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Disappointing for such a good writer
on 18 February 2012
I bought this book - off Amazon - imagining that it was going to be largely about the characters' time and studies in Oxford and (with a group of wealthy characters whose circle is 'broken' by the presence of a man from a different social class) about the class situation in Britain of the 1980s. Unfortunately Oxford seems only to form a faint backdrop to the first part of a story about a group of very over-privileged and quite self-satisfied people with more money than sense, whose lives are disrupted first by the arrival of Johnny the 'gypsy lad' who's never known real tenderness, and then by the obsession of the beautiful, cool rich beauty in the group, Melissa, with restoring the ruined Victorian manor left to her by a relative. The characters are rather stereotypical - practical Ernestine the cookery writer; glamorous cold Melissa; kindly, oh-so-English Will, impotent in more ways than one, at least for a while; Giles the drug addict who reforms spectacularly, and Frank, the Rhodes scholar and lover of literature who fails repeatedly to see what's under his nose as his head's in the clouds. From about halfway through the book the novel turns into a thriller, as it becomes clear that there's a psychopath in the characters' midst. From then on it gets nastier and nastier. My trouble was that I couldn't care very much about most of the pampered, over-wealthy, self-indulgent friends and their 'wild' Oxford parties (and the name of their group hardly made sense as they didn't appear in the least bohemian). I had a certain sympathy for Johnny, the man everyone assumed was the villain, and thought that Saunders wrote rather interestingly about his anguish, but on the whole I just couldn't get engaged with the novel and I'm afraid read it very fast indeed. There were also some rather unpleasant sex scenes. The pity is that I think Saunders (whose journalism I much enjoy) could be a really good writer if she wasn't trying to fit the popular market so hard - the material about Johnny was very interesting, and some of the dialogues were convincing, as were a few of her characters' situations. And the quotes from poems show that she knows more about literature than a lot of popular writers. But this novel was trying far too hard to be a sensational thriller spiced with naughty or violent sex.
Two queries - would many girls, even from upper-class backgrounds, have been called Ernestine in the 1960s or 70s? It's a very old fashioned and clumsy name - the only person I know called it is now nearly 100, and hated the name even as a young woman! And would an upper-class boy really be called Craig, as Cicely's husband is?
I've got 'Night Shall Overtake Us' and 'Bachelor Boys' by Kate Saunders on my 'to read' pile, and at first glance both look a lot better so I'm looking forward to them. But this one definitely wasn't much fun.