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Varying Degrees of Hopelessness

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Isabel's wholly imaginary love life bears little resemblance to that of her flatmate Pol, who prefers to grip reality by the balls. Enter Robert, victim of an American childhood, academic rivalry, Pol's belly-dancing and Isabel's mute adoration. Can he be perverse enough not to despair? Isabel's wholly imaginary love life bears little resemblance to that of her flatmate Pol, who prefers to grip reality by the balls. Enter Robert, victim of an American childhood, academic rivalry, Pol's belly-dancing and Isabel's mute adoration. Can he be perverse enough not to despair?


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Isabel's wholly imaginary love life bears little resemblance to that of her flatmate Pol, who prefers to grip reality by the balls. Enter Robert, victim of an American childhood, academic rivalry, Pol's belly-dancing and Isabel's mute adoration. Can he be perverse enough not to despair? Isabel's wholly imaginary love life bears little resemblance to that of her flatmate Pol, who prefers to grip reality by the balls. Enter Robert, victim of an American childhood, academic rivalry, Pol's belly-dancing and Isabel's mute adoration. Can he be perverse enough not to despair?

30 review for Varying Degrees of Hopelessness

  1. 4 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    The second novel from the Scots-based American novelist is abundant in mordant wit and scalpel-sharp solipsism. Ellmann’s anti-heroine, a 32-year-old virgin, refuses to settle for second best in her suitors as her flatmate Pol ruts with the man of her dreams. VDOH is a postmodern parody of the Austen romance—a cynical re-imagining of Austen in a world stiffened by repression, loose morals, and the degeneration of cultural mores. Another lacerating romp for the terminal realist.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    Due to my fondness for Ellmann's award-winning magnum opus Ducks, Newburyport, I began a project to read her entire oeuvre - and this is the final volume in that pursuit. I'd place it about in the middle of her canon, preferring Man or Mango?, Sweet Desserts, and parts of Mimi more. It contains all of the quirkiness and clever satire of Ducks, but as the title would imply, is a bit bleak, especially the ending, which becomes a bit bogged down in matters of mortality (perhaps impelled by the deat Due to my fondness for Ellmann's award-winning magnum opus Ducks, Newburyport, I began a project to read her entire oeuvre - and this is the final volume in that pursuit. I'd place it about in the middle of her canon, preferring Man or Mango?, Sweet Desserts, and parts of Mimi more. It contains all of the quirkiness and clever satire of Ducks, but as the title would imply, is a bit bleak, especially the ending, which becomes a bit bogged down in matters of mortality (perhaps impelled by the death of Ellmann's own parents). PS: Kudos to Mio Matsumoto for the brilliant cover illustration.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I don’t plan on reading Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages – but I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at a local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying I don’t plan on reading Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages – but I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at a local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea: He had a masculinity. His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique. He held seminars and wore red socks. To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students. The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone. I swooned in admiration of him. Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol, who is highly sexual and given to prancing. Isabel transfers her affections to Robert, a visiting American whose study she wandered into one day off the street, mistaking it for a secondhand bookshop. But it turns out that he prefers Pol, too. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed out loud at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. At the same time, there’s an edge to the book: if you wish to, you can read it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of Ellmann’s back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Antonomasia

