Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.
Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).
I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.
I did a lot of reading this summer. The bulk of that reading was Louise Penny novels, and so rather than write one post after the other about Inspector Gamache and descriptions of Quebecois cheese, I’m writing this one post, and it’s fine, because the novels are all the same: a pleasant romp through a picturesque Quebec countryside with characters that make you hope for a better world, even while murder abounds and threats of Darkness loom. I also read a lot of recipe books – many featuring the Instant Pot – of which I will not bore you.
I read The Murder Stone, A Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. My mum rightly pointed out that I’ve done myself a disservice in reading out of order, but let’s be clear that I’m not likely to ever go back and read the others, so finding out that one of the detectives has a drug problem after he’s been to NA and gotten married to Gamache’s daughter hardly ruins the thread for future reading.
So right. If you’ve not encountered Louise Penny here’s the thrust: her novels win heaps of awards. People love them. There are organized bus tours to the town where Penny lives so that people can visit the cafe featured in the novel. They’re incredibly enjoyable while you’re reading them, something entirely comforting like so many wool sweaters and mugs of tea. Inspector Gamache has cult followings who want to know where he ‘actually’ lives (my beliefs about Gilbert Blythe notwithstanding, fictional characters only live in the mind).
So what’s the deal? My guess is that people (and me while I’m reading them) like the security of a man who is kind and who exemplifies the tropes of a gentlemen-masculinity that are all laughable in reality. We want to believe that men can be kind, brave and stand up for principles and values amid a world of corruption, greed, lust and those other sins. Despite All the Evidence to the contrary, and more importantly, despite the reality that no one ever needed men to be the bastions of honour in the first place, Gamache is an irresistible character because of these qualities. We swoon at the idea of a kind and noble man who occupies a place of power because there are so few examples in reality.
I’m not advancing a novel argument here. I’m sure anyone reading the books would come to the same conclusion. That it’s as much the attraction to Gamache and his pastoral perfect life as it is the mystery around the murder that keeps us reading. We want to be close to a life of comfortable chairs, exquisite food (though the descriptions of food are something distracting – like I have to get up and make bread and cheese before I can keep reading) and totalizing romance because such a place and such people are all but impossible to find in the world we occupy. Utter wish fulfillment.
So it’s something of a rude awakening to come back to 2019 and recall the moment we are in. The responsibilities of being flawed after spending so many hours with the flawless is taxing. It almost makes me want to read non-fiction. Almost.
I Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh, is totally silly and totally fun and I listened to it on audiobook and then book an ebook version for the cottage because I can read faster than anyone can read to me, and I wanted to know! what! happens! next!
Oh I get it, it’s plenty flawed with damsels in distress, and deceit, and assumptions about women-and-work. But it’s still… so fun. Like when Patrick-the-vet gets introduced as a character and his blond hair is waving in the wind and sun dappled skin is glowing, you’re just like… romance!
I’d caution ever reading this with expectations to think deeply about anything. And strong warnings about descriptions of domestic violence and the death of children that are difficult and could easily make the book one you’d rather skip.
That said, if you do choose it, I’d hazard a guess you stay up late to finish it because It Has All the Plot! Plot! Plot!
I loved Aravind Adiga’s first novel, White Tiger, and so I was eager to read Selection Day. It was just okay. Following a father and two sons in the slums of Mumbai as the father abuses them in his efforts to secure them a place on the Indian cricket team, and with that spot, a new life. I don’t care very much about cricket, and I didn’t care very much about these characters, so it was a stretch to make it to the end. I was carried along by the relationship between the youngest son, Manju, and his friend-competitor-would-be-lover, Javed. I wondered and wanted Manju to figure out what *he* wanted for his life (I guess I want the same for my own) and struggled with the resolution to this question as it felt… disappointing. Not in a narrative way, it makes narrative good sense, but because of the lost potential. Mourning possibility and all that. In those painful moments of life where it’s abundantly clear you are making a Big Decision, how do you know you’re making the right one, until decades later when the regret has found its way to you?