Spoiler alert … spoiler alert … spoiler alert
Here we are: held over from Friday last week to incorporate our first Listener Book Club live event, An Evening with Emily Perkins; delayed from Friday this week because, well, I just didn’t get around to it; and as it turns out without very much at all from Thursday’s Perkins event because I forgot to turn on my tape recorder and it all went past in such a blur from where I was sitting asking the questions that I can barely remember a word of it. It’s for professionalism like this they pay me the big bucks.
I do remember a few things: for all the talk of Virginia Woolf in reviews of The Forrests, Perkins hasn’t actually read much of her (Nicholson Baker and Annie Dillard were more of an influence); while some Book Club followers got annoyed with Dorothy and her passivity, Perkins learned a valuable lesson from Grant Tilly (I think it was Grant Tilly) when she was training to be an actor – don’t judge the character you are playing; her first attempts at writing were bad poems in thrall to Stevie Smith; although Dorothy’s husband, Andrew, is a painter, that’s nothing to do with Perkins’s own husband being Karl Maugham, a rather more successful painter, but she didn’t see why Maugham being a painter should prevent Andrew being one, too; and those unpaid traffic fines of the Forrests – let’s just say Perkins didn’t need to do any research on that front.
If any of the 150 people at the event are reading this, perhaps you could comment below and fill in a few of the gaps.
I think this is what they call crowd-sourcing.
It was a good turnout and we hope you all found it an illuminating evening.
Introducing it, I thanked Perkins for being game enough to put herself through the mill for us in many ways over the past month, answering questions here on the website and at the event, and doing something authors of new books aren’t normally expected to do by opening herself up to negative as well as positive comments in our various discussion forums.
Because, three months in, it is clear we’re never going to be a touchy-feely book club of the Oprah Winfrey kind – and I can’t help but think on the whole that is a healthy thing. We want the Book Club to be a place where we can talk about books openly and honestly.
In the case of The Forrests, that has meant a real division between those of us at one with what Natasha Hay, in her interview with Perkins that opened the month, called a “profound sensory experience for the reader” and those, like the majority of our real-life book group that discussed the novel, who “found the minute attention to detail and the physical world around the characters intensely boring, mundane and irritating”.
But our real-life book group were certainly not alone in not getting it at all. A number of New Zealand reviewers I know, who had read the novel but weren’t actually reviewing it themselves, had come to the same conclusion.
Meanwhile, here on the website, Melanie Wittwer said: ”I held off commenting on this book, because I did not want to do it injustice. I found it quite hard to find a way of access to this book. I thought long and hard on why it did not appeal to me at all. All these descriptions which, if I understand other people’s comments correctly, work together to weave a nostalgic tapestry of a New Zealand that was, are almost completely lost on me. And I also know why. They do not evoke any feelings of recognition in me, because I did not grow up in New Zealand. I arrived in the country 11 years ago, as a grown-up. To me, as an ignorant outsider, it seems as if the author does not believe in the power of the noun by itself, every noun needs to be qualified by an adjective. This, for me, makes the novel very hard to read. I am constantly distracted by ‘fillers’ that make little sense to me. Power to the noun! And I do not find that the descriptions add up to a picture I can imagine in my head. My imagination needs air and not be smothered by a flood of restrictive language leaving it no space to breathe. It may well be that The Forrests will emerge to be the Great New Zealand Novel everybody has been waiting for, but it is lost on me. (I know that the raving reviews from Britain contradict my theory of the book being lost on people who do not share a nostalgic NZ past.)”
