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Jonathan Rebeck, the failed pharmacist-cum-witch-doctor, has been living in the Yorkchester cemetery (half the size of Central Park) in NYC for 19 years, hiding there from the real world of living humanity. His only friends are the profane talking raven who brings him bologna and roast beef sandwiches and the like, and the new ghosts who confusedly appear before him after their bodies have been interred and, he believes, need him to act as cemetery guide, guidance counselor, and friend for about a month, the length of time it typically takes them to forget every aspect of their living lives and so to finally disappear.
Into his precocious first novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), Peter S. Beagle soon introduces some complications into Rebeck’s comfortable life: Michael Morgan, a former history professor who believes that his wife poisoned him but who has to admit that he can’t remember whether or not he committed suicide, Laura Durand, a young woman who lived her life with too little confidence and too much longing and delusion until a truck ran her over, Gertrude Klapper, a feisty middle-aged Jewish widow who visits the cemetery to check on the huge mausoleum that she had built for her husband, and Campos, a giant, taciturn Cuban who works the nightshift in the cemetery. The rest of the novel depicts the developing relationships, characters, conversations, and monologues of these ghosts and people as they discuss and search for love and the nature and meaning of death and life.
It's amazing to me that Beagle wrote the book when he was only 19, because he's so good at depicting adults and at opining sagely on life and death, in addition to being a ready-hand with apt allusions to and quotations from various literary works and figures. And he effortlessly captures the voices of gabbing New Yorkers.
In fact, the novel tends to be too talky. Beagle likes to set his characters wittily, metaphorically, and philosophically pattering to each other and themselves, and at times I thought, “Enough already with the humorous comparisons and quotable aphorisms and psychological probings and intense debates! Let’s quit showing off and get going with the story now, OK?”
But there are many great lines in the novel, among them:
"Death is something that has to be learned. Just like life, only you don't have to learn so fast because you've got more time."
"Heaven and Hell are only for the living."
“He [a sanguine squirrel hitching a ride on a truck] drew himself erect on the tailgate, as if he were facing a firing squad, having just rejected blindfold and cigarette.”
“Her hands moved in her lap like captured butterflies. ‘Death has been very good to me,’ she said finally.”
“I will love you all the days of my death, however few or many they may be. As long as I can remember love, I will love you.”
"Love is no excuse for bad taste."
“I think the only way to become real is to be real to yourself and to someone else. Love has nothing to do with it.”
“So they strayed around the cemetery, trying hard to look like an average middle-aged couple, and secretly believing that anyone could look at them and tell that they were very unusual people who were about to do a very unusual thing.”
“Asking a favor of Campos, Rebeck thought, was like praying to a jade god with blind onyx eyes.”
“The dead do not appreciate the importance of gestures to the living.”
“Sainthood is not for me, nor wisdom, nor purity. Only pharmacy, and such love as I have not buried and lost.”
And the novel movingly treats the transitory nature of life and love (even for the dead!).
I like Peter S. Beagle's reading voice and manner. It sounds appealingly New Yorkish, warm, nasal, and deep. Although he hardly changes his voice for different characters (female, young, male, old, raven, squirrel, living, dead, etc.), so that his reading is as far from that of an actor like Tim Curry as it's possible to get, being the author of the novel he sure understands the meanings and moods of his words, story, and characters and reads with perfect pace, and when a character is angry or sad or happy or introspective, his voice expresses the emotion just right. And he has a savory Spanish singing voice, too.
Fans of light urban fantasy and psychological ghost stories with a melancholy, philosophical, romantic, and NYC backbone should enjoy A Fine and Private Place.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of A Fine and Private Place to be better than the print version?
No.I Love them both equally. I finnished listening and rushed straight off to reread the book.
What did you like best about this story?
Apart from being a classic luminous fantasy and a joy to read for that alone, the book has as many layers as an onion. It is a book about need. About the need to give and the need to receive. About the need to give love and to receive love - and the need to be able to do both these things.
The raven is the easiest example, he needs a human to look after and while Rebeck is happy to be on the receiving end the relationship works well.Rebeck has retreated to a cemetary 20 years ago, because all his relationships have failed. His love life withered on the stem and his need to give a little extra in his chemist shop ended in rejection & bankruptcy. He feels useless and alone.When the story opens his need to give is satisfied by his fleeting relationships with the recent dead whom he helps adjust to the after life.
Mrs Klapper needs to give big time. She needs to give sustinance, in the manner of the raven and she also needs to give love. She has been so long without either love or sustenance, she has forgotten that she also needs to receive both these things. Rebeck who has his ghosts and the raven, is in a better place than she is for love and companionship.Mrs Klapper has had a childless marriage to a man who revealed more of himself to his workmates than his own wife. The basic structure of the marriage failed so badly, that in the end all she could do was look after her husband's physical comfort. Don't get me wrong, it was a comfortable marriage, but there was no communication. If Mrs Klapper had died first, Mr Klapper would have hired a housedkeeper and contentedly enjoyed his evenings without the buzz of a wife in the background.Klapper was a sinple man. He wanted a simple funeral and a small headstone. His wife built him a mausoleum so she could keep him as comfortable in death as she did in life.
Mrs Klapper discovers in Rebeck a man who needs her company, her sustenance and her love. In the few weeks of their meetings in the cemetary she learns to know him better than she ever did her husband, in all the years of their marriage.Rebeck has to learn to receive what Klapper has to give, to be able in the end to leave the cemetary and take up the threads of a normal life again. There is hope in this reader's heart that they can have a fulfilled relationship both giving and receiveing love and companionship.
There is also the tender love story of the ghosts, each with their need for love and mutual acceptance.
This is a book for all ages. When I was young I loved the ghosts' story best. Now I'm older I best enjoy Rebeck & Klapper's romance.
What about Peter S. Beagle’s performance did you like?
I imagined I was back in Victorian days, in a theatre in Boston, listening to Dickens reading aloud from his own stories.Seriously, Peter reads like my parents and grandfather read to me. He gets into the character of the players without putting on silly voices. I want to imagine the voices in my own head. When men squeak and squeal pretending to be women and when women grunt and growl pretending to be men, it cuts across my concentration and takes me out of the experience, dumping me back into the real world with a nasty taste in my mouth.Peter didn't do this. Also because it is his own work he read it with great understanding.
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
I cried for the ghosts, having to leave behind love almost beforethey had found it. I laughed with Klapper and Rebeck as they fumbled their way to a new relationship. I also laughed at the antics of the Raven as he hitched a ride and chatted with a squirrel. I wanted to know what happened to the Raven, but he flew out of the story and perhaps he didn't give a toss anyway.
Any additional comments?
I first read this book in the late 1970's, when my husband was given a copy of The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle as a Christmas present. I have reread this and the other stories therein on a bi-anual basis ever since. Usually I don't really think about the meanings. I just enjoy; letting the fantasy and the glorious prose flow over me and I wallow, happy as a pig in mud.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful