2004, 306 p
It’s a strange thing, re-reading a book. You’re not the same reader that you were the first time and the context in which you’re reading the book is often very different. I read Amanda Lohrey’s The Philosopher’s Doll soon after it was released back in 2004, straight after reading two big, fat books: The Sotweed Factor and Tristam Shandy. At the time I leapt on it because it was local, domestic and female in comparison to the two hefty tomes that preceded it. Now, twelve years later I’m reading it again, this time for my face-to-face bookgroup. I didn’t view it quite as kindly the second time round.
The book is set in Northcote with social worker Kirsten trying to summon up the courage to tell her husband Lindsay about her pregnancy. Lindsay does not want children, (or at least, not yet) and Kirsten is aware that she has fallen pregnant in benignly deceptive circumstances. Her philosophy lecturer husband Lindsay, on the other hand, thinks that all she needs is a dog to settle her maternal urges and so he embarks on a secret plan to buy a pure-bred Chow, a breed whose aloofness appeals to him. The dog is not Lindsay’s only secret: he is also receiving letters from an infatuated doctoral student, Sonia, that he just puts away for now, not telling anyone about them.
The book is presented in four parts, and this part of the storyline plays out in the first two parts over a matter of several weeks. It is told in the third-person present tense (a tense that I don’t enjoy much) and the two perspectives are interwoven. Then, abruptly, in the third section, the infatuated student Sonia is speaking in the first person, past tense, some ten or more years after the events first part of the book. Things have changed, and we see them in their new form, but not how they arrived at that point. Coincidences may be more planned than they appear, some mistakes are replicated and new ways of being are learned and embraced.
This is a very Melbourne book, and as a resident of the northern suburbs, I could pinpoint almost to the street – James Street, Northcote do you reckon?- where Kirsten and Lindsay lived. In this regard, the book has Garnesque features, but it is burdened with a didactism that you don’t find in Garner’s work. Lindsay’s occupation as philosophy lecturer gives scope for digressions into the emotional capacities of humans v. animals, and the question of the rhetorics of the heart. The final section of the book launches into a discussion of stunt -no – precision flying that almost sinks the book, if the lengthy retelling of dreams hasn’t already done so.
Does the book need all this philosophy trowelled onto it? I tend to think not. I felt a little betrayed as a reader by the abrupt change half way through, and as if I were sitting through a boring, one-sided conversation in the philosophical parts.
Reading back on the review that I wrote on this book back in 2004 (before I started this blog), I didn’t mention any of these criticisms. Did I just read it as a Melbourne-based story, and did I skip the philosophy? Or did I enjoy the philosophy perhaps? Have I changed since then? Or am I more conscious of Lohrey’s earnest spiritual intentions in writing now after reading A Short History of Richard Klein, which I found even more didactic than this book?
Sourced from: C.A.E. Bookgroup
I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.
My recollection of this was that it was a middling kind of book, but I was so intrigued by your review that I dug out my reading journal from 2004 to see what I thought of it.
I thought the first part went quite well, dissecting the marriage gently and showing us two reasonably equal partners, faults and all. I noted Lohrey’s irony in depicting their conflict over the possibility of parenthood: he defends his choice as rational (because he’s a philosopher) when really it’s just that he wants to renovate and to travel & be free of responsibilities. He could mount a perfectly rational argument about having a child too, because philosophers are trained to argue both sides, but he doesn’t want to do that. He labels her argument as irrational. I also thought that the ‘broodiness’ had something to do with the wife’s horrible job, a baby as an escape mechanism.
But for me too the book became less convincing in the third part, and I concluded by wondering what Lohrey was actually on about? Male commitment? female duplicity? the inevitability of it all?
It sounds as if we’re on the same page with this one.
I like Melbourne books. But retelling of dreams? Count me out!
I’ve spoilt many brilliant books by reading them again.
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