Saturday 4 October 2014

A "Novel Disappointment" at book club...

As I sip my cup of tea, I am reflecting on the collective disappointment we as a book group experienced with our latest selection, and how this differs from a situation when some enjoyed the novel and some did not.  I will talk about that soon, but first, I wanted to mention the awesome audiobook I finished earlier in the week. 

I recently finished listening to John Le Carré’s novel, Our Kind of Traitor.  It tells the story of disillusioned Oxford don Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail, a young British couple who, while enjoying the trip of a lifetime in Antigua, meet dapper Russian guest Dima, and unwittingly become involved in international espionage and money-laundering.  Drawn in by the eclectic members of Dima’s extended family, including beautiful daughter Natasha and a pair of unusual nieces, they develop a close, albeit bizarre, relationship with the group, until one evening, Dima confides top-secret information about international money-laundering involving not only fellow Russian mafia members but also top-ranking officials and political figures from countries around the world, and asks Perry to help him and his family to defect to England.   Upon their return home from their vacation, Perry, nicknamed “British Fair-Play” by Dima, does his best to live up to this assessment of his character by providing a full account of all that was said and done during their brief friendship to MI-6.  Readers are then taken on the slow, detailed journey through the bureaucratic rigmarole that precedes the approval for this defection to happen, with painstaking detail provided at every step of the way.  This contemporary offering from Le Carré is a real treat for anyone who may have struggled with his earlier Cold-War books featuring George Smiley, as it presents readily-accessible and contemporary characters and themes, while still demonstrating his storytelling mastery and amazing writing talent.  I read this novel a couple of years ago, but forgot all but the most basic plot summary, so it was an excellent listening experience for me.  My previous experience reading this novel was one of the reasons I chose A Perfect Spy for my book club to read, not realizing that is was going to be more difficult and less accessible than this novel or, say, The Constant Gardener.  Anyway, I would highly recommend this novel as a book or audiobook for anyone who enjoys espionage fiction, and would also say that this would be a good one to start with if you have always wanted to read a novel by Le Carré but were afraid to try.

Now on to our “Novel Disappointment”…  I tried to read Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, set in a monastery in a remote part of Quebec.  The prior is found dead in the garden, and Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to solve the case.  He and his team are possibly the first people to ever be allowed inside the monastery walls, which house the monks who have achieved worldwide fame for their preservation, resurrection and perfection of the ancient Gregorian chants, once believed to be lost forever.  I expect that the rest of the book details their investigation into the murder, and the monks who live at the monastery, but I will admit to reaching only page 89 after three days of reading, and finally giving up.  It was partly the repetition in the text that was frustrating me, but also the stuttering, stilting way she wrote.  For example, on page 11:  “It wasn’t, then, a casual call.  An invitation to dinner.  A query about staffing or a case going to trial.  This was a call to arms.  A call to action.  A call that marked something dreadful had happened.  And yet, for more than a decade now every time he heard those words, Beauvoir’s heart leapt.  And raced.  And even danced a little.  Not with joy at the knowledge of a terrible and premature death.  But knowing he and the Chief and the others would be on the trail again.”  Look at all those sentence fragments!!  That could have been one or two full, flowing sentences that would take a few seconds to read, but as a stilting, stuttering paragraph, it takes the reader so much longer to get through.  At first I thought this was just me, that I must certainly be missing something.  Louise Penny, after all, is a wildly popular bestselling mystery novelist, one whose novels, at least one of them, has been adapted for TV starring Nathanial Parker, of “Inspector Lynley” fame, as Chief Inspector Gamache.  But when I got the group started with the discussion, they reiterated the writing concerns detailed above, as well as making the following comments:  too many characters, many unnecessary characters, too much information, repetitive, the story dragged, it was too long, many details that were thrown in made it seem too contrived, Gamache was too perfect, all the characters were one-dimensional, it was not memorable, and the ending was jarring, and also unbelievable.  One member said that she had a hard time keeping track of the real plot and the sub-plot, but once she realized this, she skipped the parts about the sub-plot and only read the parts about the real plot, and it started to make more sense.  Another felt that the occasional, but regular, use of French terms thrown into the text was unnecessary and “pompous”, since readers didn’t need reminders that the story is taking place in a French-speaking province.  We all found the information on the music and the chants to be interesting, and one member pointed out that the imagery of the monastery was significant:  Gamache’s first impression was of the light-filled rooms, the effect of the prisms in the windows when there was full daylight, suggesting beauty, purity, and “otherworldliness”, but that underneath, the foundation was cracked and rotting.  I also found, in the 89 pages that I read, some examples of very fine writing, and an intelligent, subtle humour.  Someone in my book group some time ago requested that I add a Louise Penny mystery to the list, and this title was said to be one of her best books, so I put it on the list “untested”, as it were.  What was wonderful about our conversation was how candid we could be once we realized that everyone else felt the same way about the book.  We could all agree with and build on the previous member’s complaint with yet another example or opinion.  It is much more difficult to have a lively conversation when opinions are split, or when even one member has a view that is strongly opposed to the rest of the group.  At those times, we couch our opinions in euphemisms, soften our tones, and generally try to have our say without challenging anyone else’s opinions or hurting their feelings.  I find people are especially careful to use gentle language until they know how I, as the selector, felt about the book, in case I would be offended that they didn’t like a book that I chose.  So it’s much more fun when we are all on the same page about a book, and so this was a fun and lively discussion about how much we disliked this book.  Members who had read other books by Penny didn’t recall the use of such stilted writing, but no one was entirely sure, thus demonstrating the “forgetableness” of the novels.  (Oh boy, it really is fun to rant sometimes!)

OK, that’s all for tonight.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…

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