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on 9 April 2010
Let me first say that I am a Martin Amis fan from way back. I have read - and I own - every book he has written (assuming, of course, that the ever-elusive Invasion of the Space Invaders does not really exist), and my wife gets tired of the War against Cliché I insist stays on the dresser no matter what. You get the idea. Now.

As usual, plot is not really a Martin Amis concern. What we get here is a camera focusing its hard stare on a cloistered (I think that word unusually apt) set of young people spending a hot 1970s summer in a castle in Italy. Wikipedia has the following to say about his 1975 book Dead Babies: " [the novel] has a typically "sixties" plot, with a house full of characters who use various substances.". Here, by contrast, we get a castle full of characters who "use" and/or think about sex. They use and/or think about sex for, oh, I'd say a good 350 of the 460 pages. The remainder of the book relates what happens later to various characters - particularly what happens to the main protagonist Keith. Plotwise, the extended castle introversion is, in my opinion, just no good. It is just flimsy scaffolding for Amis's language, and a very long setup for the final bit which does have a plot that truly engages. Martin Amis has indicated that to know the man - the life - will not affect the art, but here he works hard to dispel this notion. If you know something about his background, and more particularly about the fate of his sister Sally, then the veil between art and life, in the final 100 pages, seems but a mere ripple. This makes the final part of the book intensely sad - I'd go so far as to say that its pathos actually salvages the work.

You don't buy a Martin Amis novel for plot but for style and theme. The theme here is, purportedly, the flip side of the sexual revolution - what it did to women who used their new-found freedom to act as men, even though only very few women truly wanted to be "cocks" as one of the characters in the book has it. Such a theme demands a long hard look at sex, and a long hard look we get. Now, he has himself written about the perils of writing about sex (it being a matter of trying to pilot between a Scylla of schlock and a Charybdis of pornography - and usually failing). His chosen method seems to be to be as candid as a Philip Roth but to avert his gaze in the last instant. Even so, I argue that it occasionally bumps into both Scylla and Charybdis, and I further ungenerously suggest that 100 pages could be cut from the castle chunk of text with no appreciable loss to the reader.

Martin is Mr. or even Dr. Style. Flashes of brilliance are almost unavoidable, and yes, his language in the Pregnant Widow will sometimes dazzle the reader - when it is good, it is really good. I can't really corroborate this (too lazy), but it seems to me that there is more dialogue per text mass than in any previous book. True or not, I submit that stylistic dazzle is not part of that dialogue, and, hence, that stylistic dazzle is in rather spartan supply when compared to the rest of his corpus.

A while back I read Neil Powell's sort of biographical "Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations", and Powell did me a major disservice when he offhandedly alerted me to an Amis stylistic tick. Once noticed, it is hard to ignore, and for this reader it has spoiled much of the book currently under review. The tick is this: in-paragraph repetition. It is absolutely everywhere.

Sometimes in individual sentences:

"After Lily, post-Lily, the new rules of engagement..."

Sometimes more extended:

"The Me Decade wasn't called the Me Decade until 1976 [...] they could be pretty sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all decades were now me decades"

And sometimes he manages to interweave two such repetitions:

"It was all being arranged, history was arranging it - just for Keith. Or so he felt. It was all being done with Keith in mind."

For the old Amis hand, other ticks stand out here too. A specialist's interest in physiological abnormality is something we have come to expect. Massive arse, massive bust, small and/or dysfunctional penis - we have seen it all before. And don't get me started on height. It would seem Amis has given this matter a great deal of thought to put it mildly. Here we get 4'10" Adriano as the midget jester (about the same height as "Keith" back in Dead Babies, methinks), whose diminutive status is much discussed and mocked (What is it with the name "Keith", by the way? Its singular allure to Amis is clear given the number of books in which a major character is so named, but as a reader my patience with Keiths is wearing thin).

His father complained that he was wont to "bugger" with the reader, and this book is no exception. In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh wrote (of a discussion) that " it circled and swooped like a gull, now out to sea, now right on the patch where the offal floated." It might have been about the Amisese mode of narration. We get "the present"; we get "the past", and we get a third person perspective which is sometimes interrupted by an omniscient and smug authorial voice (on occasion rudely butting in to get its say). For me, this omniscient voice is little more than a ploy to inject energy when it, say, indicates that a character certainly needs his wit about him as things are about to get worse. This intrusive mode of narration used to feel much fresher in earlier books.

