Review of ‘The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco

November 26, 2012 1 comment

The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon

Published by Vintage Books

ISBN 9780099555971

Reviewed by C P Howe

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’  Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? Don’t worry about it. Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.


Review of ‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

November 1, 2012 1 comment

‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012

ISBN 978 0 86473 825 7

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Phoenix Song was provided by Booksellers New Zealand. This review was first published on their blog.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling he could have made it even more complex, and the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, certainly has its rewards.  Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book does have its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Shanghai Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our modern day understanding of creativity. The idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover tells the story moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

Sinclair has produced an interesting and technically accomplished novel, but it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, painting a picture of her surroundings for the reader, but its does tend to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read. Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

The Phoenix Song in the window of Unity Books, Wellington

Review of ‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

October 15, 2012 1 comment

Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

Published by Fourth Estate (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012

ISBN 978 0 00 731849 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of Telegraph Avenue was provided, and was first published, by Scoop Review of Books

Michael Chabon, with his contemporaries Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, has an astonishing knack for writing about American lives in a way that makes you feel you know personally the places and people behind the stories.

Chabon once found, at his parents house, a box of old comics he’d put away as a child, and was reminded how much he loved them. That led to his most widely acclaimed work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that takes in Houdini, the Holocaust, and the golden age of comic books, through Sammy and Joe’s invention, a hero called The Escapist. To read Chabon is to be in an alternate universe, where the characters and story arcs are utterly familiar, totally convincing, yet completely fictional.

Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s latest novel. He also writes young adult and science fiction, comic books that bring to life The Escapist titles from Kavalier and Clay, and more. Telegraph Avenue isn’t a slim volume – it runs to 468 tightly spaced pages. Chabon has said, ‘If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them…’ and how he makes sure he writes for four or five hours a day, every day. Even taking this work ethic into account the volume of work he creates is remarkable.

Telegraph Avenue is set on the border of Oakland and Berkeley in California, in the mid-2000s, and follows the owners of a small, independent record store, the existence of which is threatened by a new development – Dogpile enterprises, a music megastore – a couple of blocks away. Chabon’s characters are immense and have great depth; they have real lives, real flaws, real loves. The love of music and records, for one. Complex families and friends, with unfaithful husbands and newly discovered teenage children. Semi-famous pasts as footballers-cum-blaxpoitation movie-actors, or musicians who made sought after classic albums, but never made it big. The sort of people whose collectible cards are now worth more than they are; the sort of people who still play gigs with their old Hammond organs, heavy and expensive to repair.

Chabon has also said that Kavalier and Clay was the first time he was really satisfied with his attempts to write from multiple points of view. We should be glad that he succeeded, because Telegraph Road takes that success and runs with it. We see the world through Nat and Archy, the record store owners; through their children, Titus and Julie; through their wives, Gwen and Aviva; and even through Mr Cochise’s parrot. And throughout, their collective problem looms large – the soon to be built Dogpile Thang, with its promise not of bland mega-mall music, but of a depth and quality of vinyl that Nat and Archy can only dream of. How could they be against something that is precisely what they stand for, even if it means their own demise?

The narrative is dense, complex, and challenging in places, and after 190 pages I started to wonder just where Chabon was going with it. And, at precisely that moment, he absolutely nails it. Although the book is divided into five sections – shown on the cover, as if they were tracks on a record – what Chabon does between pages 193 and 198 splits the book neatly in two. It is as if everything that happened up to that point couldn’t have led anywhere else, and what Archy says as he arrives at Mr Cochise’s funeral sets the second half on an inevitable course.

Telegraph Avenue doesn’t have the big historical themes of Kavalier and Clay, or DeLillo’s Underworld. It is about Archy and Nat, their family and friends, their community, making their way through life, the occasional fleeting touch of fame barely remembered by anyone. And it is about the music, always the music.

I loved the way Chabon has constructed this novel. The incredible dialogue, the sense of place, the complex relationships, all create a vivid world for the reader. His metaphors may be strained sometimes, but a book that includes a pair of seventies Blaxploitation actors, an elderly kung fu teacher called Mrs Jew who claims to have ‘kicked Bruce Lee’s ass, every day,’ and a Hammond organ playing musician who owns a parrot called Fifty-Eight and once made a record called Redbonin’ is allowed to go over the top from time to time.

