Friday, 12 February 2016

James and the Giant Octopus: Live and Let Die



James Bond Book 2


Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming


published 1954



Live and Let Die Duke Aquarium

 


By the time they left the restaurant it was ten-thirty and the Avenue was almost deserted. At the Savoy Ballroom they had a Scotch-and-soda, and watched the dancers. ‘Most modern dances were invented here,’ said Leiter. ‘That’s how good it is. The Lindy Hop, Truckin’, the Susie Q, the Shag. All started on that floor. Every big American band you’ve ever heard of is proud that it once played here – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson. It’s the Mecca of jazz and jive.’ They had a table near the rail round the huge floor. Bond was spellbound. He found many of the girls very beautiful. The music hammered its way into his pulse until he almost forgot what he was there for.

 
Live and Let Die Lindy hop gottlieb


‘Gets you, doesn’t it?’ said Leiter at last. ‘I could stay here all night. Better move along. We’ll miss out Small’s Paradise. Much the same as this, but not quite in the same class. Think I’ll take you to “Yeah Man”, back on Seventh. After that we must get moving to one of Mr Big’s own joints. Trouble is, they don’t open till midnight.


Live and Let Die duke ellington


commentary: This was the second James Bond book, and it is a surprisingly ridiculous but highly entertaining farrago. I said about Casino Royale that it was all somewhat Biggles, (James Bond, James Bigglesworth) and this is even more so. Am I the only person who cannot take seriously a fight with a giant octopus? This is insufficient jeopardy. What next – a battle with an oversized seahorse? AND, as I well remember, in Biggles in the South Seas there is a fight with a giant Live and let Die 2octopus – my childhood copy had an excellent illo in the manner of Laocoon-and-sea-monster – this one here is the best I can find now. There is also the fact that Bond is looking for pirate treasure. Aarh, Jim lad… Seriously?
 
 
The plot is in fact about many things, but this will give you a clue:
 
 
But Bond had gone out on the veranda and was gazing up at his stars. Never before in his life had there been so much to play for. The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target. And now [Bond girl] Solitaire, the ultimate personal prize. The stars winked down their cryptic morse and he had no key to their cipher.
A tentacle! Foreshadowing of the deadly battle to come. The world-around-us metaphors had broken out earlier too:
In front of his eyes, the rain came down in swift, slanting strokes – italic script across the unopened black cover that hid the secret hours that lay ahead.
Bond gets a clue not from the sky at one point – he hears of a business called Ourobouros:
‘Good name for a worm and bait factory.’ Suddenly a thought struck him. He hit the glass tabletop with the flat of his hand. ‘Felix! Of course. Ourobouros – “The Robber” – don’t you see? Mr Big’s man down here. It must be the same.’
I love the idea that you call your criminal front business after yourself (after your criminal nickname) and only a great brain like Bond’s will notice.

But I don’t love that as much as I love the killer octopus (I can’t type for laughing). Look:
It was while he was measuring the dangers ahead that the octopus got him. Round both ankles. He had been sitting with his feet on the sand and suddenly they were manacled to the base of the round toadstool of coral on which he was resting.
…round both ankles…coral toadstool… It is straight out of a film, but it’s not a Bond movie, it’s a Disney/Pixar film, with dancing and singing sealife.

But, for all that, I enjoyed it hugely, and will certainly go on to the next one.

Anyway, never mind my mean-minded opinions. The descriptions of Harlem nightlife, despite the horrible attempts at reporting conversations, are actually very interesting in their way, and give me an opportunity to use these fabulous photos. They are from the truly wonderful William P Gottlieb jazz collection: Duke Ellington is in a club called the Aquarium, which I believe was on W52nd St rather than in Harlem. The dancers are doing the Lindy Hop, but in a Washington DC club. I would use photos from this collection every week on the blog if I could.

The book is so full of content there will be another post next week, but I’ll try to say no more about the giant octopus. Giant octopus – honestly, what was he thinking?

It must be Biggles Week on the blog – he popped up in Monday’s post about libraries. 

















Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Widow by Fiona Barton: A Book for Petrona


This is the review of the book I chose to recommend for the site Petrona Remembered – created in memory of crime fiction fan Maxine Clark. The review appeared on the site yesteday.


The Widow by Fiona Barton

published 2016


 
widow petrona 3
 

Although I didn’t know Maxine Clarke, Petrona, for long, she made a big impression on me. She was kind and generous and very welcoming to a new blogger – she was part of a group of crime fiction fans who very kindly invited me in to their circle. The others are friends to this day, and so we all miss Maxine, who should still be here.

 
The Widow is a new book by first-time novelist Fiona Barton, and I am sure Maxine would have wanted to read it.

The story is apparently simple.

Glen Taylor has died in a road accident, and that is going to change things for a number of people. Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of a toddler some years back, and although he walked free, most people think he was the guilty party. The child, Bella, might be dead or alive: she has never been found. So the policeman who was in charge of the case is now on the alert for more information – perhaps the widow knows something vital? A reporter, Kate, is hoping she might get hold of the true story of the disappearance. The mother of missing Bella has never had any closure.

And, more than anyone, Glen’s widow Jean is facing a huge decisive moment in her life.



Widow Petrona 2


The book has a complex time scheme - which I did occasionally find confusing. Often a double time-frame book has a gap of, say, 20 years, but in this one the crime was only four years before, so there are fewer internal clues to where you are. The dates are clearly printed at the beginning of each section – but as they are all in the past 10 years, that’s not as helpful as it might be. But this is a minor quibble.

We go back and follow the story of Bella’s disappearance, and the police investigation, and we look at Jean and Glen’s life together. In the contemporary time frame, Kate has found her way into Jean’s house, and is trying to get information from her. Was Glen guilty, does Jean know, does she hold vital information on what happened to Bella?

The Widow is claustrophobic – there are multiple points ofwidow cover view in the narration, some of it first person from Jean, but it’s a single plot thread, no subplots. Although there aren’t going to be many surprises (how many different ways could this story be resolved? - not many), Barton does a terrific job of creating tension and atmosphere. I would have liked a little more clarity in the ending, but really it’s an excellent page-turner, and I look forward to more books from her.

It’s a dark and cheerless story with some very harsh aspects of modern life featured, and it is very sad overall, but it also contains some nice characters, and good hearts. The reporter and the policeman are both worthwhile people, trying to do their jobs.

 


I particularly liked the portrayal of Kate – the reporter who talks to the widows and partners and mothers. She might seem hard and ruthless and callous at times, but Barton also shows that she does have principles, and she does actually help the people she talks to. I have never done Kate’s exact job, but as a reporter I have often talked to people – in circumstances where others might assume the worst – and been told by my interviewee that it helped to talk, that they really wanted to tell the story. And it is true, as in this book, you sometimes stay in touch with people you meet on a story – the assumption that the interviewee hates the reporter afterwards is far from accurate. (One woman used to ring me late at night when I was doing night shifts to talk about the tragedy in her family, and would say ‘you are the only person who will listen to me, everyone else tells me I should be moving on.’)

Fiona Barton did do the same job as Kate for many years – but you would know that without even checking her author bio, as the details are so authentic. She says she was fascinated by those wives who stood by their man, a man accused of a terrible crime. Did they know, did they suspect, did they trust? What were they really thinking? This book is an excellent attempt to get inside the head of one of those women. I think Maxine would have enjoyed it very much.

The pictures are all portraits of widows from the Athenaeum website.

The top one (by Alfred Emile Leopold Stevens) is crumpled on the sofa just like Jean – she’s even got the bunch of flowers Kate brought to soften her up.

The second one, by Ivan Ksenofontov, is having her moment of decision, you would say.

The third portrait,  a 17th century widow by Mary Beale, has a very enigmatic and serious look about her and perhaps, like Jean in the book though more than 300 years earlier, knows more than she’s saying.





















Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Book for Petrona: The Widow by Fiona Barton




Petrona Remembered is a website run by my friends Margot Kinberg (of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist) and Bill Selnes (Mysteries and More) in memory of the sadly-missed Maxine Clarke, who was Petrona.

Those of us who remember and miss her like to post book reviews and discussions that we think she would have enjoyed, in the hope that other readers will find useful book recommendations.


widow cover


So today on the site you can find my review of

The Widow
by
Fiona Barton

-- which has just been published.










I will publish the review on this site this week, but for now would encourage all readers to go over to

PETRONA REMEMBERED



where they can read about the book, but also find out a bit more about Petrona, and the site. And find some recommendations for other great books.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Dorothy L Sayers and THAT romance



The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a newSayers author to write about each month – and the finger has pointed at Dorothy L Sayers for February. We’ll all be producing pieces about her and her books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece. 

Helen Szamuely is collecting the links this month -
her blog is here.

Last week’s links are here.

Previously I wrote about the first four Wimsey books.  In the fifth book, there was an important new arrival…



 
 
Harriet Vane
 

Nothing divides Sayers fans like the romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet D Vane. (Well, Gaudy Night does – see Kate Jackson’s splendid defence, part of last week’s TNC – but that’s part of the whole deal).

Lord Peter and the reader first meet Harriet in the 1930 book Strong Poison, when she stands in the dock accused of murdering her lover, and with every chance of being found guilty and being hanged. Lord Peter decides she is the woman for him, and is ‘much taken aback’ when he finds out that many people have proposed to her since her arrest: ‘that makes 47’ she tells him. The jury fails to agree, a retrial is ordered, and Wimsey has a month to find the evidence to save her. I really don’t feel it’s a spoiler to say that he succeeds. But she won’t marry him – she has been miserable in love leading up to the murder, it has quite put her off, and she resents the gratitude she must feel for Wimsey.

She next appears in the 1932 Have His Carcase (‘yes yes’ you are all saying, ‘we know, you keep telling us, first book ever on the CiB blog’), where she comes across a corpse and then proceeds to investigate and solve the murder with help from Wimsey. I have described it thus:


Nobody's favourite Sayers book, but  the seaside resort is done very nicely, and Harriet, who is always a bracing if sometimes annoying treat, features a lot. (Yes of course a treat can be annoying, before you ask.)


 
Harriet clothes


And I have also claimed that the cipher chapter is jaw-droppingly dull (others disagree). Even Sayers seems unsure about the book – in the later Gaudy Night Harriet asks Peter, referring to the incidents in this book:
‘Do you remember that horrible time at Wilvercombe when we could find nothing to throw at one another but cheap wit and spiteful remarks? At least, I was spiteful: you never were.’
‘It was the watering-place atmosphere,’ said Wimsey. ‘One is always vulgar at watering-places…’
But in fact the wit and spite improve the book, and the atmosphere of a 1930s walking tour, and then the resort and the smart hotel, are beautifully done.

After this Harriet Vane is kept in the background for the next two books, then reappears in the divisive Gaudy Night (great blog favourite, all over the place). At the end of this book (again, hardly a spoiler) Harriet finally agrees to marry Lord Peter. The final full-length Wimsey book, Busman’s Honeymoon, starts with their wedding.


 
Harriet and Peter


I see the romance as being an important and intrinsic part of the series of books, and wouldn’t be without it. But, it is still at times excruciating.

In Strong Poison, Wimsey imagines his potential married life:
‘one wouldn’t be dull – one would wake up and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in – and then one would come home and go to bed – that would be jolly, too - ’
I don’t know about you, but I find that just plain embarrassing. It would make Lord Peter completely hideous, except that it is totally unconvincing as a set of thoughts going through any real head ever, anywhere.

