Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. New York: Avon, 1980.

(The original copyright is 1931.)

Huh? Really. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. The whole time I was reading it I felt the way I used to feel as a child sitting amongst the grownups on my parents’ front porch after dinner parties, listening to them talk. I’d have moments of understanding, pieces of conversation I could actually follow. Then the conversation would leap off the path into the thicket, and I’d disappear into my own little dream world until I caught a glimpse of it coming back into view again, just up ahead, and I’d run to catch up with it.

I’m not opposed to sparse writing, you know. I’m in love with Alan Garner, and not too long ago, I was raving about Joan Didion. However, when I start feeling that the writing is so sparse, surely words meant to be there have somehow faded off the page, that reading this book is like trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with bad reception, well, then, I’m not quite so keen on “sparse.” Likewise, enigmatic. I’m as game for a good enigma as anyone, always ready to exercise my problem-solving skills, such as they are, hoping I can surprise others by coming up with the answer. However, the fun of a good riddle is knowing that the answer is right there in front of you, hidden amongst the clues. A really good puzzle might distract the problem solver with irrelevant information, but it doesn’t present a wolf, a sheep, and a chicken only to tell you that the answer is a crocodile. Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m just too stupid to have seen that crocodile so obviously hovering right above everyone.

The back cover copy on the book notes that “the story reveals, by the most delicate means, the secret loves of Janet and Edward.” Okay, so I knew what was going to happen, didn’t I? I was aware and watching it from the get-go. Now, I know I tend to be about as delicate as a hippopotamus most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cat who can walk along a shelf of priceless crystal and leap off it with nary a sound of tinkling glass. I couldn’t find the cat here, though. He must have been black. It must have been midnight. Then suddenly, the hippopotamus rose up onto the shelf, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ear. For a brief moment, I understood.

Janet was in London. Edward was missing. But then, huh? What the hell happened?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t really hate the book. I just didn’t understand it. All the characters seemed as though they’d be extraordinarily interesting if only I knew more about them. Bowen, described (again, in the back cover copy. I wish I had this copywriter to put a spin on my blog) as a “novelist acutely aware of every nuance of feeling,” must have shown off this awareness in other books, because I didn’t notice any passages (maybe they were just so delicate they expired when I breathed on the pages of the book?) that allowed me to get much past the faces and into the heads of the characters.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I’ve been presented with a roomful of fascinating people, but I’m not allowed to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get to know them in any real way. When they leave the room, someone will say to me, “Hope you enjoyed meeting them, because they’re all off to Alaska now and won’t be coming back.”

Perhaps the problem is that while reading this book I also happened to be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that is lush with descriptions of characters’ feelings, a book that’s so much heart it beats in your hands as you turn the pages. Perhaps I’m more in the mood for that sort of book now. Maybe I’ll be better off with Bowen during the heat of the summer when I’m in need of stripping off layers of description and needless words, getting down to bare skin while sipping cold lemonade instead of hot lemon ginger tea. After all, I recently vowed to give every author I choose to read at least two chances before deciding I don’t like him or her. If someone would like to recommend a Bowen novel (Litlove, I think you might be able to do so?) suitable for this July, I will give her one more try before throwing in the towel.


Jan in Edmonds said...

Just wanted to leave a message that I've finished probably my last outmoded author for this challenge. He is Robert L. Fish & he wrote The Bridge that went Nowhere. It was published in 1968.

bookworm said...

I just finished "Friends and Relations" (which I got at a second hand bookstore mainly because of the painting on the cover) and came online to try and find some more information on the book.
Not much luck but I now I feel like less of an idiot. I kept going back to the last 3,4, 10 pages thinking I must have missed an important sentence somewhere...
And then (I swear) as I finished, I checked the binding to see if the last pages had been ripped or something.
This seems like a great blog*idea by the way...