After I finished Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I commented on Twitter that I was finding cold, meticulous novels wearing and asked for recommendations of good, recent warm-hearted fiction. Along with the understandable and spot-on nods to writers I already know well (such as Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler), I got a lot of good tips, which I am still working through. Here are the ones I have read so far. I have to say that while they have all been fine, none of them really got much traction with me: I don’t think it is necessarily the case that “warm-hearted” means lightweight, but that’s how these mostly felt. I don’t think I will remember much about them. The exception so far is Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, which I found very moving; that’s why it got its own post!
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again. I read Olive Kitteridge years ago – long enough that I didn’t write it up here, that I can find. I remember enjoying it, but it seemed dispensable, so after a while I put it in my “donate” pile. I didn’t like My Name is Lucy Barton much, and that seemed like the end of my relationship with Strout. Still, she’s much beloved, and so I picked up Olive, Again to see if I’d underestimated her. My conclusion is “not really.” I liked it fine, but it felt incidental, meandering. The ‘linked short story’ effect irritates the novel reader in me: it feels lazy, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to do the work of actually integrating the characters and events into one more substantial and meaningful whole. I’m a lover of Victorian multi-plot novels, which I consider, at their best, a high form of art. If the whole is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, I’d like the author to be the one who does the work of building that up. Don’t just give us the pieces and assume we’ll believe there’s more to it than that.
Stewart O’Nan, Emily Alone. I read this right after Olive, Again, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still reading the same book. There was nothing (to my ear, anyway) to distinguish the voice or tone or prose of one author from the other; Emily’s story could easily have been one of the chapters in Strout’s book (see, I’m reluctant to call it a “novel”!) – except, of course, for being book-length itself. I liked Emily herself just fine, and “older woman living alone” is one of my favorite tropes (see Plant Dreaming Deep, for a cherished example) but the novel recounted day to day events in tedious detail. I like exposition, but I like it to be more than an accumulation of (fictional) facts.
Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book. I liked this one quite a lot except for the uneasiness it created in me about what kind of book it is, exactly. I realize that is one of the main points of the book, to destabilize assumptions about what constitutes a memoir or a novel or autofiction or whatever. I understood this because McCracken makes rather a lot of noise about it: “What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir?” she asks; “I couldn’t tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.” “It’s not a made-up place,” she says about a trip she and her mother make to the theater (or do they?),
though this is a novel, and the theater might be fictional, and my insistence fictional, and my mother the only real thing, though this version of her is also fictional.
OK, whatever. I found these intrusions distracting. If I wanted to explore theoretical differences between genres in that kind of explicit way, I’d read critical writing; if you want to play with genre, you can do it without so much handwaving about it. And yet as a book about love and mourning, The Hero of This Book was sometimes quite powerful:
Was this grief? I could feel my mother’s joy on the London Eye, her love of heights and good views. That streak of daredevilry and thrill-seeking. I had once taken her on a helicopter tour of downtown Miami, after she’d seen somebody parasailing and had guessed aloud that she couldn’t do that. My mother laughed as the helicopter wove through skyscrapers; I believed that I would fall to the ground at any moment and thought, I’ve had nightmares like this. That was actual joy; the joy I could apprehend now had not occurred, was counterfeit, made of regret and set in regret.
Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club. When Levi Stahl recommended this, he prefaced it by asking if I read or liked “cozies.” I don’t, much, but this one sounded really charming – which it is, or at least the cast of characters is. By about half way through, however, I had completely lost interest in the actual murder case. (I also got irritated at the repeated device of revealing some key bit of evidence to the characters but withholding it from us: I get that it’s a provocation for us to figure out what it might be on our own, but IMHO it’s a bit of a cheap trick.) This had some ripple effects on the quality of attention I paid to the rest of the novel: I read just closely enough to find out what happened to the people I liked, but overall I wasn’t very invested, and I don’t think I’ll read on in the series.
Thank you for this brilliant analysis! I’m not analytical enough about novels to be able to put my finger on why they don’t work, but this helps a lot. Please do let us know when you find warm hearted fiction. Two of the best books I’ve read in recent years (and that stick with me) are A Man Called Ove by F. Backman and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. In so much contemporary fiction, I do not like the characters or want to follow them down any rabbit holes. I also feel I am having to decode too much, with multiple points of view merging into the narrative, and with no back story to begin with. I too like Victorian novels–with an omniscient narrator who can guide me along. I’m also glad you like May Sarton–maybe I need to go back to her and Plant Dreaming Deep.
The other ‘warm-hearted’ fiction I enjoyed was “Leonard and Hungry Paul,’ by Ronan Hession. I’ve just heard these recommended but not sure how warm-hearted they will be: The Past by Tessa Hadley, Border Country by Raymond Williams, and A Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt,
I loved Leonard and Hungry Paul, but I’m not a Hadley fan (in fact, her Free Love was one of the coldly meticulous books that turned me in this direction!).
Ahaha, I love this review. You articulate some of the grouchiness I feel about some of these books (and others you don’t mention; I was irritated by A Man Called Ove a few years back). I think you put your finger on the cause–these authors don’t seem fully invested in what they’re proposing. They’re not trying to do it as much as mentioning that doing it might work.
Yes – that’s exactly it! Do it or don’t do it. Skimpiness is not necessarily evidence of artistry.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I do love these posts, Rohan.
This time I have to say-despite my love of detective fiction-that I found Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ irritating, if not more than that… Why, oh why?
I think books in this genre have to walk a fine line between being cute / charming and taking the serious act of murder seriously (a problem that goes back at least to Agatha Christie).
A fascinating post, Rohan. I love the way you articulate your personal responses to the books you read (e.g. what you’re looking for in your reading and why certain things don’t work). It’s something I find quite difficult to do in blog posts, so it’s always a pleasure to read your reflections!
Have you read The Offing by Ben Myers? I found it a very warm and compassionate read, so it might fit the bill. The other novel that springs to mind is A Gentleman Moscow by Amor Towles, but you may well have read it already?
A Gentleman in Moscow.
” If the whole is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, I’d like the author to be the one who does the work of building that up. Don’t just give us the pieces and assume we’ll believe there’s more to it than that.” I’ve been rereading LUCY BARTON et al lately after feeling precisely as you did about the first book (which I was SO ANGRY I PAID $35 FOR!). And I’ve detected something deeper going on with Strout’s books, something I’m still grasping toward an articulation of, but it’s along the lines of that she doesn’t write novels, she plots constellations. The inter-recurrence of characters in her books is endlessly fascinating to me (Olive turns up in Lucy By the Sea!) and there’s something in their stangeness and seeming randomness of construction that seems closer to actual life than most more straightforwardly realist novels ever will.
I read your post with interest (and linked to it on Twitter, where I know you don’t hang out any more, but some of us do still find it a nice place to share book talk!). I can’t argue with your evolving judgment of these books, but at the same time it rests on a presumption of substance or artfulness (or whatever you want to call it), not really on evidence of it. I feel vacancy where you feel (or at least suspect) something better is going on. I guess for me that doesn’t resolve anything, although I’m always open to the possibility that I am the one missing something!