Why do we raise our eyebrows at relationships between two people of markedly different ages? Why are we in such a hurry to classify certain romantic e...moreWhy do we raise our eyebrows at relationships between two people of markedly different ages? Why are we in such a hurry to classify certain romantic entanglements as being "exploitative", and can we ever be clear exactly who is exploiting whom anyway? These are just some of the questions you're likely to ask yourself while reading Notes on a Scandal.
On paper, this looks like a pretty cut-and-dried case: a 42-year-old married female teacher pursues a sexual relationship with a 15/16-year-old schoolboy. It's criminal behaviour, it draws forth both scorn and condemnation from the media, it ruins lives and taints reputations - but it's testament to Heller's writing skills that by the end of the novel you may well find yourself sympathising with the "criminal" Sheba Hart rather than the "victim" Steven Connolly. After all, the novel suggests, Connolly basically just has a rather enjoyable sexual experience and then gets on with his life; it is Sheba who suffers as a result, Sheba who must endure not only the pangs of lost love but the pain of a broken marriage, a destroyed reputation and an impending jail sentence.
The "notes on a scandal" of the title refers to the account of the affair written by Barbara Covett. Barbara is a fellow schoolteacher, a spinster who is atrociously lonely, and who is also - apparently - Sheba's most loyal friend. Barbara is the kind of woman - snide, snippy, and a self-righteous old gossip - who you'd avoid like the plague in real life, but actually as a narrator she's rather delightful company, digging right into the salacious heart of the scandal on behalf of the reader. She's curiously self-deluding on occasion, but at other times she manages to nail the people around her with such brilliant precision that you can't help but be impressed. She's wickedly funny, and at other times is heartrending as she constantly confronts the haunting fact of her own crushing loneliness. This, is turns out, is why she is so loyal to Sheba: she needs Sheba, she has to feel that she has someone giving meaning to her life, and she'll do just about anything to keep her. Sheba hands this extraordinary power to Barbara when she tells her about her affair with Connolly, and her confession proves to be something of an incendiary. Barbara can, depending on her mood, either put it quietly and safely to one side or light the fuse, put her fingers in her ears and stand well back ...
There are some faults with the novel, certainly: the character of Barbara comes perilously close to being a cliché (she even has a pet cat that she dotes on, just as stereotypical lonely old spinsters everywhere are said to have). Also, Steven is made to sound rather repulsive - he has no obvious attractions, either physically, mentally or personality-wise - so it's rather hard to understand why Sheba is even attracted to him, let alone so obsessed that she'll risk everything for his sake.
Still, those faults are more like minor niggles than fatal flaws. This is a compelling, quick read - I got through it in about three evenings, and couldn't wait to get home and pick it up again. By turns funny and grim, it will draw you in and make you question some of your assumptions. I don't think Heller expects you to draw any profound moral from it; it's more of a dissection of the dynamics and power-struggles of personal and sexual relations, and an examination of societal and personal responses to sexual scandals. Read and enjoy.(less)
**spoiler alert** If Daphne du Maurier had spent her life writing novels like Jamaica Inn, it’s possible that she’d be an almost forgotten name by now...more**spoiler alert** If Daphne du Maurier had spent her life writing novels like Jamaica Inn, it’s possible that she’d be an almost forgotten name by now. Rebecca is, after all, her acknowledged masterpiece, and she also had quite a way with the short story (The Birds, Don’t Look Now). Compared with these works, Jamaica Inn is an old-fashioned gothic wheeze, a melodrama of the kind that’s gone out of favour in recent years. However, don’t let that put you off. If you like tightly-plotted thrillers and/or gothic tales, this is for you.
Jamaica Inn starts a little like Dracula: a carriage carries an unsuspecting stranger across sinister countryside to a place so fearful that the locals can barely bring themselves to speak of it. The unsuspecting stranger in this case is Mary Yellan, who promised her dying mother that she’d go to live with her aunt. Unfortunately for Mary, her aunt is now living in the eponymous Jamaica Inn on the wilds of Bodmin Moor, and is married to a violent, cruel man whose activities are not altogether on the right side of the law. As Mary gets drawn into this murky world, she has to use her courage and wits to the utmost in order to survive.
