Blogsam and Jetsam

Flotsam is the part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the water. Jetsam is cargo or parts of a ship that are deliberately thrown overboard, as to lighten the ship in an emergency, and that subsequently either sinks or is washed ashore. This is my personal blog version of the above. Loot freely.

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Location: The Hinterlands, Upstate NY

I'm annoyed that the world is going crazier faster than it used to be. But it's interesting to watch.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Book Review 3

You've read about one book I really hated and one I kind of disliked so I thought it was about time to review a book I genuinely liked. Not just to prove that I don't hate everything like Grumpy Smurf but also to point out why I liked it.

The book is Alison Lurie's first novel Love and Friendship published in 1962 which makes it four years older than I am.

It's an incredible first novel. Not only because the subject (love and friendship; it's right there in the title) is timeless so the book isn't a bit dated after four decades but also because the writing is so fine.

Passes the First Sentence Test with flying colors: "The day on which Emily Stockwell Turner fell out of love with her husband began much like other days." Is that a grabber or what? Conflict is introduced with the very first verb!

The imagery is vivid also. The second sentence is "As usual, Emmy lay in bed twenty minutes later than she should have done, with her son Freddy playing cars over her legs and when she finally got up it seemed as if things would never be sorted out." Paints a vividly familiar picture, doesn't it? There's a whole lot of information packed into that sentence too--not only do we know about how our protagonist starts her day but also that she has at least one child who is allowed into her bedroom not just to cuddle but for routine play. Lurie always packs a lot into her sentences; she's the mistress of "show me don't tell me." She also slips in motive at every turn: on page 13 after some backstory has been developed (primarily the fact that Emmy comes from money) we get the wonderful passage:

"She loved to eat and now that she was relatively thin she could do it with a
clear conscience. She knew she would never be fat again; Holman, [her husband]
unfortunately, was not convinced of it. Whenever he saw her bring in a dish of mashed
potatoes with butter on top, or help herself to a second piece of pie, a nervous warning
look came on his face. It was as if he saw the ghost of the fat girl he had first met."

Interesting, no?

Another excellent feature is that the characters always have their own voices.
We meet the new cleaning lady early on and her dialogue stays recognizeably her own throughout the remainder of the book. None of that everyone-sounds-the-same business for this novel. The writing is also tight, and by "tight" I mean that the gun introduced in Act 1 gets used by Act 3--or rather in this case a seemingly dull monologue about old-fashioned appliances turns out to be foreshadowing for a major plot development later in the book.

This is a book with a "second narrative line" which often doesn't work. We've all read the kind of book where each chapter is told by or about a different person none of whom we really like all that well. Not here. In this case the second story line is a series of letters from the Visiting Novelist to a friend back home and his wry commentary is delightful. For example:

"But the short-story writing course is worse and worse and worse than you predicted. I was so delighted at first to find two or three reasonably intelligent ones that I forgot what the rest were like. That hour after hour and week after week I would have to sit and talk to thirteen hopeless idiots who have already proved over and over again that they will never be able to construct a sentence let alone a story."

She was as good as Miss Snark four decades ago! Even the letters have a twist: they are introduced as "from Allen Ingram to Francis Noyes" which isn't going to necessarily make anyone's eyes perk up but the first one casually closes with "...if we appear in public together it will simply provide the local harpies with a real-life demonstration of the love that dare not speak its name." Subtle but effective. It isn't in-your-face but in the early Sixties we have a strong openly gay male voice, which is a nice touch. She also let Allen Ingram have the best simile in the entire book: while visiting family in Florida he mentions "the sea like consomme." Isn't that just grand? Anyone who's ever been in the ocean on the right kind of day knows exactly what he means.

Although it was a far cry from Stephen King's Carrie, there was a decently gritty passage early on when Emmy's husband described his fraternity's initiation rituals at a dinner party. Nice not just for shock value but also to point out that Emmy's husband has unmentioned depths. Not only do Lurie's characters all have their own voices but they're delightfully complex and all of them have both good and bad features--none of that "good wife/evil husband" broad-brushstroke nonsense. The characters are deep enough that the things they do make sense, which is what storytelling is all about.

And speaking of telling the story, Lurie deals with sex well. Meaning that she spends a lot of time on the motivating factors and the leading-up-to-it details but doesn't dwell on the actual mechanics or--praise be!-- attempt to write dialogue for the throes of the characters' passion. We all know there are certain books specifically for highly detailed sex scenes but a complicated tightly-plotted novel isn't really one of them and although it's easy to have, sex is hard to write. As Robin Williams once said, "it's an industrial film covered in fur" and nobody ever said ANYthing during sex that would be a bit profound to anyone not also in the room at the time. Alison Lurie gets around that fact by leading us far enough along that we can fill in the gaps but remembers to point out the important conflicts:

"This time Will moved in so slowly and deliberately that she had plenty of time to turn away, but instead she found herself leaning forward, helping him on; she had her tongue in his mouth first."

That's a lot more interesting than "they kissed again, she more passionately this time." The rest is like that too--"why" is every bit as important as "how" or "where." She often uses the literary equivalent of fade-to-black: the first serious sex in the book is sketched with

"The background of cold bushes and sky past his head was replaced by one of car roof. She began to breathe in gasps. Well, anyhow, we can't possibly do it now here in the car, was her last, mistaken, coherent thought."

right before cutting to another Allen Ingram letter.

The story revolves around Emmy's affair but the sideline plots are intriguing in their own right and unexpected twists keep the book from ever becoming dull. It's an excellent read because ALL the ingredients are there: fully-developed characters, tight plotting, good use of the language, close observation of what humans really do all day and a good sense of humor.

It's like really hot gossip from a close friend. I'd gush even longer and more enthusiastically but I don't want to risk giving away too much because I want you all to go find your own copies as soon as possible. If not of Love and Friendship than of her later work--The Last Resort, Foreign Affairs and Truth and Consequences are all similar dishes from the same fine kitchen. Alison Lurie is too good to miss.

Nota Bene:
Another big and special thank-you to my dear friend V--the gift of a previously-unread author with a decent body of work is treasure finer than platinum or petroleum.


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