Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unl...moreMarc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he's mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills - and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year - which Ralph's wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for - something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier's summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith's two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven't yet read Koch's previous book, The Dinner - it's on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I'm just as enthusiastic about - so I can't compare this or say, "If you liked that, you'll like this." But I'm thinking that's probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we've risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy - at once funny and disturbing - featuring a protagonist whom you're never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you'd like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can't read other people's minds: you just don't want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you'll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things - often contradictory, complex and insightful - makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we're meant to read something - genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go "ewwww" at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what's normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we're still drawn to it all.
We're inside Marc's head, but it's easy to see that on the outside, he's very normal. That's perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He's so frank, to us readers, and there's no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don't act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in "real time", we don't know what he's going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there's something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you're not sure just what kind of man he is or what he'll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he's capable. As is everyone, really.
What's exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He's the image in the mirror we'd rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he'd rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us - and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc's own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I'm sure, to female readers. What it boils down to - what he never, ever, lets himself think - is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It's the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there's little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc's eyes and thoughts we get Marc's ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc's penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body - its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin - as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people's characters and personalities.
That's how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. 'Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?' he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn't seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier's naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won't say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting - in the best possible way. And being inside Marc's head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We're all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can't really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it's the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn't normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there's a part of you - the part that stops feeling so superior - that respects him for knowing the difference. (less)
Visit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf...moreVisit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf Life continues the story of New York publicist, Kate Mitchell, picking up not long after the end of book one. More unhinged authors, more terrible titles, and more time with the sexiest editor in the country, MacDermott Ellis. Mac isn't happily married to his wife of twenty years, Carolyn, but he's always been clear he'll never leave her either. Kate knows this as well as any other woman he's been with, but the thought of breaking the affair off with him just isn't something she feels capable of doing. Both Kate and Mac are putting off facing the hard decisions and emotional heartbreak that, deep down, they know must come one day.
That day arrives in the summer, the day they launch the biggest book on Morris and Dean's portfolio for the year: The Continued Promise, the follow-up to a previous bestseller, The Promise. The CEO of MD, Edward - a dictatorial man in his seventies who's been running things for as long as anyone can remember and who thinks its his right to feel up the female employees - unexpectedly moved up the release date without a clear reason, and the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever in Kate's head. Her gut instinct was always that the author, Michael Singer, was suspect, and when the FBI arrest him on the same day the book launches, it's not just MD that suffers, or Kate's career. When Kate learns that Mac knew about the police investigation but didn't tell her so she could prepare damage control, she's devastated. Her career might not be salvageable, and now she knows that her relationship with Mac isn't either.
Rather than face her situation square on, Kate runs - she escapes New York for the sun and surf of California where her friend Nick gives her valuable time and space to recover. It's time to sort our her life, her head and her heart, but that's easier said than done. As much as she keeps telling herself she's over Mac, there's a part of her that's still running from the truth.
Having just read the first book, The Publicist, I knew exactly what to expect from Shelf Life in terms of character and style. However, compared to the first book, there's a lot more plot in book 2. Having established her characters and the dynamics between them as well as the publishing industry, George moves on to Kate's personal story. The breakup we always knew was going to come, came, and Shelf Life is very much Kate's story of self-discovery and overcoming obstacles. With the same humour and entertaining insider stories as The Publicist, this was just as fun and engaging to read - perhaps more so, as there were some real nail-biting scenes and I loved learning how Kate was going to get herself out of some tight spots. She's certainly very good at her job, though as we all know, being good at your job doesn't protect you from the sharks.
There is an element to George's style that, while it makes for a quick, consistent pace, also makes events seem a bit too pat. A bit too easy, which can make it feel less realistic. Part of the problem is that, despite Kate being for the large part a worthy protagonist, for large chunks of this story things just happened to her, so that even when she was actively making a decision, it still felt like she was a passive recipient of good luck. It's hard to pin-point, because she's an extremely hard worker who rose up out of the ashes of her career to forge a new path, and she forged it well. It was just a bit too, well, convenient, that Allan Lavigne's book would be an instant bestseller and so beloved by everyone - when does that ever happen? There isn't a single book that doesn't have its critics - and everything worked out so well for her. I was happy for her, but it started to lose its sense of realism because the story became a kind of list telling us all the good things to happen one after another.
