Something missing

Trance of Insignificance
by Jennifer Rainville

This book was sent to me by the author after a short e-mail exchange during which she intrigued me with her title and synopsis. It sounded like a smart, modern romance that would make an easy but satisfying summer read. It certainly had all the right components, but for me it didn’t quite hit the spot.

Rainville has created a main character with a lot in common with herself. Jules Duvil, like her creator, worked as a political aide in Washington and then as a TV journalist in New York City before becoming a media adviser and writing a novel, which is about to be released at the start of this book. This lends a weight of authority to the passages set in newsrooms and I was a little sorry that there wasn’t any detail about Jules’ time in Washington, because I’d have loved to learn more about that.

The book cuts back and forward in time, mostly to three periods: Jules’ problematic childhood on the rougher side of Boston; her relationship 10 years ago with local celebrity news anchor Jack who is a known womaniser and yet is jealous of Jules’ every move; and the present day, in which Jules is trying to make things work with the far more staid and predictable ad exec Noah, who comes from money and believes in doing things in a certain way. It is clear that neither man is good for Jules; both of them want to change her, but they also love her deeply.

For me, the novel started on a bit of a bum note. In an early chapter we hear about Jules’ first day as a lowly production assistant for a big New York news station and that day just happened to be 11 September 2001. It’s a bold decision to take and gives Rainville the chance to quickly explain a lot about how TV news works while relating it to a news story that we all remember vividly. However, she doesn’t write much about the effect of 9/11 outside the news room – the state the city was in, the change that was suddenly and irrevocably wrought. I know she is trying to make a point about news journalists being bloodthirsty enough to not think about the human side of tragedy, but surely that was too big and awful an event for that to be true? Maybe I’m wrong.

I didn’t warm to Jules. Though we gradually learn from the flashbacks why she is a little cold and label-obsessed, I was annoyed by the need to detail every one of Jules’ outfits, including accessories – all designer. I wasn’t convinced that a single woman living alone in New York and struggling to make it as a journalist would honestly be able to afford such extravagant outfits, not coming from a poor background. Maybe she earned a small fortune during her couple of years in Washington? But that seems unlikely. It’s more believable in the present-day sections, when she’s become a successful self-employed media adviser and it would have been interesting to see a contrast from perhaps her envy of other women’s clothing in 2001 to having a designer-filled wardrobe in 2011.

Jules’ rough upbringing wasn’t, sadly, entirely convincing. Rainville drops in a lot of family trauma and some scenes are frank and shocking, but they didn’t feel fully fleshed out. They were often very brief – just a page or two – and could have done with expanding, perhaps even softening with some warmer or even just mundane memories.

This is Rainville’s first novel and it’s self-published, neither of which is necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it shows. Though Rainville has some talent, she would have benefited enormously from a professional publishing house to give her some guidance and edit the text line by line. The copy editing is poor, though that may have particularly stood out for me because it’s how I make my living. But more than that, there are some clumsy lines, poor exposition and extraneous details that a professional would have helped Rainville to iron out.

I suppose I would have liked to see more descriptions of the city, rather than just name-dropping restaurants and bars; and more small, nuanced details that reveal something about a person rather than a personals-ad-style height, figure, hair and eye colour list. Rainville does know how to turn a phrase, and uses some great imagery, not to mention having a good ear for dialogue, but there’s too much clumsiness in-between to ignore. That said, I was involved enough in the story to read the book pretty quickly and care how things turned out. If Rainville works with a professional publisher for future novels, I do think it will be worth giving her another chance.

This is all, of course, just one person’s opinion, and I may have been negatively influenced by the grammatical errors. Other reviewers out there seem to have more positive views.

Published 2011 by Rainville Books.

The shock of growing up

Claudine in Paris
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

After thoroughly enjoying the first book in the Claudine series, I was glad to already have the second book waiting in my TBR. It was another wonderful, rollicking read and I’m now going to have to search out the other two.

These were the first novels written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who was an absolutely fascinating literary figure. I visited her grave in Paris a few years ago and was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be (especially considering that previous to this series her novels have failed to move me).

Ici repose Colette

In this volume, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, so that he can further his studies of slugs. She discovers to her surprise that she suffers greatly from homesickness for her beloved countryside village. She also discovers, on exposure to a new male friend who is gay and an old female friend who has become a rich man’s mistress, that she is far more easily shocked than she would have expected of herself:

“Disgust, yes definitely! There I was, making myself completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! You can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen!’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways…In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

Well, Claudine may have discovered that the big wide world isn’t as easily bluffed as her old schoolmates were, but she is still far from common or everyday. Claudine is hypersensitive enough to catch a fever when she gets anxious but she is also tomboyish enough to do exercises every morning and speak her mind almost thoughtlessly. She is still vain enough to admire herself in every window or mirror and look coquettishly at every man she sees, but is self-aware enough to know that she is silly and vain and inexperienced to boot. She catches herself feeling jealous of an old friend who is marrying a sensible, dull sort of man and presses her friend the kept woman for information about sex while all the while feeling scared and sickened by the whole business.

