Friday 25 March 2011

I feel like a leopard...

normally wouldn't bother writing about a book which left me thinking 'meh' (i.e. wholly apathetic) - I don't really feel that I can construct a proper review about it. This post will probably confirm that I can't. But The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston (which I thought was neither good nor bad) was so loved by Kim, as well as most of the members of my book group, that I was left a bit baffled. (The post title, by the way, refers to a wonderful moment in budget awful reality TV show Coach Trip...)

It's late and I'm tired, and as I said I didn't really care enough about this novel to want to put much effort in, so I'm just going to chat and copy across from Amazon:

"Clara, who at 35 makes her living doing "odd jobs for newspapers", is recovering from a serious operation and spends her days wandering around the cliff tops at Dublin Bay. She stares out to sea, trying to rediscover the direction in her life. One rainy afternoon, she encounters Laurence (Lar), a teacher who has run away from his life in Northern Ireland as he tries to come to terms with a family tragedy. The novel describes how these two unconventional people form a fragile friendship. Alternating the narrative voice, Johnston lets their stories unravel gradually. Both characters are trying to come to terms with loss and the novel examines the contrasting ways they cope: Clara is self-depreciating and humorous but can't shake off the knowledge that haunts her; Lar is bitter and coiled, bottling up his pain in an ever-present anger. Johnston has no difficulty in keeping the reader intrigued as the plot is never a foregone conclusion."

Sorry to be lazy... now I'll turn over to my own thoughts.

Jennifer Johnston has a perfectly serviceable writing style, and occasionally has nice turns of phrase... She dealt skillfully with what were essentially four parallel perspectives (Lar's present; Lar's past; Clara's present; Clara's past.) But for the most part I was left cold. It's mean to point out the worst examples within a novel, and I wouldn't have done this, but someone at book group (ironically enough) chose this as a favourite section, and I thought it was the least realistic paragraph. Lar is on the phone to his Dad, with whom he has had little contact of late:
"There is nothing wrong with me."

"You're not yourself."

"I am myself. I am Laurence McGrane. I am a schoolteacher. I know who I am. I know my wife and child were murdered. I know I am acting in a wild and irrational way towards the people who say they love me. I know that one day I will return to normality and be quiet and polite and acceptable, but not yet. I want to be allowed to scream and burn and hate, until I am sickened by my self-indulgence. I haven't got a date for that. So f**k off Dad and stop trying to heal me."

He had never sworn at his father before and the hand that held the receiver trembled as he did so.

There was a long pause.

"We do love you, son," was all his father said, then he put down the phone and all Lar could hear was the emptiness of disconnection.

Does anyone ever talk like that? It felt like novel-talk, rather than real-talk.

And as for Clara... I think she was supposed to be something of a feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroine. I'm all for feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroines - but they topple so very easily into selfish, overblown, rude heroines. Clara was a bit beloved by some book group members, but I thought she was a paragon of self-involvement... Lar was better, but I think I'd still rather read a novel about his cute little dog.

But it wasn't even the plot or the characters which didn't work for me. It was the feel of the book overall - like there didn't seem much point in reading it. Things were happening to people, or had happened to people, or might happen to people - and none of it much bothered me at all.

This is all (as you'll have noticed) a bit of a haze, and I'm really just writing about The Gingerbread Woman to ask a question I might have asked before - have you read any books about which you were more or less indifferent, only to find that everyone raved about them? This happens to me quite a lot with modern novels - so many of which seem to dispense with style in favour of plot, or at least that's true for the ones people recommend. Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is another case in point - interesting idea; incredibly bland prose.

These sorts of clashing viewpoints are especially noticeable at a book group, if you sit down completely unable to understand why everyone else seems enthusiastic about something. So much harder to discuss than a book you hated. In May we're reading Wuthering Heights - hating Heathcliff as much as I do, sit me down with a Heathcliff-lover and we'll be gabbing away for hours. But with The Gingerbread Woman... we could talk a bit about the characters and the events, but... in the end, I couldn't really make myself care all that much.

Over to you. I think reviews like this (not that it is a review; it's been far too all over the place to qualify) are a bit underwhelming to read - but perhaps you'll recognise the feeling. Let me know any books which left you indifferent in the face of enthusiasm - or perhaps tell me why I should have liked The Gingerbread Woman more!


  1. Sometimes you just don't have a good feeling for a book.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. I love Coach Trip so much - trashy daytime TV at it's best! The tour guide man has me in stitches every time!

    I am often in the same boat with modern novels - style over substance a lot of the time. Especially prizewinners - I don't get the hype over most of them.

  3. I was struck by your comments, because they summed up how I feel about a lot of modern novels. It may be a coincidence, but just about everything on my reading list right now was written before I was born (and I'm quite a lot older than you!).

  4. Going with Meh novels, The world according to Garp and Hertzog are two that spring to mind with me. I have never written about either of them and its not because I disliked them exactly but because I just didnt care. I think I dod that quite alot.

    Am I missing out on some kind of cultural phenomena with this coach trip?

  5. Simon, I thought this was such an interesting post, and not at all underwhelming.

    For me, the book I would nominate is Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. I've seen so many positive reviews of this book, and yet I felt appalled as I read it, because the theories it put forward were so tenuous and unsupported. I thought it was dreadful.