Granted, Kate's love life is still a big mess, but I confess I started to lose patience with her after a while. There were aspects of Kate's character that were largely missing, and she wasn't flawed enough to seem human. Her world is surprisingly small and her new boyfriend, Nick, is way too perfect. You never really get to know him, beyond that he's very attractive and very successful. He's depicted as a fantasy, which Kate never picked up on - fantasies do not make for solid, long-term relationships. I liked Nick, thanks to a few moments when we get to see him vulnerable, but he's representative of a certain manly ideal women supposedly have - a cliché or a stereotype of what women want in a man that I've come across so many times before, in romantic comedies and other formats - so for me he was a vacuous, unappealing romantic character who served as a plot device rather than as a human being in his own right.
I could say the same about many characters in many books, who get side-lined by the "main event" - in this case, Kate and Mac's messy relationship. Mac was the real star of the story, even though he, too, fulfils the role of another stereotypical male love interest. It was his flaws, and the fact that he's a philanderer, that gave him an edge as a character over all the others. Kate's flaws are distantly irritating ones, the kind of flaws that women latch onto because she seems so bloody perfect and all these attractive men keep falling in love with her. Too good, you know? You just want to see them fall, and not in the sense of bad things happening to them: no, you just want a sign that they're human, that they're loved not because their perfect (for what mortal woman can compete with, or hope to achieve, that?) but because they're human and imperfect and its our imperfections that make us endearing to the right person.
But like I said, it's a very engaging, entertaining read, and this one in particular - because of it's well-rounded conclusion - had me gripped. In a way it's reminiscent of Hollywood movies, in that it follows a fairly predictable path, but as with the movies, it doesn't stop you from enjoying the ride. Part of the enjoyment, I think, is in knowing the formula and the glee you get from seeing how things unfold. Plus, despite the truly atrocious titles these publishers put so much weight behind (self-help? bad tell-alls by convicted murderers?), or perhaps because of them, it's so much fun to get that peek inside the industry. If Kate's path to rescuing her career and finding love was a bit smooth and convenient, the shady, political dealings inside publishing more than make up for it.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours(less)
Kate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung...moreKate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung of the ladder in her department, but she's not getting the "big books" either. Yet, to her authors, she's a hero: saving them from jumping off a building after a bad review in the New York Times, arranging for a celebrity to turn up at their book signing before MD cancels their book contract because sales aren't good enough, and generally doing her job with professionalism and creativity.
She's still young, and after a few messy relationships with the "wrong" men, decidedly single. But there's always MacDermott Ellis. Mac, a much older but still very attractive and charming man, is a known philanderer - a discreet one, but it's a well-established fact that he's been married for over thirty years, has two kids, and absolutely no intention of ever leaving his wife, Carolyn. Knowing that, it doesn't stop women from embarking on an affair with him, falling in love and having their hearts broken. Mac's never made a move on Katie - before now. His warm, friendly interactions kick up a notch when he invites her to dinner to discuss an upcoming "big book" that he wants her to work with him on; it could be her big break.
Mac is smooth, but genuine all the same. He stays in his marriage for several reasons, though he slowly comes to admit that now, it's because he doesn't have the guts to make such a big change in his life. Not to mention devastate his two boys. Kate has always considered herself too smart to get involved with him, too - not only is he married, and not only is he a colleague, but she knows she could fall for him.
Through the sometimes hilarious ups-and-downs of publishing publicity and in-house politics, Kate forges a path for her career and balances the increasing workload with her increasingly flirtatious outings with Mac. She must figure out a way to listen to both her heart and her gut instinct, and trust herself to make the right decisions for her own happiness. But does that mean loving Mac, or distancing herself from him?
'Christina George' is the pseudonym for a publishing industry insider, a publicist who has used her experience and true-to-life anecdotes to bring colour to this chick-lit romance story - though not all of them are true. If I didn't know George worked in the biz and was using a pen name so she could share these often outlandish scenarios, I would have said they were too outrageous to be believable. It's amazing, human behaviour, and what people who work "behind the scenes" get to see: the 'warts and all'. These authors are a mixed bunch, but many of them are entitled, arrogant, demanding, neurotic, obsessive, and have no personal skills whatsoever. Though to be fair, most of the books Kate had to publicise sounded like utter trash, too. Nothing I'd be interested in reading, that's for sure.
