Three Great Novelists

I’ve been reading as much as ever but writing very little about it here – a most unusual turn of events! What it means, though, is that I can cherry pick the best of my reading to tell you about, three novels by these fantastic writers: Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson and Siri Hustvedt.

Instructions for a Heatwave

instructions for a heatwaveWe’re in London in the heatwave of 1976, when Robert Riordan tells his wife, Gretta, that he’s going round the corner for a newspaper and doesn’t come back. Robert is recently retired, but there’s been no indication he’s unhappy. In the first flush of the crisis, Gretta – one of the candidates, surely, for the great ongoing list of hypnotically awful fictional mothers – summons her three grown children home for support. The Riordans are an Irish family, a rambunctious lot who grew up with a lot of yelling and flouncing out at mealtimes, which has led them in consequence to hold their real adult problems very close to their chests. Michael Francis is a history teacher with a rocky marriage, Monica the over-loved daughter who can’t get a purchase on her life and is sleepwalking through a second marriage and awkward stepchildren. And Aoife is the black sheep, a severe dyslexic (though no one knew enough to name it, back in the 70s) who is working in New York as a photographer’s assistant and living in fear that the blue file will be discovered where she’s hidden all the paperwork. Family tensions flourish in the heat and the confusion, but it’s a crucible where some old, treacherous issues can finally meltdown and assume new shape. This is such a warm, kind, generous novel, unflinching in its analysis of families and their foibles, but endlessly forgiving and full of love. I didn’t want it to end (happily, of course, all you doom-merchants be warned).

One Good Turn

oneGoodTurnI know Jackson Brodie is high on most people’s list of ideal male heroes, but I’ve been slow in getting around to reading Atkinson’s novels. Better late than never, though, as I loved this. The novel opens at the Edinburgh Festival where crowds queuing for lunchtime shows are made witness to a shocking road rage incident. Present at this scene are most of the characters whose lives will intertwine over the course of the next three days in surprising, sometimes alarming, ways. There’s Martin, the wimpish novelist, Gloria, late middle-aged wife of a very dodgy property developer, the two mysterious men involved in the road rage and Jackson himself, in Edinburgh accompanying his girlfriend, Julia, and her dreadful avant-garde production. Atkinson draws some more eccentric types into her convoluted web – a firm of Russian cleaners-come-call girls, a woman police detective with a troublesome teenage son and Graham, the property developer, who is hooked up to life support for most of the novel but has been the offstage cause of many of its problems.  Quite unlike O’Farrell, Atkinson is not at all kind to her characters. In fact, she makes dreadful things happen to them, and proceeds to be very, very funny about it. This is a novel of chance and coincidence as lives collide and no one is quite what they seem, but it’s all so well done and enjoyable – apart maybe from the ending which gets a bit mad. But that didn’t matter to me when the journey there had been so entertaining.

The Sorrows of an American

siri hustved sorrowsWe take a stylistic left turn out of frantic Edinburgh into an elegant street of sophisticated if melancholy boutiques for Siri Hustvedt, who can write some of the most gloriously intelligent yet heartfelt sentences I’ve ever read. I have a taste for shrink lit in any case, and this is a fine example of it. Erik Davidsen is a New York psychoanalyst and a man grieving for his recently deceased father, Lars. Going through his papers, he and his sister, Inga, discover an enigmatic note referring to a secret their father kept for a woman named Lisa. When their mother turns out to know nothing about it, brother and sister decide to unravel the mystery, if they can. Both have other ongoing problems in their lives. Erik falls for the mother and daughter who move into the flat below his. Miranda is a book cover designer who makes it clear she has no interest in him, but is grateful for his support when her ex-partner behaves in stalker-ish mode. Her daughter, Eglantine, is altogether more drawn to the man she calls the ‘worry doctor’, exerting her charm in exchange for some security of her own. Meanwhile, Inga, who was married to a late, great novelist, Max Blaustein, is contacted by the actress who starred in the one film he made and who claims to have had a child by him. She also owns letters that could spoil Max’s posthumous reputation, and Inga is aware that a vindictive journalist is hunting for damaging material. What makes this book (what makes any book, really) are the voice and the vision. Hustvedt effortlessly evokes the complex life of the mind, and the multiple sorrows and fears that are the inevitable residue of living every day. Erik’s interactions with his patients are fascinating and disturbing in equal measure, but it’s clear that everyone in this novel, ‘normal’ or otherwise, suffers the way all humanity must from unexpected disappointments and not knowing what they want, or what will make them happy. If this sounds sad, it isn’t; Hustvedt makes something very beautiful out of the mystery of life, as is only right and proper.


