Reading in the New Year: Love and Death

love-letteringRing out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.

Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck, Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.

luckThe first time I read Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy. luck-of-draw

It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:

He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The t, the w, the o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.

It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.

witch-elm The Witch Elm has been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I’d say that without any “bang, bang” for hundreds of pages, “The Witch Elm” becomes “boring, boring.” I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.

My only quibble with The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.

So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.

 

 

 

Recent Reading: Tana French, The Trespasser

As usual, the unusual stretch of radio silence here means that I have been writing: the good news is a proposal I sent in some months ago was unexpectedly accepted last week, but the challenge was they wanted it by today and I hadn’t really thought about it once the initial proposal had gone unanswered for a while. I have been focusing pretty hard since then–which was nice in a way, as I’ve been writing on Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, a book that I have thought about a lot since I first read it and loved it when it was just out. As I have also found with the essay I’ve been writing on Dorothy Dunnett, though, loving and having a long relationship with a book can if anything make it harder to say something you’re pleased with, especially under tight space constraints!

Anyway, I sent in my best effort and now I wait to hear if the editor likes it. In the meantime, I didn’t really have the extra mental fortitude to keep up with the Forsytes, so in the reading time I had, I read Tana French’s The Trespasser. I wish I could say I loved it. I really admired French’s first few novels, but for me this one, like both The Secret Place and Broken Harbour, seemed a lot longer than it needed to be. Since I have also felt this way about all the more recent books by Elizabeth George, I wonder if the problem really is me, not them: have I just lost patience or interest in the kind of character-driven, detail-oriented crime fiction I typically like(d)?

There were certainly things I liked, admired, and was interested in with The Trespasser. French is great at jump-starting her books with a strong sense of the narrator’s individuality (if you haven’t read them, though the books do connect, each of them is told by a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad). The strongest element in The Trespasser was the gradual undoing of its narrator’s own perspective–not on the case, but on her place in the squad. The whole book is about interpreting events, about considering competing stories and weighing them against both the fixed point of fact and one’s own sense of the teller’s character and of what, more generally, makes a plausible or significant story. Our narrator here, Antoinette Conway, operates under assumptions about the people around her that turn out to be both largely mistaken and debilitating; that “reveal” is more important, ultimately, than the unraveling of the crime itself.

Where I got impatient was with the long (loooooong) sequences of witnesses’ accounts of what happened (or didn’t happen), and the constant spinning of alternative versions. Some of the Q&A sessions with witnesses felt like they were in real time! For characters we are meeting for the first and probably only time, I didn’t really see the value in spending so much time spinning out their world views and guessing or undermining their motivations. The investigation itself also could have taken a more gripping turn, I thought — but having said that, I sometimes dislike it when procedurals turn into thrillers, so props to French, I suppose, for staying true to her form.

I still think French is good enough that I’ll keep reading her books as they come out, but I’m glad that the pressure has lifted again and I can get back to Galsworthy. (In an odd coincidence, I see that in the post I linked to about The Secret Place I had just done the reverse, putting The Forsyte Saga back on the shelf so I could move on to other things!)

Weekend Reading: Julie Schumacher, Tana French

dear-committee-membersAs the latest in a seemingly relentless series of winter storms bore down on us last week, I plucked The Forsyte Saga off my shelf (where it has been ripening for a couple of years now): it seemed like the perfect time had come for something so long and (I hoped) absorbing. Bad call, as it turns out, not because anything’s wrong with The Forsyte Saga (I very much enjoyed the 30 or so pages I managed to read) but because between one thing and another I had difficulty settling down to it. It’s re-shelved for now: maybe the really perfect time for it will be a long lazy summer day, when my nerves aren’t jangling — or my muscles aching from shoveling yet another mess of snow.

