Friday, December 6, 2019

Re-reading a favorite: RUBY FERGUSON, Apricot Sky (1952)

I'm always a bit conflicted about re-reading old favorites. On one hand, what could be more lovely than going back to revisit old friends in a book one knows won't disappoint? It's like having a favorite restaurant where you know and love the food and feel completely comfortable. On the other hand, I have around 3,000 books on my TBR list, some of which may become old favorites if I only find the time to read them. And what's more, some of those could become old favorites for other people too once they've been unearthed. Oh, the weight of responsibility!

But sometimes a strategic re-read just becomes absolutely necessary. I had been yearning for another holiday under an apricot sky for awhile, and when a couple of people suggested it as "possibly FM" in my recent posts, I had the perfect exc—er, reason. So I seized the day.

Like a whole slew of other favorites, I read Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky before I started blogging, so the only writing I've done about it was a lone paragraph on this deeply-buried post from back in 2013, about 20 books I felt should have been in print but weren't. (At that point, I was only fantasizing about publishing, but I'm delighted to say that Dean Street Press has done a few of these now, a few others have been reprinted by other publishers, and it's just possible that two or three future FM titles will be plucked from the list as well.)

Apricot Sky is a treasure. Although Ruby Ferguson is better known as the author Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, reprinted by Persephone and a really lovely book itself, I actually prefer this joyful, charming, funny holiday story. It's 1948 in the Highlands of Scotland, in a village not too far from Edinburgh. There are all the usual postwar difficulties with food and clothing and rationing, but Mr and Mrs MacAlvey and their family and friends are too irrepressibly cheerful to let it get them down. There's daughter Cleo, just back from three years in the U.S.; Raine, her younger sister, newly engaged to the younger brother of a local farmer and landowner; and their brother James, married to neurotic, overprotective Trina, with two sheltered, meek children, Armitage and Angela. The MacAlveys, we learn, have lost two other sons in World War II and are raising three orphaned grandchildren—Gavin, 16, Primrose, 15, and Archie, 10—who are very often the funniest part of the novel. There's Vannah, a sort of housekeeper who—as in all the best stories—has become a member of the family. And, partway into the summer holidays, two prissy cousins, Cecil and Elinore, arrive for a visit, to the immense displeasure of the wild and woolly grandkids.

Ruby Ferguson

We also meet Ian Garvine, Raine's intended, and his brother Neil, who makes Cleo's heart go pit-a-pat but seems barely to know she exists. He does, however, take an interest in a neighbor widow, Inga Duthie, who is thoroughly silly and superficial but adept at flirting and difficult (for anyone but Cleo, at least) to dislike. We also meet some of the neighbors, which apparently include a number of Mackenzies ("It was just that practically everybody in Strogue was called Mackenzie.")

What's the plot, you might ask? Well, there are preparations for Raine's wedding, and the children's sailing adventures (wonderfully realistic for the most part—no death-defying stunts, though there is one very funny discovery of buried treasure), a memorable visit by the Leighs, family friends from London, and an adventurous hike. But really, the plot is, simply, life, as lived by a group of irresistible people who know how to live it with energy, humor, optimism, and affection. Which is honestly my favorite plot of all, and even on a re-reading I found it terribly hard to put down, and at the same time I kept trying to slow myself down because I never wanted it to end. What more could one ask?

It's also very, very funny, sometimes in very off-hand ways that I may not have appreciated fully the first time I read it. Some brief, unrelated samples (no spoilers):

On the station at Inverbyne where the single-track line came to an end, Mrs. MacAlvey was engaged in an interesting conversation with two tourists, the station-master, and a calf in a sack, when the train came in.

"I remember you as looking much younger," said Trina, leading the way down the narrow hall which had a little pathway of white drugget to save the carpet. Practically everything in Trina's house was covered up with something to save something that was underneath.

"I don't know why we're all standing," said Mrs. MacAlvey, on whom her daughter-in-law always had the effect of a crocodile on a weak swimmer. "Won't s-s-some of you sit down?"