All the way through to the acknowledgements – which include, for Mythbusters fans, a special thanks to Adam Savage for advice on ‘dirigible liberation’ – Telegraph Avenue is a hugely entertaining, interesting and moving book. Highly recommended.


Review of ‘The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

Published by HarperCollins (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012

RRP $36.99

ISBN 978 1 84668 803 4

eISBN 978 1 84765 850 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Cutting Season’ is Attica Locke’s ambitious second novel following her well-received, Orange Prize nominated, first book ‘Black Water Rising.’ It undoubtedly falls within the crime fiction genre – it is the first title in the Dennis Lehane crime imprint at HarperCollins – but it comes with a serious take on slavery and immigration in American history and culture, and a quality and style of writing that puts it firmly in the ‘literary’ canon.

Located in and around the antebellum sugar cane plantation of Belle Vie – now a tourist attraction – the novel centres on its manager, Caren Gray. Locke weaves together multiple strands in the book’s 400 pages. There is a recent murder, and perhaps an older one too; there are descendants of the original owners of Belle Vie who regard themselves as ‘having done right’ by their black slaves, and descendants of those slaves who still feel robbed and oppressed; there are complex families involving children, separation and loss, both modern and ancient; and there are today’s industrial farming conglomerates and illegal Mexican cane cutters, mirroring the plantation owners and black slaves of generations ago.

Caren discovers the murder, and it is this incident and its consequences that drive the novel right from the start. Locke keeps the tension up throughout, keeping the reader guessing, and cleverly using minor characters to unlock key aspects of the plot.

Locke’s cast are what you might call in a movie ‘stock characters.’ Locke is also a screenwriter, and it may be that this has influenced the way she has created her characters in this book. Caren Gray herself, for example, is little too weary and passive to be completely believable. There is the older black woman who runs the kitchen, who has seen it all; the hard done by younger employee with a minor criminal record for whom Caren has sympathy and feels has a good heart; the unpleasant neighbouring estate manager who…but let me stop there, before I give something away. Suffice to say Locke’s characters are not exactly subtle, but they work effectively in a story of this nature.

Locke has also worked very hard – perhaps too hard – to mirror past events in the present. Almost every aspect of the story has a parallel strand in the past. I found this over the top; it just wasn’t necessary to do this with absolutely everything, as if the symbolism and history repeating itself lesson needed to be hammered home. Attica, just hold off a little; we get it.

Thankfully Locke does not jump around in time, or shift the point of view away from Caren. I was greatly relieved when I realised we were not suddenly going to find ourselves in 1880, hearing about what happened then through the voice of an ex-slave. The story is told straight, strictly through Caren’s point of view – in the third person – over the course of a week during the sugar cane cutting season. Because the complexities of the story are all about Caren’s personal and family history, how she finds out aspects of it she was previously unaware of, as well as her part in solving the murder, this approach works perfectly. Remaining firmly with Caren’s point of view means the reader understands things – or not – as Caren does, which is a very satisfying approach to storytelling.

‘The Cutting Season’ is perhaps a little long, and some sections seemed to drag. The mechanics of getting from the gate to the house, or the library to the slave quarters, in the dark happened once or twice too often, and some of the interactions with Morgan, Caren’s daughter, didn’t quite ring true for a nine year old.

Attica Locke has written an interesting crime thriller that is a cut above most. It has context and history, an almost pitch perfect point of view – Caren’s  – and a murderer whose identity keeps you guessing. Locke also resists tying everything up nicely, or giving her characters what they really want – and she does well to sustain the idea that, perhaps, they don’t even know what they want. It takes courage for a writer to work a story this way.

Although there is a sense that Locke has tried too hard in places, ‘The Cutting Season’ brings together contemporary social and cultural comment, recent American history, and the complexities of modern family life, with a classic crime whodunnit. Overall, despite its flaws, I’d recommend it.

