Posts filed under ‘fiction’

COMMONWEALTH by ANN PATCHETT

Commonwealth is a middle class blended family drama. The custody arrangements mean that every North American summer 6 kids from two families spend several weeks together with couple that created the whole situation, who provide next to no supervision. It's about the long-tail effects of what those kids got up to each summer in 80s on them as adults in the present day, and by implication of the behaviour of the couple. The consequences of their self-absorption.

The Guardian's review begins

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

Most bookgroupers liked it. They appreciated that the language did not get in the way. It seemed to narrate events and give insights to behaviours of characters without ever drawing attention to itself. One bookgrouper particularly liked that the dialogue was quite surprising, and everyone agreed. it was like real dialogue in that characters rarely answered the questions they were asked directly, instead making observations triggered by the question or related to it, so their conversations moved from one related thing to the next, as they do in life.

We had an interesting discussion about whether it was a deliberate, pretentious, attempt to turn a pretty ordinary story in to ‘Literature’. It wasn't from the language perspective, as i’ve said the language did its job without being flashy or showy. However, it did do a number of other things that you could argue were deliberate attempts to flag to the prize awarding literarti that this was ‘Literature’: it was non-linear timewise and character wise; and self – reflective or ‘meta’ as some would have it.

It was non-linear time wise because it started from the end, or near it, then jumped to different moments in the history of the family that led to that point. Nearly every book that wants to be ‘Literature’ does this. It often feels quite forced, just adding confusion but no other value. However in this case it did not get in the way. Most of the book was actually in time order, apart from the beginning and the end. And the points chosen were clearly turning points. So you could argue it was ok because it didn't get in the way, it wasn't confusing. but you could also say it was entirely unnecessary, and just included because the author, a former book editor, knows that it is expected for Literature.

Similarly, as a former editor the author would know that all ‘Literature’ these days has to switch point view between different characters to show the author can ‘write’ men and women and whoever. The book is structured this way — with a section from the point of view of one character and then another. But the end most, but not all, of the main characters have had their own section. Again, while you could say its unnecessary and therefore just for show, its also done well, so it doesn't seem to be confusing or distracting. Each section is reasonably long so its not hard to follow, and as you spend time with each character it starts to explain their behaviour as related in other sections by other characters. Although I thought it wasn't entirely successful. For me the men were a little bit stereo typical, without a great depth of character, but the book ids mostly from the point of view of the women characters and they were very good.

It was self reflective in that it featured a book and film about the events described in the book, even with the same name as the book. So it's a book describing a book about itself. As i understand it, this is what some people call meta-narrative, which is very trendy in literary circles. So on this count you can definitely argue that the author was trying hard to be literary. It really wasn't necessary in the story, which is otherwise quite a well-done middle-class family drama with a few surprises here and there; some very interesting lines; and some well observed descriptions of the interactions between people. It is done well enough that it could have stood on its own in that genre without the ‘meta’ bit. Therefore the choice to include it does smack of chasing prizes.

Whether or not it was self-consciously pretentious, i think if you like middle class family dramas, especially about west coast Americans, this would not be a bad choice. However there many many such books. I'm not sure there is anything distinctive about this one.

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August 5, 2017 at 7:14 am Leave a comment

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by JULIAN BARNES

 

200px-The_Sense_of_an_Ending  .
It’s tempting to say it was like a car crash where no one gets hurt and no cars are damaged. It was notable but left no lasting impression – but that would not be true. Although there are no remarkable characters, nothing much happens, and it’s not set in a novel time or place, the book does leave a lasting impression, not because of its story but it’s message.

The central concept is an important one and it’s well explained. Barnes delivers his message early and often, through the words of his narrator, Tony, through his experiences, through the words of other characters, and the plot. He also clearly wants us to understand that his point is meant to be universal. He sets the story amongst ordinary characters in ordinary circumstances, so the reader cannot escape or excuse themselves on the grounds that it’s only an issue for the great, good or evil, that typically populate novels.

There are quite a few quotes that sum up Barnes’ message, but the one that stays with me is from very early in the book. Tony describes a scene in which his high school history teacher asks tony’s friend Adrian what history is. Adrian replies that it is where the inaccuracy of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.

