I first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which iI first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which is the narrator's description and explanation of a character called Robert Cohn. I don't know why I had so much trouble reading it, just that I couldn't follow it, couldn't keep track of it. It wasn't a good way to start. Then, I was hoping right up to the last page for a happy ending. I felt cheated that I didn't get it. Kind of like "why the hell did I read this then?"
This time around (reading it again for a book club - I missed the meeting, incidentally), because I knew what to expect, I could focus on all the other things in the novel, knowing that the narrator, Jake, would still be alone at the end of it. That he wouldn't get to keep Brett. And I had no trouble reading the first chapter. Really, the prose is incredibly easy to read, simplistic even, except for when the descriptions get vague.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Set in 1924, Fiesta is the story of Jake, an American living and working in Paris, who goes to Pamplona in Spain to see the bull fighting with some friends, a mix of American and English ex-pats - one of which is Brett, Lady Ashley, a beautiful and charismatic woman of 34 who's waiting for her divorce to come through so she can marry a bankrupt, Mike Campbell.
Jake and Brett met during the war, when he was recovering from an injury. They fell in love, but his injury was of the groin variety so they can't be physically together - hence, she doesn't want to stay with him even though she loves him. Instead, she has casual relationships and affairs, while Jake has to watch. Sometimes he even introduces them. But there's nothing he can do about it.
The story is heavily detailed with the kind of descriptions that, while apparently perfectly acceptable in classics and other works of literature, can be the cause of some rather heavy criticism in genre fiction. Like so:
"I unpacked my bags and stacked the books on the table beside the head of the bed, put out my shaving things, hung up some clothes in the big armoire, and made up a bundle for the laundry. Then I took a shower in the bathroom and went down to lunch." (p.207)
It would be petty of me to ask, Where else would he take a shower? wouldn't it. Shame.
This book is all prose, very little plot. It's not that it's wordy, rather that it reads like a mouth full of crooked, over-crowded teeth. The dialogue is very 20s-specific, and if I was the kind of reviewer who liked to write snappy, witty, clever little reviews, the first thing I'd do is satirise the dialogue. Like so:
"I feel so rotten!" Brett said. "Don't be a damned fool," Jake said. "The count's a brick." "Let's have a drink." "Here's the pub." "This is a hell of a place," Bill said. "Why don't you see when you're not wanted, Cohn? Go away. Take that sad Jewish face away," said Mike. "I feel like hell. Don't let's talk," said Brett. "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Do you still love me Jake?" asked Brett. "Yes." "Because I'm a goner. I'm in love with the bullfighting boy." "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Where's that beer?" Mike asked.
And so on. A lot of repetition, a lot of drunken mouthing off, a lot of really very pointless, empty conversation that goes round and round in circles. The problem is, of course, that the characters are all horrible, shallow, self-interested, boorish, ill-mannered, childish tourists, the kind that make you cringe. Jake is probably the only character you can feel any real sympathy for, but even he has his moments.
As the first-person narrator, it's amazing how little we know Jake's thoughts. He hides behind recounting pointless dialogue and describing mundane things. There are times when he gets thoughtful, wistful even, and those parts are what make the novel worthwhile. It's also very easy to feel like you're in Paris, and Spain. The heavily descriptive prose does help create a realistic, breathing setting. Especially when they reach Pamplona, to watch the bull-fighting. It just also happens to be the place where their behaviour becomes even more embarrassing.
I'm not sure if Hemingway was criticising his fellow ex-pats or not - but I think he is. Maybe he was just describing it how it was - and it is believable. Jake isn't a judgemental character, but I wonder how much of that is Jake and how much Hemingway? This edition doesn't come with any additional notes or introductions or appendices, so I haven't read anything about the novel that might shed light on this. As a chronicle of ex-pat life, especially among those who have money, in the 20s, and of bull-fighting, it's a success. But it's still two-dimensional.
As for the bull-fighting, it's one of the more interesting sections, especially towards the end where there's an involved recounting of three bull-fighters at work. We now know that bull's are red-green colour-blind; it's the movement of the cape that enrages them, not the colour. So I wonder what was wrong with the bull Jake assumed was colour-blind?
