From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Although the title of this post is definitely a Mr-Litlove-esque one, I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove has not done anything comical for several weeks and so this is about books.

I’m wondering why my reading experiences have been so mixed lately – is it me or is it the books? I do think that audio books test a narrative severely and that something like The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, a 17-hour listening slog, might be a much more entertaining book if you could zip through it on the page. As it was, I felt that this novel probably had a very good idea lurking deep within it, but the narrative flourishes including scheming Nazis, lost masterpieces, alcoholic mothers, desperate heads of auction houses, many, many international multi-millionaires, overnight success, murders and a truly ludicrous ending diluted that idea beyond redemption. After a while I re-named it: The Improbability of the Plot.

The story wasn’t helped by having a heroine who simply refused to become sympathetic despite having the entire catalogue of woes thrown at her. Or rather, it was because every fashionable device for creating sympathy was deployed that she drifts beyond the reader’s reach into boring incoherence. Annie is recently divorced and poor, living alone and lonely in London where she is hoping to earn a living as a cook. When the story begins she buys a dusty painting from a junk shop for a fledgling boyfriend – it’s his birthday – but alas the cad stands her up and Annie spends the night sobbing, unaware that she’s purchased a sleeper. The painting knows. The painting gets its own voice and its own chapters to tell us all about its fête galante fabulousness, daahling (I didn’t mind these). Then Annie’s alcoholic mother, Evie, comes stumbling back into her life and she thinks the picture might be worth something. Off they trot to the Wallace Collection where guide and amateur artist, Jessie, falls instantly in mad crazy love with Annie (it’s properly mad – she spends most of the book discouraging him after an opening in which she is longing for love, so who knows why either of them sticks with it). Jessie does all he can to get the picture authenticated for her, while Annie doubts and loses patience and can’t be bothered and oh all sorts of things that fail to whip up any interest in the reader.

Now I’m heading into big spoilers in this next paragraph so be warned. So, Annie goes to work for high class art dealers, Memling Winkleman (a 90-year-old in unbelievably good nick) and his put-upon daughter, Rebecca. The portrait of Rebecca is every bit as incoherent as that of Annie. Rebecca loves her father and yet is ground down by her father. When she discovers that he is not the sole Jewish survivor of a German family lost to the Holocaust, but a dirty Nazi who has funded their business with a huge stash of stolen art, she is so horrified by his lack of ethics, and so upset that the good name of the family will be tarnished, that she instantly puts out a hit on the art critic who has found Memling out, and then frames Annie for theft and murder. Wait, what?

There are good bits in this avalanche of narrative, and I was pretty much going along and enjoying it until about the halfway mark, when I began to lose the will to live. I think the art world is fascinating and I’d love to learn more about it, but this book is just too silly for words.

Moving swiftly on, then, to Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff. Now as books go, this one is a tricky little Munchkin.  If you hold it up to the light one way you get a very witty and amusing comedy about a man with hilariously clever dogs. If you hold it up to the light the other way you get a farcical take on depression and relationships and working in New York that is too crazy and all over the place for the big topics it’s wielding. I think to Rosoff’s credit, she is trying to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a book that is serious and funny at the same time. But again, the monster that is incoherence gets too good a grip on the middle section.

Jonathan Trefoil is a nice man but a lost one. He doesn’t understand what’s going on in his life, and he doesn’t have much idea about what he wants, but in an ideal world he’d like to be a grown-up doing grown-up things, like earning a living and marrying a woman he loves. However, his job is in an ad agency that is so superficial and absurd that it’s destroying him. And his girlfriend, Julie, is the organising sort who’s agreed to a wedding because the bridal magazine she works for is putting together a special edition and paying for it to feature. To add to his life woes, Jonathan is living in a dodgy rental and dog-sitting for his brother who’s working in Dubai. Although the previous sentences might lead you to think this is a book about Jonathan, it’s really about the dogs, who upstage every single character in every single scene they appear in. Really, the dogs are completely hilarious and adorable. In fact, the dogs could pretty much do without half the plot and half the characters, too, and just sort of improvise across the narrative. And I say this as someone who isn’t even into dogs.

So, Jonathan’s inability to get a grip on his life is entirely at odds with the iron grasp that fate seems to have got on him. The result is a severe breakdown in which he loses his ability to speak in anything but nonsense language. Ha, ha… no, not quite funny enough, somehow. Believe me, I was totally convinced by Jonathan’s character. I think he represents a fair slice of the male population. But you do long to give him a kick up the backside, and when it’s perfectly plausible that two canines have more instinct and drive than the human who feeds them, something is out of balance in your narrative. It makes Jonathan’s happy ending the implausible bit, because you don’t feel he’s had much agency in it.