This is a page-turner: by the end of chapter one you’re hooked, and du Maurier’s deft narrative keeps you reading. Let it said, whatever du Maurier’s faults as a writer were, defective plotting certainly wasn’t one of them. The relentlessly sinister atmosphere, the brooding backdrop, the ever-deepening layers of mystery – it’s just so damn compelling. In fact, it’s so good that you almost forget the flaws, though they’re pretty obvious in places.
For one thing, many of these characters could have been drawn straight from a list of stereotypes: the broken, abused wife; the plucky, feisty young heroine; the brutish, brawny and intellectually-challenged thug; the lovable rogue. Likewise, many of the plot developments are really quite clichéd, and probably were so even when du Maurier wrote the novel. In a similar vein, the ending is unsatisfactory: Mary, having been through utter hell and having in any case concluded that romantic love is a myth and a sham, nevertheless decides that her destiny lies with the villain’s younger brother, a man who bears an unnerving resemblance to said villain and who will almost certainly make her miserable – as she herself acknowledges, as they ride away into the sunset. Is wanton self-sabotage really the common fate of all women?
Still, if you can overlook such minor flaws as these, this is a good, entertaining read, and an enlightening glimpse at a writing career that was shortly to peak with Rebecca. In fact, the worst thing I can think of about this novel is that it changed the real Jamaica Inn from a lonely, quiet old coaching inn into a tacky tourist trap. That distant rumbling sound is probably du Maurier turning in her grave ... (less)
The psychological ghost story ... No blood, no guts, no rattling chains or subterranean torture chambers. Just careful, controlled, cumulative shivers...moreThe psychological ghost story ... No blood, no guts, no rattling chains or subterranean torture chambers. Just careful, controlled, cumulative shivers that, at their best, force you to question what the nature of reality is, and where exactly the border between the thing perceived and the subject perceiving it lies. Do we trust our senses in trying to evaluate the nature of the world? If not, what other measures do we have recourse to; and, if so, do we have to take everything perceived, however seemingly absurd, as an indication of reality? Henry James explored this unnerving territory; so too did Shirley Jackson. Now Sarah Waters has launched another expedition, in a novel that both pays tribute to her esteemed predecessors and breaks new ground.
Post WWII, austerity Britain: a Labour government is in power; the National Health Service is on its way in, and the old social structure is on its way out. Rural physician Dr Faraday is in many ways representative of the changing times - of humble origins, he's a self-made man whose rise coincides with his social betters' fall. Yet he too seems in many ways uneasy about this quiet evolution, or revolution: in particular, he's worried about the impact of the NHS on his livelihood, while in more general terms he seems to yearn for the more settled and orderly world he remembers from his childhood. He's lived all his life in the shadow of the local manor house, Hundreds Hall, and the Ayres family, its owners. He remembers it, and them, as grand, impressive, enchanting; yet when he's called in to treat a supposedly sick maid, he finds dearth, decay and a kind of controlled desperation. The much-depleted Ayres family - tortured war veteran Rod, plain, hearty spinster Caroline, and their frail, embittered mother, Mrs Ayres - have property, but no money, no prospects and, seemingly, no place in a society that is leaving them behind. In time Dr Faraday becomes their confidante and friend and, briefly, Caroline's suitor; and in time, too, some very odd things start happening at the hall. Is there a ghost? Or are the family just haunted by their glorious past and uncertain future, by their own losses and pains and fear? Who is the "little stranger" of the title? You're left to ponder these questions for yourself, and it says something for Waters that, in an age impatient with subtlety, she trusts her readers enough to leave them unanswered.
This is a beautiful book: suggestive, poetic, dark and, yes, haunting. The one thing it isn't, in truth, is frightening, which may disappoint anyone looking for a good scare. Dr Faraday, the narrator, experiences very little personally, so most of the ghostly happenings are recounted second-hand by a sceptical rationalist who's quick to provide answers and accounts. In fact, it sometimes seems that Waters is as keen as anyone to explain everything away, and she's actually rather too successful at it: the chill factor quickly diminishes under Dr Faraday's cool scientific gaze.
