Thursday 29 April 2010

The Behaviour of Moths

Thank you all for vindicating my purchase yesterday - you lot are probably a poor choice for the voice of my conscience, but I'm certainly happy to stick with it(!)
Ever onwards, ever in - and onto The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams. Everyone else read this ages ago, I think, and indeed I had a review copy from Virago languishing on my shelves - but it wasn't until the novel was picked for my book group that I got around to reading it myself.

The Behaviour of Moths should have been a perfect novel for me - all about the tensions in families, Gothic houses, and an unreliable narrator: tick, tick, and tick. Ginny is a lepidopterist (moth expert, in case the title doesn't give the game away) still living in the old family mansion in her sixties. The novel centres around her younger sister's return home after 47 years - Vivien arrives, but there are all sorts of unanswered questions and secrets between the two, which the reader hopes to disentangle...

That's the novel in a nutshell - I won't elaborate, partly because there are reviews all over the internet where you can read about the plot; partly because not a huge amount happens. Instead, we are left to piece together the sisters' lives (and try to understand their parents, from the piecemeal information which emerges) as the narrative jumps back and forth from present day to their childhood and adolescence. One of the first recollections is when Vivi fell off the bell tower:

My heart leapt but Vivi must have lost her balance. I watched her trying to regain control of the toast that danced about, evading her grip like a bar of soap in the bath. For those slow seconds it seemed as if repossessing the toast was of utmost important to her and the fact that she was losing her balance didn't register. I've never forgotten the terror in her eyes, staring at me, replayed a thousand times since in my nightmares, as she realised she was falling.

The fall leaves Vivi unable to have children; another catalyst for the events which unfold. And so it ambles on, with secrets gradually becoming exposed, and the relationship between the sisters coming to light.

But I was unconvinced. And not just because it was set near Crewkerne, close by where I live in Somerset - which Adams claims is in Dorset, and has a bowling alley. No, it doesn't, Poppy, love! No, the reason I was unconvinced is because The Behaviour of Moths tries to do the unreliable narrator thing, but it all comes in a huge rush with a big twist towards the end. And then you wonder quite how we were supposed to read the rest of the novel - but there weren't enough clues laid down, and the picture isn't properly developed. All the details about moths are doubtless engaging, but they seem to have taken the place of a coherent narrative arc.
The Behaviour of Moths has done very well, and my lack of enthusiasm for the novel won't trouble Poppy Adams particularly, but I do wonder quite why it's been so popular. I found the whole thing... how shall I put it... quite bland. The blurb talks about 'Ginny's unforgettable voice', but that's the problem: it wasn't unforgettable, it was literary-fiction-by-numbers. The style is almost ubiquitous across novels of this type - and though there were Gothicky elements (especially in the depiction of the house) which impressed and set the novel a bit apart, for the most part The Behaviour of Moths was a common-or-garden specimen. Not a bad novel by any means, and passes the time adequately, but could have been so much better. I do look forward to seeing what Adams does next, but if she couldn't win me over with a novel which has all my favourite ingredients, then I don't hold out huge hope.

Simon S has started suggesting similar reads at the bottom of his reviews, and I love the idea - and asked him if he wouldn't mind me nabbing it! So from now on, I'll try and think of books which I think did similar things better - or, with positive reviews, do similar things equally well! And link to my thoughts on them, naturally...

Books to get Stuck into:

Angela Young: Speaking of Love - family secrets and tense relationships are as subtle and engaging as they get in this wonderful novel
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle - the unreliable narrator and the Gothic house taken to a whole new level in this brilliantly addictive novel


  1. This is my book group's choice for next month! I was excited about it but now I shall manage my expectations accordingly after your review. I had feared the gothic pastiche would wear thin. Oh well, I'll see for myself soon enough!