And then, by the end of Busman’s Honeymoon – 1937, seven years later in real life, six years later in Wimsey world  – Harriet and Peter are discussing capital punishment. They know that there was a very real danger that Harriet might have been hanged, and Lord Peter says:
‘If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived through it in the same knowledge. Death would have been nothing, though you were little to me then compared with what you are now…’
I have never see anyone else mention this, but I read that as meaning he was going to commit suicide if she was hanged. That is utterly bizarre. And, yes, excruciating. Completely unbelievable. But in a strangely different way from the previous quotation – it is hard to see them as coming from the same character. (In addition, Sayers had very strong religious views which you would expect would militate against suicide.)

I love the first section of Busman’s Honeymoon, and before now have recommended it to anyone who wants to read about the social customs and etiquette of certain sections of British life at the time (yes, people do ask me - I once wrote a book on etiquette). And the Dowager Duchess always brightens things up when she appears (see Bev Hankins’ great TNC piece on this character here). In an early blogpost on the book I put it this way:
There seems a lot of wish fulfilment in Sayers’ description of the wedding of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. For a sophisticated Bohemian with academic pretensions, she certainly had an eye for a lord, a fairy-tale wedding, and – above all – a wonderful man who sees the inner glory of a plain poor girl. A man who could have anyone, but chooses an older lady with whom he can have an intellectual conversation. Even though DLS is at slightly embarrassing pains to point out that both Peter and Harriet are very sexy. And even though Lord Peter does not seem that wonderful to anyone else over the age of about 22. The word ‘insufferable’ comes to mind. The bride's gift to the groom, by the way, is a very valuable letter about love, hand-written by the poet John Donne.  A sister-in-law is reported as thinking  "a gold cigarette lighter  would be much more suitable", and after too much of the wedding preparations, one can start to agree with her, and long for a bit of honest flashy showing off. And what does the lovely bride wear in the end? Gold lame. Not so much in a position to criticize Jane Eyre.

All this is, of course, without prejudice to Clothes in Books great love for the entire oeuvre of Dorothy L Sayers.
I think that last line might be the most important...

There was a BBC series of the Wimsey/ Vane books in the 1980s, and Harriet Walter played her first-namesake to perfection: I can never imagine any other actress in the role. And Edward Petherbridge was excellent as Lord Peter. The adaptations look very much of their time, and very clunky occasionally, but they aren’t bad. The photos are from the production.

The page of clothes for Harriet is from the infamous J Peterman catalogue (much featured in Seinfeld) of the 1990s. How curious and intriguing. I haven’t been able to find out more about this particular line of clothing…

























Monday, 8 February 2016

National Libraries Day: A List



Liverpool-Library-Walkway-3
The book-titles walkway into Liverpool’s Central Library



As so often at Clothes in Books, author and blogfriend Lissa Evans is to blame for this post (see for example the entries on this and this, apart from her own books). While recommending one Margery Sharp book to me, she mentioned another:


Lissa tweet




Well, first of all I had to immediately order the first-mentioned Sharp book (The Innocents) and then Lost Chapel Picnics….

… both have arrived, and I will just say, Lost Chapel is a book of short stories, and contains one called The Girl in the Leopardskin Pants. I hope you are all as excited as I am at the thought of that future blogpost and picture.

 
something light black dress hat


- we already managed this picture for one of her books.
 
Anyway, I tweeted back to her:


--- it was something I’d forgotten about: reading the same book. Haunting the library. Knowing what was on the shelves. Lissa and I can’t be the only two?

It was a feature of our years – 1960s, 70s, 80s. It’s different nowadays – if my children had had favourite books they borrowed over and over I would have bought them their own copies. My own (very reading-focused) parents wouldn’t have known what I was reading.

Lissa and I swapped some titles from our memories: hers were
'The Devastating Boys', Elizabeth Taylor (was big on short stories), 'The Siege' Clara Claibourne Park, the Sharps already mentioned, Phyllis Bentley short stories, Somerset Maugham.
It was 


                                      on Saturday, so in honour of that, and the importance of libraries now, then, and always, I have made a list of my favourites of the books I discovered, and multiply-borrowed, in my local library in Liverpool many years ago. And would like to say a heartfelt and belated thank you to the Liverpool City Library service, who provided me with homes from home. I haunted them, having (possibly illicitly) joined several different branches to get a better choice of books.

