“Fate takes many forms” says the inside cover of Yann Martel´s Beatrice and Virgil. I like fate a lot, however I didn´t see destiny much at work here, simply a chance encounter gone bad.
A novelist has his third book completely rejected by his editors; following a second novel that was a best seller and made Henry a household name. He spent five years on what he believed was a masterpiece fictions/non-fiction book about the Holocaust and was devastated by the dismal response. He decides at that moment to stop writing and convinces his wife to leave their home in Canada and go to live in “one of those great cities in the world.” Here, his wife finds a job while Henry pursues hobbies to fill his now non-writing time; like joining an amateur theater troupe and taking clarinet lessons. He still receives letters from his fans, and Henry dutifully responds to every one. A bizarre correspondence from someone who lives in his town is the catalyst of the story.
The letter writer is a taxidermist, also named Henry. He is writing a play and has contacted Henry for help. The main themes of the book are Henry´s relationship with the taxidermist and his deepening connection to the play and its characters, a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil. Unsurprising, when it all comes to a horrific end, Henry decides to write again.
Martel´s writing style here is quite simple. Short sentences, nothing unnecessary said. While a book that takes half a paragraph to describe the bark of a tree has me groaning in pain, I found Martel´s style detaching. I did not warm to the characters and really had no interest in their fates. The climax was not a surprise and the only clever bit was how the writer of the strange letter succeeded where Henry had failed. The ending in fact felt rushed; like Martel simply wanted to be done with the book. Or didn´t know how else to end it.
I´m probably in the minority here – Beatrice and Virgil has been reviewed positively in a variety of press, but it hasn´t been as well-received as his Man Booker prize winning Life of Pi, which coincidently or not, also had animals playing starring roles. Parts of the prose are beautiful, like a scene in the taxidermist´s play when Virgil is describing a pear to Beatrice. But overall I found it dry and distant and not very fateful at all.
I like Nick Hornby; mainly for his ability to create interesting characters, idiosyncrasies and all, in a way that provokes a feeling. His last book, A Long Way Down, is probably my favorite so unfortunately I had high expectations for Juliet, Naked which of course, can only be dashed.
Annie and Duncan have been together for 15 years. They live in a small England town and their relationship has basically deteriorated into a habit. Duncan, like many of Hornby´s characters, is a bit obsessive, and his main fixation is a reclusive former American rock star named Tucker Crowe. His mania led the couple to take a three week tour of America, hitting all the highlights of Crowe musical career, including the bathroom in a Minneapolis club in which he supposedly had some life-altering experience in 1986 which led him to retire. He hasn´t been heard from since. Duncan runs a Crowe fan website, and after returning home, receives a CD from a music producer of never-before-heard solo acoustic recordings of Crowe´s last album, Juliet. The company is going to release the album in a couple of months, entitled, Juliet, Naked. Annie opens the package, and listens to the CD, knowing full well that Duncan will have a mild coronary when discovering he was not the first to listen. Her knowledge of this and that the act is practically treason highlights the underlying tension and her growing realization of her dissatisfaction in their relationship.
After the expected row, Duncan listens to the CD and immediately writes a glowing review, expounding on how great it is, and what a genius Crowe is. Annie, meanwhile, decides to write her own, less adulatory review. Both are posted on Duncan´s website, and Annie´s review draws an email from Crowe himself, leading to an online relationship. Based on Annie´s current Duncan frustrations and his Crowe worship, it is an enticingly deceptive one. Crowe eventually becomes a “speaking” character in the book (versus his “spoken about” status in the beginning) and I think leaving him in that “mysterious” story netherworld would have been more entertaining. Crowe and Annie´s cross-Atlantic email relationship is one of the highlights of the book.
Hornby is great at the obsessions thing. You may not be able to relate, or get it, or whatever, but you do accept it as part of the character, and Hornby makes it seem normal. Duncan´s mania is fully accepted by Annie, “like a disability.” The characters are aware of their oddities, and the quirks and rationalizations become part of the story. People who have read Hornby before will easily recognize the “obsessive male” and the “frustrated female” characters of this book and while the storyline may seem like a replay it was still an okay read. If you´ve never read Hornby before I recommend him and Juliet, Naked is an easy romantic comedy.