I normally wouldn’t bother writing about a book which left me thinking ‘meh’ (i.e. wholly apathetic) – I don’t really feel that I can construct a proper review about it. This post will probably confirm that I can’t. But The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston (which I thought was neither good nor bad) was so loved by Kim, as well as most of the members of my book group, that I was left a bit baffled. (The post title, by the way, refers to a wonderful moment in budget awful reality TV show Coach Trip…)
It’s late and I’m tired, and as I said I didn’t really care enough about this novel to want to put much effort in, so I’m just going to chat and copy across from Amazon:
“Clara, who at 35 makes her living doing “odd jobs for newspapers”, is recovering from a serious operation and spends her days wandering around the cliff tops at Dublin Bay. She stares out to sea, trying to rediscover the direction in her life. One rainy afternoon, she encounters Laurence (Lar), a teacher who has run away from his life in Northern Ireland as he tries to come to terms with a family tragedy. The novel describes how these two unconventional people form a fragile friendship. Alternating the narrative voice, Johnston lets their stories unravel gradually. Both characters are trying to come to terms with loss and the novel examines the contrasting ways they cope: Clara is self-depreciating and humorous but can’t shake off the knowledge that haunts her; Lar is bitter and coiled, bottling up his pain in an ever-present anger. Johnston has no difficulty in keeping the reader intrigued as the plot is never a foregone conclusion.”
Sorry to be lazy… now I’ll turn over to my own thoughts.
Jennifer Johnston has a perfectly serviceable writing style, and occasionally has nice turns of phrase… She dealt skillfully with what were essentially four parallel perspectives (Lar’s present; Lar’s past; Clara’s present; Clara’s past.) But for the most part I was left cold. It’s mean to point out the worst examples within a novel, and I wouldn’t have done this, but someone at book group (ironically enough) chose this as a favourite section, and I thought it was the least realistic paragraph. Lar is on the phone to his Dad, with whom he has had little contact of late:
“There is nothing wrong with me.”
“You’re not yourself.”
“I am myself. I am Laurence McGrane. I am a schoolteacher. I know who I am. I know my wife and child were murdered. I know I am acting in a wild and irrational way towards the people who say they love me. I know that one day I will return to normality and be quiet and polite and acceptable, but not yet. I want to be allowed to scream and burn and hate, until I am sickened by my self-indulgence. I haven’t got a date for that. So f**k off Dad and stop trying to heal me.”
He had never sworn at his father before and the hand that held the receiver trembled as he did so.
There was a long pause.
“We do love you, son,” was all his father said, then he put down the phone and all Lar could hear was the emptiness of disconnection.
Does anyone ever talk like that? It felt like novel-talk, rather than real-talk.
And as for Clara… I think she was supposed to be something of a feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroine. I’m all for feisty, slightly kooky, independent heroines – but they topple so very easily into selfish, overblown, rude heroines. Clara was a bit beloved by some book group members, but I thought she was a paragon of self-involvement… Lar was better, but I think I’d still rather read a novel about his cute little dog.
But it wasn’t even the plot or the characters which didn’t work for me. It was the feel of the book overall – like there didn’t seem much point in reading it. Things were happening to people, or had happened to people, or might happen to people – and none of it much bothered me at all.
This is all (as you’ll have noticed) a bit of a haze, and I’m really just writing about The Gingerbread Woman to ask a question I might have asked before – have you read any books about which you were more or less indifferent, only to find that everyone raved about them? This happens to me quite a lot with modern novels – so many of which seem to dispense with style in favour of plot, or at least that’s true for the ones people recommend. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another case in point – interesting idea; incredibly bland prose.
These sorts of clashing viewpoints are especially noticeable at a book group, if you sit down completely unable to understand why everyone else seems enthusiastic about something. So much harder to discuss than a book you hated. In May we’re reading Wuthering Heights – hating Heathcliff as much as I do, sit me down with a Heathcliff-lover and we’ll be gabbing away for hours. But with The Gingerbread Woman… we could talk a bit about the characters and the events, but… in the end, I couldn’t really make myself care all that much.
Over to you. I think reviews like this (not that it is a review; it’s been far too all over the place to qualify) are a bit underwhelming to read – but perhaps you’ll recognise the feeling. Let me know any books which left you indifferent in the face of enthusiasm – or perhaps tell me why I should have liked The Gingerbread Woman more!