33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
I know Marina Lewycka's new releases are eagerly anticipated by a lot of people, so I'm pleased to report that this fan wasn't disappointed and found this latest one to be full of her trademark colourful characters and wonderfully witty observations.
Marcus and Doro are a couple of old hippies who lived the communal good life in the 1970s and tried to bring their children up to believe in their leftie wholegrain values. As is so often the way, however, their children Serge and Clara (named after revolutionaries) have rebelled against their parents and taken very conventional paths (City trader and primary school teacher respectively). There's a real sense of time and place about the description the lifestyle of Marcus and Doro's and their fellow commune-dwellers, from the swinging and banner waving of the 60s and 70s through to their support for the miner's strike in the 80s, mixing their own brand of leftie intellectual politics with the rough and ready survival philosophy of the locals. It's all observed in a very nostalgic, affectionate manner with only the very slightest hint of gentle mockery. Indeed, when one of his fellow commune kids (now an IT whizz) admits that he envies their parents for at least believing in something, Serge (the City trader) jokes "I know, values and stuff. It all seems a bit retro".
The more contemporary storyline is played out against the background of the financial crisis of 2008 with banks collapsing, share prices falling through the floor and, of course, the demise of Woolworths. Serge is in the thick of it, while Clara's troubles are closer to home as she battles to educate the children (and parents) of a Doncaster council estate. Their sister Oolie-Anna, who has Down's Syndrome, comes across as the most grounded and least politically-correct member of the family - and is very funny.
In fact I laughed out loud several times throughout the book, and nodded with recognition a few more - her characterisation and ear for dialogue (whether it's Eastern European or broad South Yorkshire) is, as usual, spot-on. Oh and a word about the pets; the emphasis is definitely on the `dead' (animal lovers should brace themselves) but there's nothing anywhere near as bad as the infamous chicken scene in Two Caravans!
54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on 2 March 2012
Marina Lewycka has a wonderful and delicious way of seeing and hearing the world and people around her. Then she writes her story with the type of humour and situational placements that embellish storytelling so well.
I read this book as soon as I could and was as delighted as with her first book which entranced me. She is at the top of her form in this quirky and wonderful novel about idealistic naivete of the 'flower power' days and life in the harsh economic reality of today.
She runs the stories of two generations side by side and both dip into each other. I am old enough to recognise the parents in this book with wry humour and am insulted with Doro at being called an attractive woman 'for your age'. Lewycka draws on her considerable talent to clearly describe the confusion of political ideals and communal living styles that abounded in the 60s and 70s and embodied by the twenty somethings while bringing up their children to be non materialistic.
Of course, those children grew up into their own political and financial reality and looked at their anachronistic parents with fondness and a little embarrassment, but that does happen with every generation. It is just that Lewycka is so very good at juxtaposing these things and showing us a well drawn perception that has all her characters leaping off the page at the reader.
She deals with social tension extraordinarily well and can bring everything crashing down with humorous slapstick. A treasure of a book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 20 April 2013
I've read and enjoyed Lewycka's previous books and was really looking forward to this one, but it doesn't quite deliver. It's still a good read and I would recommend it, but I found the ending rather unsatisfactory, and it left me feeling vaguely like I'd been mislead and then let down.
The good news is that Lewycka has improved tremendously as a writer. Her style is easy to read without being simple, she writes convincingly about things that you are pretty sure she can't really know THAT much about, and she knows how to tell a story so that you want to keep turning the pages.
And, for most of the time, this book doesn't disappoint. It is written in three intertwining threads, from the points of view of three different characters - a mother and her son and daughter. And this is very well done, with just enough left unexplained, but, at the same time, little nuggets of explanation scattered just often enough to keep you turning the pages.
In this way the story progresses nicely, both amusing you and keeping you interested, as the pace and complexity gradually builds up to (hopefully) a climax. Except that it doesn't. And this is the real disappointment with this book. There is an ending, a bringing together of threads, of sorts, but it left me both confused about what exactly had happened (and why!) and feeling unsatisfied that I'd lived with that story for so long, only to find some of my questions still unanswered.
She also includes a sort of epilogue, written from the perspective of a fourth character (the father/husband) who has only appeared on the periphery of the story until then. This could have been a very nice touch, a chance to tie up the loose ends as he looks back over how things ended, and a chance for a surprisingly different take on what happened. But, unfortunately, it doesn't really work. This epilogue just adds to the confusion, and it is so brief and confusing it makes the ending even less satisfactory, when (presumably) it was intended to do the very opposite.