Still, it would be churlish to complain too vociferously about it: this was never meant to be blood-curdling horror. It's a meditation on flux and decay, and the consequences of being on the losing side when the tide of history changes. If you like your supernatural served with brains, you'll love this.(less)
Thirteen years after her untimely death, Diana, Princess of Wales still polarises opinions. Was she a beautiful, innocent humanitarian driven to her d...moreThirteen years after her untimely death, Diana, Princess of Wales still polarises opinions. Was she a beautiful, innocent humanitarian driven to her death by hostile forces beyond her control? Or was she a manipulative deceiver, using the media to her advantage and thus, unwittingly, unleashing a monster that would eventually destroy her? Almost everyone has their own view on this vexed question but, as Sarah Bradford attempts to demonstrate in this admirably balanced biography, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Bradford has gone to great lengths, I suspect, to get a fair overview of her subject. She's consulted Diana's friends and supporters, and she's also sought the views of those who were less impressed by her. She examines every period of Diana's life, from her troubled childhood to her all-too-brief days as a carefree girl-about-town, her horribly ill-judged marriage, her divorce, and her last months as a single lady. On the way we learn about a complicated woman who could certainly be manipulative, untruthful, inconsiderate and temperamental - but also a woman possessed of a genuine compassion and humanity, someone who people almost could not help but love.
And yet ... somehow, after reading this, I feel like I understand Diana less than ever. It's a feature of many personalities, of course, that the more closely they are scrutinised the less clear they become, but I suppose I was hoping to somehow arrive at a sharper picture of the Princess. It's true that Bradford displays an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the actual events in Diana's life, but the personality underlying those events always remains somewhat mysterious. Perhaps, indeed, that's why Diana is an icon: she keeps us guessing.
My own opinion, after reading this? A sometimes difficult woman who was ultimately more sinned against than sinning. A guess, of course - I don't know for sure. We probably never will. However, if you want to try to uncover the truth for yourself, this book would be a good place to start.(less)
It's a sad comment on our age, perhaps, that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road - critically lauded upon its publication and now considered a modern cl...moreIt's a sad comment on our age, perhaps, that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road - critically lauded upon its publication and now considered a modern classic - should only really have received the public attention it deserved with the release of the film adaptation a few years ago. Until then, it was quite common for people - even generally well-read people - to have never even heard of, let alone read, this novel. However, while the film version may have done wonders for the book's popularity, it may also have done it a disservice in reducing it to yet another book about the mindlessness of suburbia. Revolutionary Road is so much more than that.
The plot is really rather simple, following a young-ish American couple, Frank and April Wheeler. When they first met they were both bright young things in Greenwich Village, she an aspiring actress and he a vaguely intellectual drifter. Self-confident and radiant with hope as only the young can be, they were both certain they were destined for great things, even if they were never quite sure what those things were. Fast forward a few years, however, and the Wheelers are trapped in a grey, stultifying existence in the Connecticut suburbs. He works in a boring office job, and she stays at home and looks after their two kids. Jaded and resentful, they take their frustrations out on each other; until, after one particularly vicious row, April suddenly has "the most wonderful plan". Why don't they turn their backs on this unsatisfying life, and head off to Paris, where they can really start living and fulfilling their potential?
This is often read - often by those who loathe suburbia on principle - as just another condemnation of suburban life or - by those who loathe America on principle - as just another dissection of the empty heart of the American Dream, blah blah blah. If that were all it was, it might have ended very differently - perhaps (slight spoiler alert) with the Wheelers triumphing over adversity and sailing off to a glorious future in Europe. And while that may certainly have been a happier novel, it would also have been a far less moving and perceptive one. No, Revolutionary Road is about the sometimes comic and often tragic gulf between ambition and ability, about how the imperfect, compromised reality of our lives so rarely lives up to our hopes and fantasies, and how we often tend to be defeated by the limitations inherent in our own characters.
Put simply, the Wheelers aren't nearly as special and interesting as they like to think they are. That isn't the fault of America or suburbia, or even of dull office jobs. It isn't even their fault, as there's nothing they can do about it. It's just the sad reality of their lives, a reality which Frank learns to accept but April just cannot stomach. Furthermore, their general sense of dissatisfaction with their lives doesn't make them somehow special - it just makes them normal. And even if they did succeed in running off to Europe, once the initial exhilaration had died down they'd probably just feel the same there. It's a common, if unfortunate, aspect of human life that we are all dissatisfied with our lot; the feeling is probably very much the same whether you're living in Connecticut or the Latin Quarter, and if the Wheelers had actually been reading any of the Parisian intellectuals they profess to admire they'd probably know that.
