When I got the British/Irish/Scottish section of my shelves, the book that came up first was Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You. At the time, I couldn't remember a) why I had this book in the first place or b) where it came from. Most of the books on my shelves are from various jobs I've had, things I've traded with friends at other publishers, blogger review copies, you get the idea. But this novel was a rarity, something I actually bought. I think I was trying to read all of the Orange Prize novels for some challenge I had invented for myself, or something.
Annnywaay, I was ultimately disappointed in this book, and found myself, more often than not, rolling my eyes at her prose and complaining, loudly, to my husband about how melodramatic and often nonsensical the book was as I was reading it yesterday while we were playing Scrabble on the iPad as the RRBB slept (you get a pattern here... a LOT of reading goes on while the RRBB sleeps these last few days). The story of a young girl evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War, The Very Thought of You simply tries too hard to capture the essence of the time and place. The novel opens promisingly -- echoes of The Remains of the Day float through the book as it describes the fall of the house of Ashton, whose last remaining heir, Thomas, had just died leaving the house to the National Trust and its inevitable treasures up for auction.
Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, opened their home to 80-odd boys and girls during the war. With his body destroyed by polio, and the remaining members of his family dead, Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, who is, natch, beautiful but damaged, find solace in children roaming the halls and playing outside while the war rages around them. Anna Sands, a quiet, contemplative child, misses her mother desperately but finds her way at Ashton Park. The girl gets drawn into the complex adult relationships between the Ashtons and the various other people embroiled in their unhappiness.
There are way, way too many characters in this book, and much of the narrative consists of awkward, cliched prose that melodramatically describes not only the failing relationship between the main characters, but also the multiple extra-marital affairs that seem to happen all over the place. No one is happily married in Alison's novel, and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. The story could have been simpler, the prose more direct, and then I could actually understand its inclusion on the Orange Prize longlist last year.
The author does an exceptional job of getting into the mind of Anna as a child, but then falls down by dragging the reader through the rest of her life in a Titanic-like moment that feels very put upon as an ending. There's no doubt that Alison has talent, but the novel suffers from a lack of true perspective, it tries too hard, which ends up meaning a lot of it just isn't believable. There's a point where too much tragedy between the pages simply becomes too much tragedy. I felt something similar when watching The Company Men last week at Stars and Strollers. Sometimes, the reader just needs a break from all awful things humans can do to one another, they need to actually love their partners, and someone, somewhere needs to find a bit of happiness, even if it's only for a moment. I'm not saying that Alison's characters don't -- I'm just saying that it's all a bit overdone.
London during the war is a fascinating subject for me. One of my favourites to read about, and the idea of the novel works, as does its basic plot -- but there were two secondary characters, Norton, a diplomat with whom Thomas Ashton worked, and his wife Peter, whose lives would have made for a far more interesting novel than the sappy "love gone wrong" and then "love lost forever" storyline occupied by the Ashtons, the two main adult characters. It's a shame when one gets to the end of a book and all one has to say for it is, "well, I'm glad that's done." And considering the other Orange Prize nominees, including Barbara Kingsolver's exceptional The Lacuna, I'm surprised that the panel included this book at all. However, despite Alison's first novel jitters (overwritten sentences, the tendency to say something, then repeat it just in case the reader didn't get it the first time, introducing bucketloads of characters that never appear again, the need to tell the WHOLE story), I'm curious to see how she matures as a writer. I'm sure her next novel will straighten out some of the above and what great exposure for an up-and-coming writer regardless of how I ended up feeling about the book.