My book group met on Friday to discuss The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. If you recall from my last post, this novel tells the story of school friends Tony and Adrian, and the woman with whom they were both involved during university, Veronica. Tony dated her first, a tempestuous relationship that ended rather badly, as youthful relationships often do. During their time together, he spent a weekend with Veronica’s family, which was a rather strange experience for him. After breaking up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, requesting permission to date Veronica, to which he responds heatedly and impulsively. There is some mystery as to what exactly happened in the next while, but then something happens that changes everything. Fast-forward 40 or so years, and Adrian is again brought into Tony’s life via a letter from a solicitor informing him that Veronica’s recently deceased mother has left him some money and a few documents. This now causes Tony to think about and analyze the relationship he had with Veronica, and his friendship with Adrian, so many years before, relationships he had not contemplated for years, having grown up and moved on. The resulting inquiries lead to some astonishing revelations, and some unresolved mysteries, too, as Tony strives to understand what happened all those years ago. I was thrilled to find out from my book club members that nearly everyone loved the book. They found the writing to be excellent, the characters interesting, and the story complex and interesting, yet realistic. The one member who didn’t love the book, but also didn’t really dislike it, felt that Tony was a bit too self-indulgent and whiny, that he never really grew up, to which we all agreed. But we qualified that by pointing out that this relapse into the past occurred rather curiously, at a time in Tony’s life when he had neither job nor family to occupy his time, and that, as a retiree, he had plenty of time to analyze the mysterious circumstances that led to this posthumous contact from Veronica’s mother. I suggested to the group that, if he had not received the letter from the solicitor, perhaps he would have just joined the local community centre and found groups of seniors with whom he could play cards or bingo twice a week, and just muddled through the rest of his life with sporadic contact with his daughter and ex-wife. One of my members suggested that what happened during the weekend he visited with Veronica’s parents was more significant than I ever thought it was, that in fact, all the careless remarks and actions were intentional and were intended to lead to a particular, and particularly unsavoury, outcome. I can’t say any more about it without giving it away, but if you read it, you will know what I mean. I had never thought of that, but I can see how that could be the case, which makes Veronica’s family more dysfunctional than I ever considered. But the fact that there were no really clearcut answers by the end of the book is also a sign that it was well-written, as we all agreed. A book should be open to interpretation, should mean something different to everyone, and readers should relate to a story and the characters in it in their own unique ways. I’m sure readers find meaning and significance in well-written novels that even the author didn’t intend. This is the way life is, right? There are often many sides to every story, and each person experiencing the same event or incident could tell a completely different story from the others. Anyway, I highly recommend this novel, but I think you need to read it twice to catch on to the subtleties the author uses in the narrative, told from the point of view of an admittedly unreliable narrator.
I also finished listening to Troubled Waters by Henning Mankel. This is the last in the “Kurt Wallander” series, and I think it’s one of the best. It opens with Wallander contemplating his aging and pending retirement, but then his daughter Linda tells him that she is pregnant and will be having a child with her boyfriend, Hans, a financial analyst who works in the area of hedgefunds. He is invited to Hans’ father’s 75th birthday party in Stockholm, where he meets Hakan and Louise von Enke, Hans’ parents. Hakan and Kurt wander off into a conservatory and then into a windowless study, where Hakan opens up to Kurt and tells him stories of foreign submarines in Swedish waters when he was working as a high-ranking naval officer in the 1980s. Shortly after the party, Hakan disappears without a trace, leaving Louise, Kurt, Hans and Linda to search for him, a search that always seems to lead to dead ends. Then Louise, too, disappears, and the hunt intensifies. Russian spies and American CIA members become part of the story as they try to unravel the mysteries surrounding these disappearances, and I was kept on the edge of my “bus seat” to the very last sentence. And it was a real swansong for Wallander. I hadn’t realized that it was the last book in which he would be featured, but throughout the novel, there are signs of Wallander’s disintegration, from his diabetes and memory loss to his poor eating habits and occasional excessive drinking. It was sad to hear about this decline, since, as a long-time reader of this series, I have grown fond of this gruff, gloomy Swedish detective. Ah well, perhaps the author will begin a series with Wallander’s daughter, Linda, as the main detective, as she is already a police officer.
And one last thing I was thinking about this past week related to books and reading. I have a “Friends” book group that meets every two months. We are meeting next week to discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and I was speaking to a woman at work who may be interested in joining us. She tried to read the book, but it just wasn’t grabbing her, so I gave her some suggestions if she wanted to finish it, like don’t get bogged down by the philosophers, artists and other creators Renee discusses, skim (but don’t completely skip!) parts that don’t relate directly to the personal stories of the main characters, Renee and Paloma, etc. She said that, while she appreciated the advice, she felt that she needed a “heartwarming” read right now, and did I have any suggestions? I had to stop and think… I reviewed my blog to see what I had read recently… I thought about the books I had sitting at home, waiting to be read… and I concluded that I don’t do “heartwarming” very often at all. In fact, I almost never read heartwarming, feel-good books. This seems curious to me - do I never want to feel good after I finish a book? She consoled me by suggesting that I probably choose books that are more “deep” and “meaningful”, which made me feel a bit better, but it still left me contemplating what I read when I’m not reading “deep, meaningful” books. I have come to the conclusion that, when I need something fun or light to read, something I don’t have to think too much about or analyze, I read mysteries, British mysteries, Swedish mysteries, even Canadian mysteries, to lighten my reading load. Phew! I was worried there for a minute, but now I think my reading choices are OK. By the way, I did come up with a few titles of “feel-good” books for her: Grave Concern by Judith Millar (a delightfully “light” Canadian mystery), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (light, yet insightful), and Dog by Michelle Herman (heartwarming). I also suggested The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I have never read but have heard that it is definitely a “feel-good” read.
Have a great day!
Bye for now…