Comparisons are foolish, I know, but often these days I recoil uncomfortably from cheerful exchanges among my many bookish ‘tweeps’ about what they’ve been reading because they seem to read so much and so enthusiastically—which is great, of course, but because I’m struggling to finish most of the books I pick up, the contrast can make me feel discouraged instead of interested and inspired. Social media has a way of making you feel inadequate or alienated, doesn’t it? And I say this as someone who has long championed Twitter (and would still do so, if challenged) on the grounds that it is very much what you make it. “My” Twitter is full of avid readers and I love that about it. It’s absolutely not their fault that lately it sometimes seems to hurt as much as it helps. I’m trying to think of it as aspirational: one day, I too will feel cheerfully bookish again!
Anyway, it’s not that I haven’t been reading at all. For one thing, I’m reading for my classes, which most recently has meant Great Expectations, Agatha Christie, and Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. Next week it will be Lady Audley’s Secret in 19th-Century Fiction and Gaudy Night in Women & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, what larks!
Earlier this month I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first of her much-admired Cazalet Chronicles. I enjoyed it just fine but wasn’t swept up in it—or swept away by it! The aspect of it that surprised me the most was how much it read like a book written in the 1930s (or perhaps the 1950s) rather than in the 1990s: it felt very much of the time it depicts. As a result, in some ways it seemed like a missed opportunity, artistically speaking: it’s a smart, elegant, readable portrayal but it didn’t seem to have any layers of reflection, or to take advantage of being what it actually is, namely historical fiction. Maybe the idea was to give us the feeling of being transported back, rather than to encourage us to look back and consider gaps and differences. I already had a copy of the second book in the series, Marking Time, and I will probably read it eventually, but I’ve picked it up, read a few pages, and put it down again more than once: I just don’t feel compelled to persist. The last time I tried, I found myself thinking that (deliberately or not) it read like the novel I imagine Woolf was trying not to write when she wrote what ended up as The Years. The problem, she noted, was “how to give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art.” Not (we might conclude, following her lead) by just recounting in meticulous detail everything that happens to a large number of people over a long period of time.
Also this month I finally got my hands on Sarah Moss’s The Fell. I’m a big admirer of Moss’s fiction (see here, here, and here for more formal reviews plus any posts in this category here) but like other readers I know, I did not get terribly excited about The Fell. It has her usual combination of intelligence, precision, and undercurrents of menace or stress, and it really captured the grim absurdity of early lockdowns, but I keep wishing for her to go back to a more expansive canvas. I also found the somewhat breathless or chaotic stream of consciousness style of The Fell quite tiring to read.
My book club met in the middle of September to talk about Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, but I actually read it in August, so it doesn’t really count as “recent”. I will say that it was not a big hit with the group, although most of us found at least some aspects of it enjoyable, provocative, or entertaining. There seemed to be a general consensus that it too often felt thin or sketchy: that she had not taken the time to make the most of her premise and her scenarios, or perhaps even that she had just cobbled together a lot of different ideas she’d had and tried to make a single novel out of them.
During Hurricane Fiona, I read mostly on my Kobo, which can be illuminated: when it’s really stormy, there’s rarely enough light to see print books very clearly, even with our best battery-powered lanterns. First I ended up rereading Normal People, which I had been thinking about and talking with other people about and so wanted to revisit. It still strikes me as such a melancholy novel; I find it odd when people refer to it as some kind of romance.
Then I read David Nicholls’s Us, which I happened to have recently downloaded, inspired by having enjoyed the TV adaptation starring Tom Hollander (which I thought was excellent). I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, or even a particularly good one, at least in the prose: it’s a bit awkward and heavy-handed. I really empathized with its protagonist Douglas, though, and I appreciate that Nicholls refused the simplistic happy ending you might expect from a novel about a man hoping to save his marriage while going on a ‘grand tour’ with his wife and son.
I found myself thinking a lot about Douglas’s wife Connie’s explanation for deciding to divorce him: that their “marriage has run its course,” that with the departure of their son for college there isn’t really anything left for them to do as a couple and she just wants something new, different, better for the next and probably last phase of her life. Is that a reasonable or a selfish position? Obviously, a lot depends on specifics (for example, on whether she’s right that, as a couple, they have exhausted their options). A different novel (or novelist, I guess) would have explored that question more fully, perhaps even given us a split perspective so that we heard from Connie as well as from Douglas. There’s something enigmatic about her to the end, as it is: our story is really just about Douglas coming to terms with the inarguable fact that what you want is not always what someone else wants, and it might not be possible, never mind right, to change that. Because there’s never any doubt in the novel that Douglas loves Connie and would stay married to her if he could, there’s real pathos in watching him struggle with her resolution, including with the judgment of him (and his parenting) that is part of it. It was a good hurricane read: just absorbing enough to pass the time without being terribly demanding.
I have a few books around that I hope will help me out of my current slump: Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, which looks great; Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which I’ve been meaning to read for months now; and Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club chose for our next meeting. Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety is incoming, as well: I always find Atkinson immensely readable, even when I end up dissatisfied with the result, so the timing of this release seems perfect.