49 thoughts on “Three Great Novelists

    • Oh I know that feeling! I’ve heard good things about Life After Life and will doubtless buy it when it comes out in paperback. At least it sounds like the beginning is good!

    • Charlotte, one day I ought to make a list – there are so many of them out there and so many classics. I am sure you’d like Maggie O’Farrell, or at least this novel as you’ve probably read her before. Let me know what you think!

    • I do think you’d like Kate Atkinson – she has such a sharp sense of humour! I’d love to know what you think of her, or of any of the novels above. They are all writers’ writers, I think.

  1. Hmmm, loved Atkinson’s “Behind the scenes at the museum” but read through about half of “One good turn” and abandoned it. Not sure why, but it just didn’t grip me (even as an Edinburgh lad). I’ve just finished an extremely challenging book for me as a humble scientist “Eros the bittersweet” by Anne Carson. I’ll try to collect some rational thoughts about it and post them on MCS.

    • I felt like this too! One Good Turn was good for a detective story utilising many of the Atkinson tricks that make her “conventional”(!) novels so unusual. For me, I ultimately prefer the non detective novels because I feel the detective ones are slightly constrained by that format. Otherwise, Atkinson does have a bit of a bonkers imagination regarding time and space and coincidence and this has freer rein outside the detective genre. I’ve enjoyed all the books of hers I’ve read, though.

    • There are so many factors involved in liking a book that the wonder is we enjoy so many of them! Anne Carson is someone I’d like to try but I confess I’m scared of her from sheer reputation alone! Looking forward to your thoughts.

      • Aha you see what a huge advantage I have here, compared to you, as one of the unwashed scientists. I very rarely know about “reputation”; I had never even heard of her!

  2. “she makes dreadful things happen to them, and proceeds to be very, very funny about it.”

    Sold! I’ve not read Atkinson but she has been on my radar for a long time. I think I even have one of her books on my shelf. I just have to figure out a way to make her into one of my TBR priorities! And Hustvedt, I have read and enjoyed one of her books and would like to read more sometime. Will keep this in mind.

    • I do think you’d like Atkinson, Stef. She has a wicked sense of humour and is clever without a shred of pretension. I’d love to know what you think of her if you do read her.

  3. I loved the O’Farrell and I think you might just have solved a problem for me because it is just the book to choose for my latest reading group. Thank you. Of all the Jackson Brodie books ‘One Good Turn’ is my favourite. I think it brings all the characters and plot lines together more successfully than any of the others in the series. Have you read ‘Life After Life’? I would love to know what you think of that. I haven’t read this particular Hustvedt, but thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Summer Without Men’, which again I recommend if you haven’t read it.

    • I haven’t read either Life After Life or The Summer Without Men (I have a copy of the latter), but intend to read both! I love their respective writing styles. I think the O’Farrell would make a great reading group choice, being enjoyable and worthy of discussion. I’d love to know how it goes over with them!

  4. Hurrah for Litlove reviews! I’ve long been at Atchinson fan but for some reason keep putting off reading “When Will There Be Good News” – between you and Smithereens I think I will tackle it this weekend! And I found Sorrows of An American to be such a truly beautiful book as well – powerful and not at all depressing although it’s a struggle to aptly describe it. To be a fly on the wall of her marriage to Paul Auster for a day…

    • Oh I would love to be a fly too! Do they discuss their work in progress, do you think? Maybe, like Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard, they secretly write chapters of each other’s books and wait to see if anyone notices! I’d love to know what you think of Kate Atkinson, do let me know won’t you?

