The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

by Joël Dicker

I had read reviews about this book and put it on my ‘wishlist’, and then when I saw it at a book sale for £1 I immediately picked it up.  The seller recommended it as well – and that was good enough for me.  Having read it now, I am in two minds about this novel.

Positives:  It is an intriguing whodunnit, and keeps the reader guessing almost to the end.  Many of the characters are stereotypes, but there is enough interest in them, and an ambiguity that leaves you wondering, even about the most apparently innocuous character, “could he/she be the murderer?”.  The relationship between Marcus Goldman and the detective is interesting and plausible – they complement each other’s abilities, and solve the mystery together, and yet maintain a healthy distance almost to the end. The book’s structure is compelling, even if a little forced at times: the older writer and mentor, Harry Quebert, coaches Goldman in bite-sized chunks of advice, chapter by chapter, as the story (and his book) unfolds.  The New England setting is recognisable from Stephen King, Philip Roth and John Updike’s work, and is convincing enough to someone who, like me, has never been there.  I am not qualified to say whether it would convince a New Englander.  After all, the author is Swiss – but as I know only too well, most educated Swiss have the opportunity to spend time in English-speaking countries.  The best thing about this book is the translation: fluid, idiomatic, utterly believable.  Given the North American setting and Sam Taylor’s superb translation, it is quite hard to believe that this book was actually written in French.

Negatives:  The book is too long.  I was totally gripped until about two-thirds of the way through (the length of an average novel) and the last third was a bit of a slog.  Some characters are frankly unbelievable, and these tend to be the female ones. Goldman’s mother is a stereotypical Jewish mom whose only concerns seem to be a desire for her son to be married, and paranoia that he might be gay.  Tamara Quinn is obsessively concerned with her position in society and finding her daughter a suitable match – and yet she manages to run a successful café business which she then passes on to her daughter.  The women in this book, without exception, are not ‘movers and shakers’.  Perhaps this reflects the Swiss culture of the author!  Luther Caleb, a promising young man from a humble background who experiences a brutal and disfiguring attack early in his adult life, is portrayed as dim-witted as well as physically disabled.  Can he really achieve no better position than that of chauffeur, after such a promising start in life?  Perhaps he suffered some brain damage as well as a damaged facial expression and speech defect – but this is never stated, even implicitly.

Critics have made comparisons with Roth, Franzen, Bellow.  I can’t comment on the latter, having – to my shame – never read anything by Saul Bellow.  I don’t see any particular similarity to the Franzen works I have read.  I did read a French review accusing Dicker of, effectively, plagiarising Roth’s The Human Stain.  I haven’t read Roth’s book (which appears to have a very different plot and characters), so can’t comment on whether the college professor/writer relationship bears any similarity.  But even if it does, this can be understood in the acknowledged fact of Dicker’s admiration of the older writer.

Let’s not allow this accusation to spoil our appreciation of what is, after all, an achievement of some quality from Dicker and Taylor.

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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!

 

Freedom

by Jonathan Franzen

What got me started on Franzen?  It was in fact a FutureLearn course that I have started but not progressed very far with – Literature in the Digital AgeI’m still not sure whether I will continue with this course, but a photograph of the cover of this novel was shown alongside another cover page – of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on one of the course videos.  I don’t remember the point that was being made, but it encouraged me to look up Franzen and Freedom, and download a sample.  I liked what I read, and immediately ordered this book from my local library.

On my next visit to the library, I saw a copy of Franzen’s Purity on the shelf, and borrowed it.  But I hadn’t started to read this before Freedom arrived, so I turned to my first choice and returned Purity to the library.

I love Franzen’s writing style and the stories, and especially the characters, that he is able to bring to life.  I feel as if I know Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey and Walter’s best friend Richard at least as well as I know my own family members.  Perhaps it helps that three of the four main characters are contemporaries of mine, so I can see their lives and choices in the context of my own life.  Growing up in the seventies; raising a young family in the eighties; being interested in matters of global concern while still trying to create a comfortable and warm home environment; nurturing and encouraging one’s children but being unsure whether you have done it right.  There are so many freedoms that the book’s title may refer to.  Fundamentally, I think this novel is about choices and their consequences.  Patty fancies Richard but chooses to live her life with Walter.  Richard chooses the lifestyle of a rock musician but values (and secretly envies) Patty’s and Walter’s  home life.  Patty has achieved success as an athlete but is insecure and has never met her parents’ aspirations for her.  Walter and Joey choose to become involved with what turns out to be a corrupt organisation – and subsequently choose to distance themselves from it.

We are, perhaps, the ‘freedom generation’.  Our parents and grandparents had far fewer choices.  And, in some ways, we had more choice than our children, who are more financially constrained than we were.  I chose, like Patty, to stay at home with my young children.  Few new parents these days have the freedom to make that choice.

The novel seems to me to be asking the question: “Does freedom of choice make you happy?”  The answer appears to be a qualified “No”.  You make mistakes, not all of which can be remedied.

This novel also contains plenty of humour, and some stupendous images and accomplished writing.  An brief example:

Patty felt like she was dealing with a huge ball of Bazooka that she couldn’t get unguided from her fingers; the strands of Veronica’s logic were boundlessly elastic and adhered not only to Patty but to themselves.

Or the often-quoted observation by Walter Berglund:

People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.

I’m about to read some of Franzen’s non-fiction, and will definitely return to his other novels at some point.  He is a couple of years younger than me – and so I hope that he has a few more novels in him!