And yet somehow you can't help but want the Wheelers to succeed. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if someone could occasionally triumph over the limitations of human life? Isn't that what we all dream of? And it's a measure of Yates' genius that, though the characters are all actually rather hateful, we still sympathise with their predicament and feel their pain, recognising it as our own. And in the last two sentences of the book Yates even, in a few choice, terrifying words, conveys how most of us manage to cope in the end.
And in fact that's one of the most remarkable things about this novel: the way Yates, in writing about one couple with one particular set of problems, nevertheless creates a piece of writing which is universal. Partly this is due to the way the writing tends to come alive on the page. Take this passage, for instance:
"Her smile continued until she was back in the kitchen, clearing away the breakfast dishes into a steaming sinkful of suds; she was still smiling, in fact, when she saw the paper napkin with the diagram of the computer on it, and even then her smile didn't fade; it simply spread and trembled and locked itself into a stiff grimace while the spasms worked at her aching throat, again and again, and the tears broke and ran down her cheeks as fast as she could wipe them away."
A few words and you're there, in that sunny Connecticut kitchen, alone and afraid and floundering amongst the wreckage of a dead marriage.
Needless to say, this is not a cheerful read. Indeed, if you're trapped in a home you don't like or a job you hate, or if you're in an unhappy relationship or are even just a little dissatisfied with your life, you may find it a little too close to the bone for comfort. However, why not grit your teeth and read it anyway? It may not solve your problems, but you'll rarely see them described with such precision and eloquence.(less)
The plot of The Winter House is simplicity itself - a group of old friends (one of whom is dying) get together and reminisce. Think you've heard it be...moreThe plot of The Winter House is simplicity itself - a group of old friends (one of whom is dying) get together and reminisce. Think you've heard it before? You have. After all, the friends you make during the earthly hell of school and adolescence are often the best friends you ever have, and who can resist some misty-eyed nostalgia, especially when they're standing on the grey shores of encroaching middle age? A lot of writers certainly can't, and so the "old friends get together and remember" thing has been done many times before. What sets The Winter House apart is just how well it's done.
Marnie, the most unheroine-like heroine, finds her rather boring life turned upside down when a sudden telephone call summons her to the remote Scottish Highlands. Her old friend Ralph is dying of cancer, and is being cared for by their mutual friend and Marnie's one-time boyfriend Oliver. As Ralph slips away - a process described in occasionally grim detail - Marnie reminisces about their shared past, and her memories are interspersed with Ralph's own, more lyrical, take on them.
It seems a strange thing to say about so sombre a story, but this is essentially quite a happy novel - full of resilient optimism and, to use a term I loathe, life-affirming. While Gerrard certainly doesn't sentimentalise the process of dying, she does nevertheless allow us to salvage some sense of hope and purpose from it. Moreover, she's very good at unearthing the beauty and meaning present in the most normal of lives. Marnie is an average woman, not beautiful or exceptional in any way, yet her life is presented as a thing of importance and interest. There's also some beautiful writing here too, with everything from the icy Scottish winter to the windswept Eastern English coast brought to immediate and glorious life by Gerrard.
While I enjoyed The Winter House, I can't honestly say it was a thrilling read; the characters, for instance, though strong, didn't really make a deep impression somehow, and I found the whole thing rather less affecting than I was supposed to (I suspect). If, however, you can handle what is basically a prolonged deathbed scene and enjoy lyrical description and delicate, controlled writing, you may well like this.(less)
Oh heck. Never have my feelings about a book been quite so conflicted. I think I appreciate what Bret Easton Ellis was trying to do with this novel; I...moreOh heck. Never have my feelings about a book been quite so conflicted. I think I appreciate what Bret Easton Ellis was trying to do with this novel; I think he succeeded, to a large extent. It's just that I don't think I've ever enjoyed a book less.
For a start, there's the violence. Be warned: you need a strong stomach for this one. As in, a very strong stomach. It's true that there's a definite suggestion that the murders only take place in the protagonist's mind, rather than in reality, but still - they're vividly imagined. And while I'm not very easy to shock, and don't object to violence in fiction per se, this is something else. If you're a delicate soul who faints at the sight of blood, give this one a miss. Please. I mean it.
