Friday, January 4, 2008

Alison Lurie/ONLY CHILDREN

Alison Lurie seems to be a well-regarded writer (indeed, one of the puffs on the cover of my rather old edition has the hyperbolic claim by British author John Braine that "there is quite simply no better living writer"!), and this book came to me with a warm-ish recommendation from a friend (yes, we're great book-swappers here in China), but I'm afraid I found it deeply uninspiring.

It's a short read, at a little over 200 pages in a fairly small format, but I very nearly gave up on it half-way through. The writing is not bad, but it's certainly not scintillating. And there doesn't really seem to be any point to it - other than overindulging in a writerly exercise to explore how far one can render the adult world interestingly from a child's perspective. The answer, for me, is not very far: a long-ish short story, maybe, but not a novel.

There is nothing of substance here. Two ill-matched American families spend a long weekend in the country together over the 4th July holiday at some point in the mid- to late-1930s. There are passing references to the Great Depression - and, even more fleetingly, to the rise of Fascism in Europe - but this is scarcely relevant background. It is a simple study of the interactions between adults and children, and between men and women (chiefly driven by the compulsive womanizing of one of the two husbands). Some of the accounts of domestic storms, squabbles and reconciliations are reasonably effective; but the restricted timeframe - just 4 days - denies any chance of there actually being a story.

The novel attempts to distinguish itself with its gimmick of intermittently describing the world as perceived through the imaginations of the 8-year-old daughters of the two families, and also sometimes of describing their fantastical daydreams. This has a certain charm or interest early on, but Lurie can't sustain it; or tries to do so for too long. Well before the end of the book, I found these passages of the childish world-view merely grating. It's not even terribly convincing: there is, I think, too much adult sophistication intruding into the make-believe games of the children. The authorial persona lacks authenticity, and even consistency: at times we seem to be purely inside one or other of the little girl's heads; but at others there is an awkward mixture of the naive child's voice with something more like the conventional third person narration of most of the book. This tends to create the impression that the narrator is in fact one of the girls now grown up, who is attempting to reimagine from her present-day adult perspective how she experienced the world as a child; although this is not, I think, the effect Lurie was striving for.

Many people might find this a diverting read, particularly if they favour domestic dramas and better-than-average writing. Me, I tend to hold out for compelling stories and truly exceptional writing - so this didn't really do anything for me.

2 comments:

cyn said...

a great review, even if not a good read. thanks for your thoughts! where are you living in china?

Froog said...

Thanks, Cyn. You should check out my blogs - I have been living in Beijing since 2002.