"I'm haunted by an awful dread," said Raine. "It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar."

"Have you practised swooning?"

"Your old father was always the worst shot in Ross, Inverness, and Argyll," said Lady Keith calmly. "If he ever did shoot any stags, which I doubt, they were led up to him blindfold."

I giggled more at this book than I have in a long, long time (Andy's eye-rolling at my guffaws and snorts notwithstanding). And one of my favorite set pieces in the entire novel is when Cleo accompanies Raine to her soon-to-be home to offer her expertise about d├ęcor. Here's a snippet of a much longer scene:

"Would there be a bathroom down below?" asked Cleo. "I quite forgot to notice."

"There would. Just the one, and practically inaccessible. I mean, it is tucked away at the end of a little passage all by Itself, and you go up a step to go in and then fall head-first down another step as you enter the door. The arrangements must be seen to be believed, and there is a cistern in the corner which makes gulping noises all the time like somebody being strangled. Surely you remember it, Cleo, when you were here in the old days?"

"Yes, I remember now. It was dark and I opened the door and fell flat on my face, and while I lay there waiting for the end I heard the cistern gurgling in the darkness and thought it actually was somebody being murdered. You'll have to do something about the bathroom."

And on top of everything, it all culminates with one of the funniest romantic misunderstanding finales outside of Sense and Sensibility (I'm actually thinking of it as written by Emma Thompson for the film, though I do realize that Jane Austen had some part in it as well).

I wish Ferguson had written an entire series dedicated to the MacAlveys—I miss them all already—or at the very least written this sort of "cheerful village comedy" more often. I confess that the other of Ferguson's novels that I've dipped into have not lived up to the standard of Apricot Sky and Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. Our Dreaming Done (1946) was a rather dreary melodrama about a war widow, and her late sort-of mystery, The Wakeful Guest (1962), was excruciating. But I recently ordered an inexpensive copy of For Every Favour (1956) to give it a try, and the amazing Grant Hurlock has shared his copy of 1957's Doves in My Fig-Tree, which sounds promising indeed and has the added interest of being set on the Channel Islands. There are some others that could be promising but are vanishingly rare. Does anyone have other recommendations?


  1. You make this sound VERY enticing, Scott. I wonder, can i find it now?

  2. "It's 1948 in the Highlands of Scotland, in a village not too far from Edinburgh."
    Is it you or Ruby Ferguson who has an imprecise grasp of Scottish geography?

  3. Ha! I hadn't noticed that. But it may actually be more the sharp distinction in UK and US perceptions of distance. The characters made a day trip to Edinburgh for wedding shopping, and I think any place you can make a day trip to is "not too far". Google says it's a 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive from Edinburgh to a random town I selected near the southern edge of the Highlands. The characters make the trip by train, which might (?) have been faster than driving in the 1950s, but would probably be less feasible or impossible now with train service reductions. So, not too far by American standards!

    1. No, it’s definitely a village further north and west, close to the Atlantic for the children to sail to small islands and easy for Raine and Cleo to get to Skye! I think the two girls must have stayed overnight in Edinburgh, as Mrs Macelvey says. AL

  4. I devoured all her Jill books as a child. Time to revisit her work perhaps!

  5. This looks like a book I'd enjoy, so I'll be looking for a copy. Thanks for your review!

  6. Oh, this does sound right up my street. Furrowed Middlebrow please publish, pretty please?


  7. I enjoyed Turn Again Home very much,; not as amusing as Apricot Sky though.

    1. Thanks Louise, I haven't read that one yet. Haven't found anything as adorable as Apricot Sky, but I keep hoping!

  8. Gosh. This does sound a great read. Like an Elizabeth Cadell. THank you for posting a few snippets

  9. On the strength of how much I enjoyed the FM edition of Apricot Sky, I ordered a couple of slightly musty-smelling copies of other Ruby Ferguson books.
    I'm 68 pages into 'The Cousins of Colonel Ivy' and enjoying it very much, so thank you for introducing me to a new-to-me author.


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