What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Perils of a Literary "Hommage"

I have to confess that I've got a longish list of pet peeves when it comes to books. I don't read formula romance; remain uninspired by most science fiction and fantasy, and as for the current obsession with werewolves, zombies, vampires and other such critters, fugheddaboutit. I don't like memoirs that read as if the author has just left the set of Oprah Winfrey's show after discussing their blighted childhood -- if that's all that's in a memoir, I'm unimpressed. And oh yeah, I'm not a fan of the literary "hommage". You know, what happened to Scarlett O'Hara after she reminded herself that tomorrow would be another day, or the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice; still less the "let's take that Austen plot and turn it into a modern day story!" phenomenon, or the efforts to have Jane Austen combat zombies alongside Queen Victoria, etc. etc.

But something seems to have changed lately. I greatly enjoyed Lev Grossman's The Magicians and am eagerly waiting to see if NetGalleys will approve my request to read the sequel. On my giant TBR stack sits not only The Meowmorphosis (you've got it -- the nouveau version of Gregor Samsa turns into a cat rather than a giant roach-like insect) but also two of Elizabeth Aston's Pride and Prejudice sequels. (I confess I acquired the latter from the library on learning that the author also wrote the witty and constantly-reread-by-me Mountjoy series of novels -- I suggest starting with Children of Chance.) And then came Daphne, the novel by Justine Picardie that I picked up during my last trip to Fowey, the town near which Daphne du Maurier lived much of her life and where she wrote most of her novels and set many of them (including Rebecca.)

I love many of du Maurier's novels, and I love Fowey (in fact, for more than 20 years I've dreamed of taking over and running the second-hand bookstore there, Bookends of Fowey). After all, why would any rational person not love a place where a short walk along the clifftops brings you to somewhere like Lantic Bay? (see the pic above) Then I read a rather dreadful and un-finishable mystery featuring du Maurier as a sleuth and couldn't bear to read Daphne in case it was another dud. Happily, I can report (now that I forced myself to put those fears aide) that far from being a dud, it's an above-average novel and a great "hommage" to du Maurier.

The book weaves together three separate stories, each revolving around a character facing a crisis in their life. Two are in the past, and feature real people, du Maurier and Bronte scholar J. Alexander Symington; the third is a contemporary young woman struggling with an ill-advised marriage and too fascinated with the middlebrow du Maurier to focus on her plans to write a PhD thesis about the Brontes. All three characters must confront their demons -- Daphne, her troubled marriage and her pain at being critically shunned even as her books become bestsellers; Symington, his past misdeeds as curator of Bronte collections and Daphne's demands on his expertise as she struggles to complete the biography that will become known as The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte and the contemporary first-person narrator's bid for some kind of independence and connection with the broader world. Picardie has managed to capture a bit of what makes du Maurier's novels so atmospheric -- her 21st century narrator is an unnamed character who, like the second Mrs. deWinter, must live in the shadow of a previous spouse about whom her husband will say nothing, leading the new bride to make her own uncomfortable discoveries. Meanwhile, the young woman becomes hypnotized by the past, yearning
"to slip into an old photograph or between the printed lines of a page; to become a  bystander in the past, to see it as it really was rather than as it has been seen in retrospect.”

This isn't a brilliant novel, but as a fan of du Maurier's, I found it great reading. Anyone who has read Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel will nod in recognition at various points throughout the book; anyone who knows the country around Fowey will share Daphne's pain (in Picardie's prose) when she finds herself taking the train up to London from the station at Par. “She knew the journey so well, but dreaded it in this direction, even her favourite part of it," Picardie writes, "when the railway line snaked along the edge of the Devon coastline, seeming to hover almost above the waves.” The fact that Picardie can conjure up the precise feeling that I've had so many times in the past (and shares my precise favorite spot in the rail trip, near Dawlish) helped make this book a 4.2 star read for me. Recommended as a great summer novel: just demanding enough to make you feel smart, without forcing you to try to extract Great Meaningful Ideas from the prose.

For those who haven't yet ventured beyond Rebecca in du Maurier's own oeuvre, here are some suggestions. (And yes, I promise to review The Meowmorphosis!)
  • The King's General: Set the in the English Civil War, a very different kind of love story with an irascible heroine and a hero with issues of his own.
  • The House on the Strand: An early book that I read featuring time travel, set all around the vicinity of Fowey and featuring trips back to the late Middle Ages.
  • The Scapegoat: One of those great stories about doppelgangers and imposters, set in the French countryside. In fact, I may re-read it this summer!
  • Vanishing Cornwall: Combines pictures with stories about the countryside that du Maurier loved so much.

1 comment:

  1. So pleased to have (at last) found one of your recommendations on the shelf at the library (many others are now on my hold list). THANK YOU! I've been reading a bunch of dog poo lately (see my two most recent GoodReads reviews) and needed this lifeline.