Recent Reading: Romance, Reykjavik, and Relatives

In among my other recent chores and challenges I’ve read a few things chosen primarily for their likely distraction value. I don’t have a whole post’s worth of comments on any of them but I thought I’d round them up here, just to sort out my impressions of them.

juliejamesFirst, two romance novels: Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer and Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice. I really liked Suddenly One Summer. It’s more subdued than her others, but for me that was a plus. I still find it mildly annoying that all of her main characters are so relentlessly gorgeous, but the heroine’s anxiety issues in this one were both realistically and sympathetically conveyed, I thought, and I liked that the story line overall focused less on overcoming cynicism (which is often the core problem in James’s other novels) and more on taking risks and learning to trust. Fool Me Twice, on the other hand, ended up a ‘DNF’ for me. It was my first Meredith Duran, and the problem I had with it is the same I’ve had so far with the Courtney Milan novels I’ve tried: for me (and obviously others respond very differently) there was just too much of it. What I’ve found so far is that the longer and more ostensibly complex a romance novel gets, the more judgmental I get about whether it’s really a very good novel, rather than just an enjoyable read, and in these cases, I started finding the books tedious. With Fool Me Twice, I just couldn’t believe in either main character, and yet the novel went on and on about them. I am going to give Courtney Milan another try: I’ve been on the library waiting list for The Suffragette Scandal for a while and my turn just came up. And maybe there’s a Duran that would suit me better: I’m open to suggestions.

jarcityFollowing up on recommendations from both Miss Bates and Dorian, I’ve just finished my first Arnaldur Indridason mystery, Jar City. (When possible, I always prefer to start at the beginning of a series, even if it might not be the best of the bunch, because that way I’m not missing any pieces.) It took a while to get going, and at first I thought it was a bit too blandly reminiscent of Henning Mankell: is it perhaps an effect of the translations that so many of these northern crime novels sound so much the same? I got drawn in by the case, though, which proved genuinely interesting in ways that seemed quite original to me: I did not expect the story to unfold the way it did, or the motive for the crime to be quite what it was. It provoked some good questions about what counts as justice, but also about families, genealogies, and data — specifically, in this case, data about our genetic inheritance, which is going to be an increasingly pressing ethical issue, I expect. I didn’t get much of a feel for Erlendur himself: he didn’t seem terribly distinctive as a character. But I’ve got Silence of the Grave ready to read next, and maybe as I get to know him I’ll see him more clearly.

trollopeFinally, after being disappointed in Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act, I decided to reread her earlier novel Marrying the Mistress, which I remembered thinking was excellent (and which I had been thinking of as also fairly recent but which turns out to be from 2000). I can’t quite put my finger on what makes Marrying the Mistress so much better — but it is. It is structurally very similar: it takes a family with a complex and carefully balanced set of relationships and changes the dynamic by introducing a dramatic change, in this case the husband-and-father’s decision to leave his wife of 40 years in order to marry the much younger woman he’s been having an affair with. It’s a cliched scenario but Trollope makes it feel very specific to these people, at this moment in their lives. She also plays in unexpected ways with our sympathies and with her characters’ loyalties; she discovers, for us, ways in which getting what you want, or what you think you want, might be very different than what you expect, as well as ways in which unwanted change, change that’s unkindly forced on you, might be right, and liberating, as well as painful. She’s very savvy about family loyalties and how people push and pull at each other. It’s not a very happy book, but it’s definitely a book about love.

I also read The Girl on the Train last week — but I’m going to be writing about that for an Open Letters feature so I won’t say more about it here.

