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It always gives me a thrill to see a new book by a favourite author, especially one who takes his sweet time about producing them, so I was delighted to spot this on the shelves of Eason’s last week. I adored Eugenides’ Middlesex, a truly outstanding, original book; I still haven’t read his The Virgin Suicides, mainly because I didn’t think much of the film adaptation (which is not a very fair reason to discount the source material. It’ll be next on my list.)

Anyway, The Marriage Plot doesn’t quite reach the heights of his last novel, but it’s still a clever and satisfying read. The story centres on Madeleine, 22 and about to graduate from college, and  the men in her life – manic-depressive Leonard and good guy Mitchell. Madeleine is a lover of the Victorian novel, and the romantic plot of her own life mirrors the typical love triangles of Eliot, Austen, the Brontes. The point of view jumps around between these three characters, but no matter whose voice he’s using, Eugenides manages to draw you in to the particular Zeitgeist of America in the early 1980s – a country on the brink.

Eugenides’ writing style is similar to that of Jonathan Franzen, whose last novel I really enjoyed; the books are big, engrossing, and filled with the sort of people you can thoroughly believe in, even if they’re not always completely likable. Recommended.

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After an embarrassingly long hiatus, some more reviews. I’ve been reading some great books over the past while. To wit…

I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller, and her effortless prose, and The Senator’s Wife is my favourite of her books to date. Set in an East Coast college town, it is the story of Meri and her husband Nate, newlyweds who move into an old town house and are delighted to find that their neighbours are a much-revered ex-Senator and his wife, the elegant and charming Delia. Meri and Delia soon become friends, although her husband’s absence remains unexplained for some time, much to Nate’s disappointment. It eventually transpires – through some dubious snooping on Mari’s part – that Tom and Delia’s marriage has been a stormy one, and their current relationship is far from conventional. A sudden illness throws them together as man and wife once more, and Meri – whose own sense of identity has veered off course following an unplanned pregnancy – becomes the somewhat-willing catalyst in a final, irrevocable betrayal.

Much of the appeal of this book (besides a low-key domestic plot that will nevertheless keep you gripped) is the evocation of place, and particularly the houses themselves; their hardwood floors, their homey kitchens and bay windows become the cosy settings for troubling stories of love and loss.

Ultimately, it is a story about marriage, or rather two marriages: an old marriage which has seen the best and worst of two people, and a new marriage which is imperfect but manages to endure, to mature and sweeten, as the best ones do.

I always feel a bit guilty before I post a negative review (as if world-famous authors spend their nights off searching the blogosphere for posts that tag them – yes, I know). But this book left me feeling so frustrated that I’m compelled to share. Bear with me, please.

The problem is, Lionel Shriver isn’t a terrible writer. On the contrary, she’s an astoundingly good writer. We Need To Talk About Kevin was, to borrow a phrase, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, and marked Shriver out as one of the most talented authors of her generation. Unfortunately, to this writer, both of her subsequent novels – The Post-Birthday World and So Much for That – have been huge disappointments.

The story concerns the problems of having a serious illness in twenty-first century America – a topical subject, yes, and with the potential to be both emotionally moving and thought-provoking. Where to begin? The main female character, whose illness forms the crux of the novel, is so appallingly unpleasant that it’s hard to believe anyone would ever marry her. Her husband is a sycophant who, were he a real person and not a plaster saint, would probably have abandoned her years ago. He is also saddled with the highly unfortunate last name of Knacker, a word which in this part of the world is a derogatory term for a gypsy, and is a commonplace insult; it’s like calling a middle-class character Joe White-Trash. (Now, maybe that’s not a use of the word that Shriver was familiar with, but surely a little market research would have revealed the problem? At least before publishing the book outside the USA). A subplot involving Shep’s friend Jackson and an unsuccessful cosmetic surgery borders on farce, though this may be what Shriver was aiming for – it’s difficult to tell. Finally, as someone with a background in healthcare, I found the medical detail to be technically accurate, yet somehow still unrealistic.

The book is one long, in-your-face polemic about the evils of modern American society, although it’s hard to know exactly what Shriver’s philosophy is; obviously, she feels that people shouldn’t have to pay so much money for healthcare, but what else she believes in is unclear, and she certainly doesn’t propose an alternative.

Most grating of all, sadly, is the author’s Q&A at the back of the book, where she waxes on about how funny and charming the book is. It’s an unattractive and unnecessary addition. I’ll still buy her next book, because the chance of discovering something as powerful as WNTTAK is too much to resist. But the loyal fan in me really hopes it’s an improvement on this one.

I had reservations about reading Room. I first picked it up in a bookshop, not having heard any of the hype, and when I realised the subject matter I was afraid it would turn out to be another example of what is now referred to as Misery Lit – those confessional memoirs of childhood horrors which can be enjoyable in a guilty way, but always leave you feeling a bit manipulated. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those books.

Room is an astounding book – at once tragic, touching, heart-in-your-mouth exciting and always, always believable.