It was definitely the strength of the novel, though, this insight into the mainstream publishing industry. I've worked for a small independent publisher in the past, and seen that even at that level there're plenty of colourful characters and eye-rolling stories of authorial entitlement. It makes for an entertaining read, even if it didn't always flow through the story with a natural feel. That's down to George's writing, which hasn't yet matured but shows plenty of potential.
The romance also had a decent 'true-to-life' feel to it, which gives the whole story a kind of TV-show realism (an oxymoron I know, but the way I can think of to capture The Publicist's flavour). Mac is charismatic and a nice shade of grey, reminding us that not everyone who embarks on an extra-marital affair (or two or two dozen) is an automatic sleaze-ball. You can see quite clearly how stuck he is, how he's internalised the problems with his marriage and, rather than deal with them in a productive manner, hides from them. He keeps the status quo, a little boy pretending to be an adult, trying to protect his wife while also trying to find a slice of happiness for himself. You might not approve of his methods, but he still conjures up sympathy, making Kate's decision less simple.
I would have liked a bit more pre-sex tension and chemistry, more of a build-up; to establish their mutual attraction a bit more - not necessarily in terms of time but in terms of their interactions, the depth of them. It becomes a bit too descriptive, with too much "tell" and not enough "show". It's hard to feel what they're feeling when you're only told.
Supporting characters help to flesh out the story and Kate's world: her best friend Grace, an artist; her friend Allan Lavigne, an elderly man who once, in 1969, published a bestseller called The Fall and was in an iron-clad contract with MD to publish his second book, which he'd never written; and Nick, Allan's nephew from California who reminds Kate of Matthew McConaughey - now she's got two men to choose from, and an even bigger decision to make.
It's a relatively short novel, with a swift pace and near-constant movement, plenty of dialogue and even a scene that brought tears to my eyes. It was entertaining but really, the story has only just started, and ends on something akin to a cliffhanger. The story continues in Shelf Life, which I'll be reviewing next.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iRead Book Tours.(less)
Emily Oliphant is finally on a fulfilling path. She's left her abusive husband, John; she's living in a lovely old house and just been given an amazin...moreEmily Oliphant is finally on a fulfilling path. She's left her abusive husband, John; she's living in a lovely old house and just been given an amazing offer to buy it from the owners, two old farming brothers, Trevor and Donald Baker; she's enjoying the supportive and honest company of her friend Barbara; and she's taking small but increasingly certain steps in standing up to her overly-critical, judgemental, guilt-tripping mother. So she has hardly any money because she signed-off so quickly on a settlement with John rather than fight for her fair share. So she has no job and doesn't know what she's going to do with herself. She's free of her miserable marriage and living independently for the first time in her life, with her dog, Grace.
In the days before Christmas, which she's hosting at her house, she has an unexpected visitor: Nathan, the new, young assistant bank manager who her mother has been trying to set her up with. He's moved back to the area and doesn't want to live with his parents. He asks if she'd like a lodger, and while the money would be extremely helpful, Emily is learning to put herself first and think things through, and declines. She doesn't want to give up what she's so recently gained, and have to share her home. Yet when she gets a call from architect Jake, her cousin's friend, asking her if he can stay the weekend while he's in her area on a business trip, she eagerly agrees.
When Jake arrives, Emily's in the midst of organising her grandmother's button jar, something she gave Emily before her death several years earlier. Emily finds the job therapeutic, but when Jake joins in he discovers something with potentially huge repercussions: uncut diamonds from India. Suddenly it seems like Emily's sitting on the answers to all her problems: money, and lots of it too. But almost immediately Emily starts thinking about all the problems that could arise if she tries to cash the diamonds in, and even more importantly to her, that there's something slightly sacrilegious about selling things her gran had held onto for so long, and kept secret. So the buttons and the diamonds go back into the jar, and Jake agrees not to tell anyone about the find.
After Christmas - blessedly mother-free - Emily receives a new shock, and then another. It seems like just when she was on the road to sorting out her life, figuring out what to do with herself and looking forward to the future, fate intervenes in more ways than one. Now she must draw upon her new-found strength and resilience to work her way through these new circumstances, but Emily is still a novice at being an independent, strong, resourceful woman, and she doesn't always make the best decisions.
