The Change Chronicles, by Paula Friedman

change

Friedman has written a thought-provoking novel set in and near San Francisco during the tumultuous years 1965-9. Subtitled A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, it is narrated by young Nora Seikh. At 22, she is still uncertain about who she is and what she will do with her life.

Her head is filled with the voices of others—an abusive former lover, another would-be lover, a pair of strict and conservative parents—all telling her who she is and what she should do. As she struggles to navigate the negative voices and figure out these things for herself, she becomes involved with the nascent Antiwar Movement.

Nora takes a job reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb which sends her to local actions. She also gets involved with a couple of activists and through them with the Port Chicago demonstrations and nonviolent vigil, trying to stop the shipment of weapons—including napalm—to Vietnam.

This is also when the Second Wave Women’s Movement was taking shape. Having a female narrator enables us to experience the intersection of the two movements, the way the men in the Antiwar Movement downplayed the women’s contributions and discounted women’s issues as unimportant.

Although I was on the East Coast during those years, I certainly could identify with Nora’s journey and attest to its accuracy. For instance, when Nora distributed leaflets to returning sailors, she found—as I always did—that they wanted the same thing: End the war. Bring them home. Everyone I met who was involved in the Antiwar Movement was intensely on the side of the men sent to fight and die in an unjust war. We were against the politicians, not the men.

Another thing that people who came of age later might not understand is that we had no role models. Especially for women: we were in uncharted territory. We wanted more than the homemaker destinies of our parents. The pill had opened up possibilities of love outside of marriage. But in those pre-internet days, before Women’s History courses, we had no easy access to examples of how to navigate this new world. As my friend Jill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. We all were.”

We learned to talk with women living in poverty or near-poverty, women of color, women who had always worked. We read novels and poems by women. We read biographies of women artists and writers.

In this novel, Nora has turned to philosophy but, dissatisfied by the men she’s been studying, she tries to puzzle out her own.

Having left the uncertainties of the early twenties behind long ago, I was less interested in the first part of the book which was heavy with Nora’s descriptions of her feelings and attempts to work out a philosophy that would give structure to the world and her own identity. My interest perked up in the second half when the balance shifts more to the actions against the war.

The characters are well-drawn and there’s plenty of action, especially in the second part when things get worse and worse for Nora, keeping the tension high. Nora’s emerging understanding of herself and her world continues to be tested right up to the end.

Have you read a story that accurately captured a time you lived through?

The Ha-Ha, by Dave King

Ha-ha

I’d never heard of ha-has being installed here in the U.S. I’ve seen them in England, most dating from the Victorian era: walls set into a slope, separating high ground from low, like a river lock. The purpose is to keep the cows or sheep where they belong without disturbing the view. When you look out from the house, all you see lovely green lawns stretching into the distance, under the same principle of having the servants face the wall and pretend to be invisible when the lords and ladies pass them.

Here the ha-ha is at a convent, hiding the interstate that runs by their border. Howard works at this convent, mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs. Mowing the ha-ha, which is forbidden, is one of Howard’s few joys. Injured in Vietnam, only sixteen days into his first tour, Howard’s brain injury has affected his language abilities. He can hear and understand but cannot speak intelligibly, nor can he read or write. People who know him know that his intelligence is unaffected, but strangers often treat him as though he is not all there.

One person who knows him well is Sylvia, his first love, now a single mom with a drug problem. As the book opens, she is heading to rehab, asking Howard to care for her nine-year-old son Ryan. It would be a challenge for anyone to take in a child they barely know, but it is much worse for Howard given his disability and lack of experience with children.

One thing I like about this book is that we stay in Howard’s point of view throughout. Since any dialogue is going to be pretty one-sided, that means we get a lot of Howard’s interior monologue. This could have been a disaster, but the author has calibrated Howard’s voice perfectly—moving between exposition, self-pity, anger, bafflement and a range of other emotions—while making sure that there is plenty of action.

The only exception is near the end, when Howard is heading towards a crisis. I found this last part a bit unrealistic. It felt as though the author was straining for a big film-worthy climax instead of staying true to the characters.

The characters are another thing I like. All of them, even the minor characters, are well-drawn and multi-faceted. I was especially intrigued by Sylvia. Since we see her through Howard’s eyes, we rarely see him criticising her but we do see the effect her actions have on him as she ricochets from caring mom to selfish druggie to careless narcissist. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I found myself loathing her one minute and feeling sorry for her the next.

