Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Favourite Wife – Tony Parsons

Only published this year, this one. I was lucky to find it in the library: I was only the 3rd person to borrow it.

One of the first things that struck me about this book was how similar it is to the book I just read by the same author, Man and Boy. Major plot elements such as the unfaithful dad, the tough old dad dying of lung cancer; and minor details, such as mouths “fitting” for a kiss and Westerners who are “into the bamboo”. I know I have a tendency to re-use or revisit ideas in what I write, but since none of it is published I can just see that as different drafts where I’ve changed the story, or whatever – I just assumed you couldn’t do this in published books.

But having said all that, I think this is a much better book than Man and Boy. The characters are more believable and the plot feels less contrived. In particular, I like the fact that the main characters really aren't that sympathetic. He's a corporate lawyer, for a start. And the wife is persuaded to move to Shanghai as a quick route to her husband becoming a partner, and a way to keep up the payments on their big house in leafy Hampstead of somewhere.

The wife’s response to finding out her husband is having an affair is much more sympathetic than in Man and Boy. First she wants to walk away, but then she decides they have to stay together to look after their daughter. Later she starts a relationship on the side of her own - this is only hinted at. But in the end, the couple manage to work things through. In the end it makes the point that marriages can survive all sorts of betrayal and that they are worth holding on to.

The man’s relationship with his Chinese woman also feels quite realistic – he knows he’s doing the wrong thing, but feels he’s “in love” with her. And at the same time, he still loves his wife and doesn't want to loser her. Men, eh? You don’t really feel sympathetic for him, but you can see how it happens.

There was another interesting point which is worth commenting on. When the wife announces that she’s not going to leave her husband despite what he’s done, she says it’s because her relationship with her daughter is more important than her relationship with him, and always has been. I think that’s wrong. I was taught that the relationship with each other in a married couple should be even more important than the relationships with children. This point isn’t brought out at all in the story – maybe the author assumes the woman’s view is natural or right or ok – but it raises an interesting point. Faithfulness is not just about sex. Could it be argued that the woman elevating her daughter above her husband is in itself a form of marital betrayal?

But the best thing about this book is its portrayal of modern China, and the way that “the West” relates to it. It’s very sad to think about the origins and ideals of the Communist Party in its early days and how it’s all come to this – a society where everything is for sale, everyone wants a part in the capitalist dream, and workers are cheaper to replace than machines. Like “The Jungle” or somehow even worse. And then the different attitudes of the lawyers – those like Devlin who believe that this is all for the good, those like Mad Mitch or Nancy Deng who are sickened by the corruption and exploitation, and those like Shane who are doing their best to enjoy their privileged position without asking too many ethical questions. As a newcomer, the main character has to decide which of these paths to follow, and the best of the book is about how he does that.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Man and Boy – Tony Parsons

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. It was pretty good, I just found it rather depressing. I guess when a couple separates a happy ending is impossible, so what did I expect?

One or two other aspects of the story didn’t quite convince me. The man’s experience of primary school – or rather, his son’s – sounded a lot like my memory of primary school, but didn’t sound much like my experience of taking my son. Is that the difference between being 5 at school and being 10, I wonder?

I also wasn’t convinced by the character of the wife in particular. It felt to me like several of the main characters were made deliberately unsympathetic: the wife, her new boyfriend (semi-separated), and the main character’s new love interest’s ex-husband (and the father of her daughter). I guess if the premise starts with the main character committing adultery, you have to work a lot to make them sympathetic. But I don’t think it’s necessary to paint everyone else black in order to make him look better.

I also felt the book failed to answer the biggest question it asked. The main character sees from the example of his father-in-law what happens when a man drifts from failed relationship to failed relationship, leaving children behind each time. He sees it in himself, the desire for one more chance to do it right. And he then moves into another relationship. The book tries in many ways to make clear that this new relationship is different – but isn’t that what they always say?

Where the book works best is in the relationships between the main character, his son, and his dad. And of course that’s really the heart of the book. That much I can believe – the contrast between generations of the man and his dad, who fought in the war. It’s a great subject – what does it mean to be a man these days? Not what it meant a generation ago, for sure.

There were other parts of the book I enjoyed too. The relationship between the main character and his new girlfriend, for example, and the brief descriptions of his work. Some good themes; but somehow not quite as good as it could have been.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

I was inspired to read this by a passing comment on another novel – that the other novel was the best portrayal of the relationship between a man and his work since this book (I can’t remember the exact words).

The book isn’t a single story, but a series of seven shorter pieces. Each describes a significant fragment of the life of one of the characters, although two of them happen to other people. The structure isn’t obvious as you read it, but they do fit together in the end, even if only loosely. But each of the stories works on its own; for me the structure was secondary.

For what feels like a pretty literary book, I found this really engaging and easy to read. The writing style in particular is interesting. Parts of it make good use of fragments to paint details of a scene rather than trying to describe it in full sentences. That might sound hard to read, but it’s not. I can see I’m going to have to watch myself now if I don’t want to copy this quite distinctive style!

I also enjoyed the subject matter. Several of the sections are about men at work (it was that aspect of the book that prompted me to read it). The first section is about a boy growing up remembering his father mainly through working with him – an experience that is sadly a lot less common today. Another section describes the same character helping build a tunnel, and then later working in a tannery; this reminded me a lot of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (a book I recommend frequently).

It’s also interesting as a description of what was then still a very young country (it’s set in and around Toronto during the early 20th century). Again, like The Jungle. It was a time when large immigrant communities seem to have kept very much to themselves (or depending on your perspective, seem to have been largely shut out of anywhere else). Given all the current fuss about “integration” it’s interesting to think about how much the US and Canada seem to have changed within a couple of generations of the times described in this book. Are things really so different now, or do we just need to be more patient?