One other comment - I didn't find it as funny as her previous books. I very rarely find myself laughing out loud at books that are described as `laugh out loud', but I do at least usually find them pretty funny and occasionally do embarrass myself on the train or bus. But I think I actually only laughed once with this book, and most of the rest of the time I didn't find it particularly amusing. Indeed there are one or two places where it feels like she is rather too desperately trying to write comic farce, and she just doesn't pull it off (which is a pity, because we know she can do it).
But, all in all, a mostly good read, and well worth reading - just not her best, I'm afraid.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
From the same author I really enjoyed 'A short history of tractors in Ukrainian' and 'Two Caravans', both of which I found original and witty, especially her first novel, the stories of which revolved around immigrants from Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Her third novel 'We are all made of glue' was still good but didn't quite reach the heights of the first two.
'Various pets alive and dead' is Marina Lewycka's fourth novel, and although by no means bad, it didn't hit the spot in quite the same way as her first two novels. The story involves Doro and Marcus, who lived in a neo-Marxist style commune in the 1960's and now find themselves in the modern world with three grown up children; Clara, a primary school teacher, Serge, a mathematician and investment banker, and Oolie-Anna who has Down's Syndrome. Much of the humour juxtaposes the values and morals of the 1960's generation against that of the moderm world, and also the traditional values of the northern community in Doncaster with that of the City of London.
Although the book does have its humourous moments, the story cuts around between the characters, and back and forward from the 1960's to the present day, many of the characters are caricatures (as to be expected in this type of novel). Picking the City of London wide-boy culture as a target for satire is really a rather easy one, and again although some of this was amusing, it seemed rather obvious in places. I found some of the stories and scenes from the 60's commune rather uninteresting, and the story lines didn't really go very far. The amoral Maroushka, the Ukranian ex-cleaner and maths-whizz, seemed contrived beyond belief (I guess there had to be a Ukranian in there somewhere!), and some of the threads didn't seem to resolve themselves, eg. did Serge liberate his funds or not? Who started the fire? Also, I wasn't sure the humour around Oolie-Anna and her constant references to shagging was in particularly good taste either. I guess the reader will have to decide that for themselves.
The end result was something of a hotchpotch for me. I had high hopes for the book, and although I didn't actively dislike it, found it weak compared to Marina Lewycka's previous novels.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2014
I finished this last night and can't quite decide what I think of it. I have read both 'A short history of Tractors ..' and ' the Caravans book . I quite enjoyed the quirkiness of 'Tractors' but was less keen on 'the ' Two Caravans' one as I felt it was rather too unrealistic.
This book annoyed me to begin with as the characters had stupid names Doro and Oolie Anna to name just two. I am probably being too critical but things like that, twee names just rub me up the wrong way.
I persevered though and at times I quite enjoyed the humour and poking fun at the politics and financial world during the banking crisis.
It was a bit of an eye opener to read about just how much the world of business is manipulated by the banking world. Quite scary in fact I know it is a work of fiction but the author obviously did a lot of research as she thanks specific people at the end of the book.
It was nice to have a person with Down's Syndrome written about in a positive way , in fact two in the book but one was a main character and in a gentle and humorous way the author does highlight the difficulties faced by a family when making life decisions for these vulnerable adults.
I think what I find a bit frustrating about this book is that nothing actually moves forward as a story. It is more a look at the lives of one family and those that they have touched throughout their lives. I want to know what happens to the characters. Does Serge keep his ill gotten gains or does he go back to just being a poor PHD student.
It is all a bit vague and fluffy . the story jumped around from past to present through flash backs of the different characters. We follow all the three children of the main two characters Doro and Marcus, Serge who they believe is doing his PHD is actually working for big money in banking in London, Clara is a teacher in a challenging school and Oolie Anna the Child with Down's is still living at home but wants a flat of her own in a sheltered housing complex.
In a way ends are tied up and during the book rather too many coincidences happen but I think that is part of the author's style. She writes in a slightly tongue in cheek way and has a dry sense of humour.
Serge is doing very well in baking and rather fancies a young girl, Maroushka from Eastern Europe and being of Eastern European descent Lewcka catches the accent really well and describes the young girl perfectly so you really feel you can see her.
I think this is a book to read with an open mind. Go with the flow and where the author takes you. You cannot read it expecting a story that follows through and tells a classic story that has a satisfactory 'happy ever after' ending so in that way it is kind of like real life.