The cleverness of this is that the idea is easy for us to accept, obvious even, in the context of history with a capital H. How do we know what happened in the past, to the Greeks, Romans or cave men – only from what remains? But Barnes’ mission is to make us understand this is equally true of our own personal history – our memories. So he first gets us to accept it for History and then uses the rest of the book – the tale of poor old ordinary tony, our doppelgänger – to convince us that having agreed history is constructed from its remains we must also agree that we manufacture our memories from the fossils of our own past. That our memories can be, and should be, reconstructed when new evidence emerges.

It’s a great message but if you want to be critical you can ask the question – is it ok to use a novel in such an instrumental way – that is to deliver a message not a story? You could say the book is didactic, it wants teach us something and everything in it is aimed at that outcome. Whilst that is true I think its being unfairly over critical. The book is not a sermon interrupted by bits and pieces of story, it’s a story, however ordinary, told in such a way that it makes a point, over and over again. In that way it is like all literature, it’s just that in this case there is one message, not many, and the message is clear – we can only have a sense of an ending, one we construct from inaccurate memories and inadequate documents. It’s also a very short novel so you can’t can’t accuse Barnes of being self indulgent.

It’s arguable though that there is another message, and another meaning for the title. The second half of the book is devoted to Tony’s growing obsession with reconnecting with his first girlfriend whom his ex calls the fruitcake, and in doing so unravelling the events of 40 years before involving the fruitcake, her mother and Adrian. He persues this quest to such an extent that his ex says, echoing the thoughts of many readers, you are on your own now. On this quest he does learn a lot but all the details are never nailed down, tony just reaches a point and chooses to go back to his old life and give up his obsession. Neither he nor the reader gets that horrible Hollywood – Fox News cliche – closure. Rather, what we get is a renewed sense of the beginning and a range of possible endings.

If this book works as a vaccination against the global pandemic of desperate need for closure, that apparently every relative of every victim of every newsworthy tragedy suffers from, according all the news media at least, then I want to make it compulsory reading.

Most bookgroupers liked it, some a lot, some like me were a little lukewarm. If you are looking for action, or bizarre characters doing bizarre things in bizarre locations, this is not for you. If you want a short story, well told, with a clear message, characters that feel real and face everyday dilemmas, then you could do a lot worse than to go out and obtain your own sense of an ending.

 

 

June 3, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN TEN AND A HALF CHAPTERS by JULIAN BARNES

HistoryOfTheWorld 

Religion culture art history – all these things are commonly discussed and examined in the books we read here at bookgroup, and we love it. But what does a woodworm or a termite think of Noah, or medieval jurisprudence? Don’t care?
Well Julian Barnes does and this book is super smart, and laugh out loud funny, because he tells these ten and a half history based stories from such bizarre perspectives.
I found his invented transcript of an apparently real court case from 13th century France hilarious. it involves the prosecution of a family of wood worms for allegedly ‘rendering the bishop of Amiens into a state of imbecility’. It is written in perfectly logical barrister-style legalese, and the arguments of the prosecution for excommunication were as compelling as those of the defence. By rotting the leg of the bishops throne were they doing the evil work of the devil, or serving god’s purpose by behaving as god created, and intended, them to?
This retelling of medieval Europe was completely ridiculous and completely  believable, as  were the other 9 and a half other bizarre point of view chapters. He does biblical criticism by telling the story of Noah’s ark from a woodworm’s perspective. He does colonisation and finding the new world from the point of view of a 1970s english actor writing back to his lover from the Amazon jungle, while shooting a movie recreating first contact between the church and a lost tribe. He does nuclear apocalypse as a woman so certain destruction is coming, and so annoyed at others lack of anxiety, that she sails away from civilisation and becomes lost and delirious for some weeks post rescue.
All these were perfectly done: the writing fast; characters convincing; the scholarship on history, politics and religion acute; and all of it very funny. I guess the only criticism might be the obscurity of the connections between stories, and whether Barnes fails, or even wants, to make an overall point. However for many readers this will be a strength not a weakness. His point, if there is one, is about complexity, humanity, and enduring chaos.
Thankfully he makes this point in a confident irreverent matter of fact way, not in some jargonistic relativistic post modern way. That is, he is tough on many of his subjects: the church; the actor; the neurotic woman sailor of the future; and even nature. He doesn’t just say if it makes sense to you it makes sense. Neither does he impose a reading of history on his history of the world – excuse me for hypocritically borrowing some post-modern  jargon.
In the end what he gives us is a funny, smart, and imaginative reflection on the stories we tell ourselves about our past, and our future.

