Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Nick Alexander – You Then, Me Now

Book Cover

Time to jettison the pain.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (Amazon Publishing)
Pages: 293
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-503-95862-3
First Published: 1st May 2019
Date Reviewed:
Rating: 4/5

Becky is far beyond the age to know the details about her father but her mother, Laura, has given little information, making excuses all the time. Now a young adult, Becky has had enough; it’s time Laura told her the truth and perhaps a holiday in a place her mother seems to be attached to will help. Past hurts have stopped Laura telling her daughter everything – some things are just too hard to go back to. She’s always struggled with her memories and doesn’t know how to get around them.

You Then, Me Now is a fantastically executed novel that looks at the effects of various types of abuse on personal development. Alexander has created a story that combines the tale of an awful past with other elements that are very pleasant to read. It does this by using a dual narrative that sides more towards Laura’s story (part of Becky’s ‘allocated’ time is spent trying to work out the issues with her mother) but is far from overwhelmed by it.

Laura’s life has never been easy; it started with her mother, whose parenting caused a particularly negative experience. Laura’s mother was beyond strict, with Laura always worried about going so far as a centimetre away from the rules – even as an adult – for the understandable fear that her mother would be on her like a ton of bricks. The effects of all this naturally leads Laura to be very passive in the face of anything she’s not sure about, and she either misses clues entirely or is unable to trust her gut when it comes to assessing the goodness of strangers. This in turn leads her to say ‘yes’ to the sudden offer of a holiday by a man she’s just met who is constantly gaslighting her. So Laura is weak; you may find her frustrating at the start; it’s a symptom of her lack of healing. From start to finish, this part of the story is handled with a lot of care.

Alexander gives his reader something more lighthearted and positive to read about in Becky’s chapters. Becky is looking at her future, using the holiday both as time with her mother and as a getaway for herself. Where Laura’s chapters contain a romance, so too do Becky’s, but the relative relaxed nature of Becky’s romance allows you to relax yourself into the book. The location of the holiday and thus most of the novel, as Laura and Becky leave home soon into the book and Laura’s flashbacks are mostly of events at same location, is the Greek tourist island of Santorini. Alexander’s writing of it is brilliant; you won’t need photos – the descriptions are perfect and very atmospheric. In fact the only thing not so much in its favour is the slightly repetitive use of dinners in restaurants – dinner is expected, but a run down of the meals each time isn’t so much. That said, it does provide more information on Santorini.

Once the book reaches the end of the answers, it turns towards the resolution; this is where the book’s sole problem comes into play. The resolution isn’t entirely unrealistic but it falls in the realms of one-in-a-million and so it’s convenient that it happens. Certainly it keeps the page count under control – Alexander never belabours at any point – but it would’ve been better to have had a resolution that would have taken longer and thus been more credible. This said, as much as it casts a shadow it only casts it over that section – all the deft theme work and time spent on the setting is unaffected, and the ending itself is good.

You Then, Me Now encompasses far more than its name and cover might suggest, and almost in its entirety it achieves its aims with aplomb.

 
Exploring The Question ‘How Old Was Alice In Wonderland?’

An illustration by John Tenniel from the original edition of the book, it shows, in black and white, Alice sat down in a circle of small animals and birds - Alice is smaller than them

The other day I was looking through my site statistics as I sometimes do, and noted a plethora of searches to do with the aforementioned book. They were specifically to do with Alice’s age. I won’t list them because if Google happens to see value in this post it might start sending the searchers here and my writing today isn’t about answering the question (though I will answer the question later because I’ll need to).

Instead I want to explore that plethora itself. You’ll often see similar search phrases that result in the one answer; everyone words things differently. It was the sheer number of differences that struck me, the differences suggesting that the motives behind the questioned differed too. I wondered why people were asking. (There was also a bit of ‘why now?’ in there – I wrote about the reading age for the book almost a year ago and it’s only recently that numbers have swelled.)

