In Brief: Mixed feelings for new fiction

Posted May 20, 2016 by Lory in brief reviews, reviews / 21 Comments

Here are four new or reprinted works of fiction that caught my eye in the first half of the year — each offering something of interest, but none of which quite captured my heart. I can imagine other readers having a different response, though. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

StargazersSister copyThe Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
After loving the nonfiction book The Age of Wonder, which included a section on astronomical pioneers William and Caroline Herschel, I was so excited to learn that there was a new historical novel coming out that was centered around Caroline. I ended up being slightly disappointed, but it probably had more to do with my expectations than with the book. While it was a beautifully written and moving account of a unjustly overlooked woman in science, I found being trapped in the limitations of her life somehow too confining, and wished for a wider angle on the time. I was also a little surprised when I learned from the Afterword that several important characters and incidents were made up; this went beyond what I would expect from authors who are trying to make their narratives fit reasonably into the historical record. However, if you aren’t hampered by my expectations, and not bothered by authorial inventions, you may well find this a compelling look at a fascinating corner of history and a remarkable woman.
• Pantheon, January

MadwomanUpstairsThe Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
This novel had so many elements that I love — the Brontes, Oxford, a literary treasure hunt — that I hoped it would be a sheer delight, yet it left me feeling slightly queasy. I think the main reason was the relationship between the narrator/protagonist, a kooky American named Samantha who’s supposedly the last living descendant of the Bronte family, and her hunky tutor who can’t seem to remember or stick to the rules about, er, intimate relations with students. Aside from this disturbing theme, their interactions didn’t ring true to me, and the pathologically isolated Samantha made some amusing remarks but was otherwise just too odd to relate to. The literary discussions scattered throughout the text were also frustrating in their emphasis on the assumption that everything in the Bronte novels must have actually happened: Rochester’s bed was set on fire by a madwoman, therefore one of the Bronte girls must be mad and have committed arson at Haworth, etc. This is simply silly and not something one would write papers about at Oxford.
• Touchstone, March

LightYearsThe Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This is the first in the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of five books about an English family during the years surrounding the Second World War. The whole series has now been reissued in e-book form, and is being marketed to readers looking to fill the gap left by Downton Abbey. I haven’t seen that show, but I can imagine Howard’s work, with its large cast of characters and lovingly detailed descriptions of a bygone time, fitting neatly into that niche. I found myself feeling strangely distanced from the characters, though; they were treated almost journalistically rather than novelistically, and I watched their trials and tribulations from afar rather than feeling caught up in them. Worth a look, though, if you love family sagas or WWII historical novels.
• Open Road Media, April (originally 1990)

VersionsUsThe Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
There have been many books and films in recent years about the theme of exploring different options or paths in life (Sliding Doors, One Day, Life After Life) — kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure” for grown-ups. Here’s yet another one, which presents three versions of how a couple might have gotten together, or not, been married or not, split up or stayed together or come together again. Eva is a writer, Jim a painter, and their careers also take wildly different trajectories in each version, and some unexpected twists and turns. Each chapter takes up a version, usually though not invariably in sequence (1 – 2 – 3), and usually giving three different snapshots of the same point in time in these different lives, before moving on some months or years, as the narrative unfolds from youth into old age.
There is no supernatural explanation, or suggestion that the Eva and Jim in each version know about the others; they are simply presented side by side like a triptych of the same subject with variations between the panels (a kind of painting that Jim does indeed create in one scenario). I enjoyed it, though not as rapturously as did the reviewers of the original UK edition. Following the versions was often quite confusing, with their sometimes minor differences that were easy to mix up. Though this was an interesting and well-executed concept, for me the fragmenting of the characters’ lives ultimately weakened their impact rather than multiplying it.
• Houghton Mifflin, May (original UK edition 2015)

Finished copies of The Light Years (e-book) and The Versions of Us (hardcover) were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

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21 responses to “In Brief: Mixed feelings for new fiction

  1. For “Sliding Doors” type plots, I really enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World.
    And the literary discussions of The Madwoman Upstairs sound ridiculous – it’s a complete misunderstanding of fiction to assume that plot points are necessarily autobiographical on the part of the author. It’s annoying when academics’ scholarly pursuits do not sound plausible.

      • I took it to be very much the point that scholars take too much of an author’s biography into account. This whole escapade is revolving around the fact that really intelligent people are swallowed by silly obsession.

  2. Really interesting – the Cazalet Chronicles (Light Years) are some of my favourite ever books but the Light Years is very much setting the stage for what came next. What I love about the quartet (there is a much later fifth one but trust me it’s best forgotten) is how what were ‘amusing quirks’ in the first book become far more deadly as the story progresses. It’s largely autobiographical, with Louise representing the author herself which is in itself fascinating given her eagle eye for Louise’s faults.

