Contrarius's Reviews > The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
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May 20, 12

bookshelves: mystery-thriller, my-favorite-recent-reads
Read from May 17 to 20, 2012

4.5 stars out of 5.

(non-spoiler alert here -- I'm including a few quotes in my review below, but I promise not to spoil any important surprises from the book!)

I am docking this book 1/2 star because Penny conflated two different species of plants which actually are not at all similar in the way Penny claimed -- which turned out to be important to the plot, since one plot twist hinged on it. I know that sounds confusing, but I don't want to give twists away here. Suffice it to say that her twist wouldn't have worked in Real Life, and that irked me. Otherwise, this would be a 5 star read all the way.

Aside from my irk, this is a lovely book. And Penny is a great writer. I'm beginning to think of her as a pointillist of the written word. Like the painters, she carefully places tiny drops of information here, there, and everywhere across her canvas, until those myriad individual points coalesce into one beautiful whole. She does not create photographs or photo-realist paintings; rather, her images are somewhat stylized and in some ways even hyper-real. In fact, her technique seems much like that used by one of the artists in her books, Peter, who paints everyday objects from such a magnified perspective that his finished products look like abstract art until you back far away from them. In Penny's case, she rapidly switches between points of view, sometimes every few paragraphs, giving us only pinpoint glimpses into each scene before moving on to the next. And within each vignette she makes minutely detailed observations, which readers piece together one by one until they can finally appreciate the overall image by the end of the book.

And what wonderful turns of phrase! Penny knows how to wring every drop of goodness out of these tiny scenes. For instance, this one description becomes a sort of metaphor for the entire book:

"As he approached [the house] he was surprised to see peeling paint and jagged, broken windows. The ‘For Sale’ sign had fallen over and tiles were missing from the roof and even some bricks from the chimney. It was almost as though the house was casting parts of itself away.[….]Things were not as they seemed. The known world was shifting, reforming. Everything he’d taken as a given, a fact, as real and unquestioned, had fallen away. But he was damned if he was going to fall with it. Or let anyone he loved go down. ‘The house is falling apart,’ said Gamache. ‘Be careful.’"

Also, Penny has an exquisite talent for depicting the depths and pathos of emotions, without becoming maudlin or cheap --

"‘I can’t believe she’s gone,’ said Hazel, sitting down as though her legs had given way. Loss was like that, Gamache knew. You didn’t just lose a loved one. You lost your heart, your memories, your laughter, your brain and it even took your bones. Eventually it all came back, but different. Rearranged."

and

"The lump in the throat that fizzed and ached. The terror of falling asleep knowing that on waking she’d relive the loss, like Prometheus bound and tormented each day. Everything had changed. Even her grammar. Suddenly she lived in the past tense. And the singular."

I read through this book constantly exclaiming to myself -- Oh! Look at that! Look how she wrote that! -- really great stuff.

As for the characters -- I have rarely felt as much respect and affection for any fictional character as I do for Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache. Oh, how I would love to know that man in real life. I ache when he aches; I rejoice when he rejoices. And Penny paints each of her secondary characters with similar vivid colors and clarity, bit by bit and point by point. None of her characters are perfect, but none are evil either; it is obvious that Penny cares for all of them, and she lets readers see the good along with the bad. Great character work to go along with her prose.

As for the plot -- well, yes, plot. I personally am not a big fan of the unlikely and improbably twisted murder scenario, but since I AM a huge fan of both prose and character it's easy for me to enjoy these books despite this one aspect. The twists and turns do work (aside from my one complaint above), and for folks who look for convoluted plots this may even be a major selling point of the series. For myself, the plot often doesn't even make much of an impression on me except as it impacts on and reveals more about the characters. In this case, the plot is filled with an intriguing web of secrets, envy, and jealousy that affect everyone from the smallest side character to Gamache himself -- but always Penny leaves us with hope and love as well.

Overall, great book. It's going on my "favorite recent reads" shelf. I enjoyed the first two books in the series, but I really loved this one. Now, on to the next!
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Reading Progress

05/19/2012 page 30
9.68% "Really enjoying this one -- much more than the last one. Penny's got a great style, when she keeps it on a leash."
05/19/2012 page 50
16.13% "Ohhh, I'm afraid to keep reading. I like this better than either of the first two of the series, but I can tell that Very Bad Things are going to happen to our hero. And he's too wonderful to deserve any Bad Things. Arrrrrrrggggg."

Comments (showing 1-10)




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Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I'm beginning to think of her as a pointillist of the written word.

Yes! Exactly! Exactly that. Brava!


Contrarius Thenq, thenqverymuch.


Kelly H. (Maybedog) Have you finished reading The Brutal Telling? I am curious how they compare and what you think of that one. I thought that one was just okay. Don't read my review until after you've finished the book lest I spoil something or taint you! :)


Contrarius Haven't finished it. I like the beginning, but I got distracted by other stuff. Another day or two!


Kelly H. (Maybedog) Sounds good. :)


Linda I love your description of Penny's writing. Thank you for this wonderful review!


Maria Oropallo Reading your review was almost as much fun as reading this book. :)


Nancy Wilson What a perfect review--I have fallen hard for this series! Thank you for pointing out some of the reasons why.


Stephanie What a lovely review! I agree that Gamache is an exceptionally appealing character; I'd love to meet him in real life. I like your pointillism metaphor.


Jacque Love your review and share your sentiments. I am reading them in order and so far, this is the strongest of the first three.


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