Most of all, Claudine is still a witty, entertaining narrator who lets you into her world with disarming honesty, beside the occasionally withheld nugget of interest. The main switch in this book is that Claudine appears to have left behind the lesbian intrigues of school, only revisiting them for the entertainment of her cousin Marcel, who is left hot under the collar by her accounts and begs for more detail. Claudine’s romantic interest now seems to be firmly aimed toward men and marriage.

For all its shocking content and its youthful, not as sophisticated as she’d like to be narrator, this book is extremely well written with a wonderful, colourful cast of characters and a clever humour that must have been a challenge to translate this deftly.

Claudine à Paris first published in 1901 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1958 by Secker and Warburg

Disagreeing with the majority

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

This is a book I had started half a dozen times but never finished before. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg so that I could help test the Kindle that we bought for Tim’s parents and somehow wound up reading the whole thing, finally!

My previous attempts at this book were thwarted by the detached, stuffy manner of the storytelling. I read recently that Jane Austen wrote all her books in secret while in a drawing room full of family and other guests, so she naturally turned to the type of drama that is played out in a drawing room. And that is certainly true. She turns a certain studious eye and ironic wit on her subject and I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud on occasion.

As a lover of the 1990s BBC retelling of this story starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, it was hard to be indifferent to the love stories that were playing out or the comedy of some of the characters, however I still can’t say that I greatly liked this book. Austen never really gets under the skin of anyone and, though she hints that the social niceties being followed are silly or pointless, they are never truly thwarted.

I was surprised to find, despite this being a dialogue-heavy novel, that some of the most important moments are not told in enough detail. For instance, when Lizzie finally confesses her love to Darcy or when she tells her father of her love for Darcy, Austen does not actually give us the words Lizzie uses or hears in return, which I found deeply dissatisfying. Nor is there even one single kiss, and the only embraces are between friends and family. But there is a slightly odd final chapter summarising the next few years of everyone’s lives, giving the novel a feeling of not having a proper solid ending.

I know that a lot of people out there love this book and will wholeheartedly disagree with me. I should also say that I have read a couple of Austen’s other books and enjoyed them (though still not loved them). I recognise that Austen had great talent, intelligence and wit. Her style, however, is not one that I particularly enjoy.

First published in 1813.

For some alternative points of view, see reviews from Bookworm With a View and The Zen Leaf.

Fluffy as fluff should be

The Learning Curve
by Melissa Nathan

You may notice that this is not my usual fare. There’s a lot of pink on the cover and big curly letters, with testimonial quotes from B magazine and Jilly Cooper. You got me – it’s chick-lit. And not well written, wittily observed, you-could-almost-call-this-literary-fiction chick-lit either. But I needed a day of mindless entertainment and, much like a Friends boxset, this provided it.

I haven’t read anything approaching this genre since I was a teenager so I’m not entirely sure how this compares with others of its kind, but I’m sure chick-lit authors don’t expect to be compared to Milan Kundera or Bret Easton Ellis and that’s fine. I don’t deny that a lot of the books I read require a bit of work to get my head round, or just to get into, and I definitely see the attraction of sinking straight into a story from page one.

This isn’t good literature. There were no phrases or descriptions that made me smile at the choice of language. I didn’t find myself transported to a place I’ve never been or start thinking deep thoughts about life, the universe and everything. It was enjoyable, in a guilty kind of way (again, much like Friends). The characters were both familiar and realistic enough to be interested in and the storyline kept me hooked. Perhaps more importantly, on a day when I was pretty much exhausted, a state in which I normally struggle to read, I was happily devouring this without getting a headache.

The storyline is simple. Nicky Hobbs is a primary school teacher who always wanted kids but hasn’t got her man yet. Now she’s turned 30 she’s discovered she also has ambition in the workplace and she worries that she’ll have to choose between career and motherhood. If a man comes along to make the latter an option, that is. As it happens, two men start showing an interest. Rob is a fellow teacher at her school and her ex. They’ve been friends for years since the break-up but the flirtation seems to have subtly changed lately. Then there’s Mark, father to Nicky’s favourite pupil and a workaholic absent father, and single parent. Cue lots of agonising over life-changing decisions and also more minor ones like wardrobe choices, pouring out of hearts to close girl friends and misunderstandings that take months to be cleared up.

The twists and turns of the story are obvious from a mile off and this occasionally grated. The phrasing seemed to suggest that I should be surprised at this, that or the other when I was just thinking ‘About bloody time.’ The debate about career versus motherhood is an interesting one and the differences between parenting styles is also something I’m interested in. They weren’t explored in great depth but they gave a little bit of background colour. There was a decent extended cast of characters who were all fully fleshed out and the dialogue was realistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The school is the setting for a lot of the book and at times it felt like I was reading a novelisation of Teachers, which is a series I loved so that’s probably a compliment. The bitchiness and cliquiness of the staff room, the sudden changes of allegiance when a relationship is formed or breaks up or a promotion opportunity is announced, the division between those who genuinely love teaching and those who don’t – all felt familiar and provided much of the humour. Nicky herself is a fairly typical white middle-class British woman who worries about whether she looks good and what people think of her but is also determined to have a career on equal terms to any man. Not exactly a feminist but a reasonable approximation of how a lot of women I know think.

