Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oh, Book Club

As far as I know, only two members of my book club read this blog.  To them I apologize, because they've already heard most of this.  But my god, that book was annoying.

Here is the Goodreads description of Mark Haddon's The Red House:

The set-up of Mark Haddon's brilliant new novel is simple: Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.

But because of Haddon's extraordinary narrative technique, the stories of these eight people are anything but simple. Told through the alternating viewpoints of each character, The Red House becomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding up to a portrait of contemporary family life that is bittersweet, comic, and deeply felt. As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.
This cannot be called a lie.  In fact, it's quite accurate, except in the parts where they describe how I'm likely to react to the book.  I don't find it bittersweet, comic, or deeply felt.  I don't understand them, or find them profoundly real.  And I foolishly spent the whole book hoping that something might come together, that someone might have some personal insight, that something might come of this murk.  Sorry, nope.

There are some interesting things going on from a writing standpoint--he's doing a sort of Virginia Woolf thing where you change perspective in the middle of a scene or even a paragraph.  This worked better than you might expect, although it seemed kind of heavy-handed.  There are no quotation marks; dialogue is in italics, which I think gives the whole book a very internal, dreamy feeling.

And there are a few interesting things happening--Angela and Richard's mother has died, and as they reconnect on this vacation, they realize that their memories of their family are quite different.  Angela is suffering from the memory of a stillbirth she had eighteen years ago.  Her husband Dominic is emotionally absent; their daughter Daisy has joined a church; Richard's stepdaughter Melissa is a traditional mean girl.  The families go on hikes and cook with vacation house pots and pans and flip wander around the countryside.  Really, it's like going on vacation with someone else's dysfunctional family--which, let me tell you, don't.

I think one big struggle for me is that the book is so English.  So much of it is minor observational description--which, in my opinion, is a wonderful tool, but without insight or aim, it's void of meaning.  But because of this structure, the sheer number of references I didn't get--smells I don't know, TV theme songs I've never heard of blaring in the background, slang terms that I can't figure out, and does everyone in England know the names of all the trees?--prevented the word picture he was trying to paint from coming into focus.

Anyway, it was a great book club, even if I didn't like the book very much.  And I'm pushing for Age of Miracles for next month. Which reminds me: scheduling email should go out tomorrow.  Gotta do that!

1 comment:

Aarti said...

Oh, sad! I really liked Haddon's Curious Tale, so was looking forward to this one, but most people don't seem to like it much.