Hot Milk or What Kind of Critic Am I?

When I began this blog way back in the mists of 2006, I was a proper academic literary critic, which meant that I read books according to a number of non-negotiable rules. I still think they’re pretty good ones, if you want to get the most out of the reading experience. I accepted everything that happened within a story as being necessary to that story. I understood that every scrap of information available about the story was contained within the words of the text, so that in consequence, what the book meant had to be consistent with all I’d been told – there was no place for wild speculations, misplaced prejudices or readings that failed to take account of key elements of the narrative. And I was humble in the face of the story: it was not my place to say, effectively, I wish you were something other/different than you are. My job was to hold the story up to the light to show others all the internal workings, and to mine it for the most interesting things it had to say.

Over the course of the blogging years, this process has changed. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, but to notable effect. Questions that had made no sense to me before – such as ‘Do you like this book?’ and ‘Are you enjoying it?’ – now became much more urgent. I not only recognised that I had certain quirky tastes and hopes for a book, I also gave into them and began to consider them something I should satisfy. And I began to read stories more literally, more superficially, with questions of motivation and plausibility paramount in my mind. In short, the culture of goodreads began to get under my skin, and I let it.

All of which brings us to Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, a book for which I had high (probably unreasonably high) expectations. A few years ago, I read Levy’s short memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, which was her response to George Orwell’s essay about why he became a writer. I was absolutely blown away by this memoir, which was one of the finest pieces of autobiographical writing I had ever come across, as well as an affecting and sophisticated account of the creative impulse. I hadn’t read any of Levy’s fiction before, and I thought the premise of Hot Milk sounded intriguing.

It’s essentially the story of a twisted mother-daughter relationship that has kept Sofia Papastergiadis a slave to her mother’s hypochondriac needs. Rose – whose Greek husband left her long ago – is a stubborn, proud Yorkshire woman who has developed a perplexing condition. Sometimes she can walk, and sometimes she can’t. Having exhausted all other routes of medical inquiry, she and Sofia have come to Southern Spain to the clinic of alternative guru, Dr Gomez, to whom they have paid an astronomical fee in the hope of finding a diagnosis and a cure. Of course, in this land beyond the boundaries of tried and trusted medical science, all might not be as it seems. Dr Gomez is a mercurial trickster, kind and attentive to Rose at one moment, taunting and testing her the next. His approach to Rose’s condition is certainly directed as much towards her controlling nature and her fantasies of victimhood as it is towards laboratory testing.

In the meantime, whilst Rose is occupied at the clinic, chronic under-achiever, Sofia, is left to her own devices. Inattentive to her own needs and safety, Sofia manages to get repeatedly stung by jellyfish in the sea and to hook up with a strange couple who live nearby, the potent Ingrid and her boyfriend, Matthew. Through a slightly torturous friendship, Sofia is made to understand her own unquestioning submissiveness and to explore her desires (which include sleeping with both Ingrid and the beach hut attendant who deals with jellyfish stings, Juan). She flies to Athens to meet up with her estranged father and his new wife and child (which doesn’t go particularly well), and she starts to disobey rules and conventions, stealing a fish from the local market and obliging the diving-school owner to unchain his howling dogs. And all of this takes place in a jagged and discontinuous narrative, spiky and surprising in its emotional ups and downs, and often ascerbic in its humour.

More than any book I’ve read in a long time, it challenged and complicated the way I was reading and made me wonder what kind of critic I am these days. I found myself looking at it with a kind of odd double vision that was not comfortable. So, for instance, on one of their earlier meetings, Sofia, who has just bought herself a pizza, offers the box to Ingrid. Ingrid frowns at it with contempt, picks up the pizza and throws it on the ground. No one comments on this.

Critical reading: Sofia is so downtrodden by her mother that she simply takes this kind of bullying behaviour without batting an eyelid. In fact, she is hypnotized by it, partly because her mother has kept her in place this way for years, partly because such behaviour inevitably contains a repressed part of her self that she can no longer access any other way.

Ordinary reading: Who even does that? It is so incredibly rude and impolite and why on earth does Sofia stand for it? Oh no, you are not going to make friends with this person are  you, Sofia? For crying out loud, run, run to the hills and never look back!

Another instance: Ingrid, who earns money from sewing, gives Sofia a suntop she has made for her, on which is stitched the word Beloved. Sofia gets a certain amount of thrill from this and her low self-esteem is briefly boosted. Until she puts the top in the wash and realises that the word embroidered on it is not as she thought Beloved, but instead, Beheaded.