  6. Last year, I read Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. As nearly blasphemous as it feels to say, and as much as it seems to disappoint seemingly everyone I've ever met who's read it, I really disliked it. Quite a lot. I just couldn't understand the enthusiasm for it! I also feel the same about most of Mitch Albom's body of work: an author who is loved by many dear friends, but one I really can't bear to read.

  7. ...I just noticed I used "seems" and "seemingly" in the same post. Drat.

  8. Oh yes! Here's an example of one. The first of the Cornflower Book Group reads was Virginia Woolf's All Passion Spent. I didn't think much of it and that certainly went against the prevailing view. You can read the comments for yourselves; I appear in those far-off days as "Peter the Flautist".

  9. Such an empty feeling to turn the last page of a book and not give it another thought or even worse be glad that it's over! I was disappointed in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. So many people love it and on the surface it should have been right up my street but I was 'meh' about it.

  10. So nice to finally find someone who despises Heathcliff as much as I do. To me the book is about two of the most banal, self-involved asses in literature. Frankly, I believe Emily Bronte wrote them just to try to get people to dislike them. Imagine her surprise when they were so beloved. Of course, I could be wrong about Ms. Bronte's intentions, but I hope not; wouldn't want my regard for her to drop clean out of sight. Wuthering Heights is well written. I've just never worked up any feeling for her characters other than a mix of loathing and boredom.

  11. I agree completely with Pursewarden -- so many modern "literary" novels seem so self-consciously written these days, like they're catering to book groups (or do publishers assume all book groups want to read the same type of book over and over?) I'm far more interested in dead authors these days.

    I hated, hated, hated The Memory Keeper's Daughter which was all the rage a few years ago, and I was underwhelmed by Water for Elephants.

    And I'm with you regarding Wuthering Heights, which has some of the most hateful characters in literature. Heathcliff is awful and I'd like to push Cathy off a cliff. They absolutely deserve each other.

  12. Ouch Simon - not sure I'll give you my book to read - it definitely won't pass the test!!
    I'm with you on Wuthering Heights and I'm with Dark Puss on Virginia Woolf.
    I have, however, thoroughly enjoyed Tracey Chevalier's book about Mary Anning - perhaps that places me on the culture scale!

  13. I have an example from the opposite perspective, I loved Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I lent it to about 5 different people, none of whom could be bothered to finish it! I daren't read it again in case I am influenced by their lack of enthusiasm.

  14. I agree with pursewarden on this. I do sometimes read newer books, but prefer things which have had a chance to settle for a bit. I like the escapism of much older books as well.

  15. Two books that left me absolutely indifferent:
    House of Sand and Fog and The Time Traveller's Wife. I finished each one -- both of which had come highly recommended -- and it was like I had never bothered to read them all, I cared so little. It just took me several minutes of googling to even remember House of Sand and Fog's title.

  16. This reminds me of a book club I was in many years ago. The assigned book was The Prince of Tides by Conroy. Some ladies came to the meeting with it clutched to their bosoms at the meaningfulness of it all. The rest of us took turns quoting the absolutely worst passages, in terms of writing, from the novel. That passage you quoted sounds to me just like Conroy Ugh! To this day I cringe when a customer asks for a Conroy book in the bookshop. And, by the way, I am a Heathcliff hater as well. Odd because Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time. I guess that's part of what keeps the Bronte girls in business!

  17. Like Pursewarden and others, I tend to feel that way about more modern novels. I slogged my way through Mrs. Dalloway (I'm starting to think you either love V. Woolf or you hate her, and I'm not falling into the 'love' camp), but I had to quit reading Same Sweet Girls by Cassandra King last month (she is the wife of Pat Conroy). I just couldn't make myself care about the very predictable story line. Unlike you, Simon, instead of trying her again, I took her other book that was on the TBR shelf and put it in the trash at the same time. I find it hard to give authors a second chance when there's so much good literature out there to read.

  18. Treasure Island, and I feel bad for saying that. But it's probably meant for 12 year-old boys.

    I would say Dan Brown, but I think that's straying more into 'dislike' than 'meh' territory... Although to be fair he can write a page-turner - just one that you end up not caring about.

    I also felt similarly about the Time Traveller's Wife and The Kite Runner - I enjoyed both of these books above average, but not as much as I'd expected to - and I think it's cos the main characters were annoying and lost my sympathy.

  19. So sorry to hear you didn't like this one, Simon. Thanks for linking to my review.

    Jennifer Johnston comes from a theatrical family -- her father was a playwright and her mother an actor -- and those influences carry through into her novels. Stylistically, she moves most of her stories forward by dialogue, which would explain the (stilted) piece of conversation you quote in your post. I actually think she's a master of the technique, but I can understand why she might not be everyone's cup of tea.

    She's also written quite a few plays and had her novels turned into films, too.

  20. Screams of outrage no doubt when I write this. I love the Brontes but would rather have needles stuck in my eyes than read Wuthering Heights again.

    At the urging of many friends, but very much against my inclination, I read the first Stig Larsson book. I loathed every single minute of it and, for the first time in my blogging life, wrote a stinging review and was very pleased to receive lots of comments from relieved readers who felt the same way I do. Not only was it badly written, but seemed to me for somebody who was so against violence toward women, the author seemed to be thoroughly enjoying writing about it. I thought it was a VILE book.

    Phew, sorry for letting off steam


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