Inspired by this comment, Lucy Hodgson said: “Thank you Melanie, I’m glad I’m not alone in my failure to find something to like about this book. I managed to finish it but, when it ended up wallowing in a mangrove swamp, that summed it up for me. Like you, I wasn’t brought up in New Zealand and have lived through some of the experiences that Emily Perkins seems to think deserve death and madness (I’m still alive but the jury is out on the sanity plea). I’ve got a good idea about what Daniel would have got up to in France and it would have been a lot more enlightening than wading through the list of nounless quantifiers describing a loveless marriage, or one that turns a mother’s love into cement boots instead of water wings. Having escaped the pervading black and grey of English society, bound by their strict notions of properness, I’m not surprised that English reviewers like The Forrests. Just for fun (because there wasn’t much of it to be found in this book), imagine what the Australians and Americans would think of it. I can’t see Mediterranean countries interrupting their colourful lives to read this story. Perhaps Scandinavian and Russian philosophers would get something out of it. Apparently, we all lead lives of quiet desperation so why would we want to wade through the minutiae of that disappointment and frustration? The flight of a dandelion in the final sentence might give a glimmer of hope but it took 340 pages to get there. So, that’s my ‘aha’ moment. Most people can’t figure out how to enjoy life until they come to the final sentence – but I knew that already. Think I’ll go out and play in some estuary mud.”
This was Lucy’s second go at the book, having first commented after we posted our book group discussion: ”As an aspiring novelist, I’m reading feedback from the Listener Book Club for a range of opinions to help me develop my own writing beyond the first entry-level rule: write what you know. As a pragmatist, I believe any novel that is enjoyable is good. As a despot, I believe bad stories should be burned (in the pyrotechnic, not digital sense) before printing. As an idealist, I believe a great story improves the reader’s life, so has to take us further than the ‘me, me, me’ perspective just illustrated in these paragraphs. And now for the opinion: The Forrests displays all the features I attribute to a bad story. I’m only half way through and the only thing that keeps me reading is the desire to solve the puzzle of how this story could have come from an award winning writer. It’s biggest crime is the glorification of stoic acceptance and making non-participation in life seem noble. Sure, there are moments of brilliance, like the long list of things Eve would do to improve her father’s life, finishing with ‘burn the house down and build a better one and bring her father back from the dead.’ However, the plot is as exciting as a gossip rag with the only momentum provided by sporadic lurches of dysfunction under the facade of a happy family. There is no language to lighten the methodical plot. Vocabulary is pedestrian and I’m still trying to get used to the style of long lists of ideas separated only by commas. Train-of-thought narration isn’t new but losing your reader by assuming their thoughts resonate in the same way as your own is a writer’s crime. I was forced to reread several sentences to work out where I was going eg: ‘As Lee was talking, Dorothy saw it, only the hallway was their hallway, the street outside their own.’ Lists of everyday functions and human failings provide no insight into the human condition. The characters are no more real than puppets manipulated by the scenes created for them. It seems that all women are victims, waiting for seriously flawed men to bring some meaning to their lives. Somebody [see Teresa Gordon comment below] found it was ‘like having warm, cuddly blanket wrapped around the plot’, so I suppose some ‘wimmin’ find a solidarity in shared experience. As for providing any ‘aha’ moment of revelation, my worst criticism is that this story is depressing. The recurring theme is that leaders are not real people and anyone who aspires to leadership is a doddering fool (at least Frank has Lee to anchor him to mediocrity). People who dream of anything better from life will pay with pointless travel, drug addiction, prison and even their life (Eve got what was coming to her).”
Maureen Jansen came to the novel’s defence in the same thread: ”I think there are some frustrating and even clumsily edited/written elements in this book. But the overall effect on me was deep. I think it is an anti-novel. It’s not trying to be like an ordinary novelistic narrative but something new and organic. It reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad in its treatment of time but less polished, less slick. It has a raw, weeping edge. Yes, a bit depressing but also uplifting in its concentration on the present moment. There is something beautiful in the last section where the past and present exude a hard won joy. Emily Perkins has broken new ground here: forget normal story arcs and the usual tests of characterisation. It’s not about that. It’s something very new and unique.”
