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.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Return to Three Pines

I should confess, immediately, that I'm not a member of the Three Pines cult. I wasn't one of the hundreds of fans who swarmed the publisher's booth at BEA (BookExpo) back in May in order to get their hands on an advance review copy of A Trick of the Light, the newest Louise Penny mystery featuring Quebec detective Armand Gamache and his team along with the quirky or downright eccentric residents of the fictional Three Pines, the township left off all the provincial maps. Nonetheless, I did request a copy of the ARC from Amazon's Vine program last month, mostly because I found Bury Your Dead, the last episode in Gamache's adventures, to be particularly appealing, perhaps because it was largely set in Quebec City and because it featured a mystery surrounding the province's founder, Samuel de Champlain, and the endless conflict between Anglophone and Francophone residents of Quebec.

The good news about the latest Three Pines mystery -- beyond the fact that fanatics now only have two weeks to wait until publication day -- is that rabid fans will find it contains all their favorite features. It is largely set in Three Pines itself; Ruth Zardo, the obnoxious and cynical poet, is as curmudgeonly as ever; Gabri, the plus-sized bistro owner, is as lovable as ever and back to his ebullient self after the resolution of a plot that stretched over the last two books. (I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers!) The big news is that Clara Morrow is finally about to have her day in the sun: when the novel opens, it's at her first solo art show, and everyone is raving about her portraits. But when the scene shifts from the Montreal museum's formal vernissage to the informal party back home in Three Pines, the joy quickly evaporates. Because early the next morning, as her husband returns from picking up papers that contain reviews of Clara's show, he stumbles over a body in their picture-perfect garden -- a body that turns out to belong to one of the few people in the world that Clara could describe as an enemy, or at least as being hostile to her.

It's actually amazing that anyone dares venture into Three Pines at all, really -- the mortality rate, on a per capita basis, must be off the charts by now. Happily, Louise Penny seems to have a sense of humor about setting so many crimes in a tiny village. Gamache and his chief assistant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have become so accustomed to the slow pace of life in Three Pines that they have stopped locking their car doors when they arrive to investigate a crime. After all, "people in Three Pines might occasionally take a life, but not a car." As with many of the victims in Louise Penny's mysteries, readers learn about Lillian, the alcoholic art critic who rejoiced not only in puncturing pomposity but in destroying the dreams of aspiring artists only after her death -- she's never really a character except in the eyes of others. The plot itself is a relatively straightforward one: was Lillian's mortal offense one that dates back to the days when she routinely skewered her targets in the press, or did her recent efforts to make amends for her misdeeds trigger an unexpected homicidal urge?

It took me about 100 pages to get into this novel to the extent that I really cared about the outcome, and even then, what ended up grabbing my attention and holding it wasn't the plot, per se, but rather the unfolding of the relationship of Clara and Peter Morrow, and of what is happening to Beauvoir, still trying to recover after the traumatic events chronicled in the previous book. That isn't too surprising, as what Penny is writing are less classical mystery novels, full of clues and red herrings, than novels about an assortment of individuals who are brought together by that murder and the events that lead up to it. In this case, the theme of the book seems to be envy, whether it's Peter's envy of Clara's newfound success, Lillian's envy of the artists she pillories in print, or Beauvoir's envy of the man who has what he has discovered he wants for himself. 

Three Pines afficionados will love this book; if you haven't read the series yet, this is not the place to start as appreciating it depends on your understanding of the Three Pines scenario and its inhabitants. I admit that I find Penny's depiction of the Three Pines gang to be, at best, two-dimensional and sometimes even one dimensional. Peter is envious; Clara is insecure, Ruth is bitter and angry but a softy at heart; Gabri is joyous and full of life, etc. etc. etc. Rarely do they act out of character or surprise me. And I admit to finding Penny's staccato prose style deeply annoying. A particularly egregious example comes when Beauvoir muses to himself about the nature of his job, in comparison to art criticism: "There was nothing subjective about it. No question of good and bad. It wasn’t an issue of perspective or nuance. No shading. Nothing to understand. It just was. Collect the facts. Put them in the right order. Find the killer." While that's an extreme example, at a few points in this book I found the writing -- and in particular incomplete sentences like these - so jarring that I had to put it down and start reading something else.

I admit that I can't understand why anyone would want to go and live in Three Pines (quite aside from its astonishing mortality rate) alongside people who almost always try to do the right thing, who almost without exception are charming or at least fascinating, who all seem wise, witty, interesting and perhaps just a bit too good to be true even as fictional characters. (Even the obnoxious ones are really kind at heart, or at least incredibly talented; the food is always wonderful; the landscape always beautiful, and the criminal elements and their families disappear from one book to the next with hardly a trace.) There's just too much wish fulfillment going on here! Still, while the charm of these books escapes me, the personality of Armand Gamache is more richly developed; that and his quiet insistence on being an ethical cop in an era where corruption and political agendas rule is something that I find very engaging indeed. It was Gamache and his struggle to see justice done that made the last novel in this series the best for me to date. But in this, the seventh book in the series, the focus has shifted back to the ensemble cast at Three Pines and business as usual.  While I found the author's focus on the conflicts in the art world that Clara is discovering for the first time at the age of 50 to be intriguing, they weren't compelling enough to make this more than a novel that is just OK; something that now that I have read, I will probably forget relatively rapidly. I imagine this will be a 5-start book for all Three Pines afficionados; for me, it was about 3.7 stars. True, I'm idly curious to see what happens next to Beavoir and Clara Morrow, but not enough to race out and next year's new book the day it appears. 

Still, wouldn't it be dull if we all loved the same stuff?  

1 comment:

  1. First off, i admire your review of this book...given it's place in the series

    I am not of the Louise Penny/THREE PINES cult...those people remind me of the Artsy Academics in Yellow Springs, Ohio...when I attended Antioch College from 1969-1973

    The neuroses were rampant and the competition was fierce...unfortunately, the College was broke, financially....so, all of the kerfuffle was useless/moot

    I read STILL LIFE....and "life" in that puppy was near dormant..i figured the "killer" was the Momma's Boy early on

    I am not a fan of COZIES because I don't want my choice of reading matter to make me feel "safe"...i want it to slap me up side the head

    You did a good job on this review, Suze....i admire your restraint