Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Likeness Review

The Likeness is by the Irish novelist Tana French. It is a thriller about Cassie Maddox, an under-cover cop who creates an alternate personality for herself, Lexie Madison, to use in infiltrating a drug ring. When Cassie gets stabbed during under-cover she is transferred to the Murder squad, and after a particularly nasty case there she ends up working for the apparently quieter domestic violence unit. She’s still recovering her nerves when her doppelganger shows up murdered, going by the name Lexie Madison—the fake identify Cassie created years ago. Lexie lived with four other English literature grad students in an old house called Whitethorn that one of them inherited. They have no idea what Lexie’s real identity is, and Lexie doesn’t seem to have any connections to anyone other than the people she lived with, and they’re not giving anything away. The case seems impossible to penetrate from the outside, so they decide to work it from the inside. They tell Lexie’s housemates that she’s recovered and going back home and Cassie goes back under cover as Lexie to try to get to the bottom of the case. There’s other plot lines about Cassie’s boyfriend cop who can always be counted on to do the right and boring thing, and Cassie being emo about her checkered past but I couldn’t bring myself to care about them and feel no need to discuss them.

The thing that kept me reading was the dynamic among the grad students. They don’t have a T.V. when they’re not studying in the library they’re working on the crazy old house or reading or playing cards and listening to old records. One of them restores the embroidery on an antique footstool and stitches new clothes for an old doll she finds. One makes obscure literary references when drunk. Throughout it all they stick together and quip back and forth and create their own bastion against reality in Whitethorn house. The only problem is that whenever any group of people pits itself against the world, the world will always eventually win. The world has infinite patience and all the time, well, in the world. And the longer you lock reality out and keep it circling round your house the more pissed off it will be when it finally gets in.

The novel made me long for the year that I spent living with four college students in a crazy house in a way that only a book about murder can. Still, my love of the characters did not cloud my judgment so much as to miss the fact that the novel really wasn’t particularly well-written. It had all the unexpected twists that you expect from a modern thriller. I was also disappointed by the way that French occasionally mentioned one character not liking another because of their city dialect but the reader couldn’t really glimpse the dialect from the dialogue. I felt like if it was so important then I should be able to tell for myself rather than just being told that so and so had a Dublin dialect. Occasionally she would write “ye” or add an extraneous “sure” (she didn’t believe in writing in dialect, sure) but it was pretty sparsely peppered through. As much as I didn’t like Crow Road dialect was at least one area where it excelled, especially over this novel. I also didn’t like the way the ending dragged on. I hate the French no-dénouement ending as much as the next person but this novel kept going on for a while after I’d lost interest and it was only habit that kept me reading to the bitter end. Overall I’d give it four stars out of five, but only because I loved the characters too much to give it a three.

“You can have anything you want as long as you accept that there is a price and that you will have to pay it.”

“If you are absolutely sure of something, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually persuade people who aren’t sure one way or the other.”

“Regardless of what the advertising campaigns may tell us, we can’t have it all. Sacrifice is not an option, or an anachronism; it’s a fact of life. We all cut off our own limbs to burn on some altar. The crucial thing is to choose an altar that’s worth it and a limb you can accept losing. To go consenting to the sacrifice.”

Rebecca Review

I have been on quite the lucky streak as far as books go, if nothing else. Perhaps it is because I’ve had more desire to escape and throw myself into a fictional world lately so I’m more willing to let the author lead me along. Whatever the cause I simply adored Rebecca. From the opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” to the last: “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” I was completely absorbed by this novel and its world. The narrator is a middle-aged woman remembering events that changed her life forever. These events begin in Monte Carlo when the narrator was just a slip of a 21 year-old out of school and unsure of herself and trying to figure out where her life was headed—which, of course, I was not able to relate to AT ALL. I only hope that soon I’ll be able to look back with the same kind of perspective the narrator displays and see how ridiculous all my insecurities and worries were after all. If only there was a rich widower to fall in love with me, maybe I should take a holiday abroad.
At any rate that’s exactly what happens to our narrator, the young orphan (why is it always the orphans who have all the fun in these novels?) who goes from being a paid companion to an obnoxious middle-aged woman to being Mrs. De Winter, the mistress of the famous Manderley practically overnight. Of course the novel can’t end there or it would be terribly boring and sentimental, so after the honey moon is over the couple returns to Manderley where our young narrator ends up living in the shadow of the previous Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca. She sits at Rebecca’s desk in the morning and eats Rebecca’s favorite foods and is surrounded by Rebecca’s favorite flowers. Everyone seems disappointed when they meet her and she begins to fear that she is a poor replacement for the beautiful and spirited Rebecca who kept Manderley full of guests and glamour. The housekeeper, the terrifying Mrs. Danvers, in particular seems intent on keepig Rebecca's memory alive in the house and targets our narrator as an enemy from the minute she enters the house. Despite all this our narrator knows almost nothing about Rebecca, and her husband is very reluctant to talk of that particular subject. I would have been more annoyed with the narrator for not having the sense to strike her own path and redecorate and buy her own things instead of constantly worry about how Rebecca would have done something if I couldn’t tell that she was frustrated at herself for the exact same reason. Besides if I criticized her too much for being timid and trying to please everyone even when she knew she should and wanted to do otherwise I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite.
I’ve heard this novel called a mystery and an anti-marriage treatise but to me it was a romance, as I feel it was to the narrator as well. I don’t believe that this book is a caution against marriage as a rule so much as it is about going into a marriage with caution. It contains a lot about mistakes one can make in marriage, but hearing about other’s mistakes is how we learn. To me the novel wasn’t about Rebecca, but rather on the effect that Rebecca had on the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. Whatever genre it is, however, I’d give it five stars.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind.”

