Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Instructions to Self for Blogging About O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

1. Begin by stating that Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave is a fairly conventional novel about a family.

2. Mention that the novel begins when Robert, husband of the slightly dotty Gretta and father of three adult children, leaves his London home in the morning and doesn’t return.

3. Note O’Farrell’s method for revealing characters’ secrets to the reader first, then to other characters. O’Farrell manages to make the family secret theme work better than most authors, perhaps because her characters aren’t particularly perfect or appealing people. And (of course) not everybody gets along. Be sure not to reveal their secrets to blog readers even if that makes the post bland.

4. Get over the fact that O’Farrell uses the present tense, which isn’t your favorite… it works well here, giving a feeling of immediacy, even intimacy.

5. Accept that, though there are some wonderful references to nasty aspects of a heatwave in the novel (e.g. that seeming plague of aphids) the heatwave motif will cool. Accept that, even if you are disappointed because you were hoping for a thread of heat-related strangeness. Inform everyone that the book is set during a real-life heatwave in 1976.

6. Feel the pain of Gretta and Robert’s adult children—Aoife, Monica, and Michael Francis—as they travel together with Gretta to find Robert. Find humor, though, in some of their interactions as old conflicts and affections (re)surface.

7. Forgive yourself for not understanding why the novel generally worked pretty well for you even though it was a bit slow at the beginning and didn’t feel especially unusual or outstanding. Decide that the appeal probably has to do with O’Farrell’s characterizations, which are sentimental but not goopy and present intersecting sketches of characters—people—with real problems. Remind readers that you love books about unpleasant characters who err. Appreciate that O’Farrell has a light touch with these people, making them very human but not letting them off too easy, either.

8. Thank publisher Alfred A. Knopf very much for sending a review copy! And state that the book will go on sale June 18, 2013.

9. Mention current reading of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another book set in England, a likely subject for a post after returning from a long week in England itself…

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Levy’s Cruel Swim Home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, a 2012 Man Booker Prize finalist, is the sort of book I enjoy: two not-especially-happy couples on vacation/holiday in the south of France have their vacation disrupted by a not-so-happy young woman whom they find swimming, naked, in the pool. I certainly wouldn’t recommend Swimming Home to those legions of readers who seem predisposed to seek out fiction with positive, happy characters and outcomes… but I seem to have a taste for Levy’s relentless dark humor and characterizations.

The gist of Swimming Home is that the nude swimmer, Kitty Finch, a would-be poet and botanist, busts in on what’s supposed to be a holiday near Nice (hmm…) for Joe and Isabel (he’s poet and she’s a journalist who covers “countless massacres and conflicts”) and Laura and Mitchell (London-based purveyors of “primitive Persian, Turkish and Hindu weapons. And expensive African jewellery.”). Rounding out the ensemble are Nina (Joe and Isabel’s profane and menarcheal daughter), Jurgen (caretaker), Madeleine Sheridan (elderly neighbor), and Claude (nearby cafĂ© guy). Other factors: depression, weaponry, family dynamics, and desire, something that seems so obvious I probably would have forgotten to mention it if I hadn’t reread Tom McCarthy’s brief introduction to the book.

Still, it’s not plot that makes Levy’s writing so appealing to me. It’s her stylistics and the diabolical things she asks her characters to say, think, and do. When I randomly opened the book just now, for example, on the left side I found Kitty, in the company of young Nina, giving Madeleine Sheridan the finger after doing a “spooky” thing that involves leaning backward and shaking her head and hair very fast. Then there’s the line “Kitty Finch was mental.” A new chapter, entitled “Medical Help from Odessa,” begins on the right side. Here’s the chapter’s first paragraph:
Madeleine Sheridan was trying to pay for a scoop of caramelised nuts she had bought from the Mexican vendor on the esplanade. The smell of burnt sugar made her greedy for the nuts that would at last, she hoped, choke her to death. Her nails were crumbling, her bones weakening, her hair thinning, her waist gone for ever. She had turned into a toad in old age and if anyone dared to kiss her she would not turn back into a princess because she had never been a princess in the first place.
Swimming Home is filled with wonderfully nightmarish scenes like these… it’s particularly fitting that its final paragraphs invoke wishes for sweet dreams.

Up Next: Maybe Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, another darkly humorous book…