I would also like to mention the awesome poet Ian McMillan. He has (at least) two great poems about libraries. The New Library, April 1964 is about a little boy going on a school trip, and I love it because he is ‘hoping for Biggles, praying for Biggles’ – and I recognize so well the idea that on your way to the library you are obsessing about what you might find there. (And see also the blog’s James Bond as Biggles meme).

The other, Adult Fiction, is the best poem about libraries I have ever read, and the only one that comes close to expressing how I felt about my local, and the importance of the endless time I spent there.
The light outside would be the colour
Of an Everyman cover and the lights in the library
Would be soft as anything, and I’d sit at a table
And flick through a book and fall in love
With the turning of the leaves, the turning of the leaves.



I don’t think the full poem is available online: I have it in a book called Talking Myself Home.

And here is a prose description of a university library, from J Robert Lennon’s wonderful book Happyland:
She had always liked turning on the lights in the library— the sensation of illuminating, from the bank of switches in the foyer, an entire vast building with the gentlest swipe of her fingers. She imagined what it must look like outside, the library flickering to life. She contemplated the collected wisdom of human history, packed onto the millions of pages that burdened the sagging stacks, worthless in the dark: and then suddenly, with the crackling dawn of daylight-corrected light, taking on its glorious burden of meaning.


And now, 

these are the books I borrowed over and over, some of them wilfully, bizarrely obscure, and some not. Because of the joys of the Internet, I now have my very own copies of most of these books:

1) Beloved vagabond by WJ Locke (1906) I only have to pick this one up to be transported back to my teens, when this seemed the most romantic and exciting and Bohemian book ever. There are two blogposts so you can read all about it.

 
Beloved Vagabond


2) Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901) I think the idea of the clever child spy was enchanting, along with the picture of India.


3) The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1915) Again, I loved a story about children who are given adult jobs to do, who set off to change the world. And I did like Ruritanian romance – Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope was another library favourite.
 
Lost Prince 1915


4) The complete works of Antonia Forest – a collection of school stories, family adventures and historical novels that exercise a strange hold on those who loved them as teens. As well as anything else – I realized recently that her End of Term is dedicated to the wonderful lost author and new blog favourite GB Stern (discovered by me over the past year via Hilary McKay). Apparently Forest and Stern were great penpals. (And her Shakespearean books have a thank you to Marjorie Barber, who I think my be the same person of that name who was such a friend of Dorothy L Sayers.)

5) Gone to the Pictures by Hilda Lewis (1946) It took me years to track this one down again in adulthood, because I was convinced (and I think may have told Lissa) that it was by Hilda Irving and called Penny Plain or Penny Pictures or some combo of those words. It is a novel about the early days of cinema and movie-making in the UK, and is riveting, charming, and full of authentic-sounding details. I don’t know of any other books on this exact subject. Lewis wrote many other books – historical novels, and books for children, but this was the only one I liked.




6) The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy (1950) (Apparently also known as The King’s Mistress – that wouldn’t narrow down the subject matter) A historical novel about Jane Shore, mistress to King Edward IV. It is easy to mock Jean Plaidy, and she was no Hilary Mantel. But her historical novels were carefully researched and dealt in the facts. Of course she put words into characters’ mouths and imagined their feelings and motives, but that’s fair enough. I still think she gave me a basic grounding in history – a framework of the dates, the people – that stood me in good stead when I wanted to read more serious history books. This is not one of her better-known ones, but it was my favourite. And I’d much rather read it again than the much-praised Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, which deals with the same era.

7) The Warlock by Wilson Tucker (1967) – I have never come across the author or book anywhere else, and I have never met anyone else who has read it or heard of it. It’s a very clever Cold War spy thriller.

-------------------


Those are mine. I’m sure Lissa and I (and Ian McMillan) aren’t the only ones with this past and obsession. I’m so hoping that others will share in the comments the books that they borrowed over and over, and their memories of childhood library-visiting. 





























Sunday, 7 February 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie



published 1959

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

cat among the pigeons


Can I speak to you, Miss Bulstrode?’

Miss Bulstrode laid her pen aside and looked up into the flushed face of the matron, Miss Johnson.

‘Yes, Miss Johnson.’

‘It’s that girl Shaista—the Egyptian girl or whatever she is.’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s her—er—underclothing.’

Miss Bulstrode’s eyebrows rose in patient surprise.

‘Her—well—her bust bodice.’

‘What is wrong with her brassière?’

‘Well—it isn’t an ordinary kind—I mean it doesn’t hold her in, exactly. It—er—well it pushes her up—really quite unnecessarily.’

Miss Bulstrode bit her lip to keep back a smile, as so often when in colloquy with Miss Johnson. ‘Perhaps I’d better come and look at it,’ she said gravely.

A kind of inquest was then held with the offending contraption held up to display by Miss Johnson, whilst Shaista looked on with lively interest.

‘It’s this sort of wire and—er—boning arrangement,’ said Miss Johnson with disapprobation.

Shaista burst into animated explanation. ‘But you see my breasts they are not very big—not nearly big enough. I do not look enough like a woman. And it is very important for a girl—to show she is a woman and not a boy.’

‘Plenty of time for that. You’re only fifteen,’ said Miss Johnson.

‘Fifteen—that is a woman! And I look like a woman, do I not?’

commentary: Ah, Meadowbank School. When considering what fictional school I would most like to attend, this would be up there in the top 5 along with Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and the revered Castle Monastery School in this obscure book. The staff – with the exception, naturally, of Mademoiselle, all fictional Mademoiselles are dreadful - are rather wonderful, there is a beautiful new Games Pavilion, and the girls all seem to have their own bedrooms rather than sleeping in dormitories. The fact that there’s a dead body in the Pav is a small matter in comparison.

Cat Among the Pigeons bridged my teenage reading between the school stories I loved and the crime novels I came to love, and it’s one of my favourite Christies still after all these years. The details of school life are convincing (apparently based on Benenden, where Christie’s daughter Rosalind was a pupil) and very funny, and the plot is exotic and highly enjoyable.

This is what I said about it in my blog schools list:
A select all-girl boarding school. The games mistress is murdered, the foreign princess is abducted, the gardener is an impostor. That’s what I call a proper school. Also, contains one of my all-time favourite Christie lines, after schoolgirl Julia tells Poirot that her Aunt serves up ‘peculiar’ food, but ‘makes smashing omelettes.’
“Hercule Poirot has not lived in vain,” he said. ‘It was I who taught your Aunt Maureen to make an omelette.”
(To get the full effect you have to have read Mrs McGinty's Dead, where Aunt Maureen's cooking is a feature.)

There is an excellent section where the plot is advanced and the reader entertained by a selection of letters home from students and staff. And the final unveiling of the culprit (well, one of them) comes with one of those splendid moments of identification:
‘Mrs Upjohn will you look round this room and tell me if you see that person here now?’
‘Yes of course,; said Mrs Upjohn. ‘that’s her.’ She stretched out a pointing finger…
In case you were wondering about the outcome of the discussion above – Miss Bulstrode compares Shaista to another girl who ‘could quite well wear a liberty bodice still’. She says ‘I like my girls to use make-up discreetly and to wear clothes suitable to their stage of growth’ and then suggests a compromise, that Shaista ‘should wear your brassière when you are dressed for a party or for going to London, but not every day here. We do a good deal of sports and games here and for that your body needs to be free to move easily.’ Miss Bulstrode was very go-ahead and decisive: no wonder she was so successful.

The book has a final scene which is remarkable and touching, and features a character who has not appeared at all in the rest of the book, but who lives in the memory.






















Friday, 5 February 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff



published 2015



Fates and Furies


Outside, a thickness of night. Streetlights were lollipops of bright snow…

The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train, and the trucks arriving in the night.