Alice’s age is provided by Carroll in the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass – seven years old. Whilst not given in the first book, we can assume she was six or seven then because the first takes place a few months before the second, May and November respectively. So we’ve an easy answer to the question of why people are asking – the age isn’t provided in the first book and it’s safe to assume that a good number of people don’t get to the second. The question also means that it’s more likely people haven’t read either book and are perhaps looking to ascertain how appropriate it would be for their own child to read. It tends1 to be the case, after all, that in children’s literature, the character’s ages match the intended audience. One of the phrases in my stats was specifically requesting an Alice book ‘for kids’ – clearly this person (a parent?) had misgivings about the story, and I don’t blame them – after reading it myself a few years ago I decided not to buy a copy for my nephew until he was a little older than Alice herself.

(I’ll note here that there were a few searches in the same vein as our main question for Through The Looking-Glass. This could be a different, shorter, post but I think it’s best summed up as wanting to make sure the story doesn’t move too far ahead from the first as to mean that a child – likely deemed old enough for Alice by whatever metric – would have to mature in order to continue. It’s safe to assume that Carroll was looking for or was asked to provide more of the same, hence the short time frame between them.)

This leads us neatly onto the topic of context – are people asking in order to understand the Victorian context of this 1865 book? In my post about the target audience for the book, I wrote about the way the book was clearly written for children but how cultural change means that in our modern world it’s pretty violent and a bit too strange. Certainly Alice is a mix of very mature and not so, which reflects both her age and environment and suits her character’s role in the didactic book. It is interesting to look at the novel in the context of its time, to compare it to others – few have stood the passing of the centuries like Carroll’s – and see where morals and values as well as views about childhood come into play.

In this way I wonder if the secondary meaning behind asking about Alice’s age is relevant here – how old is the book that bears her name?

And on that note, therefore, somewhat, what is the reading level of the book? Does the appropriate age group of a modern child match the target reading level? When I gave it to my nephew, via grandma, I said it might be best read together; he’s a good reader but he necessarily lacks a Victorian child’s mindset. One searcher wanted to know if the book could be read by five-year-olds.

Lastly, looking at different interpretations of phrases, I think it’s possible some searchers are looking to study the content’s appropriateness in terms of Alice’s age, maybe also in terms of her social context. How appropriate is it for a child of seven to be dreaming of heads being cut off and what would her environment have been like? The law was different back then, and as we know from the information available about the progression of early children’s literature, childhood had until recently been viewed very differently to the way we view it now; the idea of childhood began in the 1600s.

I don’t think there are any conclusions to be made here; this post must remain exploratory. But certainly, wondering about the background behind these searches was interesting in a way wondering the same about other searches was not – I gave pondering other search subjects a try in order to ascertain the worth of this post.

When did you last ask ‘why’ of something in literature and what did you discover?

Footnotes

1 I say tends because we very much have to exclude Lyra and Will. On that note it’s interesting that the sales information for The Secret Commonwealth notes that it is for adults. Despite Lyra’s older age, it’s naturally going to mistaken sometimes for a children’s book.

 
Eloisa James – A Kiss At Midnight

Book Cover

The dream that you wish will come true.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62684-5
First Published: 27th July 2010
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Soon after Kate’s mother died, her father brought home a new wife – his long-term mistress. Now, her father dead, Kate has the attic room and shoulders all the responsibilities over the servants’ and tenants’ employment; her stepmother will let them go if she doesn’t. Kate would like a simple life – a man who loves her, no matter his rank, would be great. One evening her stepmother tells her she must pretend to be her stepsister, Victoria, and meet a prince; the prince’s approval of Victoria is required for her to marry his nephew, and Victoria is already pregnant so it must happen immediately. Kate leaves the house with Victoria’s doting fiancé and three lap dogs, looking forward to Victoria’s recovery from a minor facial injury so that the pretense can be dropped, but her story is heading in a different direction to the one she hoped for.

A Kiss At Midnight is James’ regency romance retelling of Cinderella (the version by Charles Perrault used by Disney). It stays pretty close to the author’s usual level of historical accuracy but allows for slices of fantasy in terms of dialogue and dress – more modern phrases, for example, have been added where the author spied them a good fit.