September 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm Leave a comment

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

Redemption. What does it take to redeem a book, or a life? Page after page and day after day of struggle, either searching for or talking and writing about meaning and beauty, but failing to find it. Can 10 beautiful pages justify the previous 300? Can an ending, or our ending,  redeem what came before? Can the long view of hindsight outweigh the page by page reading experience, or the moment by moment day by day experience of living ?
Perhaps it can. Most bookgroupers were very positive about the hedgehog. Two of us were not. We complained loudly that it droned on, took too long to get to the point, and could have started half way through, etc. Whilst the enthusiasts agreed it took a while to get going, they felt it was more than worth it. Fascinatingly though, the negative among us had not finished the book, while the positive had.
So the positives were reviewing the book in hindsight, post the emotional, but redemptive ending. In contrast, we negatives were still in the tortured moment, without the benefit of looking back and weighing the sum of our frustrations and insight.
I will focus more on the positives and negatives of the book later.
It’s an open question whether the positive bookgroupers would have been negative if asked before the ending. As a negative that subsequently completed the book I find myself agnostic. I would like to believe in the redeemer, to acknowledge i could not have found meaning in the end without all the pain of the journey, but I cannot. i find myself with residual resentment. All those pages of pain and frustration could have been spent doing something else. Did I really have to go through them for the heartfelt beauty of the ending?
Perhaps not. Perhaps Renee’s life of hidden intellectualism was a sad waste, un-redeemed by a few weeks of companionship at the end? The problem is that it is hard to deny that her life was not redeemed by her impact on Paloma.
Is that it? The point is not to weigh the sum of our pain and pleasure and ask whether at the end, in hindsight, will I be in the red or black, but rather is anyone else better off because of me? Not have I been saved, but has anyone else?
The trouble is Renee can never know whether Paloma was saved or not. So whilst the fate of Paloma may be a redemption for us as readers of the hedgehog, it may not be for us as people, because we can never know the impacts we have on those around us, the readers of our lives.
Still undecided about the hedgehog? Here is some more on the positives and negatives.
For the negative bookgroupers the big issue was that three quarters of the book is the setup. The action and plot only start after this lengthy introduction. Not only was the introduction too long, it was also too hard to swallow for us negatives, though not for the majority of bookgroupers i should say.
Our two protagonists are a super intelligent 12 year old bent on suicide, and a concierge, building caretaker, hiding her true enlightened cultured nature from the upper class residents of a Paris  apartment block. I found them both annoying. Firstly, the kid is a black hole of negativity, although perhaps many of us were as teenagers. Secondly, the premise of the concierge hiding her true self, well it had me baffled throughout. I never understood the point of it as she never had a reason, or reward, for doing it.
Within this, one way of expressing what annoyed me was their lack of generosity. Both characters were constantly banging on about bad grammar for example. I’m not sure I believe someone can be considered some sort of elevated soul just because they are really keen on art and beauty for their own sake, if at the same time they are still accusatory and dismissive of everyone around them.
Yet the author appears to want us to believe her two protagonists are a higher caste than the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle. This lack of generosity and constant judgement, illustrated by their obsession with grammar, however, suggests they might just be pretentious elitists trying to tell themselves they are better than everyone else by claiming they are super sensitive and knowledgeable about Art and Beauty. In short, they seem to be great examples of exactly the kind of fakery and self deception they are critiquing in the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle.
This set-up also seems very old fashioned and hypocritical. Why make a big fuss over the idea that a concierge could be intelligent? It is extremely patronising. It is the kind of thing you might expect to read in a romantic nineteenth century novel. It implies a multitude of nineteenth century romantic ideas on the part of the author, such as: the nature of the members of each class is different and fixed; both the lumpen proletariat and bourgeois are obnoxious, only the sensitive artistic soul is important; the normal laws of behaviour don’t apply to exceptional sensitive artistic souls who see so much more in the world than others.  In this sense the hedgehog is a pre-modern novel.
After pages and pages of this i felt like  both protagonists deserved to get their comeuppance for their obnoxious ungenerous reverse snobbery.
On the  positive side it is a very intelligent book. There are lots of lectures on art and philosophy, lots of sharp social observation and criticism.  Many book groupers found it to be well written, even though we were reading it in translation. They also found the characters engaging and the set-up interesting rather than frustrating.
Even for we negatives there were some delightful moments, particularly towards the end. For example, when the hero of the book, Monsiuer Ozu, discovers her secret he says to Renee what i had been wanting to say to her all along – ‘its the twenty first century for goodness sake’. This was great moment and credit to the author she gave Renee’s character no answer. Similarly towards the end, Renee christens Paloma the ‘Judge of Humanity’. This very neatly captured what had been annoying me so much about Paloma throughout.
These two moments were a great relief because they revealed, after three quarters of the book, that the author was aware of the flaw in these characters. It revealed that these  flaws had been deliberately created to make a point, and that the characters were not just simply speaking for the author.
On the whole it was a very worthwhile read and most people will love it. If you find the start slow, as i did, skip to the half way mark and carry on from there. It is definitely worth reading from there to the end.