A couple of other books kept me happily distracted this weekend, though. The first of them was Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which I signed out on impulse when it popped up on the library’s list of recent e-book acquisitions. I’d heard a bit about it here and there when it was newer, and people seemed to like it a lot, but it sounded pretty gimmicky (a whole novel written as letters of recommendation? really?) so I hadn’t chased it down. Well, it is gimmicky, I suppose, but it’s also painfully funny — I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so often reading anything. The narrator, Jason Fitger, is a bitter, dispirited professor of English and Creative Writing. There’s a layer of the novel that is straight-up snark of the kind all academics will recognize and many (shamefacedly or not) have participated in:

This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.

There are some hilarious send-ups, also, of fads in creative writing:

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junion/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster … is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. . . . Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea. . . You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

Fitger is not a nice man, and in some respects he’s even quite creepy. But his acidity is in part a symptom of the failings of the system he works in; underlying and giving depth to the novel’s humor is an indictment of tendencies in contemporary academia that, again, all academics will recognize, from the devaluation of the university’s intellectual mission to the exploitation of part-time faculty and the demoralization of the rapidly diminishing number of their tenured colleagues. Asked by his new department chair to nominate someone for the position of director of graduate studies, Fitger explains why pickings will be slim:

Why? First, because more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or to serve. Second, because the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.

Unsympathetic curmudgeon as Fitger mostly is, too, in his own way he’s fighting for the right and the good, especially in his relentless (if spectacularly undiplomatic and ineffective) championing of the one student he truly believes deserves every good opportunity. In a way Dear Committee Members is quite a grim book, and it doesn’t end with any false notes of redemption, but by the end I thought it was something more and better than simply cynical.

The_Secret_PlaceI also read Tana French’s The Secret Place, the latest in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I think French is really good, though I noted with Broken Harbour that I had become a bit tired of “the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, [and] the heavy-handed revelations.” I also got a bit impatient with The Secret Place, which seemed to me to be overwritten, not so much with melodrama but with metaphor: intangibles are always swirling, radiating, crystallizing, shimmering, around the four teenaged girls who are at the heart of the mystery. I appreciated that French wanted the novel to be more than a whodunit, that she’s interested in the way the teenage years are times of intense self-consciousness but also self-fashioning, that the girls’ identities are in flux as they try to figure out who they are, or, more to the point, who they are going to be. I just got a bit irritable with passages insisting on it: “They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”

I found the novel’s emphasis on a particularly gendered kind of menace very interesting: one of the crucial elements of the crime is a pact of resistance the girls make — a resolution to keep “guys” at a distance, thus setting themselves apart from many of the emotional and social pressures of their boarding school. The novel alternates between their experience and the investigation, and there too we see the difficulty of sexual politics, especially through the character of Antoinette Conway, who has alienated her murder squad colleagues by turning on one of them when he “smacks her arse.” “If she’d just made this much effort to fit in,” says another male cop, warning off (he thinks) our narrator, who is working the new case with Conway; “But she didn’t, and now the rest of the squad thinks she’s an uppity ball-breaking humorless bitch.” Refusing to fit in is exactly the hallmark of the four girls at the center of the case too.

I ended up uncomfortable, though, with the way French develops this premise. The popular girls sneer at the others for being “weird,” even calling them “witches”: at first, this seems like an indictment of the speakers, and there’s no doubt that the members popular clique are worse than the ones they mistrust: shallow, judgmental, cruel, manipulative. But French actually plays with the witchcraft possibility, giving the outsiders uncanny powers that seem entirely real to them, though one of them eventually reflects that “someday she’ll believe — one hundred percent believe, take for granted — that it was all their imagination.” A lot of the imagery around these four also turns their close friendship into something uncanny: what are we to make of that? Is this just French’s way of exploring the total immersion of friendship at a time when individual identities are porous enough to allow the group to take on its own character?  It’s certainly not a nostalgic vision of youth, though: if anything, the teenage world the novel gives us is dystopian, a seething morass of hormones and resentments and lies and anxieties. That atmosphere, too, ended up making me uncomfortable: I thought the motif of resistance would take us in a feminist direction, but at times I thought the opposite was true, that the novel was perpetuating and even relying on, for its own purposes of suspense, the worst misogynistic clichés about teenaged girls. I’d love to know if anyone else had the same slightly queasy response.