The book lies more in the realms of ‘based on’ than usual retelling – cover aside, you could potentially get quite a way through it before the details revealed the concept behind James’ story. The author has made some fairy tale devices more realistic, for example the glass slippers which, it is noted, aren’t made of glass because they’d break but a material that’s a good alternative. There isn’t a pumpkin. There isn’t any magic. Instead, James has substituted concepts and modified others to suit. The stepsister isn’t evil, in fact she’s rather sweet. Cinderella has a good amount of time to get to know the prince before any decisions must be made.

There are times, however, when, perhaps realising that her story is veering too far from the path, the author uses devices. These do jolt you out of the experience but thankfully normal service is resumed as soon as possible. The sudden, fairy-tale-aligned appearance of a previously unknown godmother, for example, is backed up by an ample backstory to provide reason for the character popping out of nowhere. (The godmother does effectively pop up out of nowhere which, as the story moves on, seems less of a ‘must include her quickly’ element and more of a ‘the original idea was strange, let’s just go with it’.)

The story in general is good, the changes making the retelling better. The characters are well developed and matched, and James has ensured that there’s lots of chemistry. The light humour is great as is the ‘cute’ factor – the dogs, who James has spent an equal amount of time characterising. Less successful is the change to the ball, which is partly due to the reading expectation that it be excellent but also down to James’ choice to use it as a chance to cement the couple’s feelings whilst making it a more passive experience for the heroine – a bit too ‘wait around while I go enjoy the evening’, to hint without spoiling.

A Kiss At Midnight is a very good book, certainly one of James’ best, but its role as retelling has its drawbacks no matter how small.

 
September 2019 Reading Round Up

I’ve made a breakthrough in my reading – I read more than I have been recently. Part of it was intention, making more time for it, part was picking a good mix of books, and part of it was finally getting it into my head that my rabbits are perfectly happy for me to sit and read around them rather than actively paying them attention. My cats were never like that; there has been a learning curve.

Towards the end of the month, I found comfort in easy reading – the Eloisa James made it to this month’s list and I’ve three other books on the go, including Mrs Dalloway; now on my fourth attempt, I’m getting through it. I’m happy that the numbers are higher and it’s made a long week more positive. I spent the last evening of the month watching Enchanted April, the 1992 adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s book, and highly recommend it.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

Book cover

Eloisa James: A Kiss At Midnight – A Cinderella retelling, in a fantasy early 1800s, a young woman agrees to pretend to be her half-sister in order to gain a relative’s approval for a marriage; the relative is a prince. A fun historical romance retelling, with just a couple of devices to better align it to the original.

Book cover

Maggie O’Farrell: This Must Be The Place – An American in Ireland struggles with his history, which includes two families and a dependence on alcohol; the various members of his families struggle with their own lives and pasts, including his second wife, a famous actress two decades before who ran away to Ireland in order to escape the life she hadn’t wanted. Difficult to follow at times but the literary elements are very compelling.

Book cover

Nick Alexander: You Then, Me Now – Becky has been trying all her life to get her mother, Laura, to tell her about her father. She manages to get her mother to holiday with her where the romance started; Laura has always found the idea of telling her daughter the truth difficult due to the trauma associated with that time. The only thing that doesn’t work is the resolution which is contrived; this is a very good book in general with superb characterisation and theme work.

Book cover

Sally Rooney: Conversations With Friends – Two lovers-turned-friends meet an affluent couple and become embroiled in their chaotic marriage. The story itself is average but as this book isn’t so much about story as it is everything else that makes up a novel, the whole is really rather good.

I enjoyed all four books immensely for different reasons. The James: an easy read and a very good book of its genre; O’Farrell: the use of literary styles and the playing with linguistics; Alexander: the way it went about depicting the impacts of emotional abuse on a young person, later resulting in sexual abuse; Rooney: the methods used to show feelings and the effects of depression.