To read or not to read?
Should you buy it? That depends. I bought it, I read it, and I will buy his next novel too. There is a danger, I think, that his huge stylistic ability will eventually become such a bloated gravity well that it will fall in on itself. Whenever he has something substantial to pin his tapestry of words on - such as a proper plot (real or imagined), a review object, or a strong personal opinion, then he shines. But whether or not he has any gripping fictional stories left in him is a big and gradually more looming issue. The difference between the plot-vacant first 350 pages of bloatware, based on an ephemeral idea, and the moving final 100 pages, where the idea finally hardens, is piercing evidence where his true strengths lie, and his growing unwillingness to avail himself of them. Do you love language for itself, and for what it can be in the hands of a master: buy it, and be impressed. Do you want a book that will have you pat its back lovingly when you have finished - don't.
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on 10 February 2012
Amis must be doing something right - I managed to read this book to the end, and found I just about continued to care about some of the characters, even the relatively minor ones.

I found myself laughing out loud at the "one-liners" in the early part of the book, but thereafter the wit faded. The main "Italian holiday" section had plenty of potential for amusement, intrigue and sex, and yet Amis only partially delivers - although there's obviously some clever irony in the fact that the reader (and the main protagonist Keith) is never quite satisfied, and never reaches the spectacular sex scene - at least, not in the way we (and Keith) imagine it.

Where the novel mainly falls down, however, is in its spectacular pretentiousness. Keith's early witticisms eventually turn into dull showing off (on his and Amis's part) as he ploughs his way through the English novel, author by author (presumably for his studies). And Amis's attempts to explore his (Keith's) emotional and sexual life eventually become so convoluted, alienating and unengaging that you wonder why you ever warmed to him as a character. I started off by recognizing something of myself and my life in the characters, but that feeling soon dissipated.

Of course, all the pretentiousness may be ironic, knowing, arch, or whatever - but ultimately you end up not caring. Sometimes an author pulls the rug from under you so many times the effect becomes tarnished.

The structure, too, eventually falls flat, as if Amis were trying to cram too much detail into the series of truncated chapters at the end, having produced an overlong first section.

What the book did do, however, in addition to amusing me, was challenge me and take me out of my comfort zone. Those are the reasons why you should read it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 March 2011
If you can get over the envy of a privileged sex-filled summer of the middle class youth and the author who wears his intelligence strongly in his writing style, then there are moments of brilliance and a return to form in this very male analysis of the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

The bulk of "The Pregnant Widow" is set in the summer of 1970 in a beautiful Italian castle where the almost 21 year old Keith Nearing, an English Literature student, has come to spend the summer with his on/off girlfriend Lily and her more physically attractive best friend Scheherazade. Amongst the other attendees are a gay couple, an short Italian suitor to the ample chested Scheherezade who is waiting for the arrival of her boyfriend and, critically for the story the ample bottomed Gloria and eventually her rich boyfriend. If this all sounds like one of those enviously indulgent, middle class, sex filled summer of love stories, then partly it is, but this being Martin Amis, there's a lot more depth and sadness attached to the story. It's an investigation into the changing roles of females and particularly their attitudes to sex, and for Keith in particular, the long term implications of this idyllic vacation are not going to be happy and Amis provides a `what happened next' to bring each of his characters up to present day.

Martin Amis' novels are always stylish and original. In his early career he could be quite brilliant but for me at least, his recent novels have not quite sustained this promise and have been more `interesting' than brilliant. With "The Pregnant Widow" there is something of a return to form, not least because he is returning to his best subject areas; namely sex, humour and the self-pitying, British male who is filled with guilt. As often with Amis, the humour is frequently cruel and here in particular is often derived from physical appearances. Keith is filled with guilt about his younger sister, Violet, who makes only a fleeting, but tragic appearance in this book. One suspects that there are elements of Amis' own experience here with his own sister's death, but this is a novel and not an autobiography, so for me the book has to stand on it's own merits. For me, Violet isn't really explored enough to become more than a caricature which is a shame.

