Monthly Archives: February 2008

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Encouraged by Travels with my Aunt, which I reviewed a few days ago, I thought I would try a classic Graham Greene next.

The End of the Affair tells about an affair between a married woman and a novelist, Graham Greene’s alter ego, who is a friend of her husband. The first part of the book is told from his perspective and only a long plane ride with no other reading materials could encourage me to push through it. Fortunately, the middle part is told from the perspective of the woman and shows interesting convoluted feelings about love, long-term marriages, and religion. The last part is what happens after her death between the people who had loved her. There’s action so it’s tolerable but what happens is hard to believe (would a lover really move in with his ex-lover’s husband? I think not.)

The whole book is steeped in mid-20th century England with discussions of KBE and OBE, the English civil service, and maids and other accoutrements of upper-middle class. It’s all quite dated but perhaps romantic in its other-wordliness.

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Prague by Arthur Phillips

My copy of the book starts with 4 pages of accolades — and they worked since I bought the book. Unfortunately the adventures of a half-dozen young American “expats” in Budapest (not Prague, such a clever title) in the heady, post-communist days are very tedious. They don’t bother learning Hungarian, despise tourists (although since they expend minuscule efforts to integrate into the Hungarian ) and seem to do little more than patronize the local cafes.

The most insteresting characters are the young investment banker who cuts his ties with his New York firm and manages a buyout of a moribund Hungarian printing firm and the marines that protect the American embassy. The other ones should get a life.

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Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Research is a good thing. It tells you to write Mountain View, not Mountainview. It shows you that, walking on College Avenue from the Berkeley campus, your hero cannot buy and eat an ice cream cone — there are no ice cream shops until Rockridge, a mile away. Your hero is unlikely to hail a cab on that same avenue. No crowds outside Chez Panisse at the end of the evening. And no sales tax on the restaurant tabs in France.

Missing the details means the reader’s attention wanders away from the underwhelmingly engrossing Julian and Mia. And guilt grows, since Julian is a writer and finds it particularly difficult to have his MFA compadres harshly criticize his stories, even as they get published in the good East Coast literary magazines. I feel bad. But Matrimony needs a better researcher. I hear there are lots of students on that benighted West Coast campus that will gladly eat ice cream, or at Chez Panisse…

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I read Case Histories because I had enjoyed One Good Turn and found it satisfying but overly contrived: how can all the actors in three old, unrelated crimes appear together in Cambridge years later, neatly interlocking their lives for the private detective they hire to unravel the stories? Nevertheless, from the oversexed aging actress to the brooding detective, to the mysterious stepmom there are plenty of engaging characters, some with a dark past, to keep you wanting to know what really happened.

The most successful part of the book for me was the portrayal of fathers’ love for their daughers: how they worry about them, try to protect them from all the dangers lurking in the world (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), and what happens when love fails to appear. A good read, not a great one.

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Last night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

What a delight! Last Night at the Lobster has modest ambitions — to tell the last day of a Red Lobster restaurant, closed by decision of the headquarters — and delivers a nuanced, kind, endearing story of regular people caught in a system that has no room for kindness but where kindness is nevertheless created and shared (along with revenge, selfishness, and bad manners; this is not a Jan Karon novel!)

The story is told from the point of view of the manager who takes the closure as a personal failure to protect his team but will to the end follow company procedures. There’s an assortment of waitresses, from the slighlty unhinged to the thoroughly capable. There are the cooks, who perhaps should not be allowed to handle sharp knives during emotional moments. There’s the handicapped dish washer who wants to win the lottery. And there are the customers: the unsufferable child and his permissive mother; the demanding office party; the retired wrestling coach.

Last Night at the Lobster reminded me of the best and worst aspects of having a real job, from the good bosses to the faceless bureaucracy. Read it and leave a good tip the next time you have a good waitress, regardless of the food.

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The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber

The Music Lesson’s main character is an Irish-American art historian who falls for an IRA member who is also a distant cousin of hers and, inspired by a romantic love of Ireland (which she has never visited before the story begins) helps orchestrate a theft and at least one murder without realizing she’s been played. How can a forty-year old woman, even if unmoored by a dead daughter and a departed husband, be so naive to think that a young, gorgeous young lad could truly be attarcted to her? And how can she then be so passively accepting of the very real “troubles” she herself unleashed? I don’t know, so cannot care for her or for the book.

[I realize this is the third tepid-to-bad review in a row — and I can only hope that my luck and yours will change soon.]

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How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

How the Dead Dream starts with a boy who’s very interested and good at making money, and at manipulating others around him to get what he wants. So the boy becomes a real estate developer — although there’s no hint of how he might have learned anything about designing and building subdivisions. His girlfriend dies suddenly, his father reveals he’s gay, his mother gets Alzheimer’s, his assistant’s paraplegic daughter falls in love with him, and he flies to a low-lying island in the middle of a hurricane. That could actually work, to a point, if he did not also become a conservation fanatic, sneaking into endangered animals’ cages in the middle of the night just to be with them. Not to liberate them, mind you, or to create more awareness of their plight. No, just to be with them…

There are good bits here and there, in particular his anger over this mother’s abandonment and his overwhelming sadness after his girlfriend’s death, but they float in a sea of unbelievability. If you’re concerned about endangered species, skip the book and give money to the WWF instead.

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