“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say.”

The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories Review

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories is a collection of stories by the popular Israeli author Etgar Keret. The author I was most reminded of while reading the collection is Roald Dahl. It contained much of the same kind of off-beat humor and unexpected twists that I love Dahl for, although in Keret’s collection the stories were basically brief comedic gags and the twists were just a part of the humor where as Dahl’s stories tend to be longer mysteries and all the dark humor is incidental to the big build up of the final twist. Regardless Keret reminded me of Dahl much more than the lukewarm Heavenly Date and other Flirtations by Alexander McCall Smith, which contained a review linking the two on the cover. Keret’s stories are each so unique that I can’t possibly summarize the collection. The best I can do is share two of my favorite quotes from it; the first is the openingline of a story and the second the closing line of another story:

“Korbi was a punk like all punks. The kind where it’s hard to tell if they’re mainly ugly or mainly stupid.”

“There are two kinds of people, those who like to sleep next to the wall, and those who like to sleep next to the people who push them off the bed.”

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I was thrilled to find an author who so thoroughly satisfies my particular short-story tastes that is still living and I look forward to reading more from Keret. Five stars.

Possession Review

Possession by A.S. Byatt starts in a library and spends half of its time in the Victorian era. It’s a romance after my own heart. The novel opens with a scholar, Roland Mitchell, finding a rough draft of a letter by the poet Randolph Henry Ash which he has reason to believe hasn’t been seen since Ash put the letter there himself. The letter is to a young lady and in it Ash talks of how she impressed him with her conversational skills at a lunch they both attended and asks if they might meet again. The scholar is driven to find out if Ash ever sent a copy of the letter, and who the young lady he was so taken with is. The lady turns out to be a poet as well, Christabel LaMotte. In order to find out more Mitchell seeks out the aid of one of the leading LaMotte scholars, Maud Bailey. The two follow the trail of letters to try to discover what happened between these two poets a hundred years ago, a path that leads them throughout the British and French countryside. The novel is alternately a sort of literary detective thriller as the two scholars try to unravel the mysterious affair, a modern romance, a Victorian romance, an epistolary novel (which I adore, the loss of the art of writing physical letters and diaries is one that I lament), and a satire of academia, romantic relationships, the victorian and the modern era. There are a few poems peppered throughout the novel as well. The novel has narrative ADD, but I love it! Despite the fact that the novel is subtitled a romance, I did not find it overly romantic. The novel had a sense of pragmatism that precluded young lovers finding each other then living in a fairy tale without a care in the world (although fairy tales did play an important part in the novel). The sensibility of the novel also prevented anyone from sinking into the depths of despair because love is the only thing worth living for and indulging in a truly Tragic Romance. The novel was a bit slow-paced in the beginning when Mitchell and Bailey are first sniffing out the trail but, at least for me, it more than made up for any slow beginnings by the end. Overall I’d give the novel five stars, with the caveat that my love of libraries, English majors, Victoriana, and letters prevents me from giving a completely objective review. I am not, however, alone in my love of this novel as it did win the Man Booker Prize and if you have a bit of literary geek in you as well I reccomend it.
“The only life I am sure of is the life of the Imagination.”
“But poets don’t want homes—do they?—they are not creatures of hearths and firedogs, but of heaths and ranging hounds.”

“The Poems are not for the young lady, the young lady is for the Poems.”

“The difference between poets and novelists is this—that the former write for the life of the language—and the latter write for the betterment of the world.”