Critical reading: Sofia is so desperate for affection that she projects her need for it out onto the world in an indiscriminate way. What she gets back from the world, however, is emotional violence and hostility, which she often fails to recognise for what it is.

Ordinary reading: Why would anyone stitch a word like Beheaded onto an orange silk suntop? (Is Ingrid psychotic?) And how could anyone make such a mistake when reading it? At the very least, our heroine most certainly should have gone to Specsavers.

I intended to finish this book, but at some point about the three-quarter mark I put it down and failed to pick it up again. As you may imagine, my feelings about it are conflicted. I think there’s much to be said in its favour. There’s clearly a profound exploration of the mother-daughter relationship going on here, and I also enjoyed straightforwardly the scenes with Rose and Dr Gomez in the clinic. But it just strained my credibility too far in places, and stylistically was too choppy for my personal tastes. Given that my favourite writers are Colette and Willa Cather, everything else is going to have to be perfect for me to put up with choppy prose. But if you can read this book through the lens of artistic critique, then I salute you wholeheartedly and think you’ve got the best chance of making the most of an often intriguing story.




37 thoughts on “Hot Milk or What Kind of Critic Am I?

  1. I loved this book because of the mother-daughter relationship (mine is challenging and I find solace in reading about others!) But I found the rest of the book quite hard to keep together.

    • Ooh I can’t resist offering some fab mother-daughter books: Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, Vivien Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Grey Sexton (Anne Sexton’s daughter, who had a great deal to put up with!), and I expect you’ve read My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout but urge you do so if you haven’t. And I completely agree that the mother-daughter part of this was really quite compelling and definitely one of the best bits!

  2. Interesting! I think personally because we are *readers* writing about books, rather than professional critics, we often straddle the line. I can sometimes dislike a book but recognise that others see more in than I do, and that personal response and personal element is part of what bloggers are and do. Also, part of an author’s job is to entertain, yes, and perhaps to make a point and perhaps to experiment stylistically. But they need to keep the reader on board and also not stretch the reader’s credibility. These books we are reading aren’t written for academics, but for The Common Reader, if you like, and I think I would have responded to Hot Milk and the passages you quote as an ordinary reader. Presumably most readers are not going to be reading super-critically so the author (particularly if they’re writing for the mainstream or even ‘literary fiction’) rather needs to bear this in mind, in my view…

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Karen, that the best books manage to walk the tightrope between rich literary allusiveness and compelling storytelling. And also that the joy of blogging is that any and all our readerly responses can find a place here in a big ongoing conversation that doesn’t have absolute limits on what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Hot Milk has loads of glowing quotes from critics inside its covers who really loved it, so I couldn’t get my head to the place they were inhabiting when they read the novel, but these days I really struggle with a book if the motivation seems all over the place. In one way I wish I could get past my quibbles as I used to get a lot out of every book I read, and these days, not so much. But it is what it is!

  3. I challenge you to pick it up again and finish it – the ending is quite something and I’d have been fascinated to have your take on that! I enjoyed Hot Milk – but not instantly – it had to grow on me, as I unravelled some of the layers and symbols – and everyone has a slightly different take on the whole mother/daughter/gorgon thing.

    On critical thinking – I have no training in how to read critically. I keep meaning to go on one of the Oxford further ed courses but haven’t managed to bring my self to commit. Maybe this is a fear of spoiling the immersion I so enjoy when reading for pleasure?

    • You are completely correct – critical reading DOES take you out of the immersive experience. That being said, the best books for reading critically aren’t necessarily the ones that would offer you that sort of experience anyway. Beckett’s brilliant to write about, but I don’t know many readers who lose themselves in the sheer enjoyment of his writing, heh! I’ve always had books that I read just for pleasure, comfort reads like Barbara Pym and Clare Chambers and Agatha Christie, and writers that are good for critical appreciation like Angela Carter, Marguerite Duras, Beauvoir, Woolf. And then a lot of middle ground where it’s really up to me what I feel like doing!

      Very interesting to read your take on Hot Milk. I haven’t removed my book mark from my copy yet, and I’ve got about 50 pages to go. I’ll have to see if I can make it to the end!

  4. I’m still laughing about Specsavers and mistaking Beloved for Beheaded. Of course she wouldn’t.

    It seems to me that novels are written to be read by us ordinary Jos (and Joes). Of course they’ll be reviewed (or at least some of them will) by critics who might also be academics, but the general readership, us, want good plausible stories about the ways we humans are and aren’t, and how we do and don’t manage to make something of our complex and proximate lives. And then some of us will write about what we’ve experienced.

