Belgravia

by Julian Fellowes

A quick pick from the library, just before I went on a walking holiday.  Though I didn’t take it along – perhaps partly because I didn’t expect to do much reading.

The story is rather forgettable and pretty predictable.  Set in the 1840s, after an initial scene at a party just before the battle of Waterloo which reminded me of Vanity Fair.  The story shows the etiquette and morals of an earlier age, presented through the prism of a 21st century viewpoint.  Fellowes acknowledges the assistance of no less than two historical researchers, but I suppose we should not think the worse of him for not doing his own research.  And yet I feel that by not doing so, he is unable to capture an authentic feeling for the age he is writing about.

The bad guys get their come-uppance, and the good guys come our on top.  What more can you wish for?

I don’t think I will read anything else by Fellowes.  Downton Abbey was a triumph, not of scripting but of a pacy story, believable characters and gorgeous costumes and settings.  Fellowes deserves to be celebrated for that achievement.  Let’s leave his novels well alone.

The Discomfort Zone

by Jonathan Franzen

My second foray into Franzen’s writing, ordered by mistake from the library but hugely enjoyed nonetheless.  I love this author’s use of language, perceptions and indeed the topics and settings he chooses.  In this case, the book is a series of autobiographical essays from Franzen’s childhood and youth.

He is a contemporary of mine (about two years younger) so the era he grew up in, and the Zeitgeist of his life, is something I can relate to. Even though his experience was in the US and mine in the UK, there is a freedom of movement and expression that permeates his youthful experiences and this resonates to quite an extent with what I remember of my younger years.  I don’t think my own children, or the children of today, had this amount of freedom.  Perhaps they are safer as a result – but at a price.

I have another volume of Franzen essays to look forward to (this time purchased, so I can take my time with them).  And then I will savour (I hope) his other novels, and hope that he has a few more in him!

 

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

A short but brilliantly executed novel.  The story is gripping, the plot believable, disturbing, and so tightly told that you don’t need to read ahead or try to second-guess what will happen (though I did both).

The story opens with the main character Fiona Maye, who we are told in the first paragraph is a High Court judge, experiencing some kind of trauma in her emotional life.  We gradually find out what is the cause of her distress, and the novel takes us through Fiona’s analysis of the cases she tries and the unfolding of her own marital problems.  At no point does the reader feel compelled to take sides with either Fiona or her husband Jack.  They are, like the couple in another compact McEwan tale On Chesil Beach, caught up in the cause-and-effect drama of almost any relationship.

Fiona’s work is an important part of the story, and the reader is left to work out to what extent her work influences her personal life (a lot, probably) and to what extent her personal life influences her work (can she be impartial in her judgments when her marriage is in crisis?). McEwan has clearly done his research, and I found the descriptions of family law cases that reach the High Court, and the factors influencing the judgments, fascinating to learn about and also to reflect upon.

I could come back to this novel again and again.  I think McEwan’s best work inhabits a part of one’s consciousness – perhaps because the issues he addresses are both personal and troubling, and encourage us to reflect on our own life decisions.