Review of ‘A Possible Life’ by Sebastian Faulks

September 20, 2012 2 comments

‘A Possible Life’ by Sebastian Faulks
Published by Hutchinson, September 2012
ISBN 9780091936815

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘A Possible Life’ was provided by Booksellers NZ. It is also posted on their blog.

Described by the publisher as a novel, this latest offering by the highly-regarded Sebastian Faulks – the Financial Times says, ‘Faulks is beyond doubt a master,’ – is in fact a collection of five stories. Each story has its own title, but they are also labelled Parts I to V, signalling that they are supposed to form a coherent whole; that they are in some way linked.

A Possible Life reminded me a little of Edward P Jones’ two volumes of linked short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Lost In The City. The links between Jones’ stories are subtle and curious; a name might re-appear in a different context, or a location will feature again, but at a different time or with different people. The connections between the five stories in A Possible Life are even less obvious, and reflect Faulks’ fascination with what makes us human. Science, consciousness, artistic creativity, families, love and the Holocaust all feature. Only once the book is finished is it possible to reflect on the stories as a collection, and try and make sense of them.

Each story traverses the whole of its subject’s life, set in different times and places from 18th century France to mid-21st century Italy. The middle three stories struggled to live up to the emotional and heart-breaking narrative of the first – the stoicism and suffering of a man subject to the horrors of the Second World War – or the re-imagining of the love affair between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash on which the fifth and final story is loosely based. The first story sets such a high standard, although it certainly has flaws, that the rest were always going to be hard-pressed to follow it. Its strength perhaps explains why I felt such disappointment at turning the page and realising that ‘Part II’ was a completely different story.

What is it that makes the middle three stories less satisfactory? Writing about the future, unless you’re a top notch science fiction writer, is always a challenge. The knowing nods to the present that make science fiction interesting – the novelty of someone reading printed newspapers instead of screens, or a reference back to the global financial crisis – have to be done extremely well, otherwise they seem a little obvious, a little contrived.

The Victorian workhouse boy who toils his way to a comfortable life, against the odds and with family challenges that test his integrity, seemed too much like a parable. And the 18th century French servant girl who leads a life of drudgery just didn’t have enough depth to satisfy me, despite Faulks showing us the families for whom she works, with all their pretensions and shortcomings.

I also had a problem with the way that for just a paragraph or two, in each story, Faulks shifts the point of view away from the protagonist. It is difficult to imagine this is unintentional but when, in fiction, the point of view changes temporarily to another character then shifts back again, it is as if the writer has given up on finding a way to show us what he wants through the eyes of his protagonist. There are lots of great books where the point of view jumps around all over the place – Nicola Barker’Behindlings or The Believers by Zoe Heller – but it is unusual to find examples of what Faulks has done in A Possible Life. Perhaps he’s trying to show how human consciousness flickers in and out of focus, how we can’t know everything? Perhaps, but the result is unconvincing, and doesn’t feel right.

Faulks’ decision to put what are, effectively, five novellas into one book makes them feel compressed and constrained, but the first and the last suffer most as a result; it feels as if there are longer, deeper versions waiting to be told; that important insights and events have been skipped over; that words have been sacrificed to make space for the other three stories.

If there is a common theme in A Possible Life, it is universal: life unfolds in many different ways, often we can’t control what happens, and love is difficult to find and to cope with. Isn’t that what most fiction is about? It could be argued that the middle story, set in the future, about a scientific breakthrough related to consciousness and the mind, is the ‘answer’ to the book’s question, but it doesn’t do enough to properly fill that role.

By packaging these stories together with the title A Possible Life, Faulks promises something more profound than two strong and three weaker stories linked by only the most tenuous of threads. Rather than judge each on its own merits I was always looking for something more, and disappointment was inevitable. The strength of the first and last stories goes someway towards redeeming the book but, in the end, Faulks does not keep his promise, and we are left with a collection that is not, really, much more than the sum of its parts.

Review of ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan

September 4, 2012 4 comments

Is it possible to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite gender? Is it possible to write a review of an Ian McEwan novel without giving too much away?