This fantastic book site has a lot more stuff about it.

April 27, 2013 at 6:41 am 2 comments

i thought graham greene‘s – the power and the glory  would provide an interesting comparison with our recent bookgroup on lacuna by barbara kingsolver, because it starts in mexico just before the period described in lacuna. As it turned out, the 70 year time difference, and the authors’ viewpoints, made them completely different propositions.

Bookgrouper’s enjoyed Greene’s writing. He relentlessly, vividly, painted a grey, drab depressed world – reminiscent of ‘the road’ i thought. He also relentlessly and vividly painted what he saw as the crisis of conscience, morals, belief, call it what you will, of his protagonist – the whiskey priest.

The priest believes himself to be an adulterer, a drunk, a proud, ambitious, falsely pious fraud, and a greedy coward. in short, a very bad priest. Nevertheless, some years after all the other priests have been, captured, shot or fled to neighbouring states, he remains, and when opportunity arises says mass, takes confession etc.

Greene makes a great deal of this contradiction. As a catholic convert himself, greene thinks this is a tremendously challenging scenario. to him, however bad the priest is, or whatever his motives are, he is doing good. he is saving souls by providing communion and confession. he is literally allowing people into heaven who cant get there without a priest’s intervention in the form of the catholic sacraments.

He then emphasises it even more with two plot twists that turn the screws on what he obviously sees as irresolvable moral choices.

Firstly he has the baddy of the story take a hostage from every village and start shooting them one by one till they hand over the priest. This sends our ‘bad priest’s’ guilty conscience into overdrive as he believes innocent peasants are dying for him – the very unworthy whiskey priest – but if he goes or gives himself up no peasants will get the sacraments?

Next, the priest finally decides to leave and crosses just over the border into safety, rests a few days in a peaceful village, and interestingly quickly falls back in to his old greedy, falsely pious, priestly ways. he is about to move on to a civilised city, when a known traitor finds him him and tells him a murderer is dying and wants absolution before he dies.

Greene thinks this is the ultimate in moral conflict. The priest goes with the traitor knowing he is being led into the arms of the police to be shot, but also believing that if there is a chance the murderer is dying and does want absolution he should give it.

If you suspend your disbelief, take on the mind set of the character and Greene, then you can see all this moral agonising is very well thought out and complex and interesting, and some bookgroupers got a lot from that.

Unfortunately for me, as an ex-catholic, i just felt it beautifully detailed the consequences you buy yourself, and the peasants who trust you, when you believe in magical nonsense like heaven, repentance, confession, and the transubstatiation of the body and blood of christ. Poor and innocent people die for nothing.

So the book may have been a classic in its time, but for me, the best part of a century later it felt well out of date. It felt like it painted a very colonial, rascist, somewhat cartoonish picture of mexico. This made the contrast with ‘the lacuna’ acute. Written in our time about mexico only a few years later, it felt thoroughly contemporary, vibrant and real. However, I have to be honest I have never been to Mexico so i am in no position to judge.

To emphasise that my view of the book may be a long way from universal, one bookgrouper who has spent time in mexico liked the book a lot, and felt the description of landscape etc was on the money.

