Great (and Not-So-Great) Expectations

Life is short and there are many books in the world, so it’s not surprising that readers take short cuts when deciding what to read next. In my case, I often make decisions based on my experience with the author. If I’ve loved an author’s previous books, I’ll probably pick up his or her next book. If I’ve disliked a book, I’m unlikely to give that particular author another try, although I can sometimes be swayed by friends’ recommendations, award short-listings or the fact that there’s nothing else that appeals to me on the library shelves.

So it was that I picked up The Other Family, by Joanna Trollope, at the library last month. I’d read an earlier book by this author (I think it might have been The Choir) and I’d disliked it intensely. I didn’t like the characters, I wasn’t interested in their smug, boring, privileged lives and I thought the plot was stupid and pointless. I didn’t even like the author’s photograph. (Why do publishers put author photographs in books, anyway? I don’t care what the author looks like!) But it was years since I’d read The Choir, and I’d subsequently seen a positive review of Joanna Trollope’s most recent novel, and I was in the library, not a bookshop, so I wouldn’t be investing anything except a little time if I took the book home with me. So I did, and you know what? I liked it.

'The Other Family' by Joanna TrollopeThe Other Family begins with the sudden death of Richie, a moderately successful musician. Chrissie, the mother of his three daughters, is bereft, especially when she discovers he’s remembered his first wife and his son in his will. Worse, Richie never actually got around to marrying Chrissie in the twenty years they were together, so she’s faced with a huge inheritance tax bill and may have to move out of the family mansion in London. I think we’re meant to sympathise with Chrissie, but she came across to me as a spoiled, self-centred idiot, and her two eldest daughters were just as bad. Luckily, there was Amy, the youngest child and still at school, but also the smartest, most compassionate person in the family. Amy is the one who reaches out to Margaret and Scott, her father’s first family, who live in the north of England. Margaret is an especially appealing character – an intelligent, strong-minded woman who managed to bring up her son and establish a successful business after Richie abandoned them. However, I have to admit my favourite character was Dawson, Margaret’s overweight cat:

“If Margaret was restless, Dawson reacted to her by being particularly inert. He would lengthen himself along the back of the sofa in the bay window of the sitting room and sink into an especially profound languor, only the miniscule movements of his little ears registering that he was aware of her fidgeting round him, endlessly going up and down the stairs, opening and shutting drawers in the kitchen, talking to herself as if she was the only living creature in the house. Only if it got past seven o’clock, and she seemed temporarily absorbed in some area of the house unrelated to his supper, would he lumber down from the cushions to the floor, and position himself somewhere that could not fail to remind her that she had forgotten to feed him. He was even prepared for her to fall over him, literally, if it served his purpose.

This particular evening, seven o’clock had come and gone – gone, it seemed to Dawson, a very long time ago. Margaret had been in the sitting room, then her bedroom, then back in the sitting room, then at her computer, but nowhere near the place where Dawson’s box of special cat mix lived, alongside the little square tins of meat that Dawson would have liked every night, but which were only opened occasionally by some arbitrary timetable quite unfathomable to him. He had placed himself in her path at least three times, to no effect, and was now deciding that the last resort had been reached, the completely forbidden resort of vigorously clawing up the new carpet at a particularly vulnerable place where the top step of the stairs met the landing.”

Yes, that’s all it takes to make me approve of a book – the addition of a charismatic cat. But there were other things to like in this novel – for example, the descriptions of Newcastle and the quays of North Shield. The depiction of grief and bereavement felt authentic to me, too, although I never managed to work up much sympathy for Chrissie. I think the concluding chapters wrapped up everything too neatly for each character (even Dawson got his tin of meat for supper), but overall, I enjoyed this book. There are some interesting interviews with the author here and here. And if you have no intention of reading The Other Family, but are curious about the plot, there’s a hilarious (and, I have to admit, accurate) Digested Read of it here.

'The Stranger's Child' by Alan HollinghurstOf course, just as I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by a book, there are times when I’m disappointed, and so it was when I read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I’d loved his previous novels, particularly The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004. And The Stranger’s Child sounded so promising. An aristocratic family with scandalous secrets! A rambling old house in the English countryside! A beautiful young poet, tragically killed in the First World War! The poet’s biographer, who has secrets of his own, struggling to unravel truth from lies! And yet, this novel dragged. There was simultaneously too much detail, and not enough useful information. There were too many unnecessary characters – what, for instance, was the point of introducing the Strange-Paget family, when they added little to the narrative and were never mentioned again after that chapter? And while some of the prose was sharp and amusing, there were too many sentences like this:

“Daphne’s second husband’s half-sister married my father’ s eldest brother.”

That was actually a relatively clear explanation of one of the complicated relationships in the novel. Mostly, the reader was left to figure all this out for herself, and I often found myself flipping back to earlier sections, muttering, “Now, what was Revel’s surname? Does that mean Jenny is his daughter? Or no, she’s too young, must be his granddaughter, except wasn’t he gay? Did he end up marrying Daphne, anyway?”

There were parts I found interesting, particularly in the first section, but I had to force myself to finish this book. (Maybe Alan Hollinghurst should have added a cat or two for my benefit.)

To end on a more positive note, I just finished reading the latest novel of one of my favourite authors of all time, and it really did live up to my extremely high expectations. I’m referring to The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which was absolutely wonderful, and highly recommended if you like her work. I will get around to writing a proper blog post about it soon.

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