There's plenty of Amis' stylish tics here too. Some work better for me than others. His constant use of repeated phrases works well, while his tendency to give the Latin and Greek derivations of words comes across more as a demonstration of his learning than contributing much to the story. And that's sometimes a problem with Amis - I have no doubt that he is far more intelligent than me, but I don't always want it rammed down my throat. Far more forgivable is the frequently stunning unusual metaphors that litter his writing that are a complete joy. Lily for example is said to "sub-edit" her packing. In a stroke, you know what he means and you have an insight to her character.

Again as is common with Amis, it's not all about plot. It's his style that is so attractive and interesting. His ideas are also well thought out. The main thrust of the narrative is the changing role of females in their approach to sex - they behave like boys (although he puts it in slightly cruder terms). Thus it's a stroke of brilliance to have one of his characters, Gloria, reading a book on Joan of Arc and making the point that the crime for which she was burnt was for dressing as a boy. Throughout, Keith is reading classic English novels and musing on the protagonists' sexual adventures, particularly Jane Austin's female characters. Comparing their methods of sexual conquest with Keith's awakening into the post 1960s free love world is thoughtful and works well.

At times, Amis provides acute (male) insight into the sexual revolution, but at others there is a sense of male self-pity. The title itself is a metaphor for bereavement of the old and hope for the new. Few of his characters have much in the way of traits that make them appealing - and those that do, like Lily, tend to fare less well. I found the first half slow moving at times and, with more than usual amounts of dialogue for Amis here, which often jumps around in terms of subject matter, it can be disorientating. The solution is to make sure you read it in sizable chunks. Dipping into it can make for a disjointed read. However, with Gloria's arrival on the scene, things pick up considerably for the reader, if not for all of the characters.

For me, it's not in the same league as works such as "Money", "Time's Arrow" or "Yellow Dog", and if you are new to this writer, then I'd suggest starting with those. However, for long time Amis followers, it is something of a return to form. It's a book I'm glad to have read, but not one that I think that I will pluck of the shelf in a few years with fond recollections. There's a certain coldness about it but when he soars, Amis writes as well as any British writer today.
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VINE VOICEon 23 August 2013
For those who do not know Mr Amis already, this title (and the cover) might lead some to expect a romance about a recently widowed heroine who finds new love, perhaps under a Mediterranean moon. Nope! Definitely nope !!

The phrase "The Pregnant Widow" was coined by a Russian writer, Alexander Herzen, and refers to the post revolutionary vacuum which usually exists between the death of the old order and the birth of the new. In this instance Amis is dealing with the, as yet, in his view, not fully formed or matured feminist movement. Old attitudes are certainly dead, but what has replaced them? So far, nothing satisfactory. That is what the turmoil and angst in this book argues, in novel form.

Martin Amis has a very extravagant and exuberant way with words. Considering the subject matter that he consistently returns to - sex, with all its meats and fluids on full display - without this opulent, ironic style, we would be verging on, if not up to our eyes in, the realm of serious smut. But he can carry it off, and with panache. He manages, seemingly effortlessly, to take the English language and march it wherever he chooses, through the murkiest terrains, and it comes through smiling, as do we.
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VINE VOICEon 17 May 2010
I really enjoyed this book - having not read Amis since Time's Arrow or the Nature of the Offence I treated myself and bought a signed copy of the hardback, and was by no means disappointed.

The book is mainly based in the summer of 1970 in a castle in Italy, essentially looking at the changing attidutes towards sex by both males and females... the book starts with the Larkin verse telling us the "Sexual Intercourse began in 1963".... and concerns the main protagonist (Keith) plotting his sexual liaisons with three women. The women (his girlfriend Lily, Scheherazde and Gloria) are all introduced not only by name, but also by vital statistics and Amis has created an array of characters (among them a 4ft 10" dwarf, whose redeeming features include his wealth and the fact his swimming trunks show him to be "well endowed"), which it is impossible to empathise with and are not likeable, but you want to carry on reading, such is the reason why I found this book difficult to review.

In usual Amis style, complete tangents come and go, some mid sentence, and it is not a book you can "dip" into with a few pages here and there; you really need to read a whole chapter (or more) in one sitting, otherwise you are left wondering "now, where was I" and more importantly "where's the story". However, the writing is wonderful, making you want to read on, and find out what happens to each of the characters, even though you don't particularly like them.

The main story is interspersed with "intervals" where the current Keith looks back and reflects, whilst there is also a "Coda" to the main story, outlining events from 1970 to the current day.

