I’ve read at least three novels since posting last, but can I remember what they are? I cannot. Gone are the days of coming back to a post three weeks later with a somewhat clear memory of what I read, let alone the title. Ah well. In this case I finished the book last week and the kids are still sleeping (at 7:09am!) so I’ll get this out to you without more meandering.
Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is a warm fuzzy sort of socks and blanket book. Following Peter and Kate across their soul-mate lives together, the book (tries to) explores how people enter relationships not as individuals but within constellations of relationships, and that any romance is both between two individuals and those intersecting networks of people. In this case, the families of Peter and Kate have an incredibly fraught relationship after a “explosive event” (so says the book jacket) that changes the trajectory of the families and the individuals within. Whether the two can – or should – find one another again is the subject of much of the middle half of the book.
The other set of questions – beyond that of how and whether a loving relationship is possible amid family drama – is around if and how people can change because of or despite their childhood, and – strangely? – the role of the medical or penal systems in enabling and limiting this change. I say strangely as the book doesn’t seem conscious of the ways doctors, hospitals, rehab centers, courts, police and prisons are represented as uncomplicated in their ability to help. It’s worth saying – if it’s also obvious – that these systems are… not uncomplicated in their ability to help.
[SEVERAL DAYS LATER]
And then the last thing to say is that the book seems unable to let anyone suffer without that suffering meaning something, having that suffering both eventually resolve and in the resolution imparting something decent on the suffers. It is maddening, even while it is… cozy. What a triumph of escapism to imagine that All of This could eventually lead to something… better. Something… meaningful. So maybe not fiction after all, so much as cozy fantasy.
Yet another novel about a peculiar protagonist who begins the novel alone and misunderstood and who ends the novel connected with community and understanding her quirks as endearing and/or strengths. I suppose if I hadn’t read so many novels with the same plot and with the same variations on character theme I might find this one endearing. But as it is, I’ve had quite enough of this sort of thing.
So I know I said I was (I am!) taking a blog holiday, but I couldn’t resist checking back in to let you know about the excellent Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. You’d think that a novel about the life of Achilles and the Trojan war could only be dull (that was certainly my impression going in), but wowbamzonk but this book is great. (I’ll admit I decided to read it because it won the Orange Prize – one of the few literary prizes that I find consistently delivers an exceptional read). I’d especially recommend it for a trip to the cottage as it’s entirely engrossing, and is neither candy-fluff-mindless, nor emotionally/mentally taxing. It strikes an ideal cottage/beach balance of smart, character-driven (with the well established plot) and entertaining.
Narrated from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s companion and lover, the novel explores the great love of these two figures and the way ‘forbidden’ love is navigated by family, nation and gods. The novel is roughly divided in two with the first half setting up the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, along with establishing Achilles’s god-like (or godly?) powers and the future the two men want for themselves (along with the likely future). The second half takes on the Trojan War itself, narrating battles, but more interested in how a ten year war/seige is waged and the impact on the local communities/the flourishing of camp life.
Fascinating throughout is the extent to which Achiells is motivated by his desire for historic longevity – to be known as a hero on par with Hercules (the reader is of course more than aware that he certainly succeeds in establishing himself as a legendary hero) – and his willingness to sacrifice – almost – anything to gain this longevity. For Patroclus motivations are more nobel, but no less ambitious: he wants the same for Achilles, but he wants – more modestly – their life together to continue in perpetuity. The way the two work together to secure Achilles his heroic claim is a study in expressions of love and sacrifice for love. I do think the rendering of Patroclus as (ultimately) the ‘greater’ Greek is fascinating as it sets up an alternate portrait of heroics: not battle success, but self-sacrifice, gentleness and, crucically, care for the vulnerable.
So yes. I resolve to get back to vacation, but let my eagerness to post this be evidence of the quality of the book and not (as is also likely the case) my inability to take a proper rest.
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs was on the New York Times list for the best books of 2016. I went through the list and requested books at the library, most of the list had a wait list dozens, or hundreds, deep. Not so for The Association of Small Bombs. It was on the shelf at my preferred location. Maybe because I was requesting books the same day the list came out? Or maybe because readers are silly and thought they wouldn’t like a book about terrorism in India? Whatever the case: be me and get yourself to the front of the line to read this one. It’s terrific. Continue reading