Weirdly, though, what's most agonising about American Psycho is not the gore, but the bits in between. When blood isn't spurting every which way, it's really sort of dull. Patrick Bateman has absolutely no moral compass, no finer feelings, no pity; in his glassy-eyed vacuity, he only values what he wears, where he goes, what he has, and the mind-numbing, soul-stifling pap that he watches on TV. It is in fact a little like listening to the dead-of-eye office bore droning on and on about the minutiae of his/her life until you want to scream. There's no joy, no sorrow, no rage, no acceptance, no fear. There's no hope, and there's no despair either - there's just hollowness, which is far, far worse. And of course, this being a comment on the empty heart of hyper-Capitalism, that's probably the whole point. But it's painful. And at the same time, I sort of couldn't put it down. Which is probably also the whole point.
I get the feeling I've stopped making much sense here, and since I generally value lucidity that's also an indication of the effect American Psycho has on me. I honestly didn't know whether to give it 1 star or 5, and so I've decided to err on the side of generosity and give it 4. It's really sort of brilliant; it's just that I absolutely hated it.(less)
I must admit, before picking this book up I'd never read Jodi Picoult before. I knew she was wildly popular, prolific and highly-praised for her work,...moreI must admit, before picking this book up I'd never read Jodi Picoult before. I knew she was wildly popular, prolific and highly-praised for her work, and people had been recommending her to me for years, so I thought I'd finally take the plunge.
Was it worth it?
Well, yes and no. Firstly, there's no doubt about it: Salem Falls is a fast-paced page-turner with more twists and turns than a rollercoaster ride. Nor is Picoult shy of dealing with those contentious topics - rape, incest, the shortcomings of the legal system - that fluffier fiction will not touch. And there's a strong moral here, namely that we shouldn't pre-judge people until we know the facts. Besides, this is good entertainment value, with a cleverly-constructed plot; it's well-written for the most part, and if you're looking for a relatively undemanding read this could be for you.
But ... somehow, I'm just underwhelmed. I prefer my novels to have a bit of depth, and this, for all its glittering lights and colours, just seemed to be all surface. I mean, some of these characters are so flat! One-dimensional, walking, talking marionettes, they seem to exist solely to flesh out Picoult's narrative. Take our hero, Jack St Bride - is this character one of the most shameful examples of authorial wish-fulfillment ever? He's so incredibly handsome that just about every woman he encounters falls madly in love with him. He's strong - but gentle. He's intelligent - but sensitive. He's the best teacher ever. He rescues helpless damsels from oversexed footballers. He comforts a grieving mother. Oh, and he's rich too. In fact, he quickly comes to resemble a sort of modern-day secular saint: think Princess Diana with a Y-chromosome. Does this man have any flaws at all? Well, he gets a bit annoyed at being falsely accused all the time. In fact, he almost gets angry on one occasion. Wow - that's depth for you.
Besides, all these characters are so moronically stupid! Addie, despite a painful past involving a rape, wastes no time in falling for a complete stranger, despite the fact that he's very clearly hiding some dark secret. Teenage girls respond to Jack's rejection by making false accusations against him, apparently unaware of or indifferent to the hornets' nest this will stir up. Same teenage girls deliberately take a massive overdose of poison during their Wiccan ceremonies, oblivious to the fact that, as they're in the middle of the woods, there'll be no medical help forthcoming if it all goes horribly wrong. Even Jack (who's meant to be really clever, apparently because he's good at a TV trivia quiz) can't work out that some relationships with teenage girls, while not sexual, may nevertheless be inappropriate. I mean, driving an underage girl off to get birth control pills?! (Oh, and by the way, Einstein - if you're a convicted sex offender, it's probably not a good idea to hang around near school sports fields accosting teenage girls.)