    Two years ago, I had a paper copy of this satire on romance novels; I checked the ending, knowing it was the sort of story I'd resent if it was too cheery. It seemed to be just that sort, so I abandoned the book in a charity shop in a bohemian middle-class suburb, from where I thought it had a fighting chance of finding a good home. It turns out now - hooray for the opportunity to read old books legitimately without having to pay for them again - that my impression was partly mistaken. It was fo Two years ago, I had a paper copy of this satire on romance novels; I checked the ending, knowing it was the sort of story I'd resent if it was too cheery. It seemed to be just that sort, so I abandoned the book in a charity shop in a bohemian middle-class suburb, from where I thought it had a fighting chance of finding a good home. It turns out now - hooray for the opportunity to read old books legitimately without having to pay for them again - that my impression was partly mistaken. It was for the best, though, I didn't read it then, and I can't say I was 100% resentment-free today, notwithstanding that the book was quite amusing, and unusually effortless to read. Anyway, I should have read it because it's the only book after which I've named an allusive Goodreads shelf. (I think; even I can't be bothered to look through all those tags, which are intended to bloody well say what they mean.) Varying degrees isn't quite so off the wall as Ellmann's later Dot in the Universe, in subject or in style (few words are in block caps). There are more distinct resemblances to the traditional English comic novel. Ellmann's anger and originality, however, and a few bizarre recurrent motifs are already there. What is it about abalone? Satire of old-fashioned romances - the sort of novel Anita Brookner commented on more seriously in the dreary Hotel du Lac - doesn't appeal to me half so much as that of something more modern. It seems too remote. But hey, this was published in 1991, chicklit didn't even exist yet, and allusions to Piper Alpha, the Achille Lauro and 80s London nightclubs were obvious to a wider range of readers. Someone who knew more about art history academia would have got more out of Ellmann's parody of the Courtald and tendencies within the field - I didn't realise how distinct its foibles might be, or how little I knew of them, the subject having been strongly ghettoised as 'Sloanes Only' during my university days. Nonetheless, I've found something. May have even posted a fruitless recommendation request a while back, because there are hardly any: women writing British comic novels, not memoirs, and not genteel mid-century stuff: either the Adams/Pratchett type, or something vicious and pacy like Tom Sharpe. And this is an awful lot like what I meant by the latter, whilst having its own, equally strong personality. Hurrah.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Beth Bonini

    The title of this book is rather irresistible right now, in the coronavirus times, but I read it as a light interlude and as a break in the mammoth task of reading Ellman’s latest: Ducks, Newburyport. Both books share Ellman’s screwball sense of humour and wacky charm, but this one is an elliptical satire of love, romance and art history, while Ducks encompasses a larger world of problems. The narrator, styled ‘Our Heroine’, is a virgin in her early 30s with a fondness for tea and toast. She is The title of this book is rather irresistible right now, in the coronavirus times, but I read it as a light interlude and as a break in the mammoth task of reading Ellman’s latest: Ducks, Newburyport. Both books share Ellman’s screwball sense of humour and wacky charm, but this one is an elliptical satire of love, romance and art history, while Ducks encompasses a larger world of problems. The narrator, styled ‘Our Heroine’, is a virgin in her early 30s with a fondness for tea and toast. She is holding out for a big romantic love, but decides to spend some time studying art history at the Catalfque (a thinly veiled Courtauld Institute) while she waits for LOVE to find her. Isabel is a big fan of Babs Carthwheel’s 391 novels - Barbara Cartland, natch - so she has some rather unrealistic ideas about love. At the same time, she is highly dubious about her own personal charms. People say that if one loves a man, one should tell him. The trouble is, I deal with rejection badly. ... I find it difficult to carry the situation off with aplomb. I, a thirty-one-year-old virgin with dark hairs that go every which way on my big toes. I, with a permanent stain on my left eye from a ping-pong accident in childhood. I, with my knobbly knees. I, bony as a goat, with a distended stomach to match. And hardly any breasts to speak of (should I wish to speak of breasts). I, whose auburn locks are not brought to life by sunlight. I, whose eyes do not have a translucence. I, with moles in unmentionable places. ... How could I say to someone, ‘I love you’? Isabel cannot figure out why her plump, promiscuous roommate Pol keeps making out (and off) with all the men. It’s all a bit silly, really; but as with all good satire, there’s a few sharp points here and there.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Beth

