Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Widow For One Year

John Irving is a guilty pleasure of mine. I find his writing a bit same-y and trashy but it has moments of real beauty and clarity. What he does, he does well. He crafts his writing carefully and explores some themes, such as the sudden loss of loved ones, with insight. When he exercises restraint and avoids gimmicks he can be very good.

Before I read A Widow for One Year, I saw the film based on the novel. The film is called The Door in the Floor and stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. I really enjoyed the film and was curious when I discovered it was based on only the first third of Irving's novel. Having read the novel, I now understand why the film-makers did this.

The first third of A Widow for One Year is near perfect. It tells the story of a teenage boy, Eddie, who becomes a writer's assistant to Ted Cole, a famous children's author, during a summer on Long Island in 1958. The naive boy Eddie does not realise that he is walking into a volatile situation in which the marriage between Ted and his wife Marion is breaking down. The cause of this breakdown is the uncontrollable grief that has overwhelmed Marion since the accidental death of her and Ted's two teenage boys several years earlier. The birth of another child, Ruth, has failed to help Marion return to her thoughts to the living and Ted has come to believe that she needs some kind of substitute for her boys in the form of Eddie. Eddie finds himself intoxicated by Marion and the intensity of her desire. Before long they begin a sexual relationship, one which will shape the rest of Eddie's life.

This part of the story balances tragedy and comedy beautifully so that it is incredibly moving when we hear about the death of the boys but this sadness is countered by some great slapstick comedy moments involving Ted and his many mistresses. John Irving's skill lies in this tragi-comedy.

He also writes in a very cinematic way in this section of the novel. Scenes are so vivid that it is easy to see why the makers of The Door in the Floor stuck so closely to the novel.

The book comes to a natural close at the end of this first section. If Irving had left it there, I think this would be one of his better works. Unfortunately he pushes on (and on) with the story of Ruth's adult life, a life that becomes increasingly bizarre and unrealistic. There are Dutch prostitutes and murderers, rapes and affairs, suicides and marriages, and somewhere along the way I lost any belief in the characters or the plot. The particularly ridiculous ending was the final straw. Characters such as Eddie, who had been endearing as a young man, become unlikeable and unrealistic as adults.

If only Irving had had the self-discipline to stop at the story's natural end-point. He wouldn't have had one of his famously brick-like novels, but he might have made a name for himself as a more thoughtful and restrained writer.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Moral Disorder

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I am completely in love with the writing of Margaret Atwood. Her latest work, a collection of short stories entitled Moral Disorder does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

Moral Disorder is exactly the kind of writing that I like most. That is, it is domestic and intimate in scale, dealing with complex relationships without needing to concentrate on plot resolution. The more I read, the more I value character development above other aspects of writing, and Margaret Atwood excels at creating believable, interesting characters. Once these characters are established, the stories themselves seem to flow with ease.

Moral Disorder is a collection of short stories that loosely follow a woman's life. The stories switch perspective, from first person to third person, and capture different segments of time, from early childhood to retirement age.

Each of the stories in some way seems emblematic of the period in which it takes place. In the first story 'The Bad News' a couple react in different ways to the depressing news stories of an overseas war. Although it is the first story in the collection, it is the most contemporary. The couple, Nell and Tig, are in their late middle age and the news stories are reminiscent of current events in the middle east.

After the first story, Atwood jumps back in time to Nell's childhood and the stories move roughly chronologically from there. Each story is a snapshot: preparing for the birth of her baby sister, frightening her young sister with tales of monsters, studying a poem for school and the developing relationship with Tig, who is married with children of his own when they meet. Each of the stories are quite different but quite beautiful. One of my favourites was 'My Last Duchess' a story that combines the study of Browning's poem with a depiction of high school relationships. The female protagonist struggles in vain to explain the poem to her lugheaded boyfriend, who just wants to get it 'right' for the exam. All the limitations and the unsuitability of their relationship is revealed through their conversation and we know that it won't be long before the girl, like the speaker of the poem, moves on to the next lover.

I finished Moral Disorder with a feeling of contentment. Margaret Atwood has once again written a moving and beautiful piece of work and all is right in the world.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Dullness of Mansfield Park

I finished Mansfield Park a week or two ago now, and have to say that my opinions of it did not change much after my initial post on the novel. I don't think I'm giving away too much to those who haven't read Mansfield Park yet to say that, in typical Austen fashion, things worked out in the end. The worthy, morally superior characters (Fanny Price, Edmund) were rewarded with happy marriages. The morally suspect characters (Henry Crawford, Maria Bertram) ended in ruins.

Despite the neatness of the ending I couldn't help from feeling that Fanny and Edmund would be two of the most boring people on earth to spend time with and that I would have chosen the 'cad', Henry Crawford, just because life with him would be so much more fun.

Austen excels at the novel of manners and of course she reflects the strict social codes of the society that she depicts. Usually however her heroines are charismatic as well as worthy. My favourite Austen characters have a feisty aspect to their personalities that prevents them from the interminable dullness of Fanny Price. Without a charismatic heroine such as Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Mansfield Park seems like a historical curiosity. I can enjoy the plot and be interested in the world that is depicted but I didn't feel emotionally engaged with the characters. Reading this novel has motivated me to go back and re-read those other Austen novels that I love so much.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Book Purchases

After a week on a school camp with a bunch of students, it was time for some seriously selfish activity on the weekend. So we drove to a nearby little town and combed through the second-hand bookshops. I finally found a second-hand copy of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. I've heard such good things about this book and I can't wait to read it- a good friend claims it as her favourite book ever.

I also picked up a copy of Reinaldo Arenas' autobiographical work, When Night Falls. I saw the film of this and found it interesting enough to want to read the book.

Lastly I found a cheap copy of Jake's Thing by Kingsley Amis. The plot sounds very seventies- college professor with sexual 'issues'- but I like Amis' writing so am willing to give it a go.

Now I just have to get around to writing about some of the books I've finished recently...