I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Shameless Review

 
Some novels are born from such fantastic ideas that I often don't really need a lot of persuasion to buy them. I only need to flick through a few pages in the bookshop to make sure that there are words, commas and full stops. The idea makes me so enthusiastic that I become certain that I am in for a treat. This was the feeling I had when I saw the blurb on the back of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Having just completed the book, there are two things I am now certain about: it was a great idea, but it was far from a treat.

Here was the great idea: This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry, who met when Clare was six and Henry was 36, and were married when Clare was 22 and Henry 30. Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future.

It promised to be a new take on all the time travelling stories we have around, a new way to get excited about an impossible love story. I sat down and wanted to be blasted somewhere else. I really wanted this idea to work. The book had been recommended by a sister, a friend, a workmate. It couldn't go wrong.

There was one main thing that kept taking me off the golden path of reading pleasure. The author took the risk of writing everything in the present tense, with short, careful sentences, not unsimilar to what we find in instruction manuals. The danger here is that everything seems to be a banal list of things that happen. This works for me if it is right for the story; here it drove me crazy. The sentence constructions weren't varied enough, making the book seem lifeless.

If you asked me to recreate the writing style in this book, I would come up with something like this: I woke up. I opened the window and heard the birds. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I had a shower. I called out to my husband. He was still asleep. The alarm clock hadn't yet gone off. That's right: there were far too many sentences beginning with "I". OK, my re-creation is slightly exaggerated, but you get the idea. Plot and characters are not enough for me; I need to feast on the taste of the language.

There also seemed to be a tendency to give every action its beginning, middle and end, regardless of whether the reader really needed to go through the motions to advance their understanding of the plot or the characters. This is the writing style in which every door opened has to be shut, every cupboard opened has to result in an inventory of what is inside, every person in a scene that speaks and moves has to be described, tidied and resolved by the end of it all. I found myself flicking through many scenes. The book ran to 519 pages; with better, more audacious editing, 200 pages could've been dropped very easily.

This novel, for me, seemed to be better at the head and the tail, but the large saggy middle was crying out to be trimmed. There are moments that are powerful, but there are many moments, in the middle sections, that felt like padding, as though the author was trying to figure out where things needed to go. It's a shame; it was such a fantastic idea.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nearly everyone that I have discussed this book with, has said the same. Great plot, shame about the writing. However, it didn't put me off enough not to finish the book, and I am glad that I did.
Definitely saggy in the middle!

Anonymous said...

I had completely forgotten that it was written in first person! Anyway, I remember reading the blurb and thinking what a load of rubbish how the hell is this going to work? But then I was drawn in straight away. There's something about using present tense that pulls you into the scene and makes you feel it, maybe that is a personal preference of mine. But because each scene is a occuring in its own present tense that sense of questioning the reality of what is going on is removed to a certain extent. While Hiffenegger doesn't get into my upper echelons of 'All time fabulous writers' she had a great plot there with glimpses of great extremely moving writing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shameless,

It looks like my thoughts for this read, may have proved the exception to the rule.

Not discounting the fact that this novel stayed on the Sunday Times (UK) bestseller's list for almost the whole year in 2005 and may have ended up either being nominated or garnered for a prize on a certain book awards list organised by Britain's popular telly book club hosts, Richard & Judy. I forget the exact nature of the award now.

Yet, irregardless of any of this, I found the character Claire sketched to an acute senstivity that made her a very real person to me and also one of the more outstanding women characters who have been in love with a man, for the longest time.

It is a character I still remember and which has the power to haunt me to the present day. I found the ending spellbinding and deeply emotional. And on reaching that final page on an unexpected moment while breakfasting at a cafe, where I was almost ready to break into tears.

Somehow, it is with me that when I have captured a book's magic, I forgive every technical flaw and so that happened congenially & naturally, with
The Time Traveler's Wife

Perhaps it stays too, that I enjoyed the secrets in the cupboard. :-)

Thank you, Shameless for sharing this clever detailed review with us, that reminded me once more of how a reader may hold a deeply personal or intimate relationship with his/her books, where the spirit alone guides.

Jessica Schneider said...

Good review Shameless. I am like you with books- the mere plot is not what drives me to read, but the writing, as well as the characters.

Just to give a book to contrast, you would probably enjoy Sandor Marai's Embers, where the actual plot is mostly a discussion between two friends about a love triangle, but it's some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read. Sometimes the best books have the simplest of plots.

moontopples said...