Also, Ryan is completely believable as a child in this situation: sometimes resentful and reticent, other times reluctantly affectionate. This nuanced portrait alone is worth the price of the book.

There’s a good bit of humor, too, especially between Howard and his three housemates. It’s Howard, though, who carries the book. Maintaining a strong and absorbing voice throughout a long novel is a real accomplishment, especially when so much of it must be in that voice.

I found much to consider here, about communication and families and disability. I thought about all the things we pretend not to see, all the things we try to wall out and ignore.

What do you pretend not to see?

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

little fires

Elena Richardson is living the perfect life in her perfect suburb of Shaker Heights. Although Elena is proud of the suburb’s idealistic beginnings, she’s thankful for its current rule-bound incarnation which fits her own obsessively programmed approach to life.

Well, it would be perfect if it weren’t for her rebellious daughter Izzy. Luckily Elena doesn’t know what her other two children are getting up to. What she does know is that her problems really began when artist and single-mother Mia moves to town with her daughter Pearl. Free-spirited Mia reminds Elena of her own choices and makes her wonder if she’s not missing out on something.

Things really come to a head when Elena’s friends adopt a Chinese baby that was left at a fire station, and Mia champions the baby’s mother who has been searching for her now that she can support her. The issue of cross-cultural adoption is an important one, and the usual arguments for who would be the baby’s best parent are brought out.

Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. A novel can start anywhere: a news article about some incident, a commitment or concern with a particular social issue, even an image of a place or person that demands you delve into what’s going on.

Before you go much further, though, you have to identify your protagonist—the person whose journey we’ll be following—and what they want deep down more than anything else. The best novels give the protagonist both an outer goal, something they are trying to accomplish, and an inner goal, some more personal need. You can make the two complimentary or oppose them, so that succeeding at one means failing at the other.

You also have to identify with what or who is keeping them from their goal: the antagonist. And there’s more: in planning a novel, writers assemble a cast of characters, people who are different from each other yet play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In this story, Ng does a fabulous job of this. Her cast includes pairs of opposites, including mismatched mother-daughter duos and of course the dueling parents. There’s even a setting that enhances the strengths of one of the opposing people and the weaknesses of the other. In fact, it’s almost too carefully planned.

I felt little emotion reading this novel. I was too conscious of the chess pieces being moved around to care much about what happened. It didn’t help that the characters are so one-sided. Mia is all good—a photo of her with Pearl as a baby is even titled Virgin & Child—and Elena all bad. And unrealistic: a single mother who is making a good living as an artist and has no one in her life besides her child and the woman who sells her work? As for Elena, there may be people as strict and cold as she, but I haven’t met any. And I found at least one aspect of the ending not only unbelievable but irresponsible on the author’s part.

There’s another problem with the book. Remember what I said about starting with a protagonist and antagonist? It is unclear who these are. I’ve made it sound like Elena is the first and Mia the second, but most of the people in my book dissection group thought it was the other way around. Or the protagonist could be Pearl. Or maybe Izzy.

That said, there’s a lot of great writing in the book, plus the excellent setup and the important social issue. And many of us struggle with finding the right balance between being wild and being responsible. Most of the people in my group enjoyed the book more than I did. And it’s certainly gotten great reviews.

Have you read a novel that didn’t have a protagonist? Or had more than one?

Light, by Eva Figes

Light

Like Waking, this second novel is slim and beautifully written. In it, we follow Claude Monet and members of his household through a single day, moving seamlessly from one to another. Each has their own concerns, their own fears and griefs.

There’s his wife Alice, haunted by the death a year ago of her daughter Suzanne. Suzanne’s two young children live there as well, cared for by their aunt Marthe. The children are accorded equal space and value in this account with the adults. There are servants: a nervous new cook, an older man who rows Claude out to paint, others. There are Claude’s other children, by his first wife Camille and Alice: Marthe, Germaine, Jean-Pierre, and Michel; and friends of his who drop by in the afternoon.

An even more important character is the garden itself, the one in Giverny that Claude has created—or had created—with an eye to light and shade and how they would change throughout the day.

His eyes took in, for perhaps the thousandth time, the contours of the space he had shaped. Yes, he thought, he had got it about right, the curve of the pond running inward towards the bridge with its reflected arc, two curved spans meeting, the dark mass of bamboo for emphasis, giving it just enough density, pinning it down so that it would not float into the sky along with the fragile column of trees beyond.

