** spoiler alert ** Oh, interesting. I never read books like this; I favor YA, which tend to be quick reads, familiar characters, lots of feelings and lots of passion, not a lot of introspection or self-examination, no lengthy descriptions of characters that only matter as background for the ones that do matter. Certainly no lengthy descriptions of the short stories a character has read or of the political and social climate of England in the 1970s. But my, it is nice to step out of one's comfort zone every so often, isn't it? I kind of feel like I got slapped by a big, salty ocean wave and forgot to close my mouth.
I wasn't expecting to like this, to be honest, because I tried to read one of Ian McEwan's books before and I don't think I finished it, and also, I saw the movie adaptation of Atonement and, though I think it was pretty nicely done, I didn't enjoy it. Not my kind of movie. And for the first, I don't know, 100 pages, I was still thinking that this wasn't going to be a book I enjoyed very much, although I was finding it interesting. I wanted to know where we were heading with Tony Canning, I wanted to know what sort of disaster Serena was heading for, but I wasn't exactly loving the book. But THEN. Then the description of Haley's short story about the twins, which I LOVED. I actually usually hate books-within-a-book (unless there's a thing framing device, The Turn of the Screw-style, which is okay) (I also hate dream sequences pretty much without exception), but I really was into this one. And then we met Tom Haley, and I pretty much gobbled down the rest of the book.
Well, don't get me wrong, this is not the sort of book that gives you paper cuts from flipping pages so fast. The writing is demanding, the pace steady and smooth, the voice thoughtful. It takes time to move those pages if you really want to get the most from this book--ahh, and isn't that interesting, because you could definitely read it Serena-style, skimming the passages about the communists and the conversations about books, but you wouldn't get to know the book the way it wants to be known, if you did that.
I actually liked Serena, and I found her extremely relatable. I liked her pretension and the snobbery that she could only cop to in a roundabout way, how she thought she was so much more than she was--no, how she wanted to want to be more than she was, but actually, she was fairly middling in a lot of ways and was perfectly content to be that way. I liked her flaws, is what I'm saying. She had the right kind of flaws and just enough self-awareness for them not to grate overmuch. I appreciated how it never once occurred to her that any of the men in her life might actually not have wanted to sleep with her or love her just because of her--they were gay, they were engaged, they were dying. Such a beautiful girl way of thinking, to assume first that you're desired, then locate a reason why you weren't that is down entirely to the man and has nothing at all to do with you.
I liked Tom Haley, and I liked their relationship. I wanted to know what Max's deal was. I was expecting a little more from the Shirley Shilling angle, but I was happy with what we got. I hated the ape story, wasn't into the mannequin, really liked Pawnography, kind of dug the novella. And the end. Well, I mentioned, didn't I, that I hate a book within a book, but the ones here really worked for me? And I didn't mention, but will now, that I usually wish narrators were reliable, and that while literary trickery can ultimately be very satisfying, I generally find it annoying while I'm reading it. So, actually, I should have hated this book. Instead, I didn't. I really, really liked this book. I didn't see it coming, the fact that this book I was reading was the book Haley was writing, but I knew there would be something. I actually underlined this passage, from just after Serena finishes reading the ape story (ahh, the joys of owning books!):
I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.
And that passage stayed in my mind, and it was so very--I agreed with it so very much, as a person who prefers to read quickly and really just for fun rather than for thinking about (recovering English major?), but I recognized it as foreshadowing in a major, major way. But the twist there was--oh, well, I liked Haley's short stories so much! Why would I not like his novel? It just really worked for me, especially the fact that it came at the very. end. of the novel, so I didn't have to read for pages upon pages newly certain that the author (the real one, you know, Mr. McEwan) wasn't to be trusted. Instead, it told you what the what was, and everything ended.
And obviously, Serena and Tom lived happily ever after, and I really like that, too. (Initially gave this four stars, but then I wrote the review and realized it needed five. I like it increasingly upon consideration!)