Book Review: A Spot of Bother

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How often did he feel it now, this gorgeous, furtive seclusion?

A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon

Like many people who picked up A Spot of Bother, I’d previously read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the author’s first novel and international bestseller.

Unlike many people, though, I hadn’t particularly enjoyed it. I vaguely remember reading it in high school. It was a good read, I thought, that helped me understand autism a little better, but nothing to rave about. Earlier this year, I happened to be at a friend’s house, and her sister had a box of books she was planning to donate or throw away. I saw this sitting at the top of the pile, recognized the author’s name, and asked if I could have it.

There are many things I could say about this book, but the main thing is that it was a pain to read. Out of all the books I read this year, it took the most effort to finish, and that includes A Dance with Dragons, which tops out at a whopping 1,040 pages.

But I guess that doesn’t say that much, since even 1,040 pages will fly by if a book is engrossing enough, which ADWD definitely is. Actually, I was surprised at how much I disliked this book, especially considering how interested I was when I read the inside jacket, particularly in the character of George, the hypochondriac patriarch.

I felt sorry for George at times. But in addition to George, there are more characters: Jean, his adulterous wife; Katie, his hotheaded daughter; Jamie, his gay son; Ray, Katie’s “deeply inappropriate” fiance, and Jacob, Katie’s toddler son from a previous marriage. In addition to this family there are heaps of neighbours, acquaintances, and other relatives, who appear for one scene and are never mentioned again.

One central problem of this book is that the characters are unlikable. Unlikable heroes and heroines are common enough in literature, but in most cases, the author spends time explaining their motivations to the reader so that even if we don’t agree with a morally dubious action, we can at least understand the character’s motivation behind it. But here, the characters act on purely selfish motivations, and their lack of emotional maturity is laughable. Men and women above the age of thirty react to events like they are five years old.

I found the structure of the book difficult to get into. Each chapter is about two or three pages long, focusing on a different family member. The novel is filled with little witticisms and observations about life that are obviously meant to be profound, but were mostly cliches or just deeply uninspiring. The author slips these into every chapter, into the narration and into the dialogue, resulting in some insipid, cheesy lines that you can’t imagine anyone coming up with in real life. The sheer volume of these epiphanies and changes in perspective exhausted me as I plodded through this book.

And the biggest fault of all…there was no plot. There is the central plot, I suppose, of everyone readying themselves for Katie and Ray’s wedding, the climax of the novel. Yet I felt so uninterested in the wedding. All the “twists” were so obvious that you could have predicted them an hour into reading. The individual plots (George’s hypochondria, Jean’s adultery, Katie’s doubts about Ray, and Jamie’s relationship with Tony) are simply depictions of characters being wishy-washy about making big life decisions. If any of them had taken the time to sit down and think about how their actions were affecting other people and what they really wanted out of life, they could have resolved their situations in less than five pages. Instead, they just flip-flop back and forth, which would not be that unbearable except all of these characters are dealing with their problem in the same wishy-washy way.

None of these characters seem to know what they’re doing in life, which is something any reader can identify with, but by the end of the novel, the characters do not seem to have learned from their mistakes. The ending was also neat and tidy, despite the slew of messy problems the characters are dealing with throughout the novel. Somehow, magically, everything is solved, but not in an exciting or interesting way.

YES OR NO?: NO. I can’t stress how much I disliked this book. I picked it up because I was initially interested in the story, which to be honest sounded like a soap opera, which would at least have been entertaining. Even if you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I would stay away from this book.

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Book Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl

What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

For the first ten months of 2014, my heart was set on Spike Jonze’s Her as my favourite movie of the year. I absolutely loved everything about Her, from the high-waisted pants to the melancholy soundtrack by Arcade Fire. And as every good film should, Her sparked new ideas in me as I left the theatre, ideas about relationships and the rapidly expanding role of technology in our lives. I couldn’t imagine enjoying another movie as much as I enjoyed Her.