When I expressed my interest in reading this book, I didn't realise it was the sequel to Saving Grace, or part of a series. The premise interested me: I was drawn to the idea of a woman finding her feet, putting her love into home and land, and "turning a new leaf". That certainly is what the story is about, only not in a way that I enjoyed all that much.
The trouble is, mostly, Emily herself. She's a tricky character to pin an entire story on, someone who lacks courage, inner strength, experience or, sometimes, a sane head on her shoulders. She did try my patience more than once, and it was hard to feel sympathetic for her when she seems like such a drip. I guess I don't have all that much patience for someone so gauche, so insipid, so uncertain and, at times, childish. I haven't read Saving Grace - and I don't feel a strong need to, since Time Will Tell covers the pertinent details well - so I haven't seen the character's growth arc from the beginning (having read a few other reviews, I gather she's come a long way, so it's just as well I started with book 2). Emily does make progress - I find I have to tell myself that sternly, because it's easy to forget - and she does learn to stand up for herself a bit more, but honestly she could be pretty infuriating at times.
My struggle with Emily was compounded by the fact that I could empathise, sympathise and understand her problems and what she was going through. McCallum did a good job in bridging the gap between me and my personality, and Emily. It almost made me angry, at times, sympathising and empathising while at the same time wanting to throw up my hands and leave her to it. She does go on a bit! It's a slow-paced novel, and while some plot points felt horribly contrived (what happens to John, especially), others seemed to evolve naturally. There were things that I wasn't really sure about - such as whether the townsfolks' censure of Emily was all in her own head - and some things that seemed ominous and sinister - like Nathan's pushy self-invitations and phone calls (does she know she has diamonds and wants to steal them? Nah, he couldn't, but then what's with his behaviour??). I couldn't quite get a grip on this story, and that bothered me more than anything. The cosy relationship between Emily and Jake was both too easy and too formulaic, and I didn't really feel much chemistry between them - exacerbated by the fact that if I was annoyed by Emily, how could I understand what someone lovely like Jake saw in her? That's the trouble with being so firmly inside the head of someone like Emily (told in third person but strictly from her point-of-view): we see her in much the same negative light as she sees herself.
Overall, it's not a bad story, and I had no trouble reading to the end, it's just not a character I could really love. I appreciated her struggles, her personal growth, but she's just not the kind of person I could be friends with in real life. I'd have better luck with Barbara (though who calls their kids "Barbara" anymore? It made me picture her as a fifty-year-old woman, at least, and I think she's meant to be Emily's age). Not sure why Barbara doesn't lose patience with Emily, though. The woman is more patient and kind-hearted than I am, it seems. Oh which reminds me, there was something of the "kicked dog" to Emily - apt, considering she is the victim of domestic violence and worse at the hands of her ex-husband. Not having lived through that with her (in Saving Grace), I could only sympathise in the abstract. Perhaps that, ultimately, is the problem with reading the sequel to a book you've never read: you don't "get" the protagonist in the way you should. But I don't think so. There are plenty of stories that leave people's back story in the past, and don't relive it. I treated this like that, and found that the references to the past were enough. It's really just Emily, and to a slightly lesser degree, the writing style, that just didn't click with me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Visit my blog for your chance to win a copy! Open until 25-03-14
Jocelyne Guerbette is a plump, middle-aged woman of forty-seven living in Arras, Franc...moreVisit my blog for your chance to win a copy! Open until 25-03-14
Jocelyne Guerbette is a plump, middle-aged woman of forty-seven living in Arras, France. She runs a haberdashery shop and a blog, tengoldfingers, that gets over a thousand hits a day. Jo doesn't consider herself to be successful, or interesting, or beautiful. She fears her ordinariness, and her middle class life - she fears her own happiness, contentment, with her life. Or rather, she fears her husband of twenty-one years, Jocelyn, will leave her for a younger, prettier woman. He has a well-worn list of wants, does Jo. A Porsche (red), the complete set of James Bond movies, a big flat-screen TV. An expensive watch and a fireplace for the lounge room. He works at the Häagan-Dazs factory and doesn't earn enough for any of those things.
