Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

It was with great trepidation that I started reading Gone Girl. I have had a bad run recently with really not enjoying books that everyone else loves (All That I Am, I’m looking at you) or just hating the recent books from my previously favourite authors (Sweet Tooth, why did you have to suck so much?). It seemed like everyone whose literary opinion I respect was raving about Gone Girl and, if I’d hated it, I would seriously have considered giving up contemporary fiction in its entirety and just read classic literature for the rest of my life.
Fear not, booksellers, because after finishing Gone Girl in one long sitting, I am back in the contemporary literature fold. The book opens on Amy and Nick Dunne’s fifth anniversary. She is making in crepes for breakfast and the hatred and unhappiness in their marriage is clear from the outset. We know they loved each other once but now that love has been replaced by something else. It’s bad, but what exactly is it? By the end of the day Amy has vanished and Nick is involved in a missing person’s case that quickly develops into a possible homicide.
The book alternates chapters from Nick and Amy’s point of views and one of the things it does really well is use this alternation to play with the reader’s sympathy and identification. This book has been accused of being both misogynist and misandrist but in my view is neither. The discomfort that leads to these accusations comes from the allegiances the text draws with each character and then rapidly undermines. Is Nick a horrible man and husband who neglects and doesn’t appreciate his brilliant, beautiful bride or a victim? Is Amy horrible unappreciated and taken advantage of or a manipulative genius? Admittedly as the book gets closer to the end it does veer on the border of unrealism and excess but by the time I reached that point I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t care.
Much has been written about the twists and turns of Gone Girl. I don’t think any of it is particularly twisty or unpredictable but it is very enjoyable and lots of fun to read. Thanks to this book, my faith in contemporary fiction is restored and I can read new books again without apprehension. I give this book four stars.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (2011)

The eponymous chaperone in this book is Cora, a 1920s Witchita housewife who agrees to chaperone the beautiful but rebellious and wild Louise Brookes in New York for a summer. While in New York, Cora embarks on a journey of self-discovery with unexpected results. Also, and this is repeated a lot of times in the text so it must be very important, women wore corsets and they were very uncomfortable. Repeated many times, a very clear indication that an author doesn’t think very highly of her audience.

I’m a bit late to the game on this one – The Chaperone was a Christmas 2011 stocking filler, and it’s easy to see why. On holiday is the perfect time to read this light-as-a-feather book, preferably borrowed from the library because it’s definitely not worthy of a second read. The problem with this novel is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be – is it a woman at the end of her life recounting an eventful summer? Is it the story of an ordinary woman’s life and loves and the New York trip is an introduction to the tale? Because of the lack of clear motivation, the structure of this book is fatally flawed. For me it felt like the book should have finished once Cora returned to Witchita but it went on and on and on in an increasingly unlikely series of events, ending in one of the most improbable conclusions I’ve ever read in a novel. As I mentioned earlier, I also felt that Moriarty has a fairly poor opinion of the intellect of her readers – over the course of the summer Cora is reading The Age of Innocence. Moriarty doesn’t want anyone to miss the references to the book so makes explicit multiple times why it’s relevant that Cora is reading that text, turning a literary reference that should enhance the reading experience into a series of really irritating moments that jarred the reader from the story.

The verdict: Three stars. This book is not particularly good but it’s not awful either. It’s very middle of the road, just like its main protagonist.
Noteworthy: Wichita is a really great name for a town. More books should be set there to give me a chance to say “Wichita” more often.
Similar but better: Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The House of Memories by Monica McInerney

I have had mixed opinions of Monica McInerney's previous books. I liked The Alphabet Sisters, loved Those Faraday Girls, thought At Home with the Templetons was interesting but uneven and hated Lola's Secret (dear publishing gods, please spare us from any more books that center on wise, all-knowing elderly women who know how to use technology and are able to use their wisdom and all-knowingness to communicate with young people. These women are unsufferable and make me want to throw things - ie the book I'm reading that features these irritating protagonists - at the wall. Thank you.), so I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. Either way, McInerney has a nice, easy writing style, so I figured even if her new book wasn't great it would be a relaxing way to spend a few hours away from the high stress levels of my everyday life ("CAPS LOCK IS HOW I FEEL ALL THE TIME, RICK!"). Boy, was I wrong.

The House of Memories opens with a chapter detailing the childhood of Ella Fox/Baum/O'Hanlon and the special relationship she has with her uncle, Lucas. After we wade through the standard broken-home childhood tale (parents divorce, remarry, step-brother, new baby, jealously, et cetera cetera et cetera) we get to the crux of the story - Ella's baby has died. The book then separates into chapters told from the point of view of different characters, with some (very annoying) email chapters and others alternating between the first and third chapter.

I have no problem with having multiple narrators, even if (as is clearly signposted in this book ALL THE TIME for the benefit of those who have memory problems, I imagine) these narrators are unreliable. I have no problem with epistolary writing - The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is one of my favourite books. What I do have a problem with is books that are so predictable that, after reading the third chapter, it is possible to plot what happens in every chapter until the end. There is pleasure in reading genre fiction - it's nice to know that the right couple will get together in the end in a romance novel, for example - so I understand that books can be about the journey rather than the destination. But if both the journey and the destination suck...step away from the book.

I am a bit bummed about contemporary fiction at the moment. Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was a massive disappoint. I started Zadie Smith's new book NW but abandoned it because of the stream-of-consciousness writing style. This book completely sucked. Am I picking bad books, or has the standard of published works dropped recently? I'm about to start Gone Girl, which has received great reviews. If that sucks as well, I might stop reading anything published after the turn of the century and stick to books that have passed the test of time!