And then came Gone Girl.

I actually walked into Gone Girl after having read the entire plot summary off of Wikipedia, which some might call a mistake. It is, after all, a story heavily dependent on plot twists and subverting the audience’s expectations. Despite this, however, I remained gripped by the movie the entire time, and I have been singing its praises to anyone who will listen since then. Luckily enough, one of my friends was kind enough to lend me the book, and I devoured it in less than a week.

At the simplest level, Gone Girl is a crime novel. Someone commits a crime (well, multiple people commit crimes) which is solved.

But what I love about Gone Girl is that it is not simply a crime novel. It is a novel about relationships, about gender roles, about writing, and about marriage.

It is also a deeply self-aware novel. Like Nick, Gillian Flynn was a writer for an entertainment magazine who was laid off. As the characters in the novel work to solve Amy’s disappearance, reading other crime novels and conducting some rather morbid Google searches, the reader can’t help but imagine Flynn performing these same tasks to construct her own story.

We are all familiar with the story within a story. Gone Girl takes this trope further with Nick and Amy Dunne, writers who lost their jobs in the 2008 financial crisis, actively writing their own versions of the story, through Amy’s diary entries, her clues for their annual treasure hunt, with their clever rhymes and hidden meanings, capturing what she considers to be the special moments of their relationship. The discrepancies of memory between Nick and Amy should be viewed in the context of the crime novel, with both narrators altering their stories to appear sympathetic to the audience. Still, I couldn’t help but think that we all do this, in our everyday relationships. We remember what we want to remember.

In one of Amy’s diary entries, she details her plans for the couple’s first anniversary:

I’ll give him his present–the monogrammed stationery he’s been wanting from Crane & Co. with the clean sans-serif font set in hunter green, on the thick creamy stock that will hold lush ink and his writer’s words. Stationery for a writer, and a writer’s wife who’s maybe angling for a love letter or two.

Yet Nick’s recollection of this gift is entirely different, and he denies ever having wanted the stationery in the first place.

At the end of Year One’s unexpectedly wrenching treasure hunt, Amy presented me with a set of posh stationery, my initials embossed at the top, the paper so creamy I expected my fingers to come away moist. In return, I’d presented my wife with a bright red dime-store paper kite, picturing the park, picnics, warm summer gusts. Neither of us liked our presents; we’d each have preferred the other’s.

Diary Amy enjoys bending the truth, but it’s also crucial to the plot that the diary blur fact and fiction in its depiction of the Dunnes’ marriage. It calls to attention the fraudulent nature of memory. How often have we remembered an event, been positive that that was the way something happened, only to have someone remember it completely the opposite way? How can you prove that something happened a certain way, without cold, hard facts?

As far as movie adaptations go, the film does an excellent job at conveying the same story in a different medium. Yet the novel is still worth a read, full of ideas absent from the film, especially regarding gender roles. In the film, the role of Nick’s father is reduced to a harmless, senile old man whose escape from his senior home coincides with the day of Amy’s disappearance. In the novel, he is a deeply misogynistic man whose views are unwillingly yet unshakeably inherited by his son, whose discomfort around women, from Detective Boney to Amy to Andie, is uncomfortable for both Nick himself and the reader.

Yet what struck me most was the terrifying intimacy of marriage, as portrayed in the novel. The relationship between the Dunnes in Gone Girl, despite the abuse, the guilt, the violence, the lies, is one of absolute intimacy. Nick and Amy clearly know each other well: how to please, how to anger, and how to placate each other. It is because of their intimate gestures for each other: the treasure hunt and the inside jokes, that they are both able to hurt each other. And isn’t that the age-old story? Love is pain.

YES OR NO?: A resounding YES. I only advise that you read the book before watching the movie, as I did the opposite and found myself just waiting for things to happen while reading. Gone Girl is an excellent book on many levels, and I would recommend it to anyone (well, unless you have an exceptionally weak stomach)!