torsdag 11 augusti 2016

In vain pursuit of a little light reading

There's no such thing as a foolproof enjoyable read, is there? Not even rereads are quite safe, as there's always the risk that you won't like a novel so much as the previous time/s you read it. My system of "safe bet" authors - if I've enjoyed more than one novel from an author, then I assume I'm going to enjoy all of them - has let me down twice recently, and just as I was going back to work and needed a pick-me-up, too.

True, Dawn French doesn't quite have the official safe-bet status, as I'd only read one of her novels - A Tiny Bit Marvellous - when I started on her latest, According to Yes. But I really liked ATBM, plus I've found much of the French and Saunders material hilarious, so I thought I could reasonably expect great entertainment from According to Yes. And yet the chapters went by without raising so much as a giggle. As I realised, about two thirds through, that the book wasn't going to get any funnier, and as I still hadn't warmed to the heroine Rosie - which it is sort of the point of the story - I gave up on it, after checking that one of the more criticised characters would be all right. He was. They all were. You can't accuse According to Yes for skimping on the feelgood factor, but the feeling good is very much on the heroine's terms. She, a chaotic English nanny, is going to "save" an Upper East Side clan from their humdrum lives and teach them to have fun. Her wit and wisdom are never challenged as one family member after the other are bowled over by her carefree ways. I never thought I could have much in common with an elegant Upper East Side matriarch, but my sympathies were more and more with Glenn, the family's grandmother and the most Rosie-resistent of the characters, especially in passages which were supposedly told from her perspective but which were really criticisms of her (the novel is told in the third person). What do you call those kind of passages - "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head narration"? Does narratology have a good term for it? Anyway, Glenn is going to give in to the reign of Rosie eventually - of course she is - but this isn't my idea of fun.

The second disappointment was Pompeii by Robert Harris. As I've mentioned, I've read quite a lot of Harris's novels by now, and I was a sure as I could be that as long as he kept off the gloomy subject of Nazi crimes against humanity, I would find his writing enjoyable. And then, ancient Rome, which he handled so well in his Cicero books! Alas, Pompeii has so far been quite a different matter from the Cicero trilogy, but then this is an earlier work. For one thing, the author's learning isn't worn so lightly, and the hero is the priggiest I've yet come across in a Harris novel, which is saying something considering he's up against types such as Picquart in An Officer and A Spy and Xavier March (why March? That's not a German name) in Fatherland. What really surprised me, though, was the schematic depiction of the rest of the cast. A dastardly millionaire who feeds one of his slaves to his eels? His fair and innocent daughter? A consistently hostile foreman (the hero is a young engineer struggling with a failing acqueduct)? Really? Honestly, even Harris's Nazis were nuanced compared to this lot.

We even get more examples of "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head-narration" (I really must find a better term), this time with the Bad Millionaire as its subject. I was particularly annoyed about coming across this stereotype yet again (he's an ex-slave too, so not only do we have an illustration of modern society's prejudices but of Ancient Rome's prejudices as well). During my holidays, I twice came across the "let's stick it to the multi-millionaire" plot - and this in chick lit books, which aren't exactly Das Kapital. Is there no escape anywhere from the mindset which makes a virtue of resenting those who are richer than us? I'm seriously considering chucking Pompeii in, too - and I don't think I will be trying Harris's The Fear Index in a hurry.