    I’ve just finished Jess Kidd’s Himself which departs from the plausible from time to time but with such integrity (and without the need for a trip to Specsavers) that I never once stopped to ask why because, in my heart, I knew why: it all made emotional sense. It doesn’t sound as if Levy managed that.

    • I’m glad that tickled you – I did find it funny myself, though I’m not sure I was meant to! I’ve had Himself on a wish list somewhere for a while, and then I took it off (can’t remember why), so I’m very glad to read your recommendation. I will put it back on again! Hot Milk is such an odd book because I find it hard to say what made sense and what didn’t – it was all a bit random, although there were these powerful symbols moving through the story all the time, and passages where the relationships seemed very emotionally resonant. But I did find myself jarred out of these moments through some infelicity of the prose or the imaginative realm and it happened too much for me to ignore or get past. It’s a really odd book, stylistically, and I do agree with you – good stories with strong and coherent emotional foundations do offer the most satisfactions.

  5. I haven’t read this yet, although I seem to have read an awful lot about it! Very much enjoyed your Critical reading/Ordinary reading comments. I’m interested to hear that you feel that you approach a novel differently now. I sometimes wonder if I do too much of the first sort particularly when my partner and I discuss a book we’ve both read and I come up with something like ‘but wasn’t that a metaphor for’ to be met with a blank or, worse, incredulous look from him.

    • Oh your comment did make me laugh! I have also experienced the incredulous look in my time from Mr Litlove, but find it can arise from all sorts of circumstances. 🙂 But I do feel that I read very differently now. I can really remember reading other blog reviews when I first started and wondering why it was such a big deal, whether a reader liked a book or not. It just wasn’t a priority for me. But nowadays…. I do seem to find it a major concern, lol!

  6. I gave up on this after the first chapter. It felt like it was going to get rather pretentious. Which kind of reader do you enjoy being most now – the expert or the ordinary reader?

    • Ooh Karen, what a good question! Umm, I suppose I still appreciate critical reading because I think it keeps me very positive when approaching a book and I get the most out of it that way. But reading more personally is undoubtedly very authentic! Harriet left a comment on facebook saying this novel ‘irritated the hell out of me’, which really made me laugh. And so that gut reaction can be satisfyingly real and honest and telling, too. I think the nice thing about blogging is that we all take account quite naturally of reader bias, and know that just because a book didn’t suit someone else, we might still enjoy it. I’d hate to think I’d damned a novel by my comments.

  7. Your post reminds me of JD Salinger’s dedication in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters:

    “If there is an amateur reader still left in the world–or anybody who just reads and runs–I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.”

    I have to admit, that colored my thinking about critics for years. Probably until I took an excellent criticism course which opened my eyes to cultural context, and to seeing how story functions within. Like enjoying a home for how it shelters lives as well as for beauty and the architecture of the story as it exists in its neighborhood.

    Wait–did that pop into mind due to carpentry?

    • Good old Salinger! Have you read Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year? It’s very good for any Salinger fan, and just a fun coming-0f-age book, too. I do find people can be quite virulent about critics, which used to perplex me as I felt I was on the side of the angels, always looking for what was best in novels. And it’s certainly true that when I read personally, I tend to be much more negative and quick to focus on what doesn’t work! But I’m really glad you took your course and got a lot out of it – it should really just be about opening the mind that bit further and critics who work with a closed mind aren’t my kind of critics at all.

  8. Great insights into your development (for the positive I think!) as a reader. Swimming Home was on Radio 4 and very good, much more intriguing and less annoying behaviour by the characters. I had the same reaction – definitely found it difficult to shelve Sofia’s overly passive behaviour. Might not have seen it through if I had been reading it, instead of listening. For another good autobiog, have you listened to Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am on Radio 4?

    • That’s very encouraging to hear about Swimming Home as I have a copy of that I haven’t read…. I can look forward to it now! Hot Milk is brave in all it’s doing, I think, but it does provide quite a few challenges to the reader (and I’m glad I’m not alone in struggling!). Your eye is spot on – I’m really looking forward to the Maggie O’Farrell memoir and didn’t realise it was on Radio 4. Fantastic!

  9. You make a very good point about critical vs. personal reading and I’m not sure I quite know what kind of a reader I am. I suppose I become more of a thinker when I read poetry, trying to analyse how the poet achieves certain effects, breaking things down, examining them. Perhaps my reading of prose is more ‘anecdotal’ and relies on personal impression and mood. I was looking forward to this book because of its subject matter (yes, troubled mother/daughter relationship alert!), but the two examples you mentioned do sound unintentionally hilarious.