Room was inspired by the Austrian Fritzl case which emerged in April 2008 – however, the inspiration is loose and the circumstances of this story are very different. It is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old boy who lives with his Ma in Room – the only one he has ever known. Jack’s life is full and satisfying – his daily routine is made up of mealtimes, PE, a limited amount of TV and the same familiar storybooks, before he is tucked into his bed in Wardrobe and waits sleepily for the arrival of their nightly visitor. Ma is his only companion and is always there. He is the most secure little boy in the world.

The reader, of course, knows that something is not right and as tiny details emerge we begin to realise the horror of what has happened to Ma, and how she and Jack have come to live in Room. Over the first half of the book Jack too comes to know something of their story, and it is this realisation which is the catalyst for their eventual escape. The remainder of the book deals with their gradual reintroduction to the world, and the tremendous difficulties this brings – for Jack, this is the real trauma of his life, which up until now has always been safe and predictable.

Room is beautifully written, with real pathos, and while I doubt I’m the only person who was moved to tears on at least one occasion, it is ultimately uplifting and full of hope. A rare treat.

It’s a very simple premise. A group of adults and children gather at a barbecue in a Melbourne suburb. They are young to middle-aged, mostly middle-class, multi-racial. One of the children persistently misbehaves, and in exasperation a man – unrelated to the child – slaps him. And that’s it.

Except it’s not, and the slap of the title is really only a jumping-off point from which to explore a bevy of ethnic, sexual and generational tensions between various members of the group. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, some only peripherally related to the central event. There’s Hector, at whose home the incident takes place; his cousin Harry, the child-assailant (or the only one willing to impart some good old-fashioned discipline, depending on your point of view); Connie, Aisha’s teenage assistant and the object of Hector’s fantasies; her friend Richie, seventeen, gay and ready to embrace the world… almost. Some of these characters aren’t particularly likeable, but they always feel real. There are occasions when Rosie (Hugo’s new-age mother, still breastfeeding-on-demand her pre-school son) veers close to caricature, but even she has  a depth that gradually unfolds as her own story is told.

In terms of the rights and wrongs of the slap itself, it’s left up to the reader to decide. Three-year-old Hugo is inarguably a brat, and is crying out for discipline of some kind. But is Harry, to whom physical violence seems to come very easily, the right person to administer it? Thought-provoking and engaging, this one is definitely worth a read.

Ah, they just don’t make epistolary novels like they used to. So I had to go all the way back to 1970 for this one.

But then, of course, this isn’t a novel at all, but rather a collection of the actual correspondence between the author, a struggling writer in New York, and Frank Doel, chief buyer for an antiquarian bookshop in central London. Hanff and Doel corresponded for over twenty years, beginning their relationship by chance in 1949 when Helene spotted an ad for the company in a literary magazine and wrote requesting some books she couldn’t get her hands on at home. Doel replied, and so it began. Helene felt sorry for Frank and his colleagues dealing with the privations of post-war Britain, and sent regular food parcels; Frank hunted down ever-more-obscure literary delights to send westwards.

I’m actually a huge fan of the epistolary story (and, contrary to my opening statement, they do still appear from time to time – the excellent The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a recent example). Helene comes across as a far from conventional woman, a television writer at a time when there could not have been many women breaking into this industry. And her informal, at times melodramatic style draws you in immediately; in contrast, you can practically see Frank unstiffen and reveal his true warm nature over the course of the book. And the relationship (which remains a platonic friendship throughout) involves more than just these two – in time, the rest of the staff of Marks & Co., as well as Frank’s wife and daughter, come to know and love Helene.

My edition also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which chronicles Helene’s subsequent trip to London on the back of the success of the first book. It’s a treat. Enjoy.

First things first – there are no lesbians in The Little Stranger. I’m not sure why this should be noteworthy, but the other reviews of the book I’ve read mention this, so I didn’t want to be left out.  To date, most (if not all?) of Waters’ previous novels have featured lesbian characters, so I suppose established fans might be expecting more of the same. But worry not, it’s still a great read. Just don’t go looking for any girl-on-girl action, because I warned you.

Waters is an accomplished writer, and she has produced the sort of book you stay awake to read long after you should be asleep. The narrator of the story is an English country doctor with working-class roots, who becomes involved in the lives of the newly-impoverished Ayres family in their crumbling mansion, Hundreds Hall. There are sinister goings-on at the Hall, which Dr. Faraday seeks to investigate, while at the same time he becomes romantically attracted to the clever and aloof Caroline Ayres. It’s part ghost story, part social commentary about the class upheavals of post-war Britain, but mostly just a good old-fashioned mystery that is guaranteed to give you chills. For me, it also falls into the unsettling category of the ‘unreliable narrator’ story, although the resolution is ambiguous and I’d accept argument on this.

It’s wonderful to discover a writer who’s this good at what she does. Waters writes with supreme confidence, and it feels like the story just flowed out as one complete work. Highly recommended.