Quotation Report

In Conversations With Friends, the narrator ponders the idea of kindness, whether it’s more about being nice in the face of conflict, and whether she only wonders whether she’s kind because she’s a woman. Whilst in This Must Be The Place, a teenager, new to the age group, discovers one of the changes that come with moving away from childhood, that lack of total oneness of self and the innocence of a child in regards to the rest of the world and life.

My immediate plan is to finish Mrs Dalloway which shouldn’t take too long given its relatively short length and my progress. I then plan to move on to a book that arrived in the post, and follow that with whatever takes my fancy.

Did you watch any adaptations this month?

 
Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends

Book Cover

A little more conversation, a little less action please.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-33312-7
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2019
Rating: 4/5

On an evening they had performed Frances’ poetry, Frances and her ex-girlfriend-now-friend Bobbi meet Melissa, a published writer who wants to write an article about them. They go to her house; they meet her husband, Nick; they are in awe of the couple’s wealth. The marriage seems unstable. As the acquaintance deepens, Frances’ interest in the semi-famous Nick increases – he seems someone who ‘gets’ her, likes her, for all her lack of personality.

Conversations With Friends is a book about personality in the sense of identity; feminism; power and control; parental abuse and neglect; and mental illness.

Frances is an interesting choice of narrator; it’s a choice that has made the novel the success it is, whilst at the same time it’s almost baffling. It’s all quite clever. Frances is boring; she says she has no personality but really it’s more that she just doesn’t do much. She has a fair bit going for her, including what is described by those around her as a good talent at writing, and overall success academically, but she tends to simply follow the directions and choices of others. And, interestingly here, it’s not that others are actively making choices for her – life just happens to her. The concept of no personality was Bobbi’s, and Frances writes as though she’s taken it to heart as simple fact. Frances is a reliable narrator, just a bit of a non-entity; this allows Rooney to put emphasis on people who have fuller lives, who are more passionate, driven, than the narrator. The lack of a personality is something that is pretty belaboured throughout. It’s more of a ‘true’ character voice rather than anything authorial.

Rooney has chosen to tell her story using subtle means, her choices for Frances only extending that. The book requires a lot of attention, more than is obvious – it’s the sort of novel that likely needs a re-read to fully understand because the ‘aha!’ moments happen so late. Conversations With Friends effectively has a layer of depression covering it, like a layer of thick fog you have to see past, get through, work through, in order to appreciate the content, and that takes time. In terms of literary style it’s incredible, this effective fog that you wouldn’t notice just by reading a page or two; so much has gone into it – the words, the content, the place Rooney is coming from – the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the feeling that there’s something between you and the words on the page, a block that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the text, and nothing in regards to anything the text lacks. The experience of reading this book felt, to me, a bit like the experience of reading The Bell Jar, only the depression wasn’t from the characters’ minds as such, and in terms of Rooney it’s only to do with stylistic choices. It’s also not as difficult to read as Plath’s book nor similar.

To him my arm was not important. He was only concerned with making his child feel bad, making her feel ashamed (p. 268).

Conversations With Friends is about depression, generally without use of the word, and not being able to make heads nor tails of life; this, especially, is where Nick comes into the story. Frances’ upbringing wasn’t good, and this has resulted in a lack of self. In fact, Frances’ parents have a lot to answer for. Emotional abuse and neglect is all over this book. Frances’ father has his own problems and her mother often criticises her and tells her what to do as though she’s younger than she is. Frances never seems as old as her peers, and the divide makes a lot more sense when her mother is in a scene.

He told me he thought helplessness was often a way of exercising power (p. 246).

As the book moves into its final pages (though this number is fairly large as the chapters are long), Rooney lifts some of the fog to let you better see what’s going on. This is where some ‘telling’ comes in and it’s unfortunate because, as excellently crafted as the fog is, if it wasn’t for the fog, Rooney’s explanations wouldn’t be so glaring. The context of this section brings into focus the idea of power and control – particularly in relationships – the power seemingly passive people can have over others.

To introduce the feminism:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone (p. 176).

Conversations With Friends is subtle but far from unenjoyable – in a slightly studious and highly literary way, it has a lot to recommend it.

 

Older Entries Newer Entries