Perhaps not one for new fans of Amis, however I certainly enjoyed it and would readily recommend it for any fan of contemporary literature, who likes to engross themselves in a well written novel, which is a little more of a challenge than your everyday "airport paperback".
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on 7 January 2013
I find the majority of criticism about Martin Amis frightfully tedious.

This book is hilarious, and gripping, (even though very little happens) and ultimately highly moving and sad. You realise that for all the sexual tension, the male leering, the slapstick and the jokes, it's actually about something quite important.

Reading comments about Amis here and elsewhere, one gets the impression there is a large number of people out there who can't enjoy a literary novel unless they agree with characters' actions and motives, their politics and feelings, as if the purpose of literature is to serve a social agenda. This is REALLY not the purpose of literature.

Martin Amis is not a chauvinist pig, though there are elements in this book that could have you believe that, and it is written from the point of view of a man in the 70's, a time when I get the impression many, if not most men were chauvinist pigs, so I don't think any apology for this is needed.

That said, Martin Amis is no longer, I believe, writing with the pugnacious and biting humor of his heyday (London Fields, Money etc), but he is still very very funny, intelligent and utterly cool, and I think this is a brilliantly realised and stylised novel.
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on 16 June 2014
I enjoyed this book for Martin Amis's style and I found it unputdownable, because of the flow of his English. If you like reflective books about relationships, this is for you. But if you are strait-laced, don't bother. Amis uses words of a sexual implication a great deal, but the book IS set in 1970. There is no word that is used simply for itself. Plus there are no overt descriptions of sex, if that is what you are after. This is literary fiction at its best. I shall buy more Martin Amis books now.
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on 6 April 2010
Martin Amis has once more asserted himself as a master of the modern novel. In this, his fourteenth novel, Amis succeeds brilliantly in harnessing his formidable array of literary armoury to report on yet more interesting aspects of the contemporary human condition. While his characters are certainly unlikeable (and unlikely to be easily identified and empathised with), their stories abound with a witty and pithy truth. The many traducers of other Amis outings, most notably Yellow Dog, will find much to scorn and ridicule in the Pregnant Widow, but for those readers who can connect with high farce and pin-point satire there is much to amuse and entertain.
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on 25 May 2011
Martin Amis is my favourite author, which makes it all the more painful to leave a 1 star review. I only finished this book out of a sense of duty to a writer who has given me so much pleasure in the past. Obviously reviews of books are just people's opinions so you can take or leave mine. I'll keep it fairly brief: This book isn't funny, there's the odd moment where I smiled, there was however no laughter on my part. A crude summary, mixture of posh and less posh students go away to ponce around in a friend's villa during the summer vacation. Will they get laid, won't they get laid, after a while you don't care. They read books. They lie in the sun. They go to the village and for the odd outing. The plot contains frequent references to the various books being read by this group of students. It probably helps if you've read these so you know what they are on about and how salient or otherwise their discussions may be. There are frequent references to the latin or greek derivation of words, so I suppose you're learning as you read. Plenty of obscure words to keep you scratching your head. Couple of token homosexuals drift in and out of proceedings. There are some great descriptive passages that paint a vivid picture here and there.

I was rather jaded to see yet another character called Keith and yet more obsessing over being short. Keith (brainy student) himself is 5'6, whilst there is also a chap (name escapes me) who is under 5' tall. Call me a cod psychologist but I can't help this is a reflection of Martin's (brainy student) own issues with being a short-arse himself. If you've read any of his other, better work you'll be familiar with short people and people called Keith.

Maybe I'm just too much of a thickie to 'get' this book, maybe Martin Amis is just a rock star chruning out another album to meet a contarctual obligation. Either way, this book just didn't do it for me. What a shame..
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on 5 November 2014
To paraphrase my old English Lit teacher - "Amis is inebriated by his own verbose pomposity." Or to put it another way, "The Pregnant Widow" is a hollow, pretentious and stultifyingly dull novel. A mind-numbingly awful and embarrassing clunk of a book that tries to unravel the "mysteries" of love and youth, but is about as enlightening as watching your 65 year old drunken dad trying to breakdance at a wedding. With his tie round his head. While singing. Staggering to believe that this is the same man who lit up the late 80s with "London Fields" and "Money", and one who should really should have better things to do with his pen than churn out this dross. Avoid at all costs.
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