The answer is, of course, it depends how good a writer you are. Kirsten McDougall presented Philip Fetch, in The Invisible Rider, so authentically it is hard to see how she could have known all the thoughts and feelings of a middle aged male lawyer. Some people loved Lloyd Jones’ Matilda in Mr Pip, whereas others had a problem with him writing as a 13 year old girl. And then there’s Ian McEwan. Perhaps the best known instance of McEwan writing as a woman is his masterpiece of trickery, Atonement, which includes McEwan writing convincingly not only as a woman, but as a woman writing as a woman. So there’s no doubt he has form in this matter.

The idea of trickery resonates throughout Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s latest novel. The book starts with the main character, Serena Frome, telling us how she was recruited into MI5 in the 1970s, where there’s plenty of trickery and deception going on. She’s a voracious reader who prefers her authors to ‘make use of the real world’ and avoid ‘tricksy haggling over the limits of their art… .’ On no account should writers ‘infiltrate their own pages as part of the cast.’ The clues about what McEwan is doing with Sweet Tooth come thick and fast and don’t let up.

But, like the very best novels, the extent of McEwan’s ambition and achievement can’t be seen until the last sentence has been read and fully absorbed.

McEwan layers on the literary content thickly, with the story echoing his own experiences of being published for the first time in the 1970s. His friends and publishers get name checks, as do various pubs, restaurants and parks. McEwan also indulges us with jokes. The ‘new fangled Booker prize’ gets several mentions, and he plays around with the name of a former director-general of MI5 and makes her a high-flying contemporary of Serena.

Its clear from what we’re reading that Frome wouldn’t have liked McEwan’s writing in the 1970s, and perhaps still wouldn’t today. We hear about other writers Frome likes and doesn’t like, giving us plenty to think about in respect of McEwan’s own likes and dislikes. There’s a lot of reading between the lines as the book reaches its middle act, especially when Frome starts to quote chunks of her lover Tom Haley’s newly penned fiction to the reader, some of which clearly reflects McEwan’s own writing from the 1970s.

McEwan shows great confidence in delving into a world so well chronicled by the likes of John le Carre and Ian Fleming, although he sets it a few years after Smiley’s era. Still, the idea that no-one knows anything, that the respective agencies are actively competing with each other – the dissatisfaction ‘five’ has for ‘six’ comes through strongly – and that around every corner, in every cramped, smoke-filled office there might lurk someone working for the other side, are themes that many readers will be familiar with. Why shouldn’t McEwan write about spies, the 1970s and people who like books and writing? It seems so obvious now he’s done it.

Less familiar is the idea that the secret service might have funded artists and writers, which is central to the book and on which the real story hangs.

I’m not going to give away the main plot twists here. For me, one of the pleasures of Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s skilful circling back, his ability to make everything that happens matter one way or another. As connections are revealed and Serena’s personal desires – for literature and for love – conflict with her professional duties, the dramatic tension builds.

So, has McEwan written convincingly as a woman in Sweet Tooth? Well, Serena Frome is certainly a strongly drawn character. She has clear views, and even when she has doubts she knows very clearly that she has them. She consistently tells us what she thinks, and how she feels, about her lovers and potential lovers. She is unexpectedly confident about sex, and yet there are other things she doesn’t tell us that we would have perhaps expected her to know. She appears to be consistently interested in the social turmoil around her – the cold war ending, the UK economy on its knees, the Troubles at their peak – but is that a true reflection of the interests of a bishop’s daughter, educated at Cambridge, even one who works for MI5?

Would Serena really act and react like this? Perhaps she would.

The ending was too quick, too neat and, if I dare say so, too contrived for me. It explained too much about some things and not enough about others. I can’t really say anymore without giving McEwan’s game away, and I certainly don’t want to do that. Perhaps after reading Sweet Tooth you’ll come back to this review and notice my own clues about what happens in the book, and decide whether I’ve said too much, or not enough.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Tooth and while the ending didn’t exactly satisfy me, it did have me shaking my head once again in admiration of McEwan’s inventiveness in giving fictional words on the page a reason to be there, his ability to entertain, and the sheer audacity and confidence that is necessary to attempt things other writers wouldn’t even contemplate.

