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.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Two Novels in Search of the Right Label

There must be a word out there to describe these books, and others like them. Neither 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson nor The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison could be labeled "chick lit"; yet neither are they historical fiction. They are, most definitely, targeted at the women buying books (which, all the studies tell us, are the majority of book buyers) and probably wouldn't interest many male readers, and yet, while both rely heavily on romance for part of their appeal, don't fall squarely into the romance genre either. Both have aspirations beyond being genre fiction, and yet both fall well short of being literary fiction. In England, the moniker "Aga saga" is sometimes applied to these books, yet (a) neither is really a saga and (b) not that many folks on the other side of the Atlantic are familiar with solid-fuel burning Aga stoves. So -- does anyone have a suggestion?? No prizes; no rewards: just the satisfaction of removing at least some of the frustration from this blogger's mind.

Well, not all the frustration. Because I found both of these novels disappointing, perhaps because both aspired to -- and seemed to deliver -- more than what I ultimately took away from them. And while I'm quite happy to grab a James Patterson novel or even re-read some favorite romantic suspense novels from Nora Roberts, I know exactly what I'm getting and what I'm not getting from them. With both of these books, that question hovered in the air throughout. And finally neither ended up as even "thumping good reads" for that reason.

OK, on to some specifics. The Very Thought of You (which will be on U.S. bookshelves on Tuesday) was short-listed for the Orange Prize in the UK last year. So I felt reasonably safe signing up to read the e-galleys offered by Simon & Schuster, because even when I don't agree with the literary merits of their short lists, I can usually understand how the book got there. But not this time. The novel is the story of Anna Sands, a young evacuee who, in 1939, is sent out of London to avoid the bombing that is expected to hit on the outbreak of war. She ends up at Ashton Hall, home to Thomas Ashton, a diplomat crippled by polio, and his somewhat distant yet glamorous wife, Elizabeth. The problems appear immediately: the novel is cluttered by too many points of view and even some characters with whom the author was apparently in love and couldn't write out of the book even though they serve no purpose. In fact, the whole novel needs a massive edit: its heart is really the story of the complex relationship between Anna and Thomas Ashton, and how that complicates Anna's later life, but that doesn't become clear until the novel's final section. For most of the heart of the book, the reader is immersed, repeatedly, in Thomas's ponderings about the nature of his love for a new woman in his life, and various dimensions of Elizabeth's shallow personality, combined with Anna's experiences at Ashton Hall, as part of a school set up by Elizabeth to help compensate for her childlessness. Much of it was heavy-handed; it felt like reading a Barbara Taylor Bradford romantic tome, albeit one with much better writing. The author's reach, sadly, has exceeded her grasp, which is a shame given the fact that there is a germ of a very good novel buried amid the romantic flourishes and curlicues. It did hold my attention, and I suspect it would probably make a fun beach book for those looking for romantic fiction set against the backdrop of World War II, but it's only OK.: 3.4 stars. I'm not at all sure what last year's Orange Prize jury was smoking at the time. As for this year's -- well, I'll tackle that at a later date!

Ultimately, although it's a more coherent book, I found 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodginkinson even more disappointing. Silvana is rejoining her husband, now a Polish exile, in England at the end of World War II; they have been separated since 1939 and she's nervous about seeing him again, but their son, Aurek, needs a father. The biggest problem with this is that I guessed the massive "twist" within the first 30 pages, and the rest of the book I spent wondering how the author would bring about the big revelation. The rest was all fairly predictable, although the look at postwar Britain, beset by rationing, was interesting. But I found the characters of Janusz, Silvana and Aurek to come straight out of central casting; none of them, as put on paper by Hodginkinson, ever really came to life. I'd say you could skip this one entirely: 3 stars, and I'm actually feeling generous...

There are authors writing in this space who do justice to this kind of novel. At the top of my mind right now is Joanna Trollope, whose latest novel, Daughters in Law, is on my personal summer reading list. (For more glimpses of what's there, check this blog on Monday!) So, has anyone got a good name for this category of novel that they want to share with me before I report back on that book??


  1. I slot books like these into non-genre fiction

  2. I got a set of the entire Orange short-list the year The Very Thought of You was involved. I've read all of the others apart from this one (would recommend The Lacuna) and have never felt the urge to. After reading your review, I'm glad I didn't ...

  3. Karen, I'm trying to find a way to avoid lumping books like this together with those that aren't teetering on the edge of genre fiction while not conveniently falling over! I couldn't call "Fall on Your Knees" by Ann-Marie Macdonald or anything by Ann Patchett "literary" fiction (only time sorts that out, I think), and I'd love to find a way to separate those from books like these in the general fiction category. But "women's fiction" makes it sound like it's designed to appeal to the blue-rinse crowd! Sigh...
    I do intend to read "The Lacuna" or at least give it a second try. I stalled the first time around, about 25 pages into it. Dunno why, really!

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