  5. I like Maggie O’Farrell. She’s an author I feel I can rely on to present well thought out, well rounded characters, so you never feel that anyone is being shoe horned into a story (that makes me feel patronised), but rather characters that are allowed to breathe.

    • I do like what you say about organic characters and you’re perfectly right. It’s interesting, isn’t it, to think about the difference between narratives that let characters breathe and those that make the characters perform like puppets. You know the difference when you read them, and it marks those who are really writers from the write-by-numbers kind.

      • Finally, things are hotting up! We are almost having whole conversations in the forums now. On the plus side, this might mean that the course finishes before the rows begin… I must write a proper post about it in a bit, thank you for reminding me! 🙂

  6. O’Farrell is hit and miss for me. I’ve read two, loved one, hated the other but this sounds very good.
    I love Atkinson and need to get back to her and Brodie.
    My last Hustvedt was far from good but i had a hunch this one should be a real winner. I love shrink lit as well.

    • I’m pretty sure you’d like this Hustvedt. I would have said you’d like O’Farrell before I knew you’d had problems with some of her other novels! But I did like this one and thought the quality of the writing was really good. I’d love to know what you make of any of them.

    • I keep meaning to leave a comment at yours to say I hope to read along with A Tale for the Time Being. I will do this! I’d love to know what you think of the O’Farrell. I’ve been impressed by the past two novels by her as well.

  7. Nice collection of mini-reviews. You really made me want to read The Sorrows of an American. I’ve heard so many good things about Siri Hustvedt’s writing, and think I would really enjoy this one. Hope you’re doing well! I’ve been horribly busy, which is why I haven’t been around much on blogs lately.

    • Andrew! It’s lovely of you to visit, and no worries – it’s nice to hear from you just whenever you can (and I can’t remember who owes who an email and will go and check!). Siri Hustvedt is wonderful though, and definitely worth a try. Her writing is smooth as silk and effortlessly smart.

    • Yes, I’m fairly sure you’d like both of them (well, they’re definitely worth trying!). I think you’ve increased my TBR pile notably of late, so I’m delighted to return the favour! 😉

  8. i’m putting the O’Farrell on my TBR list. I have a feeling I’ll get to Hustvedt eventually and then wonder what took me so long.

  9. I admit i haven’t read any of these writers, although Atkinson is everywhere. I must try reading her works soon. But what draws my attention is the shrinklit writer. Ah… before coming to your newly coined (is it?) term, I first of all is drawn by her name. Also, love how you present the three works. Nice. 😉

    • Arti, I would definitely recommend Siri Hustvedt to you. I would think she’d be up your street. There is so much gentle and compassionate wisdom in her writing. I’d love to know what you think of her!

      • LOL it’s actually just red-headed stubbornness and a need to be right all the time, but it works. I have very little stress, and a disproportionately huge ego. Stick with me kid,”Do as I do. Be as I be.” 🙂

  10. I am reading Heatwave right now. Glad to hear it ends happily – it’s so gloomy right now! And I am glad to be reconnected – you and I emailed a few years ago. Putting you back in my reader!!

    • I often think narratives move in one of two ways – from gloom to hope and resolution, or from stability to chaos (and if we’re lucky, back again). This is definitely the former! And how lovely that we’re reconnected – I’ll come and visit very soon!

  11. I’ve read the first two of the Atkinson series, and really enjoyed them both. I quite like Jackson Brodie. He is an interesting policeman/private investigator. I must get to the next ones! I’ve read a Maggie O’Farrell, (When You’d Gone, I think it’s called) and it’s stuck in my mind ever since – she has such a good way with her characters, that even when you don’t like them or don’t like their actions, you remember them. She gets to the heart of her characters. Instructions for a Heat wave sounds quite good, so I think I’ll look for it.

  12. Pingback: Tales from the Reading Room

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