Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Big Fat Books


I’ve just read new books by two of my favourite storytellers, writers who write books that sweep you up and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Along the way you learn something about a craft or a bit of history that you know nothing about. The main characters are flawed yet appealing. The narrative has a clear trajectory, though there is always some mystery, and finishes with satisfying closure. Anyone needing a big fat book to curl up with on an autumn (or spring) evening would do well with either.

One of the two is Restless by William Boyd. I’ve always enjoyed Boyd’s books because he takes a story and tells it WELL. This is the first of his books that I’ve read with female protagonists, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. It tells the story of a Russian emigre to France, Eva Delectorskaya, who becomes a British spy. Eva, now reinvented thirty years on as Sally Gilmartin, breaks the news of her past to her stunned daughter Ruth, and enlists her help in completing a final assignment. The novel swings between Eva’s notes on her role in helping to win hearts and minds for the Allied cause in the US and Ruth’s reaction to her mother’s chilling story.

Boyd is also a scriptwriter and his style is extremely visual:

My mother and I sat on the rear terrace of the cottage, looking out over the blond meadow at the dark green mass of Witch Wood, drinking home-made lemonade and keeping an eye on Jochen, who was galloping around the garden with a butterfly net, failing to catch butterflies.

In my mind I was casting the film: perhaps Kate Winslet as the grumpy single mother Ruth, who is reluctant to play spy for her mother, but becomes captivated as Sally’s story draws her in; maybe Maggie Smith as the increasingly paranoid Eva/Sally; Cate Blanchett as the bold young Eva getting herself into ever more dangerous spirals of deception and intrigue.

Hollywood aside, it’s a great read: thrilling, suspenseful and ultimately very satisfying.

The second novel I have on offer is from one of North America’s wonderful storytellers, John Irving. I adored The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, so wasn’t scared off by his latest book, Until I Find You, which weighs in at a hefty 839 pages in paperback. This tells the story of a son who, like Ruth in Restless, is told a certain version of his parents’ history, only to grow up, go on his own journey and discover another history altogether. And like all John Irving books I have read, it is threaded through with strange sex, excessively colourful characters and meticulous attention to detail.

Little Jack Burns grows up believing he is a feckless sex addict like his organ-playing, tattoo-collecting father, William, who, according to his tattooist mother Alice, abandoned them when Jack was just a baby. Jack spends his early years with his mother wandering the capital cities of Europe trying to track down the elusive William, but eventually they return to Jack’s birth city Toronto, where his mother sends him to school – a girls’ school. Here Jack discovers his talent as an actor and as a magnet for older women. These two skills he later puts to good use developing a career in Hollywood.

When Emma – his best friend, surrogate mother, wrestling partner and sometime sexual abuser – dies, Jack starts to unwind. Maintaining the persona becomes too difficult for him. This is compounded later when Alice dies, and the strands of the tale she has spun him throughout his life about his abandonment by his father come apart. Jack starts to uncover new truths and at the same time, a newer and fresher self.

As always with Irving, this is an odd and dark book, and I would reckon that some of the sex is spurious, but he paints some intensely interesting characters and spares no detail delving into their horribly fascinating psyches. I also learnt a lot about tattooing and organ playing.

If a well-told spy thriller with not one but two female leads grabs you, then Restless is superb, but you want something a little weirder, a little darker but equally well-crafted, then I can strongly recommend a few nights in with Until I Find You.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

9 thoughts on “Big Fat Books

  1. I want to run out and buy both now and sink into bed with a nice bottomless cup of tea and read them both from cover to cover. If only I could arrange 48 hours of peace and quiet for myself in another dimension!

    My mum is a big William Boyd fan so I will pass on your recommendation to her. I loved Armadillo but Restless sounds even better. I appreciate a female main character and love a thriller. As I was reading your review of the John Irving book, I was thinking: “This doesn’t sound like my sort of thing at all,” then when I got to the end I was going: “And? And? So what happens next?!?!” I guess that is for me to find out…

    Thank you for those recommendations.

  2. My husband enjoyed the Irving, but you know, I am a wimp when it comes to 800 or so pages. I want to do it, but my heart fails me around the middle section sometimes… The William Boyd I will most certainly get hold of, no matter what. I do think he is a very powerful storyteller. Thank you for the recommendations, Charlotte!

  3. I’ve never read William Boyd, but think I’ll have to do so. I also have yet to read the latest John Irving, but it’s on my list, since he’s one of my all-time favorite late 20th-early-21st-century American authors (I don’t care what all the snotty reviewers say about him).

  4. Oh Helen, that other dimension, I could do with it too … I managed to complete the Irving only by having flu and needing to spend Saturday in bed. Litlove, I lost heart around page 100 and then my husband picked it up and I got all jealous and had to have it back. After that, it was easy to finish, the above-mentioned ailment helping somewhat. Emily, I agree, let’s ignore those snotty reviewers and getting on with enjoying a writer we enjoy …

  5. What wonderful reviews! I’m looking forward to both. I’ve been a long-time Irving fan and have had this book in the back of my mind for a while now. Incidentally, novels that focus on attempting to understand the past as created by parents are some of my favorites, because I think they are really real, in a way other genre fictions aren’t…we are all given some sort of narrative from our parents, and it’s only through maturing that we discover all the chinks and loose ends the narrative possesses…I think it’s universal…

  6. Quite right, it is a universal experience. You’re presented with a history, and then you work through it, choosing your OWN history and not the one delivered to you. And come to think of it, Irving is also a scriptwriter (he penned the script for Cider House Rules), so he is also intensely visual as a writer.

  7. Never read William Boyd, will have to check it out. I am with you on Irving: the American Dickens! And my faves also are Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp. Will be interested to see how you like his new one.

    You might check out Michael Chabon. He is much like Irving. I liked Wonder Boys and Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. His short stories are also very good.

  8. Great reviews, Charlotte, I’m taking notes here. I like the sound of Restless – haven’t read any of William Boyd yet but always looking for new writers so will try to get hold of it.

  9. Damn, damn, damn! Never read the blog of a fellow book lover–it will only contribute to one’s ever-growing “Lists of Books to Read”! 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s