Review: The Little Stranger

the-little-stranger_coverI’m hesitant to be  rough on Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I recently read a critique of amateur book reviewers, excuse me, I mean plebs. My favorite bit of Miller’s article is when she zeroes in on an unfavorable review of Cloud Atlas that more-or-less summarizes my own opinion.

As to The Little Stranger, Miller writes:

I’ve learned to accept that a good number of the books I adore are in some part simply unintelligible to many readers. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, a ghost story narrated by a doctor obsessed with the local stately home and the decaying upper-class family that possesses it, is one of my recent favorites. Reader review after reader review complains that “nothing happens” in The Little Stranger, which is manifestly untrue. This dissonance, however, illustrates something important about how plots work.

The lament that “nothing happens” in a novel often means that the main character or characters don’t drive the novel’s action or events; things happen, but they happen to characters rather than being caused by them. People want to read about characters they like and identify with, which often means characters who take charge of their destinies instead of passively moping around being “whiny” (another common complaint). Unlikeable characters take a close second place to boredom (“I just couldn’t get into it”) among the top reasons readers offer for dunning a book with one-star reviews. What literary critics seem to most prize—beautiful sentences—barely seem to count at all. Reader reviews will occasionally praise an author’s style, but so many of them describe The Da Vinci Code as “well-written” that to me the phrase has come to seem meaningless.

So I can’t say that “nothing happens” in The Little Stranger lest I condemn my opinion to the same pit as those uninformed reviews written by people who think Dan Brown is a Nobel Laureate. My most popular review mocks Brown’s Inferno, but even so: I hated Cloud Atlas, said The Paying Guests is boring, and if I ever review The Catcher in the Rye I’ll overuse “whiny” so hard people will make a drinking game of it. I’m on thin ice here. How can I redeem myself?

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a mood piece that exposes the tortured inner lives of its characters via a malicious poltergeist. We open with a young Faraday visiting Hundreds Hall where his mother works. She slips him into the house to catch a glimpse of the finery inside, but he pries loose a decorative, plaster acorn from the wall:

It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.” (3)

You can’t beat an on-the-nose statement in which Faraday defaces the house he claims to admire for his own need to possess it. Gosh, I hope the next 509 pages explore this theme often; I’d hate for such a clever bit of characterization to be upstaged by ghost(s). Personally, I read to gain a deeper insight into the human condition and store up beautiful sentences.

With his acorn squirreled away, young Faraday becomes Dr. Faraday. When subbing for a fellow physician, he’s called to Hundreds Hall. His excitement about revisiting the house is replaced by dismay when he sees its current state:

Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams. (5)

Inside, he finds the Ayres family is clinging to their former status, but only just. Dr. Faraday has been called to look in on the maid:

My mother, my sister, and I tend to manage without doctors as a rule. We muddle through with colds and headaches. But I gather that neglecting the servants is a capital offense these days; they’re to get better treatment than us, apparently. (6)

Roderick’s bitterness is understandable given his change in fortune: The house shrinks as more and more rooms are shut up, unable to be heated or maintained by his sister and their single servant. The Ayres family—Roderick, his sister Caroline, and old Mrs. Ayres—are uncomfortable with their receding position in a post-war England. The Ayres family is not built to adapt, unlike Dr. Faraday, who is keen to enjoy the new social order and become a familiar guest at dinner even though he carries a trace amount of disgust towards his new friends:

And I felt a flicker of impatience with them—the faintest stirring of a dark dislike—and my pleasure in the lovely room was slightly spoiled. Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted China… (27)

Disgust and dissatisfaction form the heart of the poltergeist plot. The first supernatural events are ambiguous, but the Ayreses aren’t satisfied with Dr. Faraday’s logical explanations (neither is the reader). The creepy (and widely-spaced) events pile up, becoming increasingly personal to provoke Roderick, Mrs. Ayres, and Caroline, while Dr. Faraday remains largely immune.

This is the part of the book that would tempt a lesser reviewer to say “nothing happens,” but while it may seem that very little happens, there’s a mystery afoot. The curious goings-on are being fueled by some energy, from some personal unhappiness or dissatisfaction, but from whom? The reader is treated to long, wonderful passages to describe the precise decrepitude of the old house, the former way of life it nurtured, and the sadness of those who died within its walls. Much time is spent on Dr. Faraday’s obsession with the house and family; he’s intent on carving out a place for himself and is pained by the thought that the estate might be sold in pieces. Going back to Miller’s comments about beautiful sentences, I’m obligated to say: This passage is full of beautiful sentences, one after another, and they will be enough to sustain you IF you are capable of appreciating great writing.

As for the narrator, Dr. Faraday, he’s unsatisfying but not in the way Miller hits upon in her bit about reviewers who dislike passive narrators. Much of the book happens via flashback as Dr. Faraday is often called to the house after a bit of weirdness (he’s rarely a witness) and debriefed on the details. And, if you approach this book as a sort of mystery, you’ll find that Dr. Faraday gets in your way repeatedly. He doesn’t believe in a lot that goes on in the house, ascribing it to a kind of infectious mania; therefore, he never asks any of the interesting questions or presses as hard as he might otherwise. Inquisitive readers will find themselves trapped behind the logical thinking of a man who is not interested in the same details as they are. Is it gauche to imply that I wanted something beyond pretty words arranged in a pleasant order? I wanted the words to create something in my head beyond still-life portraits of a musty house.