When Jo succumbs to her friends' pushing to buy a lottery ticket one day, it's nearly a week before she realises that she's won over eighteen million euros. It's a lot of money. Too much, perhaps. The possibilities are suddenly overwhelming. Jo doesn't tell anyone about her win: not her husband, Jo, not her friends, the twins Danièle and Françoise, nor her two adult children, Romain and Nadine. She hides the cheque beneath the inner sole of a shoe in her wardrobe while she writes lists, a list of needs, a list of wants, a list of fantastic desires. She's happy with her life, with Jo who's been so attentive and loving - so different from all those years ago when she lost the third baby and he took out his misery and rage on her.
But just as she's realising that money won't bring additional happiness or make things better - that her life really is just the way she likes it, already - an unexpected, shocking betrayal changes everything.
The List of My Desires - or My Wish List as it's called in North America - is both quietly, gently wonderful and also hugely disappointing. Jo - the wife - narrates most of the short novel and Delacourt's style suits her perfectly. Her sense of insecurity, contentment, a hint of timidity curled around a resolute, brave will - it all comes across clearly, in the simple descriptive style and syntax as much as through Jo's story. It's also a distinctly - or what I think of as distinctly - French style, and this can work for me or it can't.
Written in first person present tense without dialogue punctuation, one of the glitches of the novel is the fore-shadowing - either implicitly or through a sense of ominous presentiment. I really, really don't like present tense anymore - it's so hideously overused now, and incorrectly used - and I especially don't like it when the story is essentially written in past tense; makes the verbs all look like typos. I don't think it did the story any service to use present tense, though I will say that the foreshadowing (which I'm also not a fan of) gave the story tension and lent it an air of foreboding - which you can technically have when writing in present tense, if you're skilled and careful and keep your narrator's feet firmly planted in the present. That wasn't the case here. (Foreshadowing can often spoil a story, like with The Age of Miracles, no matter what tense you use.) In fact, in classic French style, it was hard to know the when, while reading. The tense was a bit all over the place, as was the narration. I enjoy experimentation, but not every experiment works.
It gets messier when the plot changes gears and Jo's life likewise changes. This is where I felt the novel got lost. It broke into two strands - Jo the wife and Jo the husband - and while Jo the husband's story remained strong, albeit a bit obvious, Jo the wife's story lacked cohesion, contradicted itself and, I felt, lost the plot - or the point - of the story. A few weird references made me think, rather bizarrely, of the Jason Bourne movies, and wonder what the F was even going on.
All that after such a strong start. The premise is simple and, while not original, appeals to us. It's an age-old question, Can money buy you happiness? The psychological process Jocelyne goes through after winning the money is realistic, genuine, and so very human. Winning the lottery throws her life into perspective - or a new perspective, anyway. She rationally, calmly considers the dreams she'd had for her life as a girl, before her mother died suddenly when she was seventeen, before her father slipped into dementia after a stroke a year later. Before she married Jo.
I think of myself, of all that will now be possible for me, and I don't want any of it. I don't want what all the money in the world can buy. But does everyone feel like that? [p.61]
One of the insights I loved was Jo's reflection on just how important it is to us to have those little things we need to get, how it propels us forwards, and how, if you were to win the lottery and simply buy everything on your list in one fell swoop, your sense of purpose and routine would vanish.
At home, I reread the list of what I need, and it strikes me that wealth means being able to buy everything on it all at once, from the potato peeler to the flat-screen TV, by way of the coat from Caroll's and the non-slip mat for the bath. Go home with everything on the list, destroy the list and tell myself: Right, there we are, there's nothing else I need. All I have left from now on are wishes. Only wishes.
But that never happens.
Because our needs are our little daily dreams. The little things to be done that project us into tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the future; trivial things that we plan to buy next week, allowing us to think that next week we'll still be alive.
It's the need for a non-slip bath mat that keeps us going. Or for a couscous steamer. A potato peeler. So we stagger our purchases. We programme the places where we'll go for them. Sometimes we draw comparisons. A Calor iron versus a Rowenta iron. We fill our cupboards slowly, our drawers one by one. You can spend your life filling a house, and when it's full you break things so that you can replace them and have something to do the next day. You can even go so far as to break up a relationship in order to project yourself into another story, another future, another house.