I know that the water lily paintings have been too much with us, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’ve sometimes felt that such things need to be put away for a while so they can recover their freshness. But for me, I confess, the water lilies have never lost their allure.

I remember first seeing the water lilies in, I think, 1969 when they were on display in their own room in the New York Museum of Modern Art, if I remember correctly. My friends and I sat entranced for ages, encircled by these massive paintings. I wasn’t sure what to think about them, despite my courses in art history, only knowing that there was something deeply mysterious about them, something disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

Years later, I began reading compulsively about World War I. I found references to it turning up unexpectedly. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien served in that war, including the 1916 Battle of the Somme. That experience of the flooded trenches where the unburied dead sometimes surfaced in the mud, surely led to his image of the Dead Marshes in the Lord of the Rings, where Frodo gazes into the water and sees the dead looking back at him.

Monet began painting the water lilies and the weeping willows in 1914 as a response to the war, whose guns sometimes sounded no more than 50 kilometers away. They are also a tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Gazing into the water, seeing at once its surface and its depths, as well as the reflections of willow fronds and sky, the paintings disorient me even as they absorb me. I sometimes see ghosts beyond the lilies and reflections, ghosts of the dead, yes, but more often of the peaceful summer afternoons before everything changed.

Thanks to these paintings I am more aware of the shades and shadows that inhabit the things of my world, their whispered history, no more than a sigh lifting a tender vine. Thanks to Figes I am more aware of their patterns of light and darkness, their colors.

How would the space around you appear if you had Monet’s eye for light?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

51706427

Lee’s second novel is a multi-generational saga of a Korean family, beginning in the early 20th century in a tiny village in Yeong-do and stretching through Tokyo and Yokohama to the present, following one family through this tumultuous time in Korean history.

It starts with the arranged marriage of Hoonie, a good-hearted man who is disfigured by a cleft palate and club foot, to a much younger Yangjin and the birth of their daughter Sunja. While selling her mother’s kimchi at the market, the naive adolescent Sunja meets Hansu, a rich and powerful older man. Only later does she hear the rumors that he is a gangster.

With a sense of foreboding, we know what will happen next, but Lee makes these characters so individual, so particularly themselves that their story, however often told, feels new. Sunja’s stoicism, Hansu’s integrity and loneliness keep them from being stereotypes.

I felt this push-pull throughout the novel. Knowing the broad historical outlines often brought on that sense of foreboding. When Sunja and her husband Isak move to Japan to live with his brother, I knew—as they did not—the kind of discrimination they would face. I cringed in a later section when the brother decides near the end of the war to go to Nagasaki to work.

Yet the story engages your mind and heart right up to the end. It’s hard for a writer to find the right balance of having bad things happen to your characters and good things. Some experts say you cannot give them too many trials; after all, that’s what keeps us reading: to see how they will rise (or not) to each challenge. Yet as a reader I know how easy it is for me to suffer compassion fatigue. Lee finds the right pacing of successes and failures.

What I love about these multi-generational historical novels is the broad sweep of time, the chance to see choices played out in the lives of children and grandchildren, personal choices and historical events. However, this sweep is also a drawback. Moving between characters and across time as we do, we never really stay long enough with any one person to become as deeply invested in their story as we do in a story with a single protagonist.

This book starts slowly, with lots of narrative. I nervously fingered the bulk of remaining pages—485—and worried that I’d be too bored to finish it, even though it was my book club’s pick for the month.

Finally at the end of Chapter 2 we get a full scene when Isak arrives at Yangjin’s boarding house. As though released from the starting gate, the story takes off from there and held my interest for the rest of the book. What makes the difference is the good mix of dramatic scenes and minimal narration from then on.

As writers we are advised to start when something happens to begin the story—here, Isak’s arrival—so I would probably have chosen to begin there and fill in the previous information as flashbacks scattered through the present of the story.

However, in mitigation, I have to add that the first sentence–every writer’s bête noir–is magnificent. “History has failed us, but no matter,” Lee tells us, encapsulating the entire saga and what we will come to love about the characters.

I’m terrible at coming up with titles. Here, the pachinko game—a popular Japanese form of pinball that is peculiarly addictive—is a perfect metaphor for the capricious blows of fate and the stoicism of simply going on that mark these lives.