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ, and this review is also posted on their blog.

Published by Random House NZ, August 2012

ISBN 9780224097383

Review of ‘The Next Best Thing’ by Jennifer Weiner

August 27, 2012 2 comments

The Next Best Thing

by Jennifer Weiner

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012, RRP $37, ISBN 9780857208163

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

The Next Best Thing by best-selling author Jennifer Weiner is set in Los Angeles and is about Ruth Saunders, a young woman who breaks into the world of TV sitcoms with her show The Next Best Thing. I’m interested in LA and screenwriting, and I think they’re great subjects for a novel, so I was looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. But it didn’t go quite the way I’d expected.

Fifty pages in I knew there was something not quite right about this novel, and so I did a little investigating. I wouldn’t normally search the internet or look at other reviews before I write my own, but on this occasion I’m glad I did.

It turns out that Jennifer Weiner co-created and wrote the short-lived sitcom State of Georgia in 2011. To be fair she acknowledges this at the back of The Next Best Thing. But there’s a reminder that should be pinned to every writer’s wall: just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it should be in your story. When I found out about Weiner’s cancelled sitcom, and had a look around, all the problems I had with The Next Best Thing started to make sense.

As the story slowly unfolds, we see Ruth’s ideas being taken away from her, changed piece by piece until her show is no longer the one she dreamed up. If only, I realised Weiner is telling us, if only I – sorry, I mean Ruth – could have made ‘State of Georgia’ – sorry, I mean The Next Best Thing – the way I’d wanted to it would have all been OK, and it would have been a hit.

Weiner tells us in great detail how it all happened. Dozens of pages go by while we hear about how the show was picked up, the rewriting of scenes and introduction of new characters, the studio executives getting their way with casting, and the lowly status of the writer when it comes to decisions. And what happened with audience testing. And how difficult the actors were. And so on and so on.

There’s no problem with writers basing parts of their stories on reality. Everyone does it. But Weiner’s inability to resist including endless scenes just because they happened in real life weighs the book down heavily.

Weiner doesn’t help herself by choosing to write in the first person. Everything is related to the reader by Ruth at a slow, unvarying pace. I turned the pages quickly, but not because I wanted to find out what happens. I just wanted to get it over with. There is a remarkable lack of dramatic tension. Although Weiner tries to get us engaged with her characters, there’s no depth, no emotion. There’s nothing really at stake. There should be – all the ingredients are present – but somehow it fails to ignite.

Mark Twain said he didn’t have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one instead. I’m quite sure Weiner didn’t give herself enough time to write The Next Best Thing. She couldn’t wait to tell the world what she thought about her ‘State of Georgia’ experience. ‘State of Georgia’ was cancelled in September 2011 and The Next Best Thing hit the bookstands on 1 August 2012. Hardly enough time to write it, let alone tighten it up. Definitely not enough time to pick up what would be called, in TV or the movies, glaring continuity errors. Not enough time to pick up the typos. Not enough time to do a quick web search to confirm that if you wanted a ‘Maori tribesman’ to give you a tattoo, you probably wouldn’t go to Australia.

And then, the ending. It’s not as if any more evidence was needed to to prove that this book was produced too quickly, but the ending provided it anyway. In contrast to the slow-moving first 350 pages, the ending is hurried, muddled and indulgent. There are premiere parties and pilot re-shoots, actors on the payroll and holidays being taken, people appearing in a scene to say one thing and then disappearing again. All very confusing. And then – well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Suffice to say some of it is based on real life events and some of it is made up. Just like all fiction, really, and that’s the thing. Transforming life into fiction is what writers do but it takes time, and I don’t think Weiner spent enough time on The Next Best Thing.

I was disappointed by Weiner’s effort. She’s a best selling author, and The Next Best Thing should have been a better, and shorter, book. I’m quite sure there’s an interesting, exciting and emotionally compelling novel hiding inside The Next Best Thing. I just wish Weiner had taken the time to write it.

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