Martine Poiree, however, was having none of it: ”In view of well-publisised rave reviews for this book I have wonderd whether or not to be honest in my opinion, and as a result quite possibly being seen as an ignoramus/peasant, but the comments above [in the book group discussion] have re-assured me that I am not alone. I started reading The Forrests with a great deal of anticipation as I have really enjoyed Emily Perkins’ ealier books, but it quickly dawned on me that this one might turn out to be a disappointment. I decided to soldier on and got just over halfway before deciding that life is too short, and there are too many books on my bedside table tempting me with their as-yet-unrevealed possibilities, so I gave up on The Forrests. To put it plainly I got very very bored. Perhaps the minute description of how to make a cup of tea in intricate details is very meaningful to some readers but I am afraid the meaning completely bi-passed me. Having got halfway I would still be incapable of describing any of the characters, even the main ones, and for me they simply remained cardboard cut-outs for whom I was unable to feel any empathy. I look forward to reading the next book to be chosen for the Book Club and in the meantime I will go back to the afore-mentioned pile of books by my bedside.”
The book group’s comment about “too many words” in the first chapter of The Forrests caught the amused/appalled eye of some of our followers on Twitter.
“Next up, the @nzlbookclub does To The Lighthouse,” quipped reviewer Jolisa Gracewood. ”‘Depressing… too esoteric… too many words… not enough about the actual lighthouse.’”
In a fit of gallantry, I responded: “It is possible to have too many words – books (and articles) that don’t breath because of overly dense packing …”
To which Gracewood came back: ”I read it as a critique of the speed/pace/focus, rather than lack of breathing space. ‘Too much breathing’ maybe?”
Listener film reviewer David Larsen, however, tweeted in reply to me: “Yes, agreed. And the same with notes, in fact; though I think Mozart may possibly have been on the right side of history there.”
He added: “Pondering that too many words complaint, I think they meant ‘not enough events’. Which is a comment on their expectations…”
To which writer Rachel Barrowman came back: “Plenty of events in the novel, surely, just not linked up in the familiar (thus easy) narrative way.”
“Always been very fond of UK Le Guin’s remark that ‘I never really want my books to have plots…’,” tweeted Larsen.
Not everyone was onside, though. Judi Lapsley Miller tweeted: “just finished it and concur with book club. Glad it’s not just me! Loved Emily’s previous book so quite disappointed”
Francis Cooke “Finished The Forrests. And loved about 75% of it.”
On our Facebook page, Emma McCleary wrote: ”This book club review [ie the book group discussion] made me so annoyed because I LOVED The Forrests. It’s subtle and beautiful and I’m standing by my loved-up rants to friends.”
Also on Facebook: “It just goes to show that people have such different tastes. I didn’t like Look at Me at all but I really enjoyed The Forrests yet when I look back at them they weren’t terribly different books.” That was Teresa Gordon. (Back on our website, Teresa wrote: ”The Forrests was a lovely tale. I enjoyed reading about familiar sounds, sights and experiences. It was like having warm, cuddly blanket wrapped around the plot. I enjoyed the plot jumping around chronologically. It felt like the writer was leaving space for my own creativity within the text. What did you think happened to Daniel at the ski resort? I really thought the frog being burnt in the fire portended Daniel’s imminent demise. It was great book to read at night and put down at the end of a chapter due the episodic nature of the story. My apologies for not being more analytical about this book. There seem to be plenty of people participating here who have more experience at this book club lark. I just wanted to express my appreciation for Emily’s writing and say that I will definitely make an effort to read more of her work in the future.”)
Jill Robinson wrote: “Two weeks after reading The Forrests I’m still thinking about it, which means to me that enjoyable or not, depressing or not, this book stands out from the crowd. Yes it is bleak, yes at times the amount of description, while beautiful, got in the way of engaging at first read with the characters, and yes, especially in the second half of the book, I found Dorothy’s passivity frustrating. But somehow all three of these factors combined with the structure, which I thought worked a bit like remembering, added up to a book which I couldn’t put down, which I found, while I was reading it and since, to be a profound commentary on what it is to live the life one is given. Thanks to the Listener Book Club for selecting such a great book and a New Zealand book at that, which only added to the pleasure.”
For Stephanie Till, however: “I am a dedicated fan of Emily’s work but with high and hopeful expectations from the absurd hype, this one disappointed me. I finished it and immediately re-read it thinking there was something wrong with my reading. Jill, your comments above are interesting – but I need to be more moved by ‘a profound commentary on what it is to live the life one is given.’ I wanted to shake Dorothy free of her green and misty yearning. Love the cover.”
