Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charles Todd sets another novel after WWI.

I have enjoyed other novels by this mother-son writing team and was happy to pick up this one.

The Confession

The Confession (353 pages, William Morrow, $25.99) is the latest in the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd. Rutledge is a veteran of the First World War, and he is deeply shattered by his experience in that devastating conflict.

It this novel, Rutledge, a Scotland yard investigator, finds himself exploring the seedier side of coastal life in Suffolk. A small group of local men have been adding to their meager earnings by grabbing contraband when ships go down, or maybe sometimes helping ships to founder on the rocks. When they discover a body and decide to keep the money in the pockets of the corpse, all their trouble begins.

Rutledge finds himself confronting venal behavior of various kinds, and as dispiriting as it is, people keep getting killed in this small coastal village and no one can help or even seems willing to explain why. The narrative takes Rutledge back and forth to London and back and forth in time. Events take place before, during, and after the war; and despite everything that makes the reader feel contempt for this village, there is also a vivid sense of how deeply the war changes and threatens this simple life on the coast.

I cannot say that I found this novel as engaging as some of the earlier ones in this series. The plot seemed to me pointlessly complicated, and I started to lose interest in the fairly horrible complications that Rutledge uncovers. Even worse for me is the technique of having Rutledge's war buddy, for whose death he feels responsible, pipe up and comment on Rutledge’s choices or confusions. Hamish has been a welcome presence in the past, a voice from the dead that challenges Rutledge and reminds him what his priorities should be. But in this novel, Hamish wears a bit thin. Rather than have Rutledge think about an issue, the writers have Hamish criticize him and then have Rutledge react to what the dead Hamish says. I got to think that there might be a more supple way to deal with Rutledge’s fears and aspirations.

Other characters are decently drawn, especially the local men who are trying to block Rutledge’s investigations and the other poor people of the village who are scraping together their meager livings.

As for the plot itself, I felt that this time the forward motion got a bit lost in the details of development. The writers have a complicated story to tell, and I am not sure that they make the right choices to render it as powerful as it might be.

If this novel was a bit disappointing for me, that does not mean that I will give up on the Charles Todd writing team. They do a great job in invoking a complicated period of England’s past; and when they are on, all the details come together beautifully. I’ll keep hoping that their next novel is up to the high standard they have already set for themselves.

Charles Todd

The Confession is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ed White writes a novel about male friendship.

I run hot and cold about Ed White’s novels. I like several of them, but others leave me cold. I picked up this novel with some trepidation, but in the end I am glad that I did.

Jack Holmes & His Friend

Jack Holmes & His Friend (392 pages, Bloomsbury, $26) is a different kind of novel for Ed White. Long known as the premier gay novelist, something of a spokesman for the AIDS generation, White has this time written a powerful novel that is as much about the straight character as it is about the gay one.

Jack Holmes is a handsome and prodigiously endowed gay man who reluctantly came out in his early twenties and tried to come to terms with being a gay man before Stonewall and gay liberation made coming out almost mandatory. More comfortable being closeted at work, while pursuing a gay life in the bars of Greenwich village, he surprises himself by falling in love with the straight friend of a friend who comes to work with him in the editorial offices where he is employed.

Will is handsome, but vague. And he is about as straight as a man could be. He is embarrassed by Jack’s love, which a mutual friend had to explain to him, and he found that their friendship was making him nervous. Then he married a dear friend of Jack’s, and he and his wife moved into the suburbs, and Jack is left to nurse his crush in his lonely Manhattan apartment.

The second part of the novel shifts from Jack’s point of view to Will’s, and we start to see all these experiences from the perspective of the straight man. There is nothing wrong in this, of course. Indeed, most fiction is written from this perspective. But not most of White’s fiction, and I have to say I think this part of the novel was impressive. Just as Will is getting bored in his marriage and cheating on his “perfect” wife, with a female friend of Jack’s, as it happens, White narrates his anxieties and his desires vividly and with conviction.

Throughout the novel White narrates sex and bodily responses, and he does, or tires to do, everything for straight sex that he did for gay sex in the first part. The characters are always telling sexual secrets on each other, and this makes good fun, especially when Will feels his life is closing in on him.

The third part of the novel goes back to Jack’s perspective, and as he takes up with one boy after another, and even allows one to move in with him, he still finds he is carrying a torch for his hopelessly straight friend Will. This is probably the most touching section of the novel because we see Jack confronting the reality of their different lives. As this section ends, Will has contracted venereal disease, at an orgy as it turns out; but while at the doctor he hears about a new gay disease called GRID, and that frightens Will and Jack both.

The last, short section, is told from Will’s perspective many years later. The two men meet again, Jack with an older partner and Will with his handsome teenage son. This final scene is very moving, and the account of this friendship starts to feel very important.

I think White has written a really wonderful novel. I can only say how good that makes me feel and how much I hope that it will be followed by more and equally powerful novels. He really is the premier gay novelist of his generation.

