Friday, July 6, 2007

Literacy and Longing in LA review

Bleagh! £10 down the drain.

I'd heard of Book Lover/Literacy & Longing in LA, so when I saw it in at the Heathrow Borders as one of those airport exclusives, I succumbed. How I wish I hadn't. Maybe it's just too trivial after a heavy duty tour through Daniel Dennett, or maybe it is just a really excruciating novel.

Where to start - the heroine is a pain in the ass. I too would love nothing better than to sit for days in my bath (my new bath, which has a tap which makes Hollywood-movie quantities of bubbles, in my sexy bathroom with black tiles and silver venetian blinds) drinking wine and reading books, but oh, yes, I have a family, a mortgage, a job and friends. Dora spends her shrinking trust fund on Botox, has one friend, who seems only to be a friend because our delightful protagonist can look down on her, and thanks to the trust fund, doesn't seem to think she needs to work. The moment I really knew things were bad were when the writers used a conversation to give us an idea of Dora's appearance, and the dreaded Dan Brown technique of likening a fictional character to a movie star was wheeled out - in this case, our girl has an uncanny resemblance to Nicole Kidman, fancy that! As a writer, I am totally happy to use visuals for inspiration: my latest hero had more than a passing resemblance to French hottie Gaspard Ulliel - but that's in my head, not on the page. On the page, you work at building up the character's complete presence, not the lazy short-hand of referencing this year's A-list celeb.

Then the writers (yup, it's co-written - I've read other collaborations that worked - hell, I've written a collaborative novel that was published, but something should have warned me off this collaboration) substituted plot and character development for name-checking every book they've read. Since they are both in their 30s, they have around 60 years worth of reading to their credit, and I have to give them credit, they didn't entirely waste it, since they do manage to namecheck the best children's book ever, Where the Wild Things Are. But then Dora pronounces that Austen doesn't cut the mustard because her characters are upper-class, revealing Dora's (and/or the authors') fundamental ignorance and complete sense of humour bypass.

And I really did not appreciate the 10 page reading list at the back of the book giving me useful information for the name checks such as "Buzz Aldrin, astronaut, Miguel de Cervantes, author, Charles Dickens, author, Voltaire, playwright/poet..." Ermmmm, what about giving your readers the credit for knowing who these cultural icons might be off our very own personal bats, you patronising smart-arses?

The two main male characters have enormous aubergines up their derrières: Palmer is a slick arriviste with a hunger for status symbols and no plausible reason for showing the slightest interest in the heroine, while Fred has Loser tattoed across his forehead from the start: the setup for his complete dudness as a signficant other is signposted from his first manifestation on the page. Both characters are thinly drawn. In fact, no one is thickly drawn, so the whole thing is a bit like drinking a cocktail diluted by melted ice.

Plot - not so much: Dora throws her books at the wall. Now, here's a quibble. If this Dora woman is a lifelong reader, how does she come to have only enough books for an hour or so of throwing them at the wall? Granted, much of her library seems to have been left in her husband's garage (btw, he seems to live in both a house and an apartment complex...the copyediting could have been a little more thorough), but even so. There was a time when I did not have every single one of my books with me, but even so, it would have taken a lot longer than an hour to chuck them all at the wall. Which brings me to another quibble: no book lover would throw books at the wall. Dora is a poseur. It looks like a cute set-up, because Dora's mother is an alcoholic, and Dora is clearly an addictive personality using books to self-medicate. But there's the hitch. Bookaholics don't join BA and take a 12 step programme to debook themselves because being a true reader means understanding what the books mean, and the glib observations, banalities and trite conclusions reached by Dora/the authors reflect a complete failure to understand books. Pretentious claptrap about the Homeric echoes in The Wind in the Willows does not make for authentic, genuine response.

With aspirations to quality fiction of the Elinor Lipman variety and to sales of the Helen Fielding quantity, Book Lover was a promising punt, but the weak characterisation, plotting and general unfunniness make this a very missable book.

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