 

Holiday Reading

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! It is a beautifully crisp sunny fall weekend here: I treated myself to an amble through the Public Gardens on Saturday, where the gold-tinged foliage provided a lovely backdrop for the remaining bright flowers. The Gardens are my favourite spot in the city, a perfect place for “a green thought in a green shade.”

PublicGardensOct13

LoneBloom

For one reason or another, I was feeling pretty grim by the end of last week, so I decided to treat the holiday weekend like actual time off from my day job. This means that although today I have had to turn my attention back to reading for work (The Big Sleep and Jane Eyre are up next week), I managed to get through two books just for fun. They are polar opposites, too, which made it just that much more entertaining to read them one after another.

venetiaThe first was Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which a number of Heyer fans I know have identified as one of their favorites. It also came up in a discussion here in the summer about whether Heyer’s books ever get sexy, as opposed to romantic. I thoroughly enjoyed Venetia: it is brisk and witty, which is typical, but also full of lines of poetry (which is not quite so typical). It also has a more adult heroine,  and it does have more of that frisson that I was wondering about: “She had not enjoyed being so ruthlessly handled,” Venetia reflects after the first, quite improper, kiss,

but for one crazy instant she had known an impulse to respond, and through the haze of her own wrath she had caught a glimpse of what life might be. . . . if Edward [her dull suitor!] had ever kissed her thus! The thought drew a smile from her, for the vision of Edward swept out of his rigid propriety was improbable to the point of absurdity. Edward was sternly master of his passions; she wondered, for the first time, if these were very strong, or whether he was, in fact, rather cold-blooded.

Meeting her morally problematic mother, Venetia is struck by her lacy lingerie:

It was not at all the sort of garment one would have expected one’s mama to wear, for it was as improper as it was pretty. Venetia wondered whether Damerel would like the sight of his bride in just such a transparent cloud of gauze, and was strongly of the opinion that he would like it very much.

Well! Hardly the ruminations I’m used to from a Heyer heroine! And much later, when the usual convolutions of the plot have been managed, she “melts” into her rakish lover’s arms:

He held her in a crushing embrace, fiercely kissing her, uttering disjointedly: ‘My love — my heart — oh, my dear delight! It is you!’

It was a bit of a relief to be able to enjoy the courtship plot without any shadow of concern that the heroine seemed just a bit too young and naive to play her part in it. But it was Venetia’s smart independence that made the book particularly delightful for me: she doesn’t appreciate anyone making decisions or speaking for her, and she doesn’t hesitate to do what she thinks is best to orchestrate the outcome she desires.

brokenMy other book was Tana French’s Broken Harbour. It seems odd to call it ‘fun,’ as it is just as dark and intense and frightening as the other books in her Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s also just as well and artfully written, with just as convincing and distinct a narrator and just as complex and psychologically fraught a plot. By the end, though, I found I was actually a little weary of the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, the heavy-handed revelations and insistent reminders of just how much the case resonated with (and screwed up) the detective. Rattling off my first impressions on GoodReads, I found myself wondering if my problem is related to the subgenre of crime fiction French is working in: I don’t usually read suspense novels or psychological thrillers, and Broken Harbour is as much of that kind as it is a detective  novel or police procedural. I found myself eventually skimming a bit through the confessions and backstories just to find out what had actually happened and what would come of it. This is my way of saying “it’s not you, it’s me,” I suppose! But the novel did seem too long (not unlike some of Elizabeth George’s more recent ones). There is an awful lot French does brilliantly though: setting, in particular, and the theme of people becoming desperate as they try to hang on to their dreams, or to reach the futures they yearn for — at whatever cost, it often turns out. French is definitely the best new crime writer I’ve tried in a long time — so thanks especially to Dorian for bringing her to my attention!

And now it’s back to work, though I will pick out something to read in the interstices. My book club has chosen The Talented Mr. Ripley for our next meeting, so it might be that, though I also recently picked up Beautiful Ruins (which looked like it might be refreshingly different).