Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Total agreement

I am in full agreement with all that has been said about the unremarkable remarkable. I'm afraid I found the whole thing depressing, more because I got bored than because of anything else. I'm not a great one for lengthy discriptions, poetic or not, and found that I started to skip bits. As a result I got confused over who was who and when the pregnant girl was writing and generally lost the will to live, or at least keep on reading.

I do agree with Emily though in that maybe this book was suffering from a post-Kevin read where the overshadowing disaster really is a disaster and is handled with much greater aplomb.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

June/July's book suggestion

Needing some meat after May's underwhelming choice (your comments were spot on, Valerie!), I wonder if any of us feel ready to do Tolstoy's Anna Karenina? I have long wanted to read it, but since it's about 800 pages, I need some motivation (like you lot). I'd suggest it for June AND July due to its length. So I know if its viable, I'd be grateful if people could email me to let me know if they plan to read it or not and I can then announce the finalised choice. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


More Spoilers!
This was actually the second time of reading this book as I had time on my hands while travelling. I enjoyed it a little more this time, but really it was very tiresome. I think that it may work as a short story, but there was so much repetition in the descriptions of the small events, everyday rather than remarkable, patience was tested to the full. The ending did have a twist, as the expected death of the injured child did not happen and it was the twin in the bedroom who died.
The characters all had a story to tell but I think that they could have been better exploited to give a character-driven novel. Unfortunately the author while trying to do something a little different just comes over, in my view, as rather pretentious.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Unremarkable things

Kirsty - I'm so sorry about If nobody speaks of remarkable things! After choosing it I had second thoughts (hence my earlier warning that it looked lightweight - but I should know better than to try to warn any of you off anything!). I quite agree - some interesting characters and language, but not enough plot. Anyone who hasn't read it yet, I really wouldn't bother. Although anyone that has, and liked it, will be most welcome to say so... I thought the ideas about neighbours, interlocking yet mysterious lives, etc were better than the treatment. And certainly too much was made of the tragedy-to-come: seemed very prosaic after the build-up! Wheras in Kevin, of course, twists and shocks work better when unannounced, or when they're different to what you expect. At least we've now got over the hard-act-to-follow slot, post-Kevin, and can move on to something else, liberated - we hope - to enjoy it for itself and not as a not-as-good-as-Kevin. But I have to say what a pleasure for me it was to read something like Kevin, which spoiled other books through its brilliance.

What's so remarkable?

Warning - the following review contains spoilers.

If you can "spoil" a plotless book.

Good observational skills and poetic use of language. BUT. Call me old fashioned, if you will, I prefer my books to have some sort of story to them. The blurb for Remarkable Things tries its best - "a terrible event... no one who witnesses it will ever be the same again". Really? Woman gets pregnant, kid gets run over. The end.

The style was initially refreshing (and interesting to bear in mind that the majority of book deals are made on the basis of the first 3 chapters) but by about p.50 I was finding it grating. A little further in, and becoming desperate for something to happen I started making things up - a dreadful illness, a bomb, fire breathing dragons... But alas, no.

I liked the old couple and would have liked to have seen more of them - fifty years of togetherness about to come to an end. There was a real poignancy about them and I thought this could have been explored more deeply.

So, altogether I found it disappointing, and often irritating. A little characterisation wouldn't have gone amiss, and whilst I get the point - we don't know our neighbours very well - I don't think it makes for a good book.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Some excellent points Emily, particularly the fact that Franklin (post Kevin's arrival) and Celia are cardboard cutouts. I think it's an easy trap to fall into - Shriver's interest is in Kevin and (to a lesser extent) Eva - and I don't think she's allowed the other characters to become real. As you say, they are there solely to fulfil a purpose. Your point about characters taking on a life of their own is very true, but for that to happen you do have to listen to them - sometimes they'll try and take over, butting into scenes unnecessarily and you need to shut them up a bit, but at least if they are given a voice they are more likely to be rounded.

As for the marriage, I don't think it was purely a plot device. To be honest I'm surprised they stayed together at all and the disintegration of their relationship felt right.

I'm also surprised Shriver thought Eva to be 95-99% good mother. Can't say I saw much evidence of it. I find it hard to understand the concept of not loving your child, but would have thought it more likely that in such a position the mother would be prone to seeing the good in her offspring (or at least pretending to) - to cover up the guilt of not loving them or prevent having to face up to the possibility that her lack of love could be in some way responsible for the way they act. Perhaps it would have been interesting if the Franklin/Eva roles had been reversed.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A riddle...

...wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill said about Russia, and I say about the Kevin himself). Hooray for Kirsty, Val and Helen S, who encouraged us to read/hear about Orange prize winners, including We need to talk about Kevin. I was right about the book - it WAS superbly written - but wrong in every other respect. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sorry - this'll be long, but I've found the book, and your posts, excessively stimulating.

