Category Archives: book review

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk is a genius.  The Lucky Ones is a brilliant book.  Five chapters – each told from the perspective of a different character, yet each linked to the other chapters through the relationships of the characters within.  A modern tale which sometimes skewers our preoccupied, self-absorbed lives, and sometimes portrays them sympathetically. There were many ‘ah-hah’ moments of recognition for me in The Lucky Ones as Cusk’s insights illuminated contemporary habits and behaviour.  Her writing is to be cherished.

Here’s an example from the second chapter, wherein a group of six friends have travelled away together to ski:

   The bar was clad in pine from floor to ceiling.  It was crowded with people speaking German and French, who looked large and loudly coloured.  The claustrophobic interior seemed to erase the memory of proportion, so that Martin could no longer remember the size of anything, the mountain on which they were perched, the infinity of space and darkness above and below them, nor how far he was from his city, his house and the rooms in which he lived.
‘It’s funny how having children has made me see my own parents as much more vulnerable,’ said Lucy. ‘My sister still sees them as the enemy. I’m sure that’s because, in an important way, she hasn’t grown up.’
‘How’s Dominique doing?’ said Jane.
‘She’s fine.’
‘How’s the breastfeeding going?’
‘Fine. Great.’
‘Did you say she’s got her mother staying with her this week?’
‘That’s right.’
‘She must have really wanted to come,’ said Lucy, her face screwed up in sympathy as though watching someone in pain.
‘You’ve just had a baby,’ Josephine stated, tagging on to their conversation.
‘Yes,’ said Martin.
‘Congratulations.’ She said the word with a slow incomprehensible smile. He felt imprisoned behind the barrier, the fact, his life had become. The women were staring at him, and stupidly he rubbed his face as if there were some mark on it at which they were looking.
‘Thanks.’
‘It must be really difficult,’ said Josephine, ‘for you. You know, do I get on with my life, do I stay at home being supportive—‘
Martin looked at Thomas, who was sitting next to Christian at the other end of the table arranging matchsticks around his bottle of beer.

Martin stood and took his beer down to the other end of the table.  Josephine glanced at him as he went, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her lean over and say something to Jane.

I like this for so many reasons – the fatuous discussion about the effect of children on adults’ lives, the divide between the genders, the self-absorption of seemingly intelligent people and the consequent inability to be truly involved in others’ lives, and the alienation — from others, from reality — that all of this creates for a character like Martin, from whose perspective we see this interaction.

I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s books in order, beginning with Saving Agnes (1993), then The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997) and the non-fiction about childrearing, A Life’s Work (2001).  They’re all very different but what they do have in common is a distinctive point of view and a rock-hard, uncompromising intelligence.  Further novels are In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), for which she was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007, and The Bradshaw Variations (2009).  Additional non-fiction is The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009) and the very recent non-fiction about the break-up of her marriage, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012).

Book details:
The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk
Harper Perennial, 2005 (originally published in the UK in 2003), 228 pages.

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

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I think I was too old for this book.  I think I would’ve appreciated it when I was in my twenties at university when the world was newish but I’m old and jaded now so the story of a 17 year old girl plotting to ruin the life of her libertine father’s new fiancée seemed all a bit fanciful, a bit yawn-making.

Set on the French Riviera, Cécile is living a high and hedonistic life with her forty-something-year-old father Raymond and his girl of the moment, redheaded Elsa.  They live a life of drinking, gambling, staying out late and not thinking too much.  When Anne, the seemingly level-headed and intellectual forty-something-year-old family friend comes to visit, her presence changes the louche dynamic forever.  Raymond proposes marriage to Anne, Elsa is forced to find comfort in the arms of someone else, while Cécile has to study daily for an exam she has failed previously.

Cécile dislikes these changes so with the help of Cyril, her 26 year old boyfriend in the next villa, and using Elsa’s continuing feelings for Raymond to further her own ends, she concocts a plan to destroy Anne.

Sagan has created a morally ambiguous character in Cécile.  By turns young and old, wise and stupid, tragic and ridiculous, she embodies the flightiness of youth, with its penchant for melodrama and a narcissistic appreciation of its developing talents.  Cécile is also that thing that fails to recognise when it’s being cruel or callous and if it does, continues in the same way anyway.  Sooo, like, adolescent.

Apparently this book caused a stir when it was published in the 1950s.  And with the sexually and morally emboldened Cécile at its core, I’m not surprised.  In 2012 it’s a bit passé.

Book details:
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, published by John Murray books 1954, Penguin 1958, 108 pages, personal copy mooched from BookMooch.

BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris, fiction, Arrow Books, paperback, 2006, 480 pages.

‘Gripping’ Guardian
‘Captivating’ Newsweek
‘Marvellous’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Accomplished’ Observer
‘Fascinating’ Mail on Sunday
‘Engrossing’ New York Times
‘Yeah, look, it didn’t grab me’ Indiscriminate Reader

Somehow, I don’t think Robert Harris is going to care too much about my less-than-enthusiastic response to his book, Imperium given the positive if mono-syllabic reviews it received from a large number of major global newspapers.  But the very least I can do is outline the reasons for this lack of enthusiasm.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

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BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, fiction, Doubleday, paperback, 2008, 555 pages.

Sittenfeld_American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is a loose fictionalisation of the life of Laura Bush, the wife of the former President of the United States, George W Bush.

It tracks the life of Alice Lindgren from young girl to First Lady and documents the events that occur along the way.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about her life and I think that’s the point — American Wife is a study in ordinariness.  It shows how an unexceptional young girl growing up in the American mid-west can, through various choices, find herself as wife to a President of the United States.  It was not something she set out to be, rather it’s a position that finds her because of the person she chooses to marry and his political ambitions as state Governor, and then as President.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

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BOOK REVIEW: The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, fiction, The Text Publishing Company, paperback, 2005, 345 pages.

Temple_The Broken Shore

Peter Temple is South African by birth, having emigrated to Australia 30 years ago.  I mention it simply because I never would have known from The Broken Shore, which is European in tone – wintry, dark, brooding and bleak – and Australian in setting — the Victorian coast.  And while, outwardly, it’s a crime novel, it’s really more of an existential piece with its central character – the solitary man – trying to do good in a corrupt and depraved world while simultaneously keeping that same world at bay.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

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BOOK REVIEW: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, fiction, Bantam Books, paperback, 1997, 318 pages.

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I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen’s novels — I’ve read most of them but I haven’t re-read them nor thought about them much since, except of course when they’re on the telly.

But for some reason, a series of detective novels set in Regency England with Jane Austen at the centre of them, employing her sharp intelligence to solve various murders and mysteries, appealed to me.  How on earth, I wondered, could a Regency woman, whose life was restricted socially and geographically, obtain the necessary freedom to solve a murder?

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BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

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BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve, fiction, Abacus, paperback, 2003, 322 pages.

Shreve_All He Ever Wanted

Knowing very little about Anita Shreve’s work, I picked up All He Ever Wanted after reading somewhere online that it references Virginia Woolf’s notion from A Room of One’s Own that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.  More broadly, this is often taken as a claim for women’s independence.  All He Ever Wanted tips its hat to this idea but it’s not its central force.

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