    Lucy Ellmann is our new and improved Charlotte Bronte. An interviewer once described her: "In person, Lucy Ellmann appears almost pathologically shy. She speaks quietly, sometimes barely rising above a mumble, her big blue-eyed gaze wanders around the room, her hand hovers in front of her mouth as if trying to conceal some orthodontic catastrophe, though I can't see evidence of one. This diffidence is at odds with her prose manner, which is distinctively loud..." I learned from the same interview Lucy Ellmann is our new and improved Charlotte Bronte. An interviewer once described her: "In person, Lucy Ellmann appears almost pathologically shy. She speaks quietly, sometimes barely rising above a mumble, her big blue-eyed gaze wanders around the room, her hand hovers in front of her mouth as if trying to conceal some orthodontic catastrophe, though I can't see evidence of one. This diffidence is at odds with her prose manner, which is distinctively loud..." I learned from the same interview that readers are not expected to relate to Ellmann's main characters, because they are somewhat autobiographical and morose. They are Brontean [unlike those mainstreamers Austen wrote about] because they are rare and considered abnormal. Sometimes their abnormalities will make you want to reach into the book and slap them for their self-hatred and apathy, but mostly they'll make you laugh. Hopefully, this is a self-conscious laugh. You know, maybe secretly, that Ellmann's characters are not so wildly different from yourself, that their horrifying lack of social ease is understandable even communicable, like chickenpox. Their own self-conscious battle with themselves makes them hyper-aware of other people's feelings, leaving them deprived of the things they want or making them dress in ugly clothing. I will tell you that the heroine's inept and delusional take on relationships is awesomely reassuring, but I don't want to tell you about her sexual malaise, because I think I'll make it sound awful. Both the hero and the heroine dawdle in a semi-romantic [awkward] friendship for a couple years and then the inevitable happens, one of them meets a blonde, tan Californian. Although the characters are sad or are dealing with shit that is sad, the book itself is not sad and is not boring in the way that the depiction of sadness can be in some other books. There is an overall tone of biting self-deprecation that I really enjoyed. Though, sometimes, the language can feel dowdy, like the heroine herself. I was worried this wasn't going to have a happy ending, I thought with all this repressed emotion, someone is going to have to kill themselves, but it ends with a nice, ten and a half pound baby.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    I, a 40-year old man with no allergies, enjoyed this book. But then I always enjoy books that makes one THINK. And I frequently LAUGHED. I have heard that laughing is good for the SOUL. I am not sure about the thinking though.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lane Pybas

    This book is a parody of the idyllic romance novel, the kind where the meek but virtuous heroine yearns for a meaningful (i.e. married) life until her steadfastness is finally rewarded by the apparition of an unlikely hero come to sweep her off her feet. Isabel, the delusional heroine of this novel, lives her life according to the romantic notions found in such novels. Perhaps I’ve made this sound awful, but the style of the book is so manic and angry that it never veers towards becoming a thing This book is a parody of the idyllic romance novel, the kind where the meek but virtuous heroine yearns for a meaningful (i.e. married) life until her steadfastness is finally rewarded by the apparition of an unlikely hero come to sweep her off her feet. Isabel, the delusional heroine of this novel, lives her life according to the romantic notions found in such novels. Perhaps I’ve made this sound awful, but the style of the book is so manic and angry that it never veers towards becoming a thing that I hate, i.e. books where the writer uses a cute concept to notice all of the quirky aspects of life. In fact, the high jinks of a modern day woman adhering to Victorian notions of propriety and romance is really depressing and funny, especially as it is paired with the behavior of Isabel’s flatmate Pol, who holds the exact opposite philosophy. Isabel’s romantic delusions can be tiresome at times and the satire itself can verge on cliché, but overall this is a completely original and enjoyable novel.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    I feel like I should have hated this book, but somehow I enjoyed it. Surprisingly clever in places, and manages against all the odds to avoid being pretentious.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Astrid

    I didn't make it. Too much of post-Joyce writing style. It was just "no thanks" for me, bored me. I didn't make it. Too much of post-Joyce writing style. It was just "no thanks" for me, bored me.