Family Drama: Balancing Act and Parenthood

balancingactBoth my reading and my TV viewing this week have been all about the intricacies of family life. Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act is a classic “slice of life novel” — classic Joanna Trollope, anyway. I haven’t liked Trollope’s recent novels as much as her older ones (A Village Affair, for instance), and Balancing Act didn’t break that pattern: it felt a bit thin and perfunctory to me, as if she’d come up with the scenario and populated it with characters, but didn’t have much at stake in what happened to them. She’s adept at filling in the outlines of her characters, and I appreciate her attention to the personal significance of minutiae. But underlying Balancing Act are some pretty fraught questions about work and family (or work vs. family, as the novel’s title suggests), about work and identity — or work as a source of identity — as well as about creativity, autonomy, and emotional control. I suppose you could call her treatment of these themes “suggestive”: she doesn’t like a lot of exposition, preferring to step nimbly from one character’s point of view to another’s and let their individual experiences hint at the depths she’s not exploring on our behalf. The result is an easy read and one that highlights Trollope’s strengths — emotional finesse, clever orchestration of time and action — but also one that suggests the limits of her particular formula.

Parenthood is kind of similar. For one thing, like all of Trollope’s novels that I’ve read, it begins with disruption — a spanner (or, in the case of Parenthood, a few spanners) thrown into the works of a family situation that already quivers with the potential for conflict as well as connection and celebration. The first season of Parenthood, for instance, includes Sarah moving back into the fold, bring her own children and thus complications with her and inevitably creating more complications; the unexpected news that Crosby has a son; and Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis. That’s a lot of hares to start running all at once, but a weekly serial drama needs lots of subplots to sustain it, after all! I wasn’t immediately hooked on Parenthood, but I was content to watch something low key after Wallander (which is great but also intense, violent, and pretty dispiriting), and the show has definitely grown on me. (We’re not even done with Season 2 yet, though, so please don’t throw out plot spoilers in the comments!)

Parenthood_S1One thing that I find different about Parenthood, compared to much of the TV we’ve binged on over the past year, is that precisely because it is so focused on family life, it provokes personal reflections in a way that most crime shows rarely do (the exception would be Last Tango in Halifax, another intimate family drama). Happily, most of us will never encounter the kind of horrific scenarios that drive each episode of Wallander forward. But we all have families, in one form or another! And parenthood has preoccupied a great deal of my time, energy, and mental resources for 18 years now. As I commented in my last post, I prefer to keep the details mostly to myself, so all I’ll say is that there have already been plenty of moments in Parenthood that resonated with my own experience of both the challenges and the rewards of being a parent — or, for that matter, with being a daughter, and being a wife! Watching Wallander, I might mutter “he shouldn’t be going out there without back-up!” but it doesn’t really mean anything to me personally. Watching Parenthood, it’s hard not to get caught up in debating whether they (any of them!) are making the best choices, or wondering what I would say or do in the same situation — or just to laugh ruefully and say “yup, that’s about right.” So far nothing about the show strikes me as particularly artful or groundbreaking, but that’s fine with me: it’s sincere and well-acted, and while some of the plot twists are kind of silly, others seem to me spot-on examples of why parenting is at once the best and the worst gig imaginable. This may not be the most sophisticated reason to like a TV show, but hey, not everything has to be Deadwood, right?

Joanna Trollope, A Village Affair

From the Novel Readings Archives. Writing about Rosy Thornton’s The Tapestry of Love got me thinking about other examples of intelligent ‘women’s fiction’ (which I would say is the thinking person’s alternative to ‘chick lit’: readable but insightful stories about women living recognizable lives, sorting through family, career, or personal issues, learning more about themselves in the process–and prompting us to reflect a little on our own lives along the way). I mentioned Anne Tyler, for instance; her unassuming books often offer unexpectedly broad (or is it deep?) insights. Joanna Trollope is another writer I think writes low-key, easily readable, but worthwhile novels. Some of her more recent ones have not really worked for me (Friday Nights, for instance), but I’m fond of several of her earlier ones. I wrote about them long ago–when I almost never got readers or commenters! So I thought I’d repost what I said then. Has anyone else had a similar experience of being surprised into taking something more seriously than they expected? Also, what writers do you turn to when you want to relax a little into your reading? Who are your trusted go-to books or authors when you want something in between, say, Virginia Woolf at one extreme and Sophie Kinsella at the other? (Sally Vickers has been mentioned already; I’ve made a note!)


When I decided to take a break from more “serious” reading with A Village Affair, I wasn’t really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice’s father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice’s discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope’s plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it’s the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize–as, in this case, Alice’s “coming alive” through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.

