Richard and Judy’s ever-popular Book Club continues to disappoint me. I’ve had a faint animosity towards it since it started in 2004, but it’s a hypocritical kind of animosity: deep down, I don’t like being told what I should read by Richard and Judy, even though I’m quite happy to follow the whims of the Booker prize judges or Waterstones staff or the New York Times reviewer. Literary snobbery at its finest, and unfortunately I’ve got it in spades. That’s what three years spent bathed in the orange light of the Bodleian Library will do to you.
Anyway, to be fair, there have been quite a few on the list that I’ve enjoyed, though I confess I’ve usually picked them up in spite of rather than because of the sparkly Richard and Judy sticker on the front. The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) was a cracker, a book that’s stayed in my head for years despite how much I struggled with all the sex and bad language at the time. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind was great too. I absolutely fell in love with Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George; Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) was shattering, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini) magnificent…you get the picture. The dynamic duo has an eye for a good book. And I certainly don’t begrudge the struggling authors their massive leap in sales once they’ve made it onto the year’s book list.
But over the past couple of years I’ve started to sense a faint undercurrent of…banality. The books on the list fall more and more into two camps: the exotic (novels displaced by time or location – historical novels, fiction set in foreign countries) and the edgy (‘cool’ novels with trendy or weird premises). That would be just fine if it weren’t for the fact that so many of the books are written or structured badly, despite an original starting idea. In fact sometimes I suspect that R & J are avid blurb-readers, and never get past the initial ‘hook’.
Well, there’s more to a book than a hook. I spent the worst of my sinus infection yesterday reading Katharine McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastopol. Ideal Richard and Judy fare: a romantic family saga set in the years before and during the Crimean War. Demure, over-protected Mariella Lingwood is captivated by her wild cousin Rosa Barr and her brilliant fiancé Henry Thewell, both of whom serve in the Crimea as a nurse and surgeon, respectively. When Henry becomes ill and Rosa disappears, Mariella follows them out to the battleground, has to put aside her corsets and fine embroidery, discovers some startling family secrets and truly experiences life and love for the first time, etc, etc. I love historical novels. I love war novels. I had high hopes for this one, and the sparkly cover sticker seemed to confirm my expectations.
It was all rather a let-down. It wasn’t that it was terrible, just conventional and under-developed. The plot alternates between the middle of the war, and Rosa and Mariella’s childhood holidays, ten years earlier. Genteel London society is convincingly represented, and there are some recognisable, nicely drawn scenes of Victorian medicine and the exploited poor vs wicked industrialists. The problem is that the build up is so fine and so long that the reader expects a satisfying plot development that never appears. The first hint of disappointment is the war: even when Mariella is supposedly right in the middle of the squalor and bloodshed, McMahon never draws the reader in to the middle of it. Mariella sits and sews bloodstained shirts, and listens to the guns in the distance, and – oh horror – a rat lives in her little hut. We know terrible things about the conditions in the Crimean hospitals, but it’s all here at a comfortable remove. I remember being more horrified when I read Terry Deary’s The Vile Victorians, which is a smashing and very quick read, by the way, should you fancy your history with cartoons and humour.
We also expect some kind of revelation that explains why Rosa so obsessively intervenes in the lives of those less fortunate. The childhood flashbacks build ominously with dark hints and intense emotion, but never come to anything: is Rosa supposed to be in love with Mariella? With stepbrother Max? With Henry? With herself as the avenging angel? Who knows – the reader certainly doesn’t, and I suspect neither does McMahon.
The ending is the biggest disappointment. To have invested one’s attention and emotion in an involving book and then to have it frittered away into vagueness is one of the most crushing betrayals the writer can inflict. I can’t give away the ending of The Rose of Sebastopol, because I don’t know what it was; I’m not sure there’s anything to give away. I’m well aware that many great books end ambiguously and it’s the uncertainty that makes them compelling, but here it just came across as wimpishness, McMahon’s reluctance to look her powerful themes in the eye. And I wondered whether Richard and Judy had ever got past the ‘ooh! War! History! Corsets!’ reaction I got when I read the back cover.
So then I read two Agatha Christie books in a row, and felt better. If there’s one thing Agatha does brilliantly well, it’s satisfactory resolution. Detective stories are comfort food to the agitated mind: the minute Poirot twirls his moustache and muses ‘Ah! What an imbecile I have been!’ you know it’s all going to be alright. Because Poirot knows his stuff, man. And in the final chapter, someone’s going down.