so much impact for Anna on the second tasting but then others liked it better. Both Sally and George thought the fruit was more intense and tasted distinct cherry notes on the second tasting: an intriguing taste journey. The intensity didn’t quite follow through to the aftertaste but a real hit nonetheless.
Land, Dark Nicaragua 73%
The last of the Land bars was a darker Nicaliso bar. The Land bars are made with no added cocoa butter; this one contained only cocoa beans and cane sugar. It had a deep but cool aroma. It was slow to melt but kept that lovely cool mouthfeel. We were more pensive than animated this time. It was quite tannic, with citrus notes and tart fruit breaking through and more cocoa notes at the end. It was strong and intense but not quite as interesting as the malt bar. Strong and intense, however, is just Theresa’s style, so a good choice of Theresa.
A. Morin Dark Jamaique, Marvia 63%
With our last bar, we headed down to the south of France with makers A Morin. Although this referenced the setting of Jane and Terry’s fateful reacquaintance, for the origin choice I wanted to choose something that would remind me of my favourite character in the book: the West Indian jazz player, John. So I chose the Jamaican bar hoping for something a little exotic but with an underlying warmth.
The aroma gave smokey, earthy notes. Woody notes for Lee. It was silky smooth and the lovely texture prompted murmurs of appreciation. It was quite dark in colour for a 63% bar but in contrast to the dark colour and smokey aroma, the initial flavour hits were cream and vanilla developing into higher, sweeter notes with a hint of tropical fruit: bananas for some and pineapple for others. The finish revealed a sweet, satisfying chocolatey aftertaste. It was a more gentle taste experience than we had expected from the aroma, but comforting and immensely likeable and not a bad match for John’s character either.
The chocolate had been chosen on the basis of the locations, and I am sure we will all remember the fortuitous L-shape on the Land bars, just like the book, it was the character of each of the bars that really captivated us.
The tasting was nicely summed up by Anna: “A revelation as always.”
The bars we would most like to take home this time were:
Anna, George, Kathryn, Liz, Theresa – Land, Malt dark Honduras 65%
Gini, Lara, Lee, Sally – Land, Venezuela Milk 55%
For our next meeting, we are reading The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe