... though there may be legions of writers spurned by his blog just willing for Sarvas to fail, this is a self-assured, comic and satisfying story
There was much celebrating and happy emailing going around yesterday, when Kirkus's considerably less kind review (not available online) came across the transom. Still, it's not a train wreck, and there's a usable quote there, too:
The book is fast-paced; there are nice comic touches; and Harry is, finally, rather compelling, selfish and damaged but recognizably human.
So I'm batting .500, which any ball player will tell you is an impressive stat. And what I said the other day holds absolutely true - good review or bad, I know enough to know it's one reader's opinion. I'm grateful for the good and don't take the bad personally. And I've been thinking about readers and opinions all day, since I linked to James Wood's review of His Illegal Self yesterday. (And what follows is a rare bit of thinking out loud, so please read on accordingly.)
When I got the green-light to review this book, I was excited because I love Peter Carey's work and couldn't wait to write about him, but once I got into the book, I was miserable at the prospect that my first bylined review of his work should be a negative one. I was further hobbled by only having about 450 words to make my case - so I do sympathize with PW and Kirkus reviewers - and I lament not having had more space to discuss specific failings of the book, the two key ones being the improbable flight to Australia, and Dial's implausible behavior.
So, of course, when James Wood's glowing review ran yesterday, it made me regret once again not having had more space to make my case. And it became another first - the first time I've reviewed the same novel as Wood, and disagreed no less. Given Wood's stature (and my all too well known fixation), it's enough to make one question one's critical chops.
But here's the thing. Wood touches on at least one of the aspects (though not the other) that troubled me:
Carey needs this never-apologize-never-explain form, not least because he decides to send his errant couple to Australia, not quite credibly. (Why not Mexico?)
The key difference between us is that Wood is quickly able to forgive this in light of the stunning prose of the novel and Carey's use of Wood's beloved free indirect style (about which he writes beautifully in How Fiction Works); whereas in my case, because the foundation of the book was so sloppily laid (and I think Wood is generous in his assessment), I simply could never give myself over to it the way he did. Similarly, I think, Carey fails to make Dial's willingness to throw away her promising future over this adventure remotely credible. These combined failings kept me from falling into the book the way I have with Carey's other novels.
And yet, it's still one person's opinion, isn't it? I remember when I got my first New York Times Book Review assignment. Folks, I don't mind telling you it scared me. Because, although I knew that a good review wouldn't necessarily help the book, a bad one would surely hurt it. And I remember thinking, "Who am I to have such power over someone else's work?" We tend to talk about how "The New York Times hated so-and-so," but it's not the institution, it's an individual who has been given the Times's imprimatur for the day. And so I read all eight or nine of James Wilcox's previous books for an 800-word review because I realized it was something to take very seriously, indeed. (And I was relieved when my second assignment was a first novel.) And now, whenever I read a review - any review - I am acutely aware of the individual sitting with highlighter and post-its at the other end, not the 48-point type name on the masthead.
At any rate, I end the day - and this ramble - reasonably happy with the state of things thus far. Besides, in the end, we all know that what really matters is what Harriet Klausner thinks ...