As simplistic as I've made this novel sound, there is quite a lot going on in the details, things that make it both interesting and deplorable. The bull fighting, for instance, is both a commemoration and a presentation of a highly controversial topic. There's certainly a parallel between the beauty and brutality of the bull-fighting, and the way these ex-pats treat each other. They are at once unlikeable, and likeable. It just goes to show how confounding humans can be, and how contradictory....more
Very few books have ever made me cry. Off the top of my head, only two really stand out: Charlotte's Web and Thunderwith. I am now adding The Time TraVery few books have ever made me cry. Off the top of my head, only two really stand out: Charlotte's Web and Thunderwith. I am now adding The Time Traveler's Wife to the list, and to the list of books I can't get out of my head for days after.
This is a highly ambitious debut novel. That doesn't mean it doesn't work. I had my doubts, I truly did. And I can never read a book without also noticing typos, editing errors etc., but although they're distracting they can't ruin a good book.
The time traveler is Henry DeTamble, only child of two musicians, whose mum died in a car crash when he was 5 (he was saved only because, due to stress, he time travelled outside the car - which reminded me a lot of the tv show Charmed (one of my secret, now not-so-secret, indulgences), in which Paige "orbed" out of the car crash which kills both her parents - could Niffenegger be a fan also?!?). His time traveling is genetic, like an imperfection or flaw in his genetic code. He can't control it, and it causes more than a few problems in his life. When he travels, he does so suddenly, and turns up in the past or the future, completely naked, with no idea of where or when he is. But he's not completely vulnerable - he taught himself (in one of those mind-bending scenes that only make you ask, Yes, but how did he teach himself?) how to pick locks, pick pockets, steal, fight, run, anything necessary to survive until, equally suddenly, he pops back into the present, be it a few minutes or several days since he disappeared.
This creates not just problems in his social and love life, but also in his job - he's a librarian and his colleagues think he has some kind of kinky thing for running around naked in the stacks.
When he's 28, he meets Clare Abshire for the first time. Only, she's known him since she was six. How? He starts time travelling to her past after he's met her in "real time". It's a disorientating experience for him, to be confronted with this beautiful, red-haired, 20 year old art student who knows a great deal about him - if not his life, certainly his personality - and, though he doesn't know it yet, even lost her virginity to. It's a bit disorientating for us, too, but it's like riding a bike: after a while, you get the hang of it.
This is a love story, and a tragic one at that. Because I like to be optimistic, I began reading this in the expectation of a happy ending. I didn't get it, but that's not really what made me cry. I cried because I had invested so much of my own emotions in the characters, I had come to care for them, to feel for them and hope for them, that the ending shattered me. I cried for Henry, I cried for Clare, I cried for their passion so early ended and the loneliness with which Clare must now live with, despite the child they managed, after 6 miscarriages, to have.
>Set in Chicago over several decades, up to 2008, Niffenegger is obviously in love with her city. Despite that, I didn't get a strong feeling of Chicago, nor a great mental image of it. Perhaps because Henry is all over the place, and Clare's parents live in a different state, or perhaps because the author fails to really get across the true elements of the city, which I have never been to.
I've read several books lately that kept going long after they should have ended. The Lovely Bones, for one example. Not so here. It's a long book, at 518 pages that just flew by, but in those pages you really get to know Clare and Henry and the characters, friends and family and doctors all, around them.
The time travel element is what makes this an ambitious book. Keeping track of their lives, of the insights and hints and clues divulged in one sequence, with when it happens in "real time". At first, I had a sharp eye, looking for slip-ups. By the end, I had to admit I couldn't find any. Although some things are never returned to, like Henry divulging his secret to Gomez, a lawyer in love with Clare but married to her best friend, because he will help him out a lot in the future (the Henry doing the divulging is from the future, and so knew Gomez a lot better than the 28-year-old Henry Gomez had met just the night before) - but this is never returned to, there is no more clue as to what kind of legal trouble Henry gets into, no trials, no arrests (Henry is often arrested for things like indecent exposure, but always "disappears" before they can fingerprint him and find out who he is).