  11. 5 out of 5

    L.S. Popovich

    I've determined to read Lucy Ellmann's complete works in preparation for her new tome coming out in September. In this second book of hers I've read so far I was at first doubtful. The beginning of the book was not as strong as its middle and end. You have to get the know the characters, I think, to understand what the author was going for. Like Stanley Elkin, Ms. Ellmann sets out to surprise and delight, without regard to readers' defense mechanisms. Many will find passages offensive. But no two I've determined to read Lucy Ellmann's complete works in preparation for her new tome coming out in September. In this second book of hers I've read so far I was at first doubtful. The beginning of the book was not as strong as its middle and end. You have to get the know the characters, I think, to understand what the author was going for. Like Stanley Elkin, Ms. Ellmann sets out to surprise and delight, without regard to readers' defense mechanisms. Many will find passages offensive. But no two experiences will be the same. She rakes society over the coals, and does it wittily and excessively, with verve and elan and aplomb. The improbabilities don't seem all that improbably in this wholly modern romance novel due to the internal monologues, the narration and the description, which are all superb, though uneven, unpredictable, silly, outrageous, but somehow heartwarming, unutterably sad, and chilling. Ellmann is a writer who appears to be frothing at the mouth. Between her literary jaws she snaps Jane Austen, Bronte, our own romantic naivete, humanists, lascivious art historians, men, women, defenseless old people... Everyone bleeds. But the haphazard juxtapositions are enjoyable, quotable and brimming with subtexts. Like the brushstrokes so delicately inserted into the plot, Ellman's brushstrokes are magnificently irreverent.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Morana

    This book was weird. We have two roommates, Isabel and Pol - art students. They are totally opposite. Isabel is a reserved person living in a fantasy, waiting for a perfect man. A slave of strange habits, like rearranging food at the supermarket. Pol, on the other hand, is completely realistic and practical. She is open-minded and bold, which makes her get what she wants, despite her unatractiveness. Robert is a sad guy who can't seem to find his satisfaction in life. As soon as he leaves Isabel This book was weird. We have two roommates, Isabel and Pol - art students. They are totally opposite. Isabel is a reserved person living in a fantasy, waiting for a perfect man. A slave of strange habits, like rearranging food at the supermarket. Pol, on the other hand, is completely realistic and practical. She is open-minded and bold, which makes her get what she wants, despite her unatractiveness. Robert is a sad guy who can't seem to find his satisfaction in life. As soon as he leaves Isabel, he starts missing her. He returns and marries her, while seeing Pol at the same time and living a double life. That's how the book ends. I could even like the unusual way of how it was written: Isabel's unique monologues. The way how characters are portrayed. But the ending just misses the point and I don't get it. Seems like everyone just continued with their usual habits without any self-improvement: Isabel is living her illusion of happy romance while being actually cheated on. Pol continued with her pointless lifestyle of casual sex and just having fun. Robert still remained miserable, never really liking Isabel or his life and being in a constant search something else.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Libby

    If Ellmann thought 'Hey, let's write a book about several troubled grumpy characters with totally surreal and strange minds that nobody is going to warm to and that will be kind of mundane and irritating'... well, she succeeded. If Ellmann thought 'Hey, let's write a book about several troubled grumpy characters with totally surreal and strange minds that nobody is going to warm to and that will be kind of mundane and irritating'... well, she succeeded.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ernst

  15. 4 out of 5

    Hester

  16. 5 out of 5

    principia

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

  18. 5 out of 5

    Valentina

  19. 4 out of 5

    Charlise

  20. 5 out of 5

    Didier Vanoverbeke

  21. 4 out of 5

    D

  22. 4 out of 5

    Deidre

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anita

  24. 5 out of 5

    Marga Demmers

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeannette

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amy Page

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Allen

  28. 4 out of 5

    S.M. Mala

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kristian

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