Sarah McMullan wrote: ”I have to say I’m hugely disappointed in The Forrests. I like Emily’s writing and enjoyed Novel About My Wife because of its ambiguity and fluidity in style. The Forrests I find is the total opposite. Too much descriptive prose without enough story. I can see that there is beauty within everyday life but this feels forced to me, as if she sat down and decided to try and write a serious novel that will be taken seriously by the literary elite; as opposed to a story that just flowed freely. Writers develop and change – there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is dense, heavy, hard to read & very hard to enjoy. It would be brilliant if she won the Man Booker with this, though I would still maintain this is not her best work.”
Back to our website for some of the positive side of the ledger.
“‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’” Cathy Clarke quoted Leo Tolstoy. “In this dysfunctional family, the universal is in the particular. There are many mundane-but-fascinating scenes of day to day (middle-class) life that are described so exactly and minutely that resonated with my own experience that at times it seemed like reading about my own life. It was because of this sensory detail the characters felt like real people and were totally absorbing. Daniel is the charming, elusive, Byronic figure that Dorothy continually hankers after. Is he the under-tow that keeps dragging her under, or does that longing keep her afloat when life becomes overwhelming? Of one of the many wonderful metaphors throughout the book, this one encapsulates their relationship: ‘A vine had grown over the kitchen window and been cut back, leaving a tattoo of broken black swirls. Dorothy picked at the insistent tendril that crawled under the windowpane, its bright greenness probing the room, pale green shoots emerging like arrowheads, or the tops of the spades suit in a deck of playing cards’ … The episodic style is similar to that of The Stranger’s Child and I loved the way the writing got inside the heads of the characters: ‘She would clear out the cupboards and vacuum in the corners and wipe down all the boxes. She would find enough fresh food to make something hearty for dinner, and light the fire and pick flowers for the table and in the morning would sand down the windowsills and paint them and clean the windows and re-roof the house and mow the lawns and burn this house down and build a better one and bring her father back from the dead.’ As the song says ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. A great read that I just devoured, hence my early review [posted on May 6].”
“In anyone else’s hands this novel would have been very mundane,” said Linda Lee. ”An ordinary family with a not too remarkable life, but the outstanding prose has lifted this novel into prize winning status. I liked how the chapters moved on with no need for time frames, but you caught up in the following narrative. I liked how the writing came from within the characters. And the love the attention to detail of the smallest thing that made the images come alive. I found it quite amusing that the ‘over 50′ Dot, had some of the same complaints as me. Its a real slice of life with many issues that happen, divorce, death, affairs, unfulfilled love. The characters are like your father, mother, sibling, aunt, neighbour. I hope she wins the Booker Prize for this.”
Oceaniadawn left this comment: ”I imagine that The Forrests will be beloved by critics, and not-so-loved by anyone expecting a sweeping drama encompassing a woman’s life. I was certainly expecting a different book from the one I read, but that is not to say I didn’t like it; I did. I loved it. For me it was a beautifully-told story about an ordinary woman’s life. Dorothy’s life *is* ordinary (apart from her love for Daniel, her loveless marriage, discovering that her father is gay, and tragically losing her sister). What makes the novel so compelling is Perkins’s teasing out of the details of this ordinary life, her psychological insight, and her evocative use of language. I’d hesitantly describe the novel as a series of short stories (vignettes). The chapters did not immediately follow one another in the way one might expect: there were slightly disconcerting leaps in time, place, and viewpoint. Because of this The Forrests needs to be read in big gulps, over a few days, to allow the writing to draw you in. The relationship between Daniel, Dorothy, and Eve is so poignant, and made me think of my relationship with a boy from my own childhood, whom I love even now, even as he has married and had children. So Dorothy and Daniel’s relationship really resonated with me. So, in summary (and as I tweeted today): In The Forrests an ordinary life is made compelling. Full of beautiful imagery; a novel to be savoured.”
Let’s leave the last word to Louise Wallace, who tweeted: “Tasman District Library’s estimated wait time for a copy of ‘The Forrests’ = 266 days. Will get back to you with opinion then.”