What really redeems this book, however, is the brilliance of the writing. Meg Rosoff is SO funny. There’s scarcely an un-witty line in the whole thing. It’s like a masterclass in how to be funny in print, and how to use the absurd (so mishandled in most novels, cf The Improbability of Love) to its full effect. It’s sort of a shame that all this wonderful inventiveness is used in the cause of an ordinary rom-com.

Okay, I have, as ever, bypassed my 1,000 word limit without reaching my final book. But I’m not sure what to say about Elizabeth Strout’s novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, other than it’s wonderful. Spare, simple, direct storytelling that uses silence and the unsaid to devastating effect. Lucy is in hospital suffering from a strange, inexplicable infection after a routine appendicitis operation. While she is there her mother comes to visit her for five days. This is extraordinary – Lucy’s family is dysfunctional, poor, violent, full of shame and unresolved bitterness. When Lucy married she left and has not seen a single member for years. But now her mother has come and as she sits, sleepless, by the side of Lucy’s bed, they chat in an inconsequential way that thrills the once-neglected Lucy to the core. Her mother tells her stories of people from their home town but won’t be drawn into anything more intimate, anything more telling. But Lucy’s reaction, the patchwork of memories she gives the reader, her exquisitely rendered emotions at her mother’s presence, indicates the wealth of drama that is being played out under this most unassuming facade. I loved it.



41 thoughts on “From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

  1. So glad you loved ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ – I did too. This moved me to read Elizabeth Strout’s more famous and much loved ‘Olive Kitteridge’, which I also liked and am glad to have read. But it’s the beautifully written, spare, opaque intensity of Lucy Barton that stays with me.

    • Apparently, I read over on Susan’s site (A Life in Books) that there is a sequel to Lucy Barton coming out very soon. I’ll definitely be in the queue for that!

  2. So glad you loved Lucy Barton – I so agree – wonderful novel. But oh how I hated The improbability of Love – I thought it was ghastly and hated the chapters where the painting talked worse than anything. And it was shortlisted for the Baileys last year – I couldn’t believe it.

    • Yay to Lucy Barton! And groan to The Improbability of Love. I’m glad it wasn’t just me! The painting as narrator was distinctly twee but I could put up with that. However, Rebecca Winkleman’s editing of CCTV to frame Annie in a world where we all read about forensic evidence every day… no. Ghastly indeed. How DID it get shortlisted for the Bailey’s???

    • It’s funny how reading goes in waves. I find a few times a year I have a run of poor books, and of course, if I’m reading slowly it takes forever to get through them to the good ones! Though really, I’ve had few turkeys, just a bunch that weren’t quite such wholehearted successes as I’d hoped. Put like that, I can’t really complain. 🙂

  3. I loved Jonathan Unleashed – and having met Meg Rosoff shortly after I read it, I loved her too. She is an amazing speaker. One of these days, I must make time to read Strout – I feel I’m missing out on her, and I do have a couple of her books on my shelves!

    • There was a lot to love about that book and I can imagine that Meg Rosoff is an amazing person. The sheer range of her writing seems to indicate an enormous soul! I loved Lucy Barton, but between you and me, I didn’t get on so well with Olive Kitteridge. Still, the latter is a much more event-filled book and probably the better to begin with. I’d be most curious to know what you think!

  4. Delighted that you enjoyed Lucy Barton which sounds in direct contrast to The Improbability of the Plot – I think we should stick with your renaming. This one’s buried somewhere in my pile, bought because it was shortlisted for last year’s Baileys prize although I did wonder about that jacket. Perhaps I should put it straight in the charity bag.

    • Ha! Well I have to admit I’d be most curious to know what you make of the Rothschild, though I would also be surprised if you really loved it. (That probably isn’t helping to keep the book out of the charity bag!) But Lucy Barton was incredible, and a book I will gladly read again one of these fine days. Really loved it.

  5. I enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton as well. Jonathan Unleashed sounds quite good too. I love Meg Rosoff. She can write so many different prose styles. I didn’t even know she could be so witty too.

    • Rosoff is amazing in her range! It’s hard to think that the author of How I Live Now and Jonathan Unleashed is one and the same. And she is SO witty in the latter novel. Plus as an animal lover, you are going to enjoy those dogs. Glad you liked Lucy Barton, too. Very very different book, but brilliant.

  6. Oh God, The Improbability of Love is truly awful. The fact that it got published—let alone shortlisted—is an eternal confusion to me. I got through it because I read at my own pace (i.e. quickly); I can’t imagine having to listen to someone else narrate it.

    • Oh! The pleasure of solidarity! I must admit I am astonished it was shortlisted. You’ve got to wonder what those prize committees are thinking some days. Taking it slowly was a bit excruciating at times. An audio book is SUCH a test of a novel.

      • I honestly think many prize committees aren’t fit for purpose -how many of the judges of them spend that much time in their day jobs reading and assessing books?