Perhaps it did get a bit melodrammatic toward the end. My perception is clouded, now. I don't want to give too much away, so suffice it to say that certain events leading up to the end were so raw and tragic, I lost myself to the book completely, and went with the flow, no longer trying to find slip-ups or inconsistencies or judging the writing style.
Speaking of which (sorry about this "review", it's all over the place), it's written in present tense, which works well since the time frame is, like this review, all over the place. One line, or description rather, that I particularly loved, was when Henry from the future and Alba, his daughter, from the future, meet and spend time together in 1979 at the beach.
"Tell me a story," says Alba, leaning against me like cold cooked pasta. (p.512)
"like cold cooked pasta" - ooh I can feel it! That clammy feeling, a perfect description for after you've been swimming.
In general, though, Niffenegger's style is not "high brow" literary. I found it easy to read, with a good flow, excellent pace and those philosophical, thoughtful insights and asides you get from a layered writer. She made an effort to get the "voices" right for young Clare and young Henry, though Clare's was more convincing than 5-year-old Henry's.
Really, here, I'm just trying to get all my thoughts down. If they appear a mess, and out of order etc., then that means my brain will be less so, and that works for me. Essentially, having been lucky enough to find "the love of my life", the idea of losing him rips my guts apart. And since I actually want to invest in fictional characters, whether they be in books or in movies etc., I felt their pain, as well as their love and happiness and all the feelings in between. There's a strong story here, told by characters who may not be out of the ordinary in any other way, but who feel and, in feeling, live....more
I would never have read this if it weren't for my bookclub. Having avoided it since it came out, I had very low expectations and so was surprised to bI would never have read this if it weren't for my bookclub. Having avoided it since it came out, I had very low expectations and so was surprised to be engrossed in the story - untill, about half-way through, it seemed to lose the plot and meandered around aimlessly, getting repetitive as it tried to wring emotion out of its characters, and me.
Susie Salmon is dead. She begins her story by describing how she is murdered, and her family's reaction. From her place in heaven, she can watch anyone she wants to, but apart from "touching" Ruth, a fellow 14-year-old student at her school, on her way out, she can't make her presence felt. Ruth becomes a little obsessed with Susie, and starts to see and feel dead people, keeping a record of them in her diary. Susie's mum uses her daughter's death as a trigger to leave her family and try to recapture her youth. She is constantly described as a woman who never wanted to be a mother. Susie's dad takes her death particularly bad, and focuses on his two other children, Lindsey and Buckley.
Susie watches from heaven as her family grows older, watches as Lindsey goes from first kiss to accepting a marriage proposal, watches her murderer, Mr Harvey, a serial killer who is [spoiler alert!:] never caught, and, at the end of the book, possesses Ruth's body so she can lose her viginity to the only boy she ever kissed.
The Lovely Bones is fairly ambitious, and although it manages to keep from slipping into sentimental indulgence, it also lacks drive, and misses many opportunities to really delve into some interesting and important issues. Some devices were a bit cheesy, and seemed like avoidance. I guess I, like most people, would have been more satisfied if Mr Harvey had been caught, but that's not necessarily realistic either. The main reason why I struggled to finish it and why I give it only 2 stars is that the second half has nowhere to go, it loses its immediacy as the years go by and people start moving on, letting go of Susie, whose body was never found either. The characters started to annoy me - I wanted to be sympathetic, even of the mother, who, in a way, has the hardest time of all, but they began to get cliched.
That said, there are some nice descriptions, Susie's voice is apt, there's a great sense of time (she's killed in the 70s) without being too obvious, and even if you only read the first half, it's well written and gripping before it becomes tedious. ...more
It all begins with garrulous Aunt Becky and the infamous Dark jug. She may be dying but the old matriarch of the large Dark and Penhallow clan is deteIt all begins with garrulous Aunt Becky and the infamous Dark jug. She may be dying but the old matriarch of the large Dark and Penhallow clan is determined to throw one last "levee" - and stir up her extended family with her plan for bequeathing the heirloom. Dating back to when the first Darks came to Prince Edward Island in the early 19th century, the Dark jug has been in the family ever since, and with it comes a certain prestige for the owner. Over the generations, the Darks and Penhallows have intermarried time and again, and now they gather in Aunt Becky's rooms to hear what's to become of this jug, and who will get it.