The trajectories of the pachinko balls are confined within the box of the machine itself, reflecting another aspect of this story. Much of the tension comes from the characters being constrained by society’s customs and politics. For example, in today’s culture Sunja’s pregnancy might not be the catastrophe that changes her life; without the privations and dangers of rebellions and wars Isak and his brother might continue to prosper; as Koreans in Japan Sunja’s sons might actually be able to find work other than in pachinko parlors.

I’ve always rebelled against society’s constraints, throwing myself into the counter-culture in the 1960s, then the women’s movement, single parenthood, a career in a male-dominated field. But this story make me realise that the ability to do so in relative safety is proof of my privilege.

What novel have you read set in Korea or helping you understand Korean history or culture?

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley

9781594485503_p0_v1_s550x406

With this novel, Mosley takes us on a different sort of journey. It’s a standalone novel, not part of one of Mosley’s mystery series. Here we are lured into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges.

Ptolemy lives by himself, surrounded by piles of newspapers and boxes, listening simultaneously to classical radio and television news. He relies on his grandnephew Reggie to take him to the bank and grocery, afraid to go out by himself or answer the door to anyone but Reggie ever since a large drug addict named Melinda began terrorising him and stealing his money. Physically frail, he also forgets things that have just happened or been said, finding his mind wandering back to people and incidents from his childhood.

When Reggie is killed (not a spoiler; we learn this in the first few pages), his place is taken by Robyn, a teenager who has been living with Ptolemy’s grandniece, who took Robyn in when her mother died. At first Robyn visits, accompanying him on errands, but appalled by the state of his apartment, she begins cleaning and clearing. Gradually the old man and lonely girl become friends.

Mosley captures the constant threats to an attractive young woman. Even before the stories that have come out through the #MeToo movement, Mosley shows how men assume they have a right to come on to Robyn and become angry when she rejects their advances. The girl carries a knife for protection and isn’t afraid to use it.

But this is Ptolemy’s story. There’s something he still has to do, an unfulfilled mission dating from his childhood. Buoyed by Robyn’s care and companionship, he’s willing to take terrible risks to accomplish it.

The book is a fascinating exercise in deep point of view (POV), also known as free indirect discourse. Most of us learned in school the difference between first- (I), second- (you) and third- (he, she, it) person POV, and omniscient POV.

As I mentioned in the blog post about James Woods’s How Fiction Works, there are variations of third-person POV. Deep POV takes the reader completely into the protagonist’s world, not just being told only what they see, hear, etc., but actually experiencing everything directly, as though you are inside the character’s mind.

Of course, this can get a bit suffocating. The trick is to move between levels, like a camera coming in for a closeup or pulling back for a long shot, without giving the reader whiplash.

Mosley accomplishes this gracefully. Looking at the first scene, we begin with a distant third-person, with the protagonist simply “the old man” answering the phone. On the second page we move in a little closer, getting some of his thoughts: “He was certainly there, on the other end of the line, but who was it? the old man wondered.” Then a few paragraphs later we move fully into his mind, with no “reporting words” as a tag, before moving out again:

Was the voice coming from the radio or the TV? No. It was in his ear. The telephone—

“Who is this?” Ptolemy Grey asked, remembering that he was having a phone conversation.

Mosley continues this dance, effortlessly moving in and out of the old man’s mind, never losing the reader, and making it all seem the most natural thing in the world.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated is the way Mosley handles descriptions of new characters as he introduces them. As I mentioned in a blog post of one of his other books, he often gives a little physical description with some telling detail. Here are a bank teller and a man who runs a gym:

She was a dark-skinned black woman with bronze hair and golden jewelry around her neck and wrists and on at least three fingers.

The man who asked the question was on the short side but he had extraordinarily broad shoulders and muscles that stretched his T-shirt in every direction. His face was light brown and his neck exhibited the strain of a man pulling a heavy weight up by a long rope.

Mosley sometimes combines the description with action.

Big, copper-brown, and buxom Hilda “Niecie” Brown folded the frail old man in a powerful but cushioned embrace.

A high-yellow woman was slumped across the blue sheets of the bed, crying, crying.

“How are you, my friend?” the old, ecru-skinned Middle Easterner asked. He took one of Ptolemy’s big hands in both of his, smiling and nodding as he did so.

Sometimes he lets imagery do much of the work, saying of the woman who would become Ptolemy’s beloved second wife: “Her yellow dress made its own party”.

Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

Do you like novels that immerse you in the protagonist’s world?

