12 August 2007

Reading: Triangle and Love and Friendship

I have been reading a lot lately, just whipping through novels as fast as you'd suck the foam off your latte. Generally it's because I'm procrastinating. Whatever. At least I'm well read for someone who gets nothing done.

Yesterday I read Alison Lurie's Love and Friendship.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I really enjoyed it. Hit the spot, somehow, all that stuff about love and how marriage works (differently than a love affair, although no one tells you that at the start). Seeing as I'm currently in the entertaining (and expensive) position of simultaneously planning a wedding while trying to divorce Husband #1, marriages, and the friendship that successful marriages seem to engender, is much on my mind. Lurie is pretty realistic in her description of how it works, and she pulls a nice balancing act off - she doesn't quite break your heart but the ending is realistic enough so you almost do.

Plus I have a soft spot for anything set in the academic world. Lurie is less kind to her academics that Robertson Davies - all his professors are true seekers of knowledge, and endowed generously with wit and compassion, as well. Lurie's academics are of course much more like real people, ambitious and sometimes petty and fond of a joke with a little light bullying and some favoritism thrown in, for good measure. I've never worked in an office that didn't have all those elements.

It's set in the fifties, and Lurie's prose is pretty matter-of-fact and has a fifties flavour, which suits the chilly New England college town of the book.

Having polished off Love and Friendship, I picked up Triangle. I've had Triangle on my bookshelf for a while.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Triangle also has an academic, the unkindest (and funniest) portrayal yet; therefore last month's Robertson Davies binge to the Lurie to Triangle was a nice procession - put all of those academics together and you might have a credible English department.

The writer Katharine Weber is a good friend of mine (so I won't even pretend to be objective), and so far I've loved all her books (The Music Lesson - her first that I read and I was astonished at how her precise prose evoked Ireland so well. She can write (and speak with) a flawless Irish accent. (She's also a gifted and inventive cook, although you'd never know it from her books.)
By the time I read The Music Lesson, I'd already met and grown to like Katharine, so I was a little, um, nervous about reading the book. Some writers can be fabulous and witty and charming online and in person and then when you read their books it's like they couldn't sustain wit and charm and the books are earnest in the wrong places and full of heavy, lumpen prose. And that's depressing, because you can't really restore your original image of the person.

But! No problems like that with The Music Lesson, and also no problems with Objects In Mirrors Are Closer Than They Appear, which was actually her first novel and reveals her penchant for clever wordplay. Not too clever, though - it never bogs down the story, which goes lickety split like all of her books do.

I liked The Little Women, too (although I don't think all the critics did.) I'll say that it was good that I'd already read two of her other books and trusted her, as an author: I found the beginning sections very clumsily written ... which was on purpose, since the narrator Jo is learning how to write as she goes, and gets much better as the book goes on, aided by the editorial comments from her sisters in the margins of Jo's narrative of their shared history. But I suppose if you didn't already know Katharine as a writer, or if you didn't read far enough in, it could be off-putting. It also helped that as a child, my sisters and I all read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women numerous times, so I was very familiar with the incidents in Alcott's Little Women which inspired Katharine's The Little Women. Technically I thought the novel was the best thing she'd done so far - the sustained trick of Jo's writing improving plus the extra-textual marginalia with the aforementioned good plotting.

But Triangle, I think, blew them all out of the water for skill and depth. It is about the Triangle ShirtWaist Factory Fire, and opens with a harrowing fire scene. The fire story is later on rewoven and resewn until the fabric of memories and stories seems to present quite a different garment than the orginal stories. It's also about marriage, a little bit, and there's a mystery that the reader (in possession of more information than the characters) guesses about 1/3 of the way through, but it doesn't matter because the characters piece things together differently than the reader and the joy of the story is watching them do it. It sounds like a ghastly topic and it was really quite difficult for me to read, the most moving of her books to date (for me). As a result, I put off reading it for about a year, because in general I don't like reading hard books. I get all caught up in the story and then, you know, I get bummed out. Only Anna Karenina does not make me feel this way, because by the time she goes under the train you are more than ready to say goodbye to Anna. Anyway. So it was the hardest book yet, for me - but all that emotional sad stuff is mixed in with humour and such smartness and terrific character voices and the quick plotting - and it's not actually a depressing read, just moving - which is tough for me. And apparently most of the time when I read, it's to escape to someplace a little more bland. (I don't know what that says about me. Parse it as you will.) And the book is also about September 11th, a little, and that strand is really perfectly woven it, almost so you don't notice. Even the book's cover, with one side of the shirt dark and burnt-looking and the other perfect, it's like the columns of smoke rising up from where the twin towers had been. [I realise on a re-read that this isn't particularly coherent, I don't think I've quite digested the book - you might want to check out the links at the bottom of the post for better synopses and a better idea of what the book is actually about.

There's lots of stuff about Triangle, if you're interested. It's on the shortlist for the the Connecticut Book Awards (I'm not totally sure that's the right website, I can't seem to find an official one). Anyway, Katharine has been active in the blogosphere talking about the book, and any of these links will probably give you a better idea of the book (plus most of 'em have excerpts up) than I can.

The Page 99 Test, which is apparently based on a quotation from Ford Maddox Ford (keep meaning to read him, never have), "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you". First you've got Katharine's analysis of page 99 as it fits into the rest of the book, then you've got the actual text of the page. It's a fun game, especially if you've read the book and remember that page.

There is also an interview in the LitBlog CoOp - apparently August 13 - 17 is Triangle Week at the LitBlog. And another interview about the book at the amusingly named Conversations With Famous Writers. I love reading about other people's writing process.

All afternoon after I finished the book, I couldn't quite shake it - I tried reading back issues of the New Yorker as a palate cleanser and still by the time Dave and I went for our walk, the characters from the book had stubbornly refused to leave my head and I kept thinking about them, about their lives and their choices, as if they were someone I'd met at a party and talked to for a while. That doesn't happen particularly often, but it's usually a sign of a book I'll keep thinking about for a long time after I've finished it.


Katharine Weber said...

Cara, thank you so much for this really thoughtful reading and all the related enthusiasm.

seppaku said...

Wow, a reader! Don't you know you're almost extinct?

From today's CNN.com:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday.

The survey reveals a nation whose book readers, on the whole, can hardly be called ravenous. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year -- half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.


The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre -- including politics, poetry and classical literature -- were named by fewer than five percent of readers.


Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.


There was even some political variety evident, with Democrats and liberals typically reading slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives.