Unusually we have postponed the scheduled date for this book twice so I’m posting a review to give an overview. In case we don’t get round to discussing it in person, please feel free to comment online.
I had quite a lot of resistance to overcome when I first started this book. It was overhyped. The gushing endorsements in the blurb – Kate Atkinson called it “my favourite book of the year” and Linda Grant was “utterly absorbed” by it, not to mention it being a “The New York Times Bestseller” so I was well prepared for disappointment. I also felt it was a cheap shot to base the story round a recent American First Lady. And yet, ultimately it succeeded in winning me over. This is particularly impressive as I had to leave off reading it for a month or so yet the characters were vivid enough and the plot line strong enough for me to pick up where I left off.
Structurally, the novel is divided into four key locations the main character has lived in – her childhood home, a place where she lives independently post-graduation, her first married home and finally a high profile address in WashingtonDC. These sub-divisions flow very naturally one to the other.
I was drawn in by the first person narrative of a rather prim but sympathetic school librarian. Firstly of her mainly unexceptional childhood and then as she navigates the Republican country club set. This is not her natural milieu and she appears to be an astute observer of the habits of the comfortably off. “The inclination to travel great distances and invest substantial amounts of money in order to do strenuous and possibly grubby work that subsequently would make for excellent storytelling.” (P 434)
There is genuine insight into family dynamics especially Priscilla, the matriarch, with a particularly well-drawn telephone conversation between Priscilla and the main character at a pivotal point in the novel.
The plot develops slowly and the early section is the least convincing – the on-off friendship with Dena didn’t somehow ring true in places; the father’s insistence on booking a hotel for heroine and grandmother on first trip to Chicago but not bothering on the 2nd trip was a niggling inconsistency. But the writer is setting the seeds of later plot developments so we have to be patient with her.
The novel is well paced – so many books disappoint as the author rushes towards the end – but this one increases momentum as the story progresses. The fourth section located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has a palpable level of tension with some neat but not implausible plot developments.
Verdict : not high art but very readable