In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)

Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope’s scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one’s individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one’s guiding principle, because of the “visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre” (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice’s single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted–only what she was capable of achieving.

I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the “visible and invisible relations” exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life (“was she alone,” Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler’s women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope’s novel (“Aga saga” though it certainly is).

(originally posted June 15, 2007)

Monica Ali, Brick Lane

I really enjoyed this novel and the things it made me think about. Although in some ways this seems like the wrong context in which to consider it (at any rate, there are others more or equally relevant), I couldn’t help comparing it, as I went along, to the novels I discussed along with Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair, because in its own way, it too deals with a woman reconsidering the ways her marriage requires her to compromise her individualism. Of course, Nazneen’s marriage has its particular form in large part because of her culture and religion, both of which have encouraged passivity and submission to her “fate,” while the protagonists in Trollope’s or Tyler’s stories of discontented marriage are drawing on ideas about self-realization and agency that seem–literally as well as metaphorically–foreign to her. As I neared the end of Brick Lane, I thought I knew where we were going, especially as Nazneen became increasingly sympathetic, even affectionate, towards Chanu, and distanced from Karim: she and we were turning away from experiments in re-visioning and rewriting her own story, back to acceptance of the life she already lives, of the strength and shape of its architecture, to use Smiley’s image. But to my surprise and pleasure, Nazneen does not resign herself to the life she never actually chose. Neither does she choose a new life with Karim, an option which seemed insubstantial and improbable right from the beginning of their affair. Nazneen chooses uncertainty, a story without a known outline, with an indefinite shape, so that the ending of the novel is really a new beginning: “‘This is England,’ [Razia] said. ‘You can do whatever you like.'” Treated differently, her story might have been more polemically and politically charged, but (in part through using limited omniscient narration, which keeps us mostly within Nazneen’s own tamped-down consciousness) Ali keeps these possibilities at a slight distance. Still, there’s no doubt that the novel comes down on the side of a woman’s right to (or need for, if there is a relevant difference) self-determination and agency. How different, really, is Nazneen’s dilemma from Dorothea Brooke’s, as Dorothea too is hampered in her imagination and her desire by history and culture, by who and when and where she was born, and into what expectations? Like Dorothea, Nazneen struggles to articulate her dissatisfaction and then to see her way through them to a happier alternative. In the end, she rejects what she cannot tolerate and yet remains tolerant; in fact, it seemed to me as if her liberation from her life-long passivity freed her to be generous, especially towards Chanu.

There are many more aspects of this novel that deserve more thought and commentary than I can spare (summer teaching obligations intervene!): the interweaving of Nazneen’s story with her sister Hasina’s letters, which (among other things) throw Nazneen’s more abstract struggles into relief and inhibit any nostalgic tendencies she (or we) might have regarding the world she has left behind; the story of Nazneen’s mother, who did not, could not, accept her own life; the unsentimental and nuanced depiction of the ideological conflicts and confusions in Nazneen’s Muslim community; the portrayal of Chanu, with his endlessly futile optimism and equally prolific but pointless scholarship; the delicate use of ice skating to provide an image, for Nazneen and thus for us, of what she wants but can barely imagine. There were times when I wanted more overt emotion from the novel–I wanted Nazneen to break free and thus free up the narrative from its veiled tone, to look more aggressively at the world. I wonder, though, if that sense of being kept one step back from the action and the emotion isn’t meant to generate just such a feeling, so that we end up feeling, with Nazneen, that life cannot be lived at one remove.

Joanna Trollope, A Village Affair

When I decided to take a break from more “serious” reading with A Village Affair, I wasn’t really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice’s father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice’s discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope’s plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it’s the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize–as, in this case, Alice’s “coming alive” through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.

In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)

Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope’s scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one’s individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one’s guiding principle, because of the “visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre” (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice’s single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted–only what she was capable of achieving.

I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the “visible and invisible relations” exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life (“was she alone,” Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler’s women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope’s novel (“Aga saga” though it certainly is).