Shameless: The plot synopsis sounds more than a little like Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist is unstuck in time and drifts between portions of his life at random.

That one's not a love story, though. People have been raving about this book for a while now, and I'd been meaning to read it, but your critique hits on the one thing that would keep me from reading. Plots are great and everything, but writing is the reason I crack a spine.

Jessica Schneider said...

I was just thinking about Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Great book and much better written, to say the least. I love Vonnegut.

Anonymous said...

Oooh that's it, Moontopples has hit it on the head. Slughterhouse Five is an absoloutely fabulous book, writing, plot and again the fantastic in the book is completely acceptable. I guess in the end TTW is a love story and on that level I think it works.

Shameless said...

Hello all,

Sorry I've been silent; I'm just back from skiing!

This is the wonderful thing about books and writing: everyone gets to have their own experience.

One of my friends tells a wonderful story about how she sobbed her heart out at the end of this book, making her husband wonder what was going on. He couldn't understand how a book could make someone cry so much.

Another friend of mine tells me she threw the book against the wall in a rage of frustration!

I was in between.

I can see how some people could find this book moving. Maybe I was too affectd by the banal writing that i didn't let myself be carried by the stream.

I enjoyed the plot for what it was though, eager to see what happened at the end. But, sadly, when I walked away there was nothing else.

In French they say: chacun voir midi à sa porte (everyone sees midday from their own door).

Shameless said...

The slopes have freozen my fingers! Voir should have come out as voit.

Shameless said...

See!?

And is it just me, or are these letters we have to verify before posting coments getting more difficult?
I never seem to get it right when I have to decipher them! I've just had my eyesight tested, so it's not that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shameless,

I could understand your friend who had a good sob at the end because I was the same.

No, it's not just you about the letters. Some are closely conjoined and I have great difficulty reading them. I often slip up. Esp. when it comes to vw, ij, & l's. :-)

Jessica Schneider said...

I kind of like 'freozen' I thought you were making a ha ha moment. The only book that's made me cry is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, at least when it comes to grown-up books. Charlotte's Web is a diff story. I sobbed for days over that as a kid.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shameless, Am not surprised you came to this conclusion about TTTW, as I said before, a great idea, but the writing just doesn't sparkle & is often flabby. See you are now reading Slow Man, will be interested to hear your thoughts, I started it before Christmas, but takes me ages to finish something, I get too distracted - you will no doubt finish before me!

Anonymous said...

I read it about two years ago and enjoyed it. I don't normally like present tense, but I thought it worked. It was a brilliant idea but I agree, it definitely got saggy in the middle and I guess I wish the end could have been different. I suppose ultimately I thought the author got a bit self indulgent.

Oh! You've been skiing - lucky beast! Where?!

Shameless said...

Susan,
Those letters are driving me to the edge! I always have to try at least three times before I get it right. I'm thinking of switching that function off, except I don't want to be inundated by robot programmes that spin publicity!

Jessica,
I remember getting all misty eyed at the end of books like The Bone People and Giovanni's Room. It normally only happens with books that I read in less than three sittings, when I'm really pulled inside the pages and get caught up in the atmosphere. Snatching reading times here and there tends to ruin that.

NMJ,
I'm really looking forward to the rest of Slow Man. I've enjoyed the opening chapters; Coetzee seems to know about putting equal emphasis on the plot and the writing. I shall review this when the pages are well and truly smudged!

and Atyllah,
The weather is nice, I wish you here! Or as my father used to write: The weather is here, I wish you were nice!We went to La Plagne, with a wonderful view of Mont Blanc. The snow wasn't all that great but it was still fun. I fear that global warming is catching up with us!

Anonymous said...

Oh Shameless!
If you do switch it off, you'll get loads of spam. Let's offer each other condolences in this respect. tee-hee!

It's like a case of, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. :-)

moontopples said...

Shameless: I've noticed the letters getting worse. I can read letters pretty well at this point and still often get one wrong on here. I disabled the letters quite a while ago and have yet to receive a single spam comment. Hope this helps.

Also, I am hosting a short fiction contest o'er on my page and I sincerely hope you'll consider taking part. I posted the rules today if you wanna look them over. It kicks off February 1st.

Shameless said...

Susan,
Spam is worse than spinach! :)

Moon,
I will definitely be taking part in your contest! What a great idea and thanks for hosting this. I think these are great for discipline!