  2. I like the new "books to look into" at the end -- just to add to the list making! :) Thought I'd peek in and read the backlog of posts I've missed - we are vacationing, so I'm only getting to blog reading very sporadically. It's funny - I don't miss it until I pop open the laptop. Then I can't wait to catch up with everybody!
    (oh, and fwiw, I think you do need the apostrophe for the bloggers' convention -- that makes it the convention of the bloggers -right?)

  3. You articulated what I felt when I read the book but couldn't put my finger on -- I didn't realize that the narrator was supposed to be unreliable until toward the end of the story. For all of the talk of her being "off", she never seemed all that off and I thought we were being put on. Until the end, that is ...

  4. I'm one of those who didn't like this one. I actually couldn't finish it. I didn't care for any of the characters and the information about moths was just a tad too much.

    But yes, it did have all the elements of a book I'd love. Too bad it just didn't cut it. I think you said it right by saying it was 'bland'.

  5. Sorry you found this bland. It just shows we can't all like the same books all the time - I loved this book. One aspect I found interesting was how the two sisters had different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. That rang true as it was like that for my sister and me - not anything else about the story though, thank goodness, and it was amazing how our memories differed.

    It bothers me when I come across a reference to a place I know in a novel and the author hasn't got the facts right or has altered them, so maybe that coloured your view?

    I thought right from the start of the book that there was something different about Ginny and that all was not as it seemed.

  6. For 'bowling alley' maybe read 'skittle alley' - of which the area boasts several?
    I am intrigues by the bell tower snippet - is the moral of that incident 'don't eat toast in high places'?!

  7. I am one of the very few people left who have yet to read this book and I too have a review hardback languishing on my TBR thats been there forever but even though it seems my perfect book I have tried it twice and just not quite been in the mood.

    P.S Copycat hahahahaha, joking, glad you liked the suggestions enough to do some too! They have proved a hit with my readers so far!

  8. I know I enjoyed this when I read it last year but very little of its sticks in my mind, so guess it was one of those books that you read and move on from ...I must try the Angela Young which I've had for ages and haven't started, something about its appearance slightly puts me off - feeble of me, I know, because it's had such very good reviews.

  9. Rachel - well, lots of people enjoyed, so good luck! I've just been given another Gothicky novel, so I'm hoping I'll fare better...

    Susan - it's fun, isn't it? A good idea of Simon S's!

    Kristen - always good to know others agreed! I so wanted to love it, too.

    Mrs. B - I know, such a shame we couldn't enjoy it, given those elements in it.

    Margaret - well, I'm very glad someone enjoyed it! I don't think the place thing put me off, I was only teasing about that (I often finish books without having noticed where they're set, it tends not to factor with me) - you are obviously a more careful reader than me, to spot the signs early on!

    Mum - I never will again!

    Simon S - I know, completely copying, haha! Don't let me put you off the novel, a lot of people have liked it... or you could be influenced by me ;-)

    Mary - oh, do give Speaking of Love a go, it's so very good!

  10. I haven't read this book, but felt almost exactly the same way about Diane Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale," which was a NYT #1 bestseller. I'm always leery when books are compared to the works of past classic authors like the Brontes and du Maurier.

  11. I read this novel last year. I liked it but, I was a bit disappointed with the "sequence of events". However, I liked the end very much.

  12. I was quite disappointed with this book. It had all the elements of a story that I normally enjoy but I found the ending disappointing and the descriptions of moths and lepidoptery too numerous and distracting.
    I enjoyed the authors style of writing and would attempt to read another book if/when another one is published.

  13. Just finished this book and was hugely disappointed, it was also one I thought I would enjoy! Found myself skipping through the moth bits hoping to find something better....glad I read these reviews as was left feeling that I had missed something, now I realize that sadly I had not missed anything

  14. I've only just read this book too - another book group selection. I too was disappointed - see my review

    It struck me that this was a book with all the right elements of a literary/commercial fiction crossover. It had the setting, the polished prose, the dark humour, etc etc. But it didn't add up. Just who was Ginny, what was her problem?

    Like the site too. I hope you get a chance to look at mine...


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