tisdag 12 februari 2013

Tried and tested book plots - lords and students

All right, enough with the livery-ogling already. It's high time for some book blogging. The trouble is, I have yet to come across this year's first great read. I've devoted much of my reading time on two huge books which are entertaining enough, but which have proved strangely blog-resistant.

The problem with the first, Tana French's The Likeness, may be the genre itself, the psychological thriller. I still can't make up my mind whether this genre is something for me or not, but I'm starting to suspect not. I like being thrilled and I like characters being given the psychological treatment (as long as it's not too Freudian). I'm also sadist enough to mildly enjoy watching characters falling apart and cracks beginning to show in relationships - which is much of what the psychological thriller is all about. But only up to a point. At the end of the day, I crave the tidy resolution and the happy or at least acceptable ending of the conventional whodunnit. In a psychological thriller, there are no guarantees that the story will end happily, even for the main protagonist. In fact, it's more probable that he/she will end up emotionally scarred for life, or at least for the best part of several thrillers to come. I have to face it: I'm probably just too wet for psychological thrillers. Few DVDs have made it to the second-hand shop faster than the chilling Secret Smile - even though it ended sort of all right.

I read The Likeness because I'd seen it mentioned by Swedish book bloggers as a sort of The Secret History light. Which is exactly what it is. The book's cop heroine goes undercover in order to find out who killed one of a group of close-knit student friends. The murdered girl happens to be her double, so she pretends to be the victim and to have survived the attack with a few broken ribs and selective amnesia. The unlikeliness of the premise is not really irksome: on the contrary, I almost wished for the characters themselves to accept it sooner. Girl, the victim looks like you. You'd love to hang out with her cool Eng.Lit.Phd-writing friends. What are you waiting for, just do it! Does it really have to take 160 pages to plant the heroine in the students' idyllic lair, an old Georgian house inherited by their ring-leader (the off-shoot of an old Anglo-Irish family: the story is set in Ireland)?

So, glamorous student friends forming an alliance against - or at least excluding - the rest of the world: check. Educated, show-offy banter: check. Home-made food, plenty of drink, intense studying and enjoyment of picturesque surroundings, all with your pals close by: check. Smitten protagonist who thinks it's all lovely and really, really wants to belong: check. Add to this that the student ring-leader, Daniel, clearly seems to think he is Henry the swot from The Secret History, though without being quite up to his standard, I'd say. You accepted - just - that Henry the swot was a genius, whereas Daniel is more pretentious, in a believably student-like way. On the plus side, there is nothing so gruelling as the funeral scenes in The Secret History, where the guilty group had to live through the funeral celebrations for their victim while living in the same house as his grieving family. The intrusion of the "real world", as good-looking Rafe's mean old dad tends to call it (er... that's because it is) and the falling apart of the group's academic Neverland is less brutal, too. Nevertheless, The Likeness can still be pretty bleak. In sum, if you loved The Secret History, chances are you'll like this quite a lot, but maybe find it a bit ersatz. If you thought The Secret History was OK, you'll probably find this OK as well, and perhaps even be a little relieved at the ersatz feel. But, well, P.G. Wodehouse it ain't. Plus there's no Foxy Francis.

I have no problems whatsoever with the genre of huge book number two, Claire Lorrimer's The Chatelaine. It's a lush family saga of the well-known, American-heiress-marries-uptight-English-Lord variety. There are younger sons, balls, family secrets and unfortunate love affairs galore. But somehow, it doesn't engage. It's not as well written as My Last Duchess, Daisy Goodwin's novel on the same theme, and the references to real historical personages seem forced. Nevertheless, I'm not looking a gift family saga in the mouth: there are surprisingly few of them about. It's not as easy as it seems, thinking up a suitably large family and putting epic adventure their way. Though it shouldn't be that much more difficult than shattering peoples' lives in a hundred different ways in grim thrillers.