In an unplanned but entirely excellent book swap with my friend, S., I traded her Strike Your Heart for Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I think she got the better deal. Not that The Silence of the Girls is bad, it’s just… obvious. Continue reading
Category Archives: Book I’ll Forget I Read
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 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 didn’t set out to read Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring in combination with Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (WHICH as it turns out, I read already but didn’t realize it until like page 200 both because of a terrible memory and because the book isn’t that memorable). And sure, Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century, and Bovary in the 19th, so not a direct historical overlap, but the books share some of the same concerns with Honour and Fallen Women and how to preserve morality by shaming women and their sexuality.
Because I read them in sequence (and Flabuert, obvs, in translation) I couldn’t help but draw comparisons (btw: why do we draw comparisons? It’s a strange verb choice and I’d like it explained. Maybe it has roots in tracing paper?). Similar plot set up: respectable woman (in the case of Pearl, respectable maid, but still) catches the eye of powerful man, powerful man proves enticing. Then the books diverge in their responses. While our maid protagonist, Greit, totally wants to sleep with Vermeer (the painter), she resists – or they resist – and instead marries the butcher (like how much more of a contrast to romance do you need than fancy painter versus Butcher) and prospers because of it (like she gets to eat meat for the rest of her life). Emma as we know, dies penniless and alone because of her adulterous and lavish ways. Differences aside, both are unhappy and feel cheated out of their true desires because of restrictive expectations for women’s behaviour.
And I’m sure there’s some great and lasting moral lesson in both tales that has startling resonance in 2019 – something about how women continue to have their bodies, sexual desires and aspirations policed by a misogynistic state – but yawn. I wasn’t into the morality tale of either and mostly felt frustrated and annoyed for both characters, but also for the enduring ‘present’ of both ‘historical’ tales (knowing of course that Flaubert isn’t historical fiction!).
Maybe it’s a sign I need to be reading more speculative fiction where gender is exploded or women all have tails and use these tails to strangle things/people that get in their way. I don’t know. It could also be the three cups of coffee.