So ... meh. It wasn't that bad, and it wasn't that great either. Oh, and another thing - the much-lauded final twist can be seen coming a mile away, so don't get too excited about that, either.(less)
I must admit, I’ve never been unduly fond of the whole rites-of-passage, coming-of-age genre. To my mind – due perhaps to one or two bad past experien...moreI must admit, I’ve never been unduly fond of the whole rites-of-passage, coming-of-age genre. To my mind – due perhaps to one or two bad past experiences – it suggests nothing so much as overwrought prose and supposed daring providing a fig leaf of modesty barely large enough to cover underlying weak plotting, poor characterisation and over-the-top angst penned by authors who don’t seem to have realised that having feelings does not in itself make you special or interesting, but just human. I picked up A Gate at the Stairs with some trepidation, then: this was, after all, as the cover informed me, a story about a twenty-year-old student seeking to escape a provincial background in an oh-so-liberal university town, being stripped of her innocence and illusions in the process, and, well, growing up a bit. But – would you believe it? – Lorrie Moore has, apart from anything else, just reminded me that preconceptions are a bad, bad thing. A Gate at the Stairs is not just good, it’s really quite brilliant.
It has its faults, certainly. The writing drags sometimes, and the overuse of exclamation marks (always! everywhere!) can get annoying. The jokes don’t always work very well, the characters felt a little flat to me, and some of the plot developments (especially one involving a boyfriend who is not all he seems) are creaky. Still, Moore takes you right to the heart of everything she writes about, whether it’s the American Midwest, romantic love or bereavement. Part of this is due to her almost psychic grasp of the correct word or phrase to nail her intended meaning precisely. Indeed, if language alone excites you, you’ll love this book. A (very) few examples:
“A scalding boldness gripped Amber’s face, then a kind of guilt, then drifty blankness, like songs off a jukebox list, flipped through unchosen.”
“She was like a stickleback fish caught inland as the glacier retreated and the rivers – the only access to the sea – disappeared. She would have to make do, in this landlocked lake of love.”
“Edward’s middle-aged face turned slightly, tensed with an adolescent’s wordless hate.”
“The gothic knell of a wedding bell, the hangman’s rope grown straight out of the chest then looped like tasseling around the tables. Rat teeth raking the cake. Beauty could not love you back.”
When you weigh the book’s flaws against language like that, it seems churlish to complain too much about them. Besides, I defy anyone to tell me that a book containing the sentence “Did he not have the speed-dating of fruit flies to chaperone?” does not justify its existence by virtue of that alone. (less)
That Deirdre Madden has been compared to Jean Rhys gives you some indication of what to expect from this novel: soul-searching and angst. As Rhys so o...moreThat Deirdre Madden has been compared to Jean Rhys gives you some indication of what to expect from this novel: soul-searching and angst. As Rhys so often did, Madden focusses here on a young woman, in this case Aisling, who, having left her native Ireland some years before, finds herself working as an interpreter and translator in a small town in Umbria.
Madden draws you deeply into this world with her vivid, sensual writing; you'll learn more than perhaps you'd care to know about the sordid grubbiness underlying Umbria's picture-postcard surface, and the dichotomy between the Italy beloved of tourists and the real Italy. Ever the odd one out, Aisling veers between the outsider's inability to understand the peculiar world in which she finds herself, and the occasional flashes of insight that probably only a true outsider could ever have. There are a lot of disturbing reflections on life, love, sex and death, like this one: "The sun itself that made the fruit so ripe and big, that seemed to make the people bloom so early and so evidently, mercilessly pushed everything over into decay ..." - and this is just the very first page!
As Aisling says elsewhere, "I'm not a person who has much talent for happiness." Well, you can say that again! This is actually one of the problems with this book: for a grown woman, Aisling spends an awful lot of time moaning like a teenager. Her sullen dislike of just about everyone and everything makes her trying company sometimes. After all, her life isn't so very bad: she lives in a beautiful place, and has a secure job and a kind-hearted, sweet-tempered, intelligent boyfriend, but none of these things seem to make her happy. There's a dearth of humour here, and a lack too of those little light-hearted moments and small consolations that help to make life bearable for most of us.
However, and having said that, this is actually a pretty compelling read. The plot's quite thin, but this is really a novel about a woman's inner life, and Madden is so lucid, so intelligent, and so astute that the narrative not only carries you along but also makes the journey well worth your while. Indeed, a week or more after finishing the novel, I find it lingering in my mind, which is surely one of the measures of an author's success.
Needless to say, if you want a light-hearted little read, this is not the book for you. But if you've a high tolerance threshold for weltschmerz, and want to read something a little more intelligent and challenging than your average blockbuster, why not try this? I can't promise that you'll enjoy it exactly, but I don't think you'll regret making the effort.(less)