The characters are larger than life really. they are caricatures of those they represent so in that way they are believable yet also amusing so you can't take them seriously.
I think on balance it was quite an enjoyable read. The title somewhat baffles me as although some pets are mentioned , really they are only one side story.
This is the kind of story that would translate into a good film as their is not really a traditional story, it is a more of a character study set in the time frame of my life.I would think I was much the same age as the parents, Doro and Marcus and the children around the same age as mine.
I never joined in the commune life style but i was not really greatly into politics but I do remember the miner's strike ( who doesn't?) and that commune and alternative living was big at that time.
The banking crisis is still being felt and so this book is pretty much current and up to date so that gives it more of a feeling that you are looking at a family today, more like chatting to a friend and picking up glimpses of things happening in their children's lives just as you might in real life.
If you enjoyed her previous two books then give this a try. Don't expect a deep meaningful book. It is a modern tale told with wit , observation and a lot of tongue in cheek humour.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Various Pets Alive And Dead is the story of Serge and Clara, both former commune kids whose parents were activists in their younger days. Each has grown up to rebel or conform in their own way, Clara has become an ordinary member of society, Serge has gone in the polar opposite direction and become a stock broker. Their younger sister Ulyana who has Downs Syndrome still lives at home; and for reasons none can explain their long cohabiting parents are suddenly desperate to reunite the old gang, and formally marry.
Having already read A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian and found it deeply unfunny despite its marketing as a comic novel, I doubt I would ever have voluntarily read Various Pets Alive And Dead which was a book club choice. This was also marketed as a comic novel, HILARIOUS, claims the front cover. I didn't laugh once.
The entire Serge story is disengaging and beyond annoying, attempting to declare its own relevancy by having Northern Rock and Woolworths collapsing about him. This entire storyline made my eyes glaze over and I really couldn't have cared less. My entire reading group concurred that the novel would have been vastly improved without Serge. At one point he wanders into the lair of a dominatrix, awkwardly encounters a colleague, and wanders back out again. It hangs in mid air with a question mark as to why this scene exists, as do much of the other events.
Of his sisters Clara's storyline reminded me entirely of A Casual Vacancy (not a compliment) as she inhabits a cliche of a downtrodden and mousy primary school teacher attempting to do good on an estate. All the working class people are of course, a Daily Mail stereotype of grubby underfed chavs who would steal your purse as soon as look at you.
Their sister who has Downs is the most embarrassingly written of the lot, there is nothing to her character whatsoever other than an uninhibited and inappropriately expressed desire for sex, with no other personality to speak of else. Did research into Downs basically amount to a bit of googling here?
There are two shoutouts for equality here though, for one it's nice to have a character with a disability in a novel, doesn't happen often, and for two a cardboard cutout with no depth she may well be but at least the same can be said of every other character in the novel. She hasn't received any lesser treatment, all are two dimensional at best.
A further problem exists in that there really is no plot to speak of making this a character led piece with rubbish characters. Throughout the book I kept thinking that the real story in this book belonged to the prime of the commune and perhaps particularly to the fire that destroyed it, and that a novel which had laid its focus there would have been a better one. Surely the idea that children reject the values of their parents is an obvious and worn one?
Some people said that perhaps books about communes had been overdone but I couldn't think of any.
For me, there was a total disengagement, I was not at any point involved with this novel. It was literally just words on a page that I turned. I certainly did not enter its world or feel anything except irritation at any point.
In fact, personally, the novel had just two high points, my home town got name-checked and you never see it in literature and also an obscure pub in London that I happen to have been in, the road its on, and the cemetery opposite. When those are your take away highlights from a novel that is nearly 400 pages long, you've got a problem.
The denouement is terrible, one of those summations of what happened to everyone which I happen to loathe, there's a "revelation" in there which has no impact because you don't care, and you realise that the whole pretext of "the plot" came to naught. Outcomes for other characters seem hastily concocted as though a deadline approached. Some further, cliched, distasteful, remarks are made about the sex life of our Downs Syndrome character.
