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.

Friday, July 20, 2012

For fans of Major Pettigrew, two more "heartwarming" English novels

Two years ago, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was one of those novels that everyone seemed to be reading, relishing and talking about. I read it, I confess, and I quite liked it, although I wasn't quite as charmed and swept away as were many others by this novel about a retired, widowed military officer who discovers that life has plenty still to offer, if he can leave behind his conventional way of looking at the world. It's full of stock concepts of English rural life, lots of eccentric yet endearing characters, just enough twists to make it intriguing. It struck me as a deluxe form of formula fiction -- not that that's a bad thing, just that often I find I want more than that from a novel.

Still, there are plenty of readers who yearn for nothing more better than a comedy of manners, replete with whimsical characters and a plot that is amusing, thought-provoking but not overly intense or demanding. And here are two new releases that fit the bill: Julia Stuart's novel, The Pigeon Pie Mystery, and a debut by British radio writer Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If either of these novels were drinks, they would be iced coffee concoctions -- the kind with fancy added flavorings, like raspberry or mocha. Delicious, and slightly sinful and decadent; a kind of special treat. Sometimes they have a bit too much sweetness, a saccharine aftertaste that creeps up on you as you sip; sometimes they contain a bit more flavor and bite -- and herein lies the difference between these two books.

Julia Stuart's name may already be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise, as her last novel was called in North America. Both that book and this new release rely on an ensemble cast of eccentric and improbable personalities as well as some unlikely and improbable events and occurrences. By "improbable", I don't mean that the author is demanding that I accept as true and plausible some daring feat or bizarre plot twist; rather, that her starting point is slightly fantastical, and you are simply invited along for the ride. (In The Pigeon Pie Mystery, for instance, a lovelorn doctor takes dancing lessons from a one-legged former seaman named Pollywog, who ends up collapsing and dying during a demonstration; not a spoiler as it's a one-paragraph anecdote.)

The adventures and misadventures of Princess Alexandrina (aka Mink) are entertaining summer fare. The daughter of a Maharajah, she is orphaned by her father's death, and unexpectedly left impoverished. Happily, Queen Victoria offers her a grace and favour residence at Hampton Court, removing her immediate worries but plunging her into a new world inhabited largely by eccentric widows and other stalwarts of the Victorian-era British empire, whose own financial embarrassments haven't eroded their sense of proprieties or fierce insistence on etiquette. (Who should pay the first social call? How should they respond to a brash American who persists in ignoring social niceties?) Among the most obnoxious is a lecherous general -- who promptly turns up dead, shortly after consuming a pigeon pie baked especially for him by Mink's devoted maid, Pooki. To save Pooki from the hangman's noose, Mink embarks on an investigation into the palace's eccentric array of inhabitants, discovering all kinds of secrets in the process. Anyone who really relished Stuart's first book could well fall in love with this novel, which features a Greek chorus of batty old ladies, a Keeper of the Vine and a man in charge of the Hampton Court maze, as well a discombobulated and love-smitten doctor. As long as you don't expect anything remotely plausible in terms of characters or situations, and you have a high tolerance for cute and quirky, you'll find this a fun summertime read, with a high HQ (heartwarming quotient).

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a slightly less eccentric novel, and Harold himself, in some ways, probably bears a greater resemblance to Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew. Both men are entering their final decades of life; both have experienced losses; both have a vague sense of something missing from the center of their world. In Rachel Joyce's novel (which will be published next Tuesday, July 24), we discover only gradually what it is that weighs so heavily on Harold's soul as he embarks on the pilgrimage of the title. It's a voyage that is not only unlikely, but also unexpected and unintended -- Harold simply sets out to mail a letter to an old acquaintance, Queenie, who has written to him from a hospice in Berwick on Tweed to tell him she is dying, but then, walking past his local mailbox and intending instead to drop the letter in the next one, he ends up continuing to walk. And walk. And walk. On the fringes of the town to which he and his wife, Maureen, have retired, he meets a young woman in a service station store who puts in his head the idea of a pilgrimage, a ritual voyage that, offered up, may save Queenie. He telephones Berwick, tells the hospice staff to tell Queenie to hang on -- and keeps walking, to the other end of England.

One note here for anyone for whom this may be a sticking point -- Harold's pilgrimage is not a religious one. At no point does he expect God to sweep down and cure Queenie in exchange for his devotion; he is not praying for miracles. His walk is a kind of tribute as well as a desperate attempt to understand what went wrong in his own life, at work and at home. He ponders his early years with a young Maureen, who bears little resemblance to the tight-lipped, house-proud woman we meet early in the book; his acquaintance with Queenie; his "clever" son David, who appears to look down loftily on his father. Nothing is as it first appears. But readers also accompany Harold as he confronts the physical challenges of the walk -- the blisters, the other pains, the fact that he has set out with not even his cellphone -- and watches as he encounters (predictably enough) all kinds of individuals along the way who transform Harold's thinking or are transformed by their encounter with him. He even attracts a cult following of sorts, which risks distorting the message. Some of these encounters strained my own credulity, but for many readers, they will just add to the book's HQ.

Ultimately, Harold Fry's pilgrimage becomes a journey of redemption and of a kind of new beginnings, if not the variety he had imagined when he set out. Depending on what kind of reader you are, you may find this deeply moving (although it's not gushingly sentimental, thankfully) but ultimately somewhat irritating as all loose ends are neatly tidied away. The book's chief weakness, in my eyes, may flow from the author's background writing for radio: it's too episodic in nature, with many of the ancillary characters vanishing rapidly in Harold's rearview mirror as he walks one, their purpose in the novel accomplished. So, in contrast to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the reader spends a lot of their time insider Harold's head as he ponders -- and ponders more, and ponders yet again -- existential questions.

Did I love either of these books, and am I jumping up and down with excitement at the idea of finding new readers for them? Nope. Are they worthy of finding new readers. Probably. Both are sufficiently out of the mainstream of the kind of books to be found on shelves today -- fantasy, over-the-top romance, formula historical fiction and thrillers -- as to deserve an audience for that reason alone. Both are well-written and quirky, in their different ways. Neither are self-consciously literary; in both cases, the authors simply set out to tell a story. Both offer just enough to think about without overloading the reader's brain in the summer heat. I'd give both a 3.7 star rating, and suggest you sample a few pages in a bookstore or library before buying, but if you are wondering where to get your Major Pettigrew fix this summer, here are two options.

I received a copy of Julia Stuart's novel from Amazon Vine in the form of an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC); I ordered a copy of the British edition of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from Amazon UK.

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