Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Act Three

How would the story of “Pride and Prejudice” look through Mr. Darcy's eyes? In fiction we're always locked into the view that the narrator chooses. But Jane Gardam, God bless her, has broadened the vista. In Old Filth she gives us Edward Feathers - Raj orphan, QC and judge in Hong Kong, husband of Betty, sworn enemy of fellow QC Terry Veneering – looking back on his life from old age. In "The Man in the Wooden Hat" it's Betty's turn, and unsurprisingly much looks different from her perspective, and secrets unknown (or maybe not?) to Edward are revealed. Now the third leg of the triangle is put into place, as Gardem's tells Terry's story in Last Friends.

The novel begins with Old Filth's memorial service, but quickly jumps back to Veneering's humble beginnings in the fishing village Herringfleet, his improbable escape from death during the war, his later success in law, his lifelong passion for Betty. Unfortunately Gardam also spends time with some less interesting characters, but even then her lucid, flowing prose keeps things interesting.

If you've ever been annoyed that the last 50 pages of a novel seem flabby or uninteresting, fear not – Jane Gardam must share your annoyance. She manages to reveal powerful secrets near the end of each of these books, without in any way seeming gimmicky. These novels make great summertime books, since they are best read in quick succession, and they are almost impossible to put down.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stages of Life

Late in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, main character Stella muses that “the highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you”. She is certainly talking about herself. Each of the book's ten chapters describes what 'befell' Stella in a period of her life, from her childhood with a single mother in postwar Bristol England in the early 1960's, to her own single motherhood and commune life in the 70's, to her married middle age. (If you are a New Yorker reader you may recognize some of the early chapters, which appeared there as short stories). Although Stella can be clever, she is often the victim rather than the driver of her fate. She somehow manages to be impulsive and passive at the same time, and the result is a life that lurches forward with plenty of wrong turns.

I am often annoyed with passive characters (I had that problem with “The Flamethrowers”), but Stella is so clear-eyed and honest about her mistakes that I grew to admire her. Hadley's prose has a lot to do with that. It is crisp and concise, not at all showy, but sharply observant, and by the end incidents that seemed isolated and unconnected form a cohesive portrait.


Stella is not always clever, but she does have the good sense to read great literature to keep her sanity when her life is chaotic. You've got to like a girl for that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Act II

What if the most exciting part of your life occurs before you're old enough to appreciate it? In some ways that's what happened to Jules Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer's “The Interestings” (See my blog). For Joan Joyce in Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me it comes when, after she has slavishly devoted her childhood and adolescence to ballet, she is accepted into a company and moves to New York. There she confronts what must be the case for many talented young people – she is very good but she will never be great. And she meets someone who is great – the charismatic Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov. Improbably, he chooses Joan to help him defect, and for a time they are lovers and she can bask in his reflected glory.

But when the relationship inevitably fails, she chooses a very different Act II – marriage to her high school sweetheart, a child, and a new life in a Southern California suburb. As Joan struggles to let go of her perfectionism her husband Jacob struggles to make her content in this new life. When their son displays unusual talent as a dancer, Joan is drawn back into the dance world.

OK, I think I'm making this sound like a soap opera. But it's much more nuanced than that. Shipstead examines some universal themes – hopes and disappointments, ambition and envy. She shows the dangers when parents attempt to live through their children's lives. In addition, although I know only a modest amount about ballet, I thought Shipstead did a terrific job of describing the ballet world – the tedium and physical pain of the endless practice, the subtle but powerful differences between a competent dancer and an electrifying one. She captures the joy and pain of short-lived success at a young age and its long term effects on the life that follows.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer Friendships

Is summer camp a rite of passage? If so, it's one I missed. But for the six characters in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, the bond they form in the 70's at a summer arts camp informs their lives for the next three decades. For Julie Jacobson, who arrives in camp as a suburban nonentity and leaves as 'Jules' with five sophisticated urban new best friends, the camp experience is especially transformative.

The camp has given them all the sense that they are talented and special, destined for extraordinary lives. In the power center of the six are the Wolf siblings Ash (sister) and Goodman (brother). Children of privilege, charismatic, living in Manhattan, they represent for Jules all that she admires and aspires to. But success comes instead to Ethan, the gawky nerd, when he creates a Simpsons-like animated series that brings him artistic and financial success. His marriage to Ash gives her the money and prestige to create a career in feminist theater.

And Jules is jealous. Wolitzer deftly and humorously explores how friendships evolve when success does not bless all equally. She creates no monsters, but gives each character a believable arc in the journey to maturity. More importantly, Wolitzer tracks the ebb and flow of the friendships over a thirty year span with a nuanced hand. She paints them as complicated, conflicted and, yes, interesting.