2016, 483 p.
I’ve long had a rather ambivalent relationship with Maggie O’Farrell’s books. I looked back in my reading journal to the first O’Farrell I read, After You’d Gone (2000). I scored a 10/10 (so I obviously liked it a great deal), but I also wrote:
I couldn’t work out if the author was sloppy and undisciplined or very very good…The book teetered on the edge of Mills and Boon but the strength of the writing anchored it.
Coming now to my fourth Maggie O’Farrell, I still feel much the same way, but I’m not as generous this time round. I’ve since read My Lover’s Lover (2002) and Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and I think that I’m starting to tire of O’Farrell’s repeated themes of disappearances and the fragility of relationships and her stylistic technique of multiple narrators and tenses.
They are all here in this book. The plot circles around the marriage of the two main characters: Daniel, an American linguist and Claudette, a famous film star who stages her own disappearance at the height of her fame. After Daniel encounters Claudette and her stuttering son Ari on the side of the road with a broken-down car, they fall in love and he leaves his American wife and eczema-crazed son and doomed daughter to marry her. Both are flawed characters, being willfully absent at times and veering between oblivious and judgmental. They are surrounded by a wider constellation of other characters – mothers, siblings, children, a woman on a bus in South America -and complicated backstories. The book is set over 70 years, but most of the action takes place between 2010 and 2016 in Ireland, London and America. As well as a mixture of present and past tense narrative, it has a breakout section in the form of catalogue, and a chapter in the form of an interview.
The book seemed to take an inordinate time to get going, and this kaleidoscope of characters is too big to keep in mind. They swoop in and out of the narrative, and I found myself flicking back to see if I could find where they last appeared, cursing the absence of a contents page. I used to think that jumping around in time and place required masterful plotting. It probably does, but I’ve come to value more highly writing that can take responsibility for time shifts through the narrative, instead of just plonking the reader into the middle of it and expecting them to make the connections. I don’t mind having to work hard as a reader, but I need to feel that it’s not because the author is being lazy.
I simply didn’t care enough for any of the characters to sustain me over such a lengthy book. It has received good reviews from readers who enjoyed its narrative skittishness, but with this particular writer, I’m finding it a bit stale.
My rating: 6.5/10
Read because: CAE bookgroup (The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)