    I also loved The Versions of Us – I seem to have been the only person I know who did though! I found it such a fascinating concept and the way in which the different characters expanded various facets of their personalities based on what events befell was really interesting. It reminded me of One Day, so I thought it was brilliant!

    I have to admit though – I gave up on The Madwoman Upstairs. As someone who lives in Oxford and who used to work within the university, it just got too ridiculous. Claiming that she had been put in an attic room was the last straw – there have been clear instructions from above that American students do not deal well with antiquity and that we risk losing students to Princeton/Harvard if they think the accommodation is likely to be old-fashioned. Even though I was running a Bronte blog event, I just couldn’t suspend disbelief.

    • Good to know about the Cazalet books. I’ll give the next one a try at some point. And there’s nothing to regret in not finishing The Madwoman Upstairs – I kept hoping it might get better, but it didn’t. I could happily have gone with an alternate-reality sort of version of Oxford (a la Thursday Next, or His Dark Materials for that matter) but here the alterations of reality didn’t come together in a convincing whole.

  3. I had mixed feelings about The Madwoman Upstairs too. I enjoyed parts of it, but Samantha really irritated me and I couldn’t understand how she managed to get a place at Oxford! I have a copy of The Light Years which I haven’t read yet, so I’m glad you still think it’s worth reading even if you had a few problems with it.

    • I think you’ll soon discover whether the Cazalet chronicles are for you. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

  4. Oh no! I’m disappointed these didn’t work out better for you. I really enjoyed The Stargazer’s Sister, but I can definitely see why the aspects you mention would bother you. The made-up bits are part of the reason I’m excited to pick up The Age of Wonder at some point to get a nonfictional account. The Madwoman Upstairs isn’t one I’ve read, but I’m always interested in retellings, so I’m particularly sorry to hear that one wasn’t more enjoyable too!

    • I might enjoy The Stargazer’s Sister more on a reread, when I have a better idea of what to expect. I don’t usually mind some made-up elements in my historical fiction, only these seemed rather extreme.

      I remain hopeful that you will love The Age of Wonder! Nothing made up there, as far as I know.

  5. Oooooh, I’m glad you warned me about the Catherine Lowell book. I’ve heard a ton of good things about it, but relationships between teachers and students make me the MOST queasy. At least now if I still read the book, I’ll be braced for it.

    • That’s what it’s all about, so it’s good to be prepared. Now I really want you to read it so I can get your take on it. Am I blind to its merits?

  6. I second Christy in recommending Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. I like books with alternate time lines (loved Life after Life too), so I will give Versions of Us a go one of these days, but will approach with caution! : )

    The Madwoman Upstairs definitely sounds disappointing. I am not sure why “relatable” is often equal to “ditz” in romantic comedies.

    • Do try Versions of Us. It was an interesting idea, just done in a way that left me easily confused.

      And a lot of people have loved The Madwoman Upstairs, or at least not found it as problematic as I did. I’m not quite sure why, except that Samantha was just not someone I wanted to spend time with.

      • I agree that the professor relationship was a bit forced, but I enjoyed Sam’s snarkiness. And in my reading I thought most (if not all) of the infatuation was on her side (since we are reading her thoughts, it’s her perspective) and not really on his. She wouldn’t last long at Oxford in the real world but I thought the adventure was fun.

        • I enjoyed her snarkiness too — it was the rest of her personality I didn’t connect with. However, it’s clear others have had a different experience, and I’m fine with that. The book just didn’t work for me.

  7. I really liked Stargazer’s Sister, although I knew it was largely fictional (at least in details). But I think she did a good job giving the reader an idea of just how much Caroline did to support William AND make her own discoveries.

    • I liked it, just not as much as I was expecting. But as I said, I think I was expecting something different. The depiction of Caroline’s experiences was very well done.

  8. I really enjoyed The Age of Wonder, so I think your surprise with made up major characters in a historical novel, valid. As much as I like history (majored in it!), I don’t read many historical novels. I take them too seriously and many times authors invent beyond the (historically) credible. Now, I also believe that is their right as it’s fiction, but it makes it impossible for me to take it seriously. Sometimes I wish I could just lighten up!

    • It was mainly the ending that really took me aback. The author invented a romantic connection for the end of Caroline’s life with no basis in fact (as far as I can tell). It would perhaps have been nice for her to have such a thing, given the way men had treated her up to then, but I would rather have had the novel be true to the way her story really ended.

      I hear you about historical fiction. Sometimes the deviations bother me, sometimes not. What bothers me even more, though, is “nonfiction” that consists of so much speculation that it would be much more smoothly and honestly told as fiction! I couldn’t finish Stacy Shiff’s Cleopatra bio for that reason.

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