Format: Like most of you, I shy away from letter formats (excellent explanation of why they tend to be weak, Kirsty, - thanks!) but settled quickly into this, and came to understand why it was clever and well-considered. I think Shriver has written an absolute masterpiece of fiction. I also agree with many of its parts, but not the whole that she adds them up to.

Characters: As Valerie pinpointed, they're extreme characters. Brilliantly-drawn in general, but sometimes OTT. The review comments about lifting the lid on families were certainly apt, but ultimately, I felt, overdone. For instance, Franklin. I found his pre-children persona disarmingly real, and the gulf between him and Eva in how they respond to having children perfectly credible. But he turned, I felt, into a caricature of what Shriver is worried fatherhood does to people, rather than a believable development from that man she's portrayed. Shriver would have been more convincing, and more worrying, if she had less of an agenda about interesting-people-turned-dull-by-parenthood (as per articles Shriver has written). For me, such things weaked it as an expose but strengthened it as a novel.

Narrator: Yes, Valerie - that's it - Eva was a nightmare to live with! She's so set on preserving her time with Franklin, but can't stay at home for 5 minutes, tricks him into Celia and shows nothing but contempt for his parenting of Kevin. It's always: Kevin is awful but Franklin can't see it - never that Franklin loves his son and treats him accordingly. If I'm to treat Eva as a realistic character, I have to conclude that she's deluded or lying. In the fascinating Radio 4 talk, Shriver points out that Eva is actually determined not to be found responsible for Kevin. Indeed, her very frankness on her demerits is itself partly a tool to stop us making any WORSE judgements of her. While Eva's insistence on the obviousness of Kevin's evil is - presumably - to show her detachment from it and to absolve her, this is at the expense of the credibility of her love for Franklin. She chooses to portray a stupid father and callous husband, who we cannot seriously be expected to believe she still loves. I'd argue that Eva can't love anyone properly, even given a choice of 3 very different people. So can we trust a word she says on relationships?

It would be fascinating, I agree, to have Franklin's response. Rather in the manner of Carol Shields' Happenstance, where you read one spouse's account and then the other's and both are equally convincing. If for nothing else but to see how Shriver resolves the question - is Franklin really so dense or is Eva misrepresenting him?

But Shriver isn't really interested in Franklin as a father, is she? He's a caricature of fatherhood. Celia clearly bores her to sobs and - despite whatever she may say, I think Celia bores Eva. Did anyone else think that relationship felt real? On the radio, Shriver said she liked Kevin. By the end I, like Kirsty, felt something like liking towards him. But only by not thinking about what he'd actually done. Shriver doesn't believe Kevin's evil. Um, as Simon Schama said of 9/11, "if that isn't evil, I don't know what is". Given Eva's dislike of children, parenthood etc, I can easily believe that she'd find a bright, mysterious child - who seemed fairly adult from birth! - fascinating. It gets her out of engaging with children. Or - perish the thought! - being changed for the better by having them. Shriver doesn't have a positive thing to say about parenthood, does she? In a sideswipe Brian, who dotes on his children, is having an affair - mentioned as if that automatically disproved his love for his daughters. Kevin's very rejection of Eva's efforts to treat him like a child are, I think, partly to vindicate Eva's dislike of children, childish things, and men who throw themselves into fatherhood. Part of the end message, surely, is that Kevin preferred his mother's approach to his father's.

Shriver said she thought Eva was 95-99% good mother, with the implication being that the missing bit was actually loving your child. Yes, you can't guarantee to enjoy the company of any one, but are there many children that would regard not being wanted or loved as only a very small part of the deal? Is that partly why Kevin is so scornful of her efforts - he doesn't want perfect imitation parenting, he wants something real (and flawed).

I personally think that the most interesting characters - and the ones which interested Shriver most - are the ones who are not embodying ideas as such, but are free to act as real people. eg Franklin pre-chidren, Eva and - most of all - Kevin. Shriver's lack of pat answers for why teenagers do these awful shootings is, I think, entirely accurate and makes Kevin much more intriguing. I would argue that when Shriver creates a character principally for a function, they tend towards cardboard cut-outs eg Celia. I mean, even within the world of the novel, she is conceived simply to answer Eva's questions.

I think Shriver shows very convincingly how the interaction in families can be very painful, with adults not very good at being parents and children not very good at being dependants. I can see how the parents need to be at odds here because it stops the situation being addressed earlier and makes for more dramatic tension. But again, I did feel that the marriage degenerated largely for the benefit of the plot. Kirsty - do you think that's a fair comment? I know you have views on characters needing to have a life of their own (which sometimes suprises their author).

Perhaps the bits I valued most were the bits which were only tangentially necessary for the plot and were in fact included solely on merit. Astonishing language - for example the term "Thursday". Enlightening, witty observations such as "plastic dirt" indeed, Helen S. Characterisation - Franklin and Eva's personalities when they're not actually bringing children up (ie both before and after living with Kevin).

I am delighted to have been obliged to read it, and am very grateful to Shriver for writing such a brilliant novel, but such a polemical one too, thus making it surprisingly palatable to those of us with rather more comfortable family lives.