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The Sunday

OK, this is me officially getting back on track with my reviewing. I read this about a month and a half ago, and I blame it entirely for getting me hooked on French Revolution novels. Well, that and the OBCR of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The back cover says that Fair Exchange is “inspired by the lives and affairs of two of the most famous figures of the late 18th century – Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth.” Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft themselves actually make the occasional cameo in the novel, but two of the protagonists, Jemima Boote and William Saygood, are based fairly obviously on them. Jemima is an orphaned charity case whose involvement with the Skynner family draws her into the political word of 18th C England, and William is the charming but rather feckless (aren’t they always?) poet who crosses her path.

The story is told from multiple points of view, the framing device being Louise Daudry’s deathbed confession of the secret she has been carrying for most of her adult life.

In the days before the Terror takes hold of France, Jemima is living as an unpaid governess to the Skynner’s children, whilst nursing an unrequited passion for Fanny Skynner, her old schoolfriend. Tired of her indentured servitude, she follows her mentor Mary Wollstonecraft to Paris to observe the burgeoning Revolution. Before leaving, she meets William Saygood who is also headed to Paris and they banter, flirt a little and jokingly agree to meet at the barricades. Annette, a young French girl, falls in love with Williamwhilst they are both in Paris and Jemima in turn takes an American poet by the name Paul Gilbert as a lover. The two women do not meet until, seeking privacy to write her novel and give birth to her illegitimate child, Jemima rents a former convent in Blois and takes on Louise as a maid and Annette – also pregnant out of wedlock – as a companion. Their lives converge until the birth of their daughters Maria and Caroline when Louise agrees to make the bargain with Paul that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone on the house.

Roberts’ see-sawing perspective and occasionally non-linear narrative isn’t for everyone. I suspect she’s one of those authors that you love or hate. I first read Impossible Saints when I was about fifteen, and then The Wild Girl as an undergraduate. I’ve got a feeling I’ve read more, but no other titles are coming to mind. If you like religion, feminism, sex and death, you’ll probably like her. Her conflicted relationship towards Catholicism is fascinating, although it doesn’t come out so strongly in Fair Exchange, and her favourite trope seems to be communities of women and the effect of the eventual, inevitable penetration of men into a sisterhood. This isn’t a sugar-coated version of sororal bliss, but neither are her love stories simple and painless. Roberts gives us human nature at it’s complicated best, and Fair Exchange is one I’d recommend, although it isn’t my favourite.

Further Reading

I re-read Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman after this, and it makes a good follow-up. By coincidence, I picked up Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo in the same second-hand bookshop haul, which deals with Wordsworth’s poetry.


I don’t appear to have updated since the summer, and now the leaves are falling and I have to wear a jacket when I leave the house. I still take it off when I enter that godforsaken circle of hell known as the London Underground, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Anyway. The reason I haven’t ben updating is that I’ve been reading a lot. And I mean, a lot. The past few months have ben a serious book-binge on my part, and taking time to blog about one book would mean having to wait before starting the next. Ain’t gonna happen.

A sample* of the delights I have been…well, sampling: (links go to the reviews and will be updated as and when I write them)

There was also some random self-help books that I found in the library, but this blog is dull enough without my wittering about my issues, don’t you think? I’m currently reading The Elusive Pimpernel, and I’m about two thirds of the way through. For the record, Orczy’s Marguerite is an IDIOT. A principled, passionate idiot, but still an idiot. We’re expected to believe that this is “the cleverest woman in Europe”? SERIOUSLY? Anyway, Marguerite Blakeney gets several posts to herself when I get round to doing a proper update.

Books on my TBR pile include more historical fiction, some historical non-fiction and a couple of classics that I keep picking up and discarding – Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical being one. I’m also planning on getting stuck in to my annual re-read of The Woman in White – September is usually my preferred month, for some reason – and I’m hoping this will tide me over until next payday.

That said, I’m off to Berlin with my inamorata in a few weeks, and although I’ve been to Germany before I know next to nothing about the city itself. Can anyone recommend me anything – fiction, non-fiction, travel guides?


*AKA, ‘what I can remember of a really large pile of books’

The Sunday

It seems to have taken me several days to finish this one – strange, given that it’s a fairly short novel and a re-read. I’d managed to forget the event that the whole novel leads up to and then reveals, but then discovered that…well, it was pretty forgettable. As well as out-of-character, gratuitous and rather anticlimactic. Had the scene been longer and more detailed, perhaps I’d have gotten more out of it than a faint sense of dissatisfaction.