Waking, by Eva Figes

Waking

I’d never heard of this author until my friend Nichael loaned me this book. It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this remarkable novel.

Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death. You may be reminded of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, as described in a monologue by Jacques in As You Like It: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (which refers to a commedia dell’arte figure signifying an old fool), and old age: “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Figes’s achievement is to translate these into the seven ages of woman. Every chapter invites the reader to fall into the experience of that age, whether it’s an awkward adolescent exploring her new body or an aging woman who feels “the accumulation of failure, loss, nothing has turned out as I intended it should”.

The significance of the title is that these are the her thoughts at the moment of waking, that time when sleep and dreams have not yet drifted away, yet our thoughts are turning to what’s present: our body, others around us, curtains at the window. It is a liminal time, a threshold, when the night’s outsize fears mingle with hopes for the day. We mull over losses and satisfactions, cast upon the night’s shore.

In her excellent book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends enhancing your creativity by writing Morning Pages. These are a few pages of freewriting, i.e., with no set topic. Of course, you could do them anytime, but she recommends the morning, when you first get up, because your unconscious is still active from its night’s work. You never know what will turn up.

What turns up here is stunning. I found myself wanting to cry out over and over: Yes, oh yes, I felt exactly that way. Each paragraph is packed with what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”—moments of intense emotion, of living fully in the present. I recognised many, mostly ones I’d forgotten about.

I was so absorbed in the experience that it is only on rereading that I see how gorgeous Figes’s prose is, how intensely she uses all fives senses. I also see how subtle her transitions are, both within each chapter and between chapters. They are critical to making this stream of consciousness work smoothly and draw the reader along.

This novel is such a gem I am eager to read more of her work. I’m grateful for friends like Nichael who turn me on to new favorite authors.

Has a friend recommended a book to you that has turned out to be one of your favorite reads?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

9780316291163_p0_v1_s192x300

Since I was due to visit Lyme Regis, I decided to reread this 1969 novel which is mostly set in that seaside town. Of course, my first memory from reading it almost 50 years ago was the gloriously romantic opening image of a woman, dressed all in black, staring out to sea from the end of the Cobb.

The Cobb in Lyme Regis is a mole, a grey stone wall that curves out into the sea like an arm protecting the harbor. It features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion where it is the scene of Louisa’s downfall as she attempts to jump into Captain Wentworth’s arms.

Fowles’s mysterious woman is Sarah Woodruff, a disgraced woman who according to gossips had run off with and been abandoned by the eponymous officer. She’d met him while he was recovering from a shipwreck in the house where she then worked as a governess.

She is observed by Charles Smithson, a privileged young man who considers himself a Darwinist, and his fiancé Ernestina Freeman, whose conventional views belie her surname. As part of his scientific pursuits, Charles hunts for fossils, reminding me of my recent reading about Mary Anning. He leaves Ernestina at home when he goes on these expeditions, so is alone when he encounters Sarah later and resolves to try to help her.

While written in the style of and using the conventions of Victorian literature, the story is narrated from the point of view of a modern-day man. With epigraphs and footnotes and commentary in the text, this narrator provides social and historical context for the struggles of his Victorian characters, sometimes criticising them, sometimes commiserating with them. He also openly discusses the problems and choices the writer faces in putting the story together.

This self-consciousness places the book in the wave of postmodern metafiction in the 1960s. Another metafictional aspect is that the narrator provides three possible endings.

While the “I” of the narrator calls himself a “novelist”, it seems to me he is instead yet another character rather than Fowles himself. He even shows up as a character near the end.

Thus, Fowles has quite a few plates to keep spinning. He risks losing the story’s momentum with his digressions about Victorian mores and morality or the clash of religion and science.

Yet these challenges for the reader play into the theme of free will, the monster released from its chains by Darwin and his colleagues. What are the risks when the strict conventions of religion and social convention are shown to be shams? How do we comprehend the world—or the world of the novel—when the framework we’d always used begins to dissolve? When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

The other main thing I remembered from when I first read this novel was which of the three endings I preferred and what that said about me. Reading the book now, I find it much more complex than I remembered. It is the sort of book that repays multiple rereadings.

I plan to read it yet again to see how Fowles manages the omniscient point of view—the sort most rarely used these days. It’s an interesting choice, setting up an omniscient narrator—albeit one whose power and knowledge he undercuts now and then—for a story of the time when people were coming to terms with the idea that there may not be an omniscient and omnipotent god.

