Her mother’s death and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the superficiality of her life are the catalysts for thirty-five year old Rosa to impulsively quit her job as a successful journalist for a London newspaper and enter a painfully long meltdown. Rosa has no prospects or plans and her life rapidly disintegrates. A decade-long live-in relationship with her handsome, but vapid boyfriend abruptly ends and she moves in with a friend. She soon finds out that her ex and her closest friend are about to be married. Without income or job prospects (she’s not really looking), her debt mounts and she wears out one and then another friend’s hospitality. She’s reduced her assets down to a few changes of clothes and a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the complete works of Shakespeare as the train wreck continues in painful slow motion.
I wanted to like this book. The US cover art and back cover blurb are misleading and would lead one to believe Inglorious is chick-lit – far from it. Joanna Kavenna won the Orange award for new writers, so my expectations were high. Kavenna is indeed a gifted writer, her prose is beautiful and Inglorious is an ambitious work that just misses the mark. The novel is relatively plot-less and the ending is unresolved and pessimistic. The work feels much more like an open ended character study, than a completed novel and even that I could indulge, but I found there were inconsistencies that kept pulling me out of the often lovely fictive dream the author created and they made me question the veracity of Rosa’s thoughts and actions.
Rosa has many of the symptoms of someone entering a deep, clinical depression, but she’s got none of the lethargy associated with depression and a version of mental mania that closely resembles logorrhea – if there were a non-verbal kind. She is an obsessive list-maker and letter writer, although she never manages to cross anything off the lists and the letters are promptly torn up and tossed. What keeps one reading is that she is darkly funny. She spends a good deal of the first third of the book wandering the streets of London and we float through her stream of consciousness as she ponders the meaning of existence and tries to work through various philosophical concepts and ideas, while niggling reminders of her need to find employment, lodging and cash continue to intrude. I found myself at times fascinated with her trains of thought, but at other times annoyed that she has the time and energy to wander aimlessly around London, sit in coffee shops writing endless lists and letters, but she doesn’t have the inclination to take care of her own basic survival needs. Her symptoms are so incongruous with the forms of mental illness I’ve witnessed that I found myself distracted trying to identify her pathology in order to resist the idea that she is simply spoiled and self-indulgent.
Rosa’s situation goes from bad to worse and she continues to deteriorate and cut herself off from friends and socially acceptable behavior.Again, I found myself wondering about her friends' seeming obliviousness and indifference to her condition.
Readers will be polarized about this book. Some will forgive the lack of conventional story and character and be charmed by the author’s keen sense of irony and the admittedly fine writing that often displays flashes of brilliance. Others may find that the references and quotes border on pretentiousness and lose patience. The fact that I had to stop to and consider which camp I was in and my inability to buy into the reality of Rosa’s breakdown left me with the feeling that this was a valiant effort, but the author didn’t quite pull it off.