Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Seven Sisters (Margaret Drabble)

I'm more patient with the British than I am with Americans when it comes to fiction. If a book starts slowly and is set somewhere in the British countryside, I'm more likely to slow down with it and take it as it comes. I have no idea why this is, but it is a pattern. But even though Margaret Drabble is British and The Seven Sisters starts slowly, I ran out of patience. For reasons I'll go into more detail below, I wanted to stop ready many, many times. "It's a good thing," Jim said, as I sighed whenever I picked up the book again. "It'll balance the blog since all the other reviews so far have been positive ones."

In order to explain my experience with this book, I'm going to have to ruin what has been referred to in the backcover blurbs as a "clever" story and give a brief synopsis. So, if you are a fan of such movies as Vanilla Sky (a movie I saw for free and wanted to walk out of) and the ordinary lives of older British women, then I'd suggest not reading this post further.

Part 1: The book starts with a very lengthy section written as a diary by the main character, a recently divorced woman who is depressed. Nothing happens in this section. Sometimes it seems like it might, but nothing ever does. And this section is approximately half of the book.

Part 2: By God, something happens! Albeit it's not that exciting, but given my experience with Part 1, I'll take anything. The main character goes on a trip with some friends to Italy. Besides the actual journey to Italy, nothing really happens (and this section takes up almost the remaining half of the book), except for a strange point-of-view shift: Part 1 was first person, and Part 2 is 3rd person omniscient. Okay . . . . It's more interesting than Part 1, so I'll take it, but as I'm reading, I'm constantly revising the structure of the book in my head to make it a more interesting read.

Part 3: Oh no. Point-of-view shift again. Now the story is being told by one of the main character's estranged daughters because (gasp!) the main character has committed suicide. And now we find out that some of what the main character has told us in Part 1 has been a lie (but that's all sort of hazy at the same time, and given that nothing really happened in Part 1 anyway, kind of beside the point).

Part 4: Okay, so remember Part 3? Well, just kidding! Turns out that the main character did NOT commit suicide after all and that one of her estranged daughters did NOT really write that section. That was just the main character imagining what it would be like to write from her daughter's point of view and what it would be like to fake her own death. Seriously? Are you kidding me?

I must point out that Drabble has written quite a lot of books, so some people out there must be enjoying them. (And judging from the ratings on Amazon, some people really liked this book.) I could tell from her sentences and descriptions that the actual writing was good. But in my opinion, the story wasn't. If the whole book's success hinges on this "gotcha" moment that isn't that successful (and I have to wait until the very end of the book for the reveal), then I don't really want to be a part of it.

One of the backcover blurbs referred to this book as showing how a "realistic novel" can illuminate our lives (I wonder if that reviewer finished the book). A couple of days ago I saw an older woman walking in my neighborhood with a surgical face mask over her mouth. She stopped a walnut tree, took her poking stick (she had crafted the stick herself out of two thin tree branches tied together with a yellow ribbon) and jabbed the tree's branches so that walnuts fell onto the ground. She then collected the walnuts in her plastic bag. Then, not even 15 minutes later, I saw another old woman who, at 8 in the morning, took a large bright red processed meat stick out of her backpack, opened it, blotted the meat stick with a couple paper towels, and then proceeded to eat it. Both of those women were way more interesting in those small moments than the main character of this book was to me. So I don't see any reason why a "realistic" novel should be uninteresting.

Good books to read: Three Junes by Julia Glass: I only think of this book in this context because I had a hard time getting into it, but then it turned out to be an amazing book. Good writing and great story.

Next book up: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.

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