Mathilde came back in the door, carrying a tray. Glorious in her silver dress, her hair platinum, in a Hitchcock twist: she’d gotten fancy since she’d been promoted six months earlier. Lotto wanted to take her into the bedroom and engage in some vigorous frustration abatement. Save me, he mouthed, but his wife wasn’t paying attention…

She turned off the chandelier so the Christmas tree with its lights and glass icicles overcame the room, and he pulled her onto his lap. “Breathe,” Lotto said softly into his wife’s hair.

 
commentary: The most talked-about book of 2015? The claim has been made for this book, but I think it’s most certainly not true in the UK, and I’m not sure in general – surely A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was more the focus of literary chitchat? (I explain here why I hated A Little Life.)

There are faint similarities between the books – one of the paras I wrote about Life absolutely stands for this one too, every word of it:
The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.
The structure of the book is clear: it tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde over more than 20 years, with looks back at their childhoods. The first half is from Lotto’s point of view, the second moves to Mathilde – and the reader is going to find out a lot of secrets, a lot of reasons why Lotto’s p.o.v. isn’t always the correct one. It is a very clever concept, and parts of it are very well done but still I thought there was a lot wrong with the book. I found the Lotto part of the story anodyne and dull, and I don’t see why anyone would keep reading except with the knowledge that everything is going to be turned upside down in the second half, the reader hopes for a clever twist. But that’s a lot of pages to wade through about how clever Lotto is, and how charming and talented and (eventually) successful.

Mathilde’s version is refreshing, coming in like a cold sharp knife through ice-cream. But it’s completely unbelievable, and much of it makes no sense. These people were presumably born in the late 1970s – Mathilde seems to be coming from the 1930s here, it all seems frightfully un-modern. The means by which she gets through college is ludicrous - completely nonsensical. I liked her character for being sharp and hard and unforgiving, but the pieces didn’t fit together. If you want to be rich, why do you then do all your own cleaning? There was an interesting subtext amid the Grimms’ fairytales, about how much work women do in a relationship, that the man could not or would not do, and cannot even appreciate. Lotto ‘had never scrubbed a toilet; he had never paid a bill. How would he write without her?’ is one of the most significant lines in the book. It’s a pity it got lost in the OTT plot.

There are moments where the writing is good and perceptive:
Oh, Lotto, Mathilde thought with loving despair. Like most deadly attractive people, he had a hollow at the center of him. What people loved most about her husband was how mellifluous their own voices sounded when they echoed back.
The second half of the book most certainly kept me reading: I did really want to know what was going to happen. But the results were disappointing.

 
SLIGHT VAGUE PLOT SPOILER

 
There’s a plot problem the book has in common with the recent Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine: If someone is involved in a dreadful financial scam, specifically a Ponzi scheme, everything is not going to be all right if the first person to find out DOESN’T tell the feds. THE MONEY HAS GONE. It’s not a vague low point, reserves a bit low, it’s a fraudulent enterprise. So the whistleblower is not to blame that there’s no money, and conversely if the whistleblower backs down that won’t resolve the crisis. The very basic economics of this seems to have eluded Mr Allen and Ms Groff.
 
END OF SPOILER

 
Also the character names are ludicrous, while the dog is perhaps the most pretentiously named pet in all fiction – it is called God. And the excerpts from Lotto’s genius plays are unreadably bad:
GO: countertenor, offstage; onstage, a puppet in water or a hologram that remains the entire opera in a glass tank
ROS: tenor, Go’s lover
CHORUS OF TWELVE: gods and tunnelers and commuters
FOUR DANCERS


-- which might be funny if it didn’t go on for pages. And: another Go – the character name I most complained about in the book Gone Girl. Fates and Furies has been compared with the Gillian Flynn bestseller – but Gone Girl at least is an honest work of crime fiction, setting out to trick the reader in a certain way. This has claims to be literary fiction, but resembles Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s infuriating because it could have been so much better.


The lady in silver with the updo is Sienna Miller at Cannes.