Polyhymnia O’Keefe, a brilliant seventeen year old staying alone in Athens and being romanced by a wealthy boy a few years her senior, reflects back on the previous year and her intense friendship with the enigmatic, intelligent Maximiliana, and Max’s lover Ursula. Something happened to shatter Polly’s trust in Max and, though L’Engle throws a few red herrings about, it’s not hard to guess what it was. In addition, I couldn’t help feeling that Polly overreacted hideously and that she needed to gain some perspective and stop being such a brat. Which doesn’t excuse Max’s actions, just that her motivations are glossed over so much that she seems like a caricature in that scene and it’s hard to identify the out-of-control creature who raves drunkenly and tries ineptly to make a pass at her friend and daughter-figure, with the wise, benevolent women carrying around more than her fair share of dark secrets but refusing to be weighed down by them.


Apparently this is part of a series, and I’ve been told by friends that it’s the weakest book in the O’Keefe saga. I’d certainly like to read more – the family intrigues me and, despite the flaws she shows in this book, I like Polly as a central character. I’ve currently got a long list of books to get thorough, however, including Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant which is apparently so good that my girlfriend refused to part with it until she had bought another copy. Please bear in mind that we live in the same house. Then I want to finish Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Streets, read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and re-read Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I first read in Japan four years ago and has stayed with me ever since as a utterly brilliant novel.

But today it is a hot, sunny day, and I have gardening to do.

There’s a debate going on in the Guardian book blog at the moment that I’ve been weighing in on – the author of the post, Sam Jordison (who confusingly looks just like my friend Paul), references Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, describing it’s premise as touching on “two perennial favourites for books bloggers: The Death Of The Novel and How The Internet Changes Everything.”

Although Jordison doesn’t define ‘deep reading’ in his article, we came to an agreement in the comments that “we’re talking about a reading that produces a detailed analysis of the language, themes, etc of the text” (my words). He concludes that his novel reading has yet to be affected by the way he reads online – I’d be interested in research about the way people read e-books, if anyone’s bored – and I’d agree. In fact, most book bloggers I read are still really invested in ‘deep reading’. I’ll maybe skim the odd paragraph if it’s a re-read or a bad book, but I don’t understand the concept of reading a novel and not taking it all in. I think the way we read articles can be different to the way we read literature, and that’s OK. They’re constructed differently, so why should we automatically read them in the same way? I don’t read Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveller in the same way I read Jane Eyre, after all.

Don’t forget, it’s perfectly possible to read ‘deeply’ using the definition we came up with, and still get distracted. Just because I made two cups of tea, ate some toast and fed my cat in between finishing The Lake of Dead Languages this morning doesn’t mean that my reading experience was adversely affected. Apart from the bit where the cat, in protest about not having had any breakfast, jumped on my lap and spilled my scalding hot cup of tea all over me. Then again, that wasn’t an adverse reading experience as much as it was third degree burns.

…You know, maybe it’s nice to have something to blame my total lack of attention span on, even though I’m pretty sure that the internet has merely encouraged rather than created it. And anyway, isn’t multitasking considered to be an advantage these days?

Jordison sums this up pretty accurately in his blog post:

Speaking personally, I can half take the author’s point. Indeed, I only initially skimmed his article (even though I thought it was quite smart). It was only when contemplating linking to the piece in this blog that I forced myself to read it in its entirety. Meanwhile, since I started writing this short article I’ve also checked my email, had a brief skim of facebook and navigated to the Guardian sport pages and my favourite time-wasting resource, the over-by-over cricket coverage.

Even so, I do wonder if Carr is slightly (and perhaps deliberately) blurring a few boundaries. My own approach to novels – I think – remains much as it ever has. I have few problems sustaining concentration on single works for long periods of time. Indeed, part of the pleasure of a paper book comes in the contrast engaging with them presents to the frenetic internet flitting that takes up so much of my working day. It’s a relief to come to something that (generally) must be absorbed in a linear, gradual and sustained fashion.

There’s an interesting parallel to this in an article by Michael Agger in last month’s Slate magazine – this time focusing on the way that we write differently now that we’re all inseparable from our wi-fi connections. Inevitably, the way I think – and therefore the way I read and write – is influenced by the media I consume. If someone takes a photograph, I know it’s going to end up on Facebook. I write blog posts and Twitter updates in my head whenever random thoughts occur to me. But I’ve always done that, turned my life into a narrative – the only difference is that now I type them onto a computer screen instead of in my notebook, and everyone gets to see them instead of just me. I don’t think the internet has changed my behaviour as much as it has enabled it.

After all, surely as writers the thing we aim for is for someone to read our text deeply – no matter where and in what medium we publish it.

(I’m blogging about a blog post that was partially about blogging. It’s so meta, it hurts.)