      • You’ve got to wonder. When each person is supposed to read 130+ novels, how is that going to happen? I once spoke to a friend of mine who was a judge on one of these committees and she said she was sure that if they’d held their final discussion on a different day, they’d have come out with a different winner. So it really must be more random than we even think it is!

      • Makes me think of my brief work experience at a literary agency – a lot of the time, whether a manuscript got passed to a senior agent or not was dependent on whether we’d had lunch or not by the time we’d read it…

      • It is such a crazily subjective business, never mind adding random elements like hunger into the reading process! As you know, I’ve got my book with agents at the moment and I simply can’t imagine the constellation of stars existing that means they might take it on. They are going to have to overlook so much and take such a punt… nope, can’t imagine that!

      • Courage! I read so many MSs that were UTTERLY hopeless that I truly think if you can string a sentence together (which you obviously can and do), you have a pretty decent chance.

  7. You make the Hannah Rothschild sound rather good, actually, though I can see how it might be wearing. And yes, it’s very inconsiderate of significant others when they fail to be daft enough to be entertaining.

    • There’s a lot of love for the Rothschild out there, so plenty of people must really enjoy it! I expect if you’re in the mood for a romp then it probably goes over a lot better. And as for Mr Litlove, heh, he is miffed that I do not spend more time recording the many noble things he does. I remind him of my favourite quote (I wish I could remember where I first saw it) that living with a writer is like having an assassin in the family. 🙂

  8. Struggling to find time to read and blog these days with so much happening in my life, but I do realise what I’m missing out on when I read your posts! I like that Rosoff is daring and different, so I might give that a go, and also Lucy Barton, it’s nice to see a recommendation for a longlisted book that shows it isn’t disappointing, so I will get that too. I read the Rothschild just after I randomly heard a Radio 4 interview with her – it sounded so much more intriguing when described than it was to read! It was just a bit of lightweight silliness, really, made to seem more important by the inclusion of “art”. It was OK, but considering I’d bought it in expensive hardback to get it sooner, I felt a bit cheated.
    Hope you are well!

    • I’m glad you feel the same way about the Rothschild! It was just a bit funny and silly and probably if I’d been expecting that rather than a more weighty artworld novel, I’d have liked it better (maybe). I visited my feed reader for the first time in months the other day and didn’t see any posts from you in it – I hope this is a very good and fun kind of busy! I can see you’ve been reading, so hang on and I’ll reply to your other comment in a moment!

  9. I keep dipping into Rosoff novels, hoping that one of these times, she’s going to find her footing and write as brilliant a tragi-comedy as she gives hints of being capable of!

    • Yes you’ve put your finger on it there, Jeanne! I did love How I Live Now, which is as close as she’s got I suppose (not much comedy, however). She is such a talented writer. It’s got to be just a matter of time, right?

    • It was a bit! It’s frustrating because I read so slowly these days. A year or so ago, I’d have had three books on the go at once, so a dud amongst them was scarcely noticeable. Now I have to listen to 17 hours of it! 🙂 But Lucy Barton was wonderful.

      • Yes – I’ve had problems with recurrent marginal keratitis (inflammation of cornea) due to extreme dry eyes. The keratitis is held at bay now thanks to eye drops, but I’m still having enough dry eye issues to make reading (and looking at the computer) a bit troublesome. But at least I am doing a bit of both! I do hope you are feeling better too – I think you said you’d had a hospital stay? Yuck. Hope you are very much on the mend!

      • I’m back home now after two rounds of surgery since end of January. Convalescence is so boring especially when you find you can’t do much without feeling exhausted as a result. It will wear off I know but I cant wait for that day…… Sorry to hear about that eye problem – for someone who loves reading so much that must be hellish.

    • Oh yes, I can see why Lucy Barton would please you, Angela. And for all the reasons it pleased me! Just loved it. I do agree that the others you could safely miss! 🙂

  10. Ooh I’ve read both the Rosoff and Lucy Barton now. Thank goodness for Bank Holidays! They have weird similarities – both set in New York, both slightly plotless. The Rosoff was an amusing light read, it would have been better if it had been funnier though. Lucy Barton was incredible. I’ve been feeling quite jaded in what I’ve been reading, but I savoured everything about that book. Very memorable.

    • I am so very glad you enjoyed Lucy Barton. I loved that book and did think it was something special. I wouldn’t have called the Rosoff plotless – I think it maybe had too much happening in it! So it’s very intriguing you should see it that way. I often wonder if the romance plot cancels out the sense of a plotted narrative because it’s so familiar as to be exhausted. Hmm, interesting. I hadn’t seen the similarities either, but I do see what you mean!

    • Lol! I keep telling him he’ll disappoint his fans! 🙂 And the great thing about not blogging for several months is that you DO at least have a backlog to catch up on!

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