November 10, 2012 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

THE ODYSSEY by HOMER

When rosy fingered Dawn rose over the wine dark sea Dave and his strong grieved companions, each in their fine palace, appointed with good things, grunted and rolled over.

When Coffee, the beloved offspring of Helios and Rumour, had ministered to the companions they gathered together in counsel. The stewards brought bread, and placed many good things upon it. They brought strong wine from the far country where the men play with balls all day and are fearsome to look upon. Then when the noble strong companions had put away their desire for eating and drinking Donfrancisco addressed them in winged words.

Beloved companions, the resolute Leannarkos, the never failing Markopoulos, the astute Petermaous, we have a Journey that only heroes and gods would attempt. Our dear companion, the most loyal of all friends, the resolute and enduring Trishanikis, whose perseverence rivals even that of immortal Sisyphus has summoned us to her strange country where dwell not eaters of bread, men as we know them, but eaters of maccaroons. We must cross the wide ocean where the fishes swarm, and Posiedon earth shaker rules. We must enter upon the roads where Eternal Traffic, despiser of men and most fickle of gods, the trickster daughter of Fate and Luck, can entrap men for many lifetimes.

And so he addressed them in winged words and they spoke back and forth among them until brave Karlaniphous spoke. Noble Donfrancisco, best of men, and all my beloved companions, this is the plan that seems best to me. We must summon the stewards from our well appointed palaces and see that all things are made ready, all provisions are stowed in the well benched black ships, then must make libations and hecatombs to the great god Google, only he can show the best way to make our journey to avoid the briny arms of Poseidon earth shaker and ruler of fishes, to defeat wily Traffic and all her allies.

And so it goes on – its a very long book and its at least 3000 years old and wasn’t written down for about 500 years after it was composed – so you have to cut it a bit of slack.

All the repetition and the unnecessary length and detail are believed to be there because it was an oral tradition. It was entertainment through the long nights so in some ways, back then, the longer the story the better. At least that is what the intro to my translation said.

There are lots of other interesting things to observe about it including the translation issue, the colour issue, the hospitality issue, the gods issue and the hero figure.

However, the first third is quite dull. The parody above is based on that section. It goes on and on like that. The book really only gets going in the middle when odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventure. While this part is still a bit annoying because odysseus himself seems to be quite obnoxious, it does have a lot of action and it does introduce a lot of greek gods. This is quite useful because we have grown up with these gods but most of us dont know them in detail.

So i would say that section is worth reading, but skip the rest – unless you have a need to feel you have read what is probably the foundational piece of literature for our western culture.

In which case, you may be interested in this  study guide and/or these observations.

The translation issue

A big question when approaching homer is which translation to read. This guide to the main ones is the best decision aid i have found. if you want to totally confuse yourself check out the full list of every english translation ever. one of the issues is that it was apparently recited in iambic pentameter (the same rhythmic structure often used by shakespeare) in the ancient greek, so is it more authentic to read a translation that is in verse or is it better to read prose which is more likely to get the translation closer because it doesnt have to worry about rhythm and loud and soft syllables etc.

The colour issue

While reading it I was listened to this radiolab podcast which had a segment about why the colour blue is never used by homer anywhere in his books. The segment said
What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
i thought it was fascinating. more on the issue here just to prove the strange folk at radiolab are not the only ones to notice this. however the translation I read does use blue. the sea is ‘wine-blue’ throughout not ‘wine-dark’ – bit of ad-libbing by the translator?

The hospitality issue

Most of odysseus’ adventures are based around the idea of people being to hospitable to guests or not hospitable enough, or guests taking advantage of their hosts. For example the central issue is that odysseus is away for 10 years and is annoyed that the ‘suitors’ abused he hospitality of his house all that time. He kills them all for this. The guest/host relationship is an odd thing to be the central theme in an adventure story to people of our time. The intro to my translation claims this is because homer was a wandering poet and effectively lived off hospitality, so it was in his self interest to encourage hosts to be generous.

The gods issue

It is very obvious from the odyssey that the ancient greeks very sensibly just made every inexplicable natural phenomena into a god. Then they made all these gods very fickle and interactive so they could make lots of stories of how various gods related to each other to explain various events. Its a great system if you have no science and its much the same approach that nearly all pre-scientific cultures adopted allround the world. The book puts you inside the head of people like that, of religious people in modern times also perhaps, so that is interesting.