Another life to fill. [pp.132-3]
It was moments of insightful reflection and philosophical thought on the discourse of human happiness and life in general that I really appreciated in this book, and Jo's movements through her life. I did find her naïve, and I couldn't help but think that, in some way, what happened could have been avoided. The issue was her relationship with her husband. She loves him, she tells us. She's forgiven him, I guess, for how badly he treated her after the death of their baby. She seems to buy into a lot of stereotypes - that he must surely want a younger, prettier, slimmer (firmer) woman, that he would so easily leave her or put the acquisition of material possessions before her. I find it hard to believe that she loved him, that she had a deep and meaningful relationship with him. I can't imagine living with someone for so long and not trusting them enough to tell them I've won the lottery. I wouldn't want to be with someone who I couldn't talk to about important things, couldn't share things with. So I did find it hard to relate to Jo, and I found it disappointing that her husband fulfilled her lowest expectations (to be honest, it's all a bit predictable, too). And I found it a bit confusing what happened next.
This is a coming-of-age novel for Jocelyne, but it's her husband's story too. In a way, she never gave him a chance. She set him up to fail. And after creating such an unequal relationship, she didn't give him the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, grow and grow up. She feared what would happen if she told him about the winnings - how it would change things, ruin them - and that I can understand. But her fear was a selfish one, and she made selfish decisions for Jo as well. She decided that the life she liked should be good enough for him, as well. What came across clearly was Jo-the-husband as Jo-the-child, and nowhere in the story, in any of the memories she relates or the present-day details, could I find evidence of a real, loving, trusting relationship. Which was very sad. Beneath it al, beneath everything Jocelyne tells you, there lies this deeply-buried need for revenge, to set Jo up and watch him fall, see him pay, take out all the insecurities and disappointments and hurt on this weak and immature man.
As you can see, there's quite a lot going on here, much more than there seems at first. And in the end, both Jo and Jo (a once in a million chance that she would marry someone with the same name as her - a nice ironic touch, that, but also a kind of foreshadowing in and of itself) pay dearly for that one winning lottery ticket. For a story about human values and our relationships not just with each other but with money - its ability to corrode and destroy and poison juxtaposed with its ability to make dreams come true - it succeeds admirably. As a story, I found it a bit hit-and-miss. But thought-provoking, definitely thought-provoking, and full of a realistically conflicted, touching sense of humanity.
I received an e-galley of this book to review courtesy of the publisher; however, I read and reviewed my own bought copy (UK edition) from my personal collection.(less)
I'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever...moreI'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever known. He believes that I will return to him. I will not. Why? Because I can't resist his drunken eyes, velvet words, and persuasive hands that know where to press softly and where to stroke hard, where to linger and where to slither away, where to cup and hold and warm.
And I won't return because I can't free myself from Parvaneh. [pp.1-2]
So begins Soraya's story, in 1999, as she leaves Iran for America. Her husband, Aziz, believes she's been invited by the magazine she freelances for to start a new photographic project in the States; he believes it's only temporary. Soraya - a wealthy Jewish Iranian, blond, green-eyed and nearly six feet tall - has other plans. She has no intention of returning to Iran, to Aziz, to her marriage. Instead she buys a lavish mansion in Bel Air with a wild, huge garden in the back that she sees great potential for; an impressive library full of books on plants and insects (the owner is an amateur lepidopterist); and an unusual interior courtyard housing an atrium within which is a very rare plant indeed: Amorphophallus titanum. The Corpse Flower. A giant plant that blooms once every fifteen years, and produces a rank stench of rotting meat when it does. It is also, as Soraya knows, highly toxic.
There in the seclusion of her new home, with two Iranian immigrants to cook, clean and drive her around, Soraya's plan for revenge takes shape. Her deep love for her husband has become an obsession, and having witnessed him making love to her best friend, Parvaneh - a name that means "butterfly" - she can think only of revenge, and punishment. She becomes freshly obsessed with the butterflies she attracts to her new garden, and in getting the Corpse Flower to bloom. The only thing left to do is lure her friend to America.
But Soraya is blinded by her own self-centeredness as much as her obsession and jealousy, and the secrets that will emerge have the power to undo her utterly.
Mossanen's newest novel is a story of one woman's slide into obsession, delusion and mental illness. Even before she catches her husband and her best friend in bed - something they have no idea she witnessed - the signs of instability are there. Soraya is one of those people who are always on the edge. She doesn't do things by half-measures. She's prone to extremes. Throughout twenty years of happy marriage to Aziz, and numerous trips to specialist fertility doctors across the world, she never reveals to Aziz that she is in fact taking birth control pills. All so that she doesn't have to share Aziz with another - with a baby he would dote on. (She also doesn't seem to be the motherly type.)