But sharp-tongued Aunt Becky's not about to make things easy for them. She announces that the new owner of the jug will be announced a year from October, and that Dandy Dark is trusted with the secret - or perhaps he will make the decision on her behalf, so everyone should be on their toes.
And so they all are. Drowned John and Titus Dark stop swearing, knowing that Aunt Becky wouldn't give the jug to someone who curses all the time. Tempest Dark decides to finally start his history of the clan that he's been talking about doing for years. And perpetual bachelor Penny Dark thinks maybe he should get married, if he wants to get the jug, and casts his eye upon the spinsters in the clan.
Meanwhile young, pretty Gay Penhallow is caught up in love with Noel Gibson, while her sophisticated and seductive cousin Nan decides to steal him away. Peter Penhallow suddenly and violently falls in love with widowed Donna Dark, whom he has hated since they were children - only he's been travelling through Africa and South America so much he hasn't seen her since, or not until Aunt Becky's infamous final levee. Joscelyn and Hugh Dark, separated on their wedding night for reasons unknown, still yearn for things they cannot have. And forty year old spinster and dressmaker Margaret Penhallow too yearns for things she feels she can never have: a beautiful little baby to adopt and the little old house she calls Whispering Winds.
At the centre of it all is the jug, and Aunt Becky's final surprise.
According to the inscription on the inside of my copy, I got this book for my birthday in 1993 from my brother (meaning, my mum picked it out for him to give to me), when I turned 14. As far as I can remember I only read it once, but I did love it. I'm always wanted to re-read it, and now I finally have I can say that I still love it. Allowing so much to go by meant that it felt like visiting old friends I hadn't seen in a long time, but with all the surprises still intact: I couldn't remember what had driven Hugh and Joscelyn apart, I couldn't remember how Donna and Peter finally overcame her father, Drowned John's, refusal to let them marry; and I couldn't quite remember what happened to Gay Penhallow - though I was pretty sure she did end up with thirty-year-old Roger, the clan doctor (rest assured, it's not as Jane Austen as it sounds - Gay is no Mariane Dashwood).
There are of course A LOT of characters to keep track of, and at first they tend to blend one into another (for instance, there are two Penny Darks: one is the bachelor and the other is Joscelyn's sister-in-law), and it doesn't help that they go by the old naming conventions (e.g. "Mrs Frank Dark"); you'd think it would but it doesn't.
But Montgomery focuses on the main characters, and since the novel takes place over about a year and a half, we get to know characters, progress somewhat with their story, then come back to them later, so you do get very familiar with them - and like I said, they start to feel like your own crazy extended family! Montgomery is so good at writing these character sketches (one has only to read those scenes set around the dinner table at family gatherings in The Blue Castle to get a sense for it), that for all their eccentricities you have to wonder just how many of them were based on real people Montgomery knew.
The pacing is wonderful: brisk and rolling like gentle hills, here getting dramatic, then slowing down again for a spell, a breather, before dashing off into a new plot. Perhaps the most tragic character for me was little Brian Dark, whose mother, Laura, died when he was young, never revealing who the father was, so that Brian lives with his uncle Duncan Dark and his family, barely fed or clothed and given endless chores, mostly to look after the dairy cows. It broke my heart a little bit, especially now that I have my own little boy.
The story is told with Montgomery's usual insightful wit and honesty, and an artist's touch: she knew when to get in there and strip a character bare, and when to hold back and let things reveal themselves to the observant reader, on their own. I should add a warning for American readers: the final sentence does include the "n-word", which should be taken in the context of the period it was written in, as well as the character who uses it - don't let it put you off this author, who weaves magic with her words in the simplest, most unpretentious ways....more