I probably won’t seek out other books by this author – which there aren’t many of because Melissa Nathan sadly died of breast cancer shortly after completing this novel, aged just 37 – but if I find myself in that same state of exhaustion without a TV again and another of her books happens to be handy for borrowing, I’ll accept the offer.

Published 2006 by Arrow Books.

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.

The one that made me cry

One Day
by David Nicholls

This is very much a book that’s of its genre. I could reel off half a dozen successful authors of similar style. It’s engaging, gently but intelligently funny, easy to read, unchallenging. I almost feel guilty for having enjoyed it so much.

Which is silly because this is a book I bought having read a review that described a book I knew immediately that I would enjoy. It’s a love story told over 20 years, from 1988 to 2008; a wry observation of modern life and romance. I suppose I shrink from admitting it because it sounds mawkish, cheesy, but this book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think a lot about where I am in life and whether I’m happy.

The story is that of Emma and Dexter who shared one perfect night together after their graduation day, St Swithins Day, 15 July 1988. Each successive St Swithins Day in their lives is described up to 2008, with only passing reference to what has happened inbetween. It’s an effective format for covering a large timespan and avoids the obvious tendency to describe major events and skip the subtler ones. They’re believably fallible characters, likeable for the most part, and while the storyline is largely predictable it’s done well.

I picked this up to give myself a break between more challenging books and it was just right. It’s not at all frivolous or throwaway but it is a light, honest novel that touched me.

Published 2009 by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0-3408-9698-3

UPDATE: See also this review by Jackie of Farm Lane Books.

Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.

Light on the heavy

Petite Anglaise
by Catherine Sanderson

Having been a fan of the blog for years it’s not a huge surprise that I loved this book. It was the first blog I ever read and opened up a whole new world to me. Now the book has filled in many of the blanks that were necessarily kept out of the blog at the time.

I will add that, had I not read the blog, I very much doubt I would have been attracted to this book. I am not a fan of chick lit with all those pink covers and hapless heroines. That was a phase I went through as a teenager and even then I knew that the books were rubbish. This book is being marketed as chick lit and it does have some things in common with that genre – loveable heroine, an emphasis on the romances in her life, an easy-to-read style, approachable sense of humour. However, Petite Anglaise also deals with some serious, painful, life-altering events (and I don’t mean getting married) and a quick scan through the comments on Amazon proves that lovers of chick-lit are not the right market. Not to mention that it’s very well written.

For those who don’t know the background, Catherine Sanderson started the blog Petite Anglaise in 2004, documenting life as an Englishwoman living in Paris with her French partner and their baby daughter. As her relationship began to fall apart the writing became both more serious and more enticing, laced as it was with intense emotion. She eventually left her partner for a man she met through her blog and the story became one of the effort to be a good parent to her toddler while in the passionate throes of a new relationship. In 2006, Catherine was dumped and fired in a short space of time. Her employer cited her blog as the reason for firing her. Having taken great care to keep her real name, line of work and indeed any detail about that side of her life out of the blog, Catherine took her former employer to court claiming unfair dismissal and won.

Obviously much more has happened to Catherine since that day, but this is where the book ends and it is a suitable full stop. She is now a full-time writer and in 2009 announced that she was no longer going to blog, except for updates about her books. Her writing was always so good that you felt this was where she should end up and I look forward to reading more of her output.

Published 2009 by Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-1410-3119-4

Quietly beautiful

Silk
by Alessandro Baricco
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is a slight volume of short chapters (some extremely short) and lots of white space. This, coupled with Baricco’s use of repetition and sparse language adds up to a sense that what you are reading is closer to poetry than novel.

The story is at once vast and simple. In 19th century France, the town of Lavilledieu relies on silk production for most of its income. When European silkworms start dying, Hervé Joncour accepts the job of travelling ever further abroad to buy silkworm eggs for his town.

In the hands of another author this might have been the basis for a great adventure story with a real action hero at its centre. Silk is not an adventure story, it is a romance.

Hervé’s travels are described so briefly you almost forget what a capable, worldly man he must be. In many ways, this is the tale of the two women in his life. Hervé’s wife, Hèlene is devoted, saddened by their childless state and worried by her husband’s travels. Hervé loves her in a placid, steady sort of way. But when he goes to Japan he falls suddenly and desperately for a woman he can never touch or speak to – the concubine of an important man. Hervé is entranced by her and starts to let his passion rule his previously detached judgment.

I think it’s possible that some people may reach the end of this book thinking that nothing really happened, where others will be amazed by how much was crammed in to so few words (I sit in the latter group). The style may also be offputting. I did take a few chapters to find it beautiful rather than jarring. But I ingested this volume in one gulp, which is testimony to how enjoyable it is.

Like most modern books, the cover is awash with praise and strings of adjectives. The one that comes closest to my experience is “subtle”. This is, for the most part at least, a very subtle book.

Published 2006 by Canongate
ISBN 978-1-8419-5835-4