Instead, hints at the poltergeist’s nature come from what it eventually accomplishes. There are an awful lot of words and pages spent on a wait-and-see plot. Oh darn, I missed the point again didn’t I? I mean: I love all the beautiful sentences and never felt a pang of impatience! Plots are for simpletons.

Overall: 3.2 I never knew there were so many ways to describe the same details and themes over, and over, and over within a single work. Waters’ creativity is laudable and impressive. The Little Stranger is a whodunit with a pesky poltergeist. I’d knock it harder, but I really want to be taken seriously.

Translation: It’s so good that I want to share it. I can’t wait to give my copy to someone!

Review: The Paying Guests

the_paying_guests_coverIf it were possible to enjoy a book through sheer force of wanting to enjoy it, I would have loved The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I’ve only read one of her other books, Fingersmith, and it became an immediate favorite. I’m currently re-reading it, so you’ll hear my enthusiastic endorsement soon enough.

Back to The Paying Guests.
For a good week, I considered posting it as a So Bad, I Read It For You, because there were moments when I was desperate for a spoiler-laden summary. Plus, I thought it might be fun to be stubbornly contrary and free myself from the no-touch-spoilers tap dance. In the end though, The Paying Guests isn’t “so bad” and earns a regular review. While there are stylistic and character choices I dislike, I can see where they hold value. Waters’ prose is solid, even if her characters are flat, and the book is 150 pages too long.

Happily, it gets off to a good start. The reader is introduced to Frances Wray as Mr. and Mrs. Barber move into the home she shares with her mother. She is mourning her two brothers lost in the war and nursing a grudge against her father, who ruined the family’s finances before his death. Although the book touches on the changing role of women post-WWI, there’s no mention of Frances looking for work. Had there been, she would have made a much more compelling character—being stuck in the house keeps her so rigid! But of course she has to have lodgers: how else would she meet Mr. and Mrs. Barber if they didn’t live in a big, old house together?

Once the Barbers move in, Frances becomes uncomfortable in the shared home. They disturb her daily rhythms and she’s never quite prepared when she sees them. Living together forces a strange intimacy that she did not expect:

Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms—as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs. Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. (28)

(I love the “waddling shillings” bit, don’t you?) The romance between Frances and Mrs. Barber is heavily foreshadowed from the beginning. The will-they/won’t-they dance occasionally falters while keeping Frances in a state of emotional limbo. Though the slow start of their relationship is realistic, the back-and-forth becomes tedious. It’s a mark of good writing that I, the reader, felt worn out by the same thing wearing out the narrator, but I also had the knowledge that they were going to get together. This is the worst kind of predictability: I wanted Waters to tell me what I already knew and start putting plot points on the board.

Until the two women start their relationship, there’s very little story/plot. It’s all about character building. Then they’re finally together and it’s…stagnant. Not that they don’t have mad sparks, it’s that the relationship can’t go anywhere due to its secretive nature. It’s a finite, claustrophobic thing. Then something REALLY BIG happens that I can’t tell you, because, spoilers. I had an inkling of what The Big Thing was going to be, but there was an added layer that I didn’t anticipate. Furthermore, it is so intensely written that it would still be shocking even if you knew it was going to happen.

As much as I slammed the predictability in the first part, the tedium of the second was more difficult to get through. At first, it was riveting: I hungrily awaited each new consequence from The Big Thing as the whole mess slowly moved to trial. I read that Waters researched a number of legal cases from the 1920s and she worked her knowledge into the story well. The details are marvelously well-placed. The writing is just as smooth as the first part, so it’s not as though she shifts into a different tone to convey the trial.

Then a curious thing happens:

Once, she never would have thought it possible for a person to be bored by fear. She recalled the various terrors that had seized and shaken her since the thing had begun: the black panics, the dreads and uncertainties, the physical cavings-in. There hadn’t been a dull moment! But she was almost bored now, she realised. Bored to tears. Bored to the bone. Bored to death by those exacting lodgers, her own fright and cowardice. (520)

Frances’ exhaustion of the back-and-forth, the courtroom drama, the constant moments of potential discovery pushes her to boredom. And this is where I found myself as well: bored. But how do I criticize this? Waters has created an experience that feels genuine. It doesn’t seem right to say, “I felt the narrator’s boredom too strongly,” because this only indicates that the boredom is well constructed.

Where I started to lose patience, and where I’d like to take off points, is that there are a number of red herrings that something will happen. There are lots of “wary” looks and insinuations; it’s implied that at least one character has a guess at what happened when The Big Thing went down. This adds to the fear of discovery and makes for a number of intense moments, but when it builds to nothing, these moments are cheapened.

So how do I rate this?

Overall: I can’t recommend it, which automatically puts it under a 3. Like I said, I was tempted to offer you a SBIRIFY post to save you time and “boredom”. But the writing is very good… The most interesting characters get the least amount of time; the narrator is the driest of the lot… oh, why is this so difficult…2.8?

Translation: It’s the best written book out of all the books I’ve disliked. 😛
(I should scrap the whole review and just leave this line.)