    • And I’d encourage you to keep looking forward to it. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and it’s a consistently intelligent tale. I do think it’s the prose style that really got the better of me, and that’s one of those random, personal things. Very interesting indeed to read your comments about critical and personal reading. I’ve tended to read poetry non-critically as I never did much with it in terms of research, though I think it responds wonderfully well to a critical approach. Anecdotal is a good word, and definitely describes an element that’s come into my blog posts, that’s for sure! 🙂

  10. Excellent post. I am not a critical reader, in fact your post reminds me why I decided not to study literature, sometimes peering into the nuts and bolts can detract from the reading experience which perhaps it did here, or perhaps this book just wasn’t for you. I imagine the conflict between technical reading and pleasure reading must be frustrating at times.
    Perhaps the reading of Hot Milk would make more sense if viewed through the lens of the Medusa myth – Ingrid is clearly modelled on Athena, which may explain the way in which Sophia is held in her thrall, Juan is Poseidon. I’m not so sure Sophia is as downtrodden as she first appears, being beholden to her mother seems to suit her until her interactions with Juan and Ingrid ‘unleash the monster’. It’s an interesting book though, perhaps, not to everyone’s taste 🙂

    • See, my classical knowledge is poor and I don’t know the ins and outs of the Medusa myth – I think you’re absolutely right that knowing about it and reading through it would bring a whole new dimension to the story. I think basically, Hot Milk wasn’t quite for me because of that jerky prose style. When something starts jarring you out of the flow of reading (and in a bad way, rather than ending up with the book on your lap, daydreaming because of all the ideas it’s unleashed) then it makes a reader more picky and critical of everything else. Thank you for commenting – it’s lovely that you did!

  11. This is really interesting. Like you, I feel that I used to read more critically and now am more concerned with enjoyment, although not to the exclusion of everything else. While I’m pleased to have discovered so much fantastic literary-commercial fiction that I’d never have read if I’d confined myself solely to literary fiction, I do wish that I found the critical mode easier to switch back into. There are books that deserve the time and effort. (I haven’t read Hot Milk so no idea if it’s one of them).

    • You are so right that there are certain books that you just KNOW would be that much better, that much more enjoyable, if you approached them reading deeply from the start. But isn’t it hard to manage that perspective once you’re out of the habit?? Thank you for that solidarity! Oh and incidentally I loved your review of Swing Time which I’ve just finished listening to and will write about soon. I’m trying to get back into a bit of blog reading and your review really caught my eye.

  12. This was one of my favourite books last year. Mostly because I was saying to myself “Whaaat?!” every second page. It was the best passive-aggressive I’ve read and the ending…a master stroke.
    Long after finishing it, I’m still thinking bits over (including that silk top) – I think there was meaning and symbols in every element of this story and I’ll be reading it again to continue the decoding.

    • I’m always glad to have a commenter who loved a book I didn’t – because the range of reading responses to anything is SO diverse and just because it didn’t work for me, never means it won’t work for loads of other readers. Annabel is challenging me further up the comments to make it to the ending and I’ll take your endorsement as another vote for that!

  13. I was amused by your “critical reading” and “ordinary reading” comparisons–very clever. I would call the “ordinary” one the “personal” one, myself.
    I think the difference between a critical and what I call a more personal reading is that usually the first happens on re-reading, while the second is an initial response.
    I’ve had conversations about the kinds of reading we do as bloggers with other academics, and what we always come back to is how great it is that people are reading and talking about it. They can pick a way to talk about reading, any way, and we’ll join in!

    • I like your term of ‘personal reading’ much more than mine and have adopted it immediately. It’s much more accurate. And I also completely agree about the difference between first and second readings. And also about that fab diversity of the blog world. If we all agreed and all saw the same things, it would be a dull bookish community!

  14. Hot Milk was a book I found more interesting than enjoyable but might have enjoyed more if I’d taken the time to dig into it. I think Jeanne is right that sometimes the enjoyment of a book like this comes with a second reading, but I find it hard to motivate myself to read books a second time if I didn’t enjoy them the first time.

    As a reader and writer about books, I mostly do read for enjoyment, and I’ve put aside many a book that I thought was very well-executed but that I didn’t enjoy. When I’m writing, I do try to take other readers’ interests into account, but even then I’m working more on the enjoyment level. But sometimes a book will send me into a fun rabbit hole of thought that’s a little more in the critical reading mode. The best books have me walking the line between the two modes.

    • I know exactly what you mean about holding back from a second reading. I hardly ever reread (because I usually have so many new books, ahem) but when I actually was a critic it was what I did all the time. And like so much, it’s a habit that you can fall out of and find very hard to pick up again. And I completely agree that the best books marry fun and literary appreciation. It’s a wonderful experience when that happens.

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