Soraya isn't a particularly likeable character, nor one we are meant to like. Unlikeable - and by extension, untrustworthy - characters are often the most captivating, fascinating, and charismatic; at least to read about. Characters who aren't just good but more complex are ultimately more satisfying, and their stories become stories about the complexities and contradictions of human nature, the human condition - something we are quietly obsessed about.
In contrast, Soraya threatens to completely alienate the reader. Mossanen just manages to hold us by carefully revealing scenes from her past that expand and explain her character. The danger is having Soraya slip into a caricature of herself, become ridiculous in her obsession and murder-revenge plot. The truth is, I'm not entirely convinced that didn't happen, regardless. I didn't like Soraya - not in the sense of, I wouldn't want to have a cup of tea with her (which I certainly wouldn't want to do), but in the sense of: I struggled to sympathise, empathise or stay patient with her. She was like an overgrown child, used to having her way, spoiled and an attention seeker who never learnt to share (by which I'm not excusing Aziz's infidelity; I don't mean "to share" in that way!).
The flashbacks and memories reveal much about Soraya's deeply flawed character, but certainly don't excuse her. What's interesting is the ambiguity this story provoked in me. Did I want her plan to succeed? Did I want her to have a happy ending? Did she deserve it? Is she a real victim, or just a spoiled rich woman who doesn't know how to cope when something doesn't go her way?
The sad fact is, I felt betrayed by Soraya - betrayed as a woman. This feeling rose up in me without any conscious effort and it took me a while to realise what it was. I had trouble respecting Soraya, because of her upbringing, because of her arrogance, because of her insufferable self-aggrandisement, and because her thoughts, feelings, actions and decisions were the kind that supported a patriarchal society. This reveals just as much about my own upbringing and place in the world as it does Soraya's.
Soraya still vividly remembers life in Tehran, pre-Islamic Revolution. The fall of the Shah, in 1979, changed everything in Iran. Women were no longer allowed to go outside without a male family member, or without being fully covered. "Morality police" peered in through people's windows or accosted them on the street, checking on behaviour and appearance. Among the elite, many fled, their homes and wealth parcelled off to the people. Some, like Soraya's father, stayed - mostly so that others wouldn't get their hands on his house and money. The Jews, a wealthy enclave, became ever more alienated from the rest of society. But even before the revolution, this was a deeply patriarchal society, among the Jews just as much as the Iranians.
It is inherent in Soraya's attitude towards men, her sense of herself as a kind of sexual predator who uses her looks to lure men (all part of her revenge; it was satisfying how it didn't affect Aziz at all - he knew her too well to fall for appearances). And it is inherent in her reaction to the Mullah on the plane: an Islamic priest, wearing expensive shoes and perfume under his robe, who she tries to discomfit by revealing her legs and brushing her arm against. When he follows through by offering to make her his wife for a night - a legal practice enabling muslim men to sleep around without committing adultery (very handy) - she's barely put off. She notes the hypocrisy but it doesn't faze her. This even though she seems angered (or has inherited her grandmother's anger) that the widows of Iranian soldiers receive no support and so must turn to prostitution to provide for their families, for which they are persecuted and even arrested.
It is always interesting, enlightening and enjoyable to read stories about other places, people and cultures, and the clash of cultures evident in Scent of Butterflies is handled well. But I did struggle with Soraya. There just wasn't much of a positive nature to balance her flaws, and flaws she had many. Her obsession was strong and believable, but failed to really capture my interest. There wasn't a lot of depth to the character, or the story. And I'm still not sure how I feel about the very ending, on a personal level; however, it did suit.
Overall, I am full of ambiguity about this novel, which isn't a bad thing. It never hurts to have a book make you uncomfortable, or displeased: a character like Soraya really draws your attention to your own, personal code of ethics, morality and expectations of yourself and others, as well as life and society in general. Because of that, that parallel of story-and-exposé, it was quite a successful book, and it also succeeded in bringing to life a side of Iranian society I hadn't known much about. But as a character portrait taken on its own merit, I'm not so sure. Like I said, this book left me full of ambiguity and even now, a couple of weeks after reading it, my thoughts are unresolved.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)