The hero figure

Odysseus is literally the archetypal hero for our culture. What is interesting about that is that he has lots of characteristics we still regrd as heroic – physically big, capable and beautiful. He also seems to have quite a few we might not think of highly – reckless, vengeful, selfish, impetuous, self indulgent. Its quite interesting to compare him to arny schwarznegger, bruce willis, russell crowe or tom cruise type heroes.

July 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by JEFFREY EUGENIDES


If you are male and  went to university in the eighties, this book is likely to be very relevant and familiar. So much so one bookgrouper said – i loved it, this is my life, i lived this. Luckily for me I’m in that category, so my feeling about it was similar. However if you are older, younger or female, or didn’t go to university, I’m not sure it will have the same autobiographical feel.

The great thing about it for blokes of my era and background was that it covered, in some detail, a number of issues that have had an impact on our lives, either at uni or subsequently via our friends and family and the women we have known. it starts off with french post modern feminism, then moves on to depression, and then to religion.

I, like most of my peers, have had friends, lovers, and family heavily affected by these things, and through that they have affected me.

The way the author deals with these things is through the marriage plot of the title. The marriage plot is a reference to 19th century novels of the jane austen type. The book is a self conscious attempt to write a jane austen novel for the 21st century. Instead of an english manor house in the 1800’s its set in an american university in the 1980’s, but it still has the classic austen heroine, madelaine, tossing up between two suitors. Austen’s darkly handsome Mr Darcy is played by the charismatic manic depressive leonard, while the sensible ‘good match’ is mitchell.

Not being female I can’t be sure of the accuracy of the maddy character. she certainly reflects how i thought women were back in the 80s, but i definitely wouldn’t claim that my impressions bore any resemblance to how they really were. In contrast the mitchell and leonard characters really rang true.

Some of the minor characters were also great nostalgia trips for me. In particular when mitchell sets off for the then obligatory post-university backpacking trip through europe he meets claire, his mates girlfriend, in paris. Claire, like so many women of the time is in to the french post feminism thing. Mitchell says of her

Under the pressure of becoming a critic of patriarchy, Claire uncritically accepted every fashionable theory that came her way

Mitchell also has a few great lines about himself. For example, crying alone in an Athens hotel he says of himself

his awkwardness, his charm, his shyness, everything that made him almost but not quite the guy for her. the letter felt like a verdict on his entire life so far, sentencing him to end up here, lying on a bed, alone, in an athenian hotel room, too weighed down by self-pity to go out and climb the goddam acropolis.

On his first visit to Maddy’s family home as a first year uni student, he is amazed by the difference between her educated upper middle class surroundings and those of his family. he remembers seeing ice cream in the freezer

not a greedy half gallon, as they had a mitchell’s house in michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate or strawberry but a flavour he had never dreamed of before

I remember those experiences or things very like them.

There are also some great scenes between the depressed leonard and the dutiful girlfriend maddy that are very familiar. Reading them i felt i had seen them played over and over between numerous couples i know – the bloke is neatly manipulating the woman by referring to his problems all the time, while she chooses not to assert her needs, and he seems blind to the idea that she might have any, beyond looking after him.

In some ways i think the really clever and subtle thing about the book is the way it ends. It really ties together all the key themes, and for me at least, illustrates the lessons that people of my era learnt from living through those times, and those ideas.

  • The Austen marriage plot is updated to 21st century standards because maddy does not make an austenesque choice between options, she finds her own option.
  • Even though Mitchell is a non-believer who majors in religious studies because he wants to find god, in the end he realises there is a god that he has been devoted to, and that he has to give her up.
  • Likewise Leonard finds a way to spare her from a life sentence with his depression.

The way all these strands are resolved and tied together is not only clever but quite useful in terms of what the Sandman – another character from that era – might have called ‘advice for the unsuccessful and desperate’.

Even so, prior to this ending, it was tedious at times in same way Austen is tedious at times. Like Austen it has pages and pages of what we now call the self talk of the characters, and the characters are not very extraordinary and not in very extraordinary situations. While this can be good as its familiar and relevant, it can get very dull, especially if, like most of us, you have already read a lot of those books.

May 12, 2012 at 7:32 am Leave a comment

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