There are tons of things I don’t want to write about: people who bug me, movies I couldn’t sit through, fashions that strike me as ridiculous, ill-advised parenting decisions, and meals I haven’t enjoyed. All are on my short list of topics I do not want to come home and say something about.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, in my day job, I spend a lot of time reading the briefs of people who have real complaints about things that actually do matter. That is why they have come to our court. After a day spent thinking about whether someone’s truly been wronged, it seems a little silly for me to spend the evening yammering on about how much I hate it when parents let their children beat them at games. (I do hate that, by the way. I think what children really, really need is a worthy opponent so that when they finally do win a game of checkers they actually feel like they’ve accomplished something.)
Of course, when I get home, it’s often to hear more grievances (you know the kind I mean: he hit me, he won’t let me have a turn, he’s wearing my favorite shoes, how come you never let me beat you at checkers?). As you can see, my second shift job is that of mediator and sometimes judge and occasionally jailer. Yikes. By the time I get to my blog I just want to say, good heavens, how about that Jane Austen?
I finished William Boyd’s Restless a few weeks ago and although I flew through it, in the end I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped I would. So, I decided not to write about it. And that got me to thinking about how you can write about the work of a skilled writer, someone whose work is much better than your own, without trading in the sort of whiny complaining ickiness I don’t want to involve myself in. This is my effort to do that.
The reason Restless is such an appealing book is because it’s set at least partly in a time and place I find immensely interesting — Britain during the war. And there are spies in it. One of the main characters is a woman spy, which is even better than your usual guy spy. (Not that I have anything against guy spies, having written an entire book myself in which the main character is a guy who is, in fact, a spy. Still. I like women spies.)
The trouble is that Boyd decided to share that really delicious narrative with another narrative involving a character I really didn’t care much about. And then he put her smack down in a time (the late sixties/early seventies) he doesn’t bring to life with quite the same elegance as he does the war years. That character is the spy’s daughter, who spends most of her half of the narrative being upset and irritated that her mother was a spy her whole life and never bothered to mention it, until now, when the mother is thinking someone from her past might be trying to kill her. I cannot imagine a better time to mention one’s secret past life than this, by the way.
The daughter is not a woman who’s living a secret life. She’s a single mom of a cute little boy. The father’s one of those blow-hard 1970s academics (German in this case), who leads a bohemian life, but isn’t going to leave his wife to marry the spy’s daughter. Which turns out to be fine, because by the time the narrative begins, she no longer really wants him to anyway, which is a good decision on her part, but doesn’t really give her much of interest to do (beyond being irritated by her mother for covering up her interesting past). Anyway, the bits about the mother’s past — the story of how she is recruited and trained in the spy business — are great. The daughter, alas, is not so interesting and the split in the narrative doesn’t, in the end, seem to serve any really useful purpose.
I’d think that a trusted early reader should have said something like this: Ditch the daughter’s narrative. You can still place the story in the sixties, but it would read far, far better if the present was from the point of view of the spy character, looking back on her life.
There you have it then. I read the entire thing, enjoyed it a lot, and only when I closed it did it occur to me that it could have been better than it was. And that, dear reader, isn’t a bad reading experience. It’s not easy to write a really good book. I should know, having spent almost three years writing something I’d be delighted to have even recognized as resembling a novel. Boyd’s written a really good book. It’s just that it’s much harder to write a really great book. (I’d still recommend it, and if you want me to mail you my copy, speak up and I’ll be happy to do so. A sort of shortcut BookMooch, that will be.)