Edmund White

Jack Holmes & His Friend
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Elizabeth George leads Linley into uncharted waters.

I am a fan of Elizabeth George’s fiction, but this time she takes on almost too much.

Believing the Lie

Elizabeth George’s latest Thomas Linley mystery, Believing the Lie (624 pages, Dutton, $28.95), is set in the English Lake District in Cumbria. The director of Scotland Yard asks Linley to go up there to examine the “accidental” death of a young man who is a cousin of the Fairclough family. Ian Cresswell, who hit his head on some loose stones in the boat house one night after sculling on Lake Windermere, died instantly in the cold water of the lake. The case seems fairly clear, but Bernard Fairclough is worried that his son, Nicholas, a reformed drug addict and ne’re do well, may have something to do with it.

Linley takes his dear friend Simon St. James and Simon’s wife Deborah to help with the investigation. The team has trouble seeing anything particularly suggestive of murder, but there is a lot else to engage them once they begin to dig into the Fairclough family matters.

It happens that Ian had uncovered some questionable spending practices in the family company, and they mostly lead back to Bernard. When it turns out that Bernard has been having an affair with a former employee and indeed had something of a second life with her, his forty-three year marriage is more than a little jeopardized.

At the same time, Deborah discovers that Nicholas’s wife, a stunning Argentine woman, has been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant and has even been exploring the possibility of some kind of surrogacy. This strikes a chord with Deborah, whose own life with Simon has faltered under the impossibility of pregnancy and their inability to decide to adopt a child. As Deborah becomes obsessed with this other woman’s crisis, she finds herself at odds with Linley and St. James, who are ready to pack up and call it a day.

Meanwhile, Barbara Havers, Linley's trusted assistant, is mucking her way around London trying to dig up something about the Cumbrian characters by searching the web and so on. When her trail of the Argentine woman leads into Spanish websites, she is at a loss. But her kindly neighbor helps to find a translator, even as his own life is falling to pieces. What Havers discovers throws everything in Cumbria into a different light.

While Havers is uncovering a shocking past for Nicholas’s wife, Bernard’s other children are dealing with even more shocking events. After he left his wife, Ian Cresswell had been living with an Iranian man, his lodger and lover, and his own two children from his earlier marriage. His wife didn’t seem to want anything to do with the children even after Ian’s death. The older child, Tim, who is fourteen, has gone off the rails, and this has led him into child pornography and even to seeing himself as a victim in some kind of snuff film that he tries to persuade a local porn filmmaker to create.

This feature of the novel seems almost too much for George to take on. The boy’s experience is grueling enough, but after the most horrible experiences, he seems to bounce back almost unbelievably easily. One has to wonder if George was taking this part of her plot as seriously as all that.

Still, this is a wonderful addition to Elizabeth George’s Thomas Linley series. We will probably soon see it on Masterpiece Mystery.

Elizabeth George

Believing the Lie
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides looks at the harm novels can do.

I heard a review of this novel on the PBS Newshour, and I thought that perhaps I had neglected it unfairly. It is a far better novel than early reviews had led me to believe.

The Marriage Plot

The heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (416 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Madeline Hanna is a student at Brown University when the novel opens. Set in 1982, Madeline is an English major first trying to cope with new theories that are turning English Studies upside down, or so she thinks.

As we hear about her reading and watch her trying to cope with complicated issues as she writes her papers and argues in class, we also see her complicated social life. She has a platonic relationship with a best friend, Mitchell, who sympathizes with her intellectually but also finds himself deeply physically attracted to her.

Madeline likes Mitchell fine, but she finds herself drawn to the more complex, depressive, and wildly intelligent Leonard. Leonard, handsome and large enough to overwhelm her at times, is enormously attractive to Madeline, both for himself and for the degree that Madeline might be able to save him.

In her reading for her English classes she loses herself in big and satisfying novels, and in her theory class she finally finds Barthes, after despairing at Derrida and the other theorists who leave her cold. In Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse she starts to find a diagnosis of her own condition. And although this is a satisfying discovery, it does nothing to help her when she feels that she has failed with Leonard.

Mitchell feels left out in the cold when Madeline is pursuing Leonard, and he turns to his own work in Religious Studies as something that might save him. He writes a paper that leads one of his professors to suggest Divinity School, but Mitchell has promised himself to travel after college, and that is what he does, first going to France, Italy, and Greece, and then on to India, where he works in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta.

While Mitchell does all this to try to forget Madeline, she marries Leonard and begins on a terrible downward spiral. Leonard’s mental illness becomes so pronounced that she finds it impossible to talk to him. After several hospitalizations, she wonders whether he will ever get better.

Everything comes to a head when she prepares for graduate school at Columbia—she has to find a place to live in New York and Leonard seems unable to share in this with her. At the same time, Mitchell comes back from India, and all three meet at a party of former Brown students on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Eugenides writes an eloquent and unpredictable ending for these three characters. It is definitely his own version of the marriage plot, but he doesn’t offer it until he has allowed Madeline to consider it and to make it her own.

Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.