What novel have you read and reread, finding more in it with each rereading?

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

9780449819609_p0_v1_s192x300

For once, I saw the film of this award-winning Young Adult book before reading the book itself. I’d taken an excellent workshop led by Rosoff, so when I saw the film listed, I decided to take a look. Only later did I follow up with reading the book, and was glad I did.

As the story begins, fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit Aunt Penn, sister to Daisy’s mother who died when Daisy was born. The teen loathes her stepmother, who is pregnant, saying, “If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmother, she scored a Big Fat Zero.”

Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. She’s met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond, who is not only smoking a cigarette but has brought a “falling-apart” jeep in which he will drive her home.

Thus begins her adventures with her charmingly eccentric cousins in an old house in the countryside. Aunt Penn who is important in the government, leaves almost immediately “to give a lecture in Oslo . . . on the Imminent Threat of War.”

Daisy pays little attention to war-talk, since people had been yammering about the possibility for the last five years, though her oldest cousin Osbert can’t get enough of the latest news. She spends her days with Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their little sister Piper, and assorted dogs, goats and other animals. They fish and swim and picnic.

Then comes the invasion.

This is when the film blew me away. Watching it without knowing the story at all, I thought if a war came, it would be like the Land Girls or children being moved to the countryside during the Blitz, as in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart.

I was wrong. The images of rural England occupied by an enemy force—villages turned into military encampments, cars abandoned on country lanes for lack of petrol—shocked me deeply. And, to my shame, showed me just how superficial my empathy is for other countries trapped by warring armies: Sarajevo, Aleppo, so many others. Not England, I kept thinking.

Shameful, indeed.

I’m glad I went on to read the book. Not only is it more detailed and nuanced—movies must necessarily leave out much of what’s in a book—but Daisy’s voice is so true as she tries to keep her head above water, waters that get deeper and more treacherous as the story goes on. I felt I experienced every minute with her, every shifting emotion. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion found an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

Have you read a book recently that showed you something new about yourself, perhaps something you’re not proud of?

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

9780307386175_p0_v1_s192x300

On a July evening in 1962, a young newlywed couple sits down to dinner in their hotel suite on the Dorset coast. Bound by convention, they continue eating a meal they do not want, their attention drawn to the bed in the next room. Edward and Florence, both nervous, reflect on how their love for each other has brought them to this moment.

It may be hard for those born after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the availability of the Pill to understand the repression and gamesmanship of the time that came before. What little Florence has heard about sex disgusts her, but she is determined to do her duty. Edward has had only one experience, which did not go well, and has been kept at arm’s length by his beloved throughout their courtship.

McEwan expertly builds the picture of the time period and of these two—one a student of history and the other an apparently gifted violinist—who come from different levels of society. And yet, as I’ve found with other of McEwan’s novels, this story is mostly an intellectual pleasure.

I keep reading his novels because they are so well-constructed and so well-written. Individual sentences sparkle and delight. Yet there is something about McEwan’s novels that leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

Maybe it’s the sense that they are more an exercise than a story. The chessboard is laid out with care, each element with its purpose. The theme here is interesting: what we don’t say or do; society’s constraints versus how we feel. I find moments I recognize—ones I thought no one else knew—like the first thrill, dark and irresistible, of loosing the angry words suppressed in a lifetime of good behavior.

The plot is clear and cogent, from the usual McEwan beginning with a surprising event that changes everyone’s lives. What’s different here is that the book goes back instead of forward from that event. Only at the very end comes a quick summary of the resulting future. It is also different because it’s about what doesn’t happen. No stranger comes in and changes everything.

The characters are also well-constructed. I found Florence a little unrealistic, that she could be so completely frigid sexually and yet such a remarkable and passionate violinist. I wondered if perhaps there was some early trauma. McEwan drops a couple of hints of possible abuse, but—much as I appreciate subtlety and being left to figure things out by myself—it’s too little to make a case. I read an interview later where McEwan said that he left a few clues but didn’t want to make it explicit. I don’t think that is fair to the reader.

In the end, though, I don’t care about what happens to the characters. They seem like puppets being moved around. The story doesn’t engage my emotions. However, McEwan does bring back that time vividly. I found myself thinking of the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, and how clearly I recall it after all these decades. This book, on the other hand, is fading quickly.

Have you read a novel that you appreciated, even admired, but didn’t enjoy?