Dismal. I've read this, now you don't have to. Avoid.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Marcus Lerner and Doro (real name Dorothy) Marchmont belonged to the 1960s generation of idealistic, hippy young people who lived in a commune called Solidarity Hall; in the 1980s they sided with striking miners. They have four children (whose surname, for some reason I must have missed, is Free): Clara, who teaches in a primary school; Serge, who is a trader in the City; Otto (who doesn't figure much in the book) and Star (who doesn't figure at all); and a much loved "adopted" (they never got round to the formalities) daughter Oolie-Anna (real name Ulyana), who has Downs Syndrome and whom her mother, once a member of their commune, had abandoned. Marcus, Doro, Clara and Oolie-Anna now live in Yorkshire. They think that Serge is working for a Ph.D in mathematics at Queens' College, Cambridge. He hasn't dared tell them that he is now working as a financial trader with a firm in the City, together with young whizz-kids from several countries; and pretty ruthless bunch his colleagues are: social conscience is for the birds; all that matters is making money for themselves, and when the crash of 2008 happens, they slaver over the pickings to be made by privatization. Among the most ruthless is the gorgeous Ukrainian, Maroushka Malko, who obsesses Serge.
The 77 short chapters flip back and forth in time and also between the stories of Doro, Clara and Serge. Lewycka is good at describing the past and present life-style of Marcus and Doro; her portrait of Oolie-Anna is an endearing one; and she is also knowledgeable about the technicalities of finance. The chapters about Doro and Clara are very episodic, with not much to tie them together in a plot-line; but those dealing with Serge do tell a continuous story. Serge has done some irregular trading on his own account; but then there is the crash of 2008, and he is in deep trouble, which he tries to get out of with more skulduggery.
Towards the end of the book there are some surprise revelations about just how various people are related; but I don't think they make us see the earlier parts of the book in a significantly new light. As in her earlier novels, Lewycka's observations are often witty, the situations she describes are sometimes funny and sometimes farcical; but I felt this book fell quite a long way short of her earlier ones. (I see that I gave five stars to Tractors, four stars to Caravans, and three starts to Glue - so I fear that, for me at least, there is a trend.) Unusually for me, I let several days pass between instalments of reading it, because it just didn't grip me. One drawback of this was also that I couldn't always remember between one instalment and the next who all the large number of minor characters in the story were. And if you can make sense of the helter-skelter end, you are doing better than I did!
The several pets of the title are not central to the story, though one of them - a hamster - is also a metaphor, comparing the financial traders to being trapped in a relentless hamster wheel.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Pros - brilliant characters, deep and detailed plot, thoroughly engrossing, very funny.
Cons - tough to get into, doesn't quite have the punch you'd hope for at the end.
Having read and enjoyed Lewycka's previous books so much I'm not really sure why I have left this sitting on the shelf for months. Initially, I thought maybe I had made the right choice as I struggled to get into it, I can understand why some reviewers gave it up. However, as the book goes on it becomes more and more compelling, at some points being outrageously funny, while at others being heart-breakingly touching.
What I also love about this book is the way that Lewycka writes such wonderful characters, some might rightly say carictitures but I dispute this to be a bad thing. Rarely do you read books that are so fully realised through the dialogue.
The plot introduces radical socialist ideas set against the backdrop of the miners strike, the mundanities and challenges of working in schools in struggling Northern cities and the hedonistic mess of city banking during the collapse of the financial world, all of which are perfectly woven together through the three main protagonists.
I will confess the end felt a little rushed, but overall this is a really great novel, and once it gets you it is very difficult to put down.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 October 2013
Monica Lewycka's fourth novel is written in that same distinctive style that has become her trademark and once again deftly combines serious issues with her talent for the humorous. In this novel her theme is the opposing lifestyle of hippie free thinking parents in comparison to the capitalist lifestyle of one of their children.
The protagonists are Doro and Marcus retired teachers who lived in a commune from the late 60's to the early 90's and brought up their children to embrace the free love and relaxed living. The three siblings Serge, Clara and Oolie Anna have not turned out quite as expected though. Serge is not studying at Cambridge for a Phd as they think, but living the capitalist lifestyle that they so oppose. Clara has followed in their footsteps in that she has become a teacher but she has a passion for cleanliness and tidiness, whilst the youngest daughter who has Downs Syndrome is keen to be allowed to lead an independent life.
In her unique style of combining the farcical with ordinary life she has cleverly used the numerous animals that feature to give this novel a very witty title.
I recommend the work of this author and if you have enjoyed her previous novels will be surprised if you do not enjoy this one.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 April 2013
I was really looking forward to this book having read Marina Lewycka's previous 3 offerings but this was a little bit disappointing. The characters were good and well formed if a little predictable and the descriptive writing was great but the story just went nowhere.