Thursday, May 20, 2010

book review: The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

The Very Thought of You
The backstory: I've been eager to read Rosie Alison's debut novel, The Very Thought of You since it was named to the Orange Prize shortlist this year. This book has been the surprise of the Orange Prize so far this year. When it made the longlist (a truly long list of twenty books), no newspaper had reviewed it. When it made the shortlist, it seemed the one the experts were most surprised to see there. I've read mixed reviews of it, but even those who liked the book seem baffled it made the shortlist.

The basic plot details: The setting for the story is amazing. The book opens in London in  1939. The war is beginning, and the children are being evacuated to the English countryside, away from the assumed impending bombing of London. Parents cannot accompany their children. The story centers on Anna, who is eight. She boards a bus with other children, imagines she is going to live by the sea, and ends up at the sprawling Yorkshire estate of a childless couple.

My thoughts: The subject matter is absolutely fascinating. I had no knowledge of children living away from their parents during the war years. Roberta, Anna's mother, finds herself alone in London but not actually single or childless. Her husband is away at war, and her daughter is away because of the war. She's left to figure out her place in this world during this unknown time. She's a single girl in the city reawakening in a peculiar situation. Alison's writing is luminous. Some sentences caught my breath:
"The news struck Norton distantly, as if it was a piece of history which might roll past him if he stepped aside. This was the moment they had all been waiting for, yet it had never seemed inevitable." (p. 22)
Some were deeply insightful about the emotions of life, even outside the bounds of this story:
"But she knew that now it was only a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself." (p. 97)
Ultimately, this novel is about love. It contains many love stories, and Alison's insightful prose lifts this story to a higher level.
"When I was younger, I met a wonderful woman, the right woman, and she loved me. We loved each other, and we both knew that. Isn't that what everyone wants? Mutual love? The memory still sustains me, every day. So I may seem like an old wreck to you--but inside I'm still dancing, as they say." (p. 288).
Alison also plays with the theme of history and remembrance. What is remembered about people, truly?
 "Who had written these generalized fictions about him? Nothing was said which caught his spirit." (p. 290)
 It's a difficult story to ponder. I loved it while I was reading it. I was thoroughly engaged in the narrative, and I filled two pages with passages of Alison's writing. I enjoyed the shifting of narrators, but I agree with many reviewers who felt Alison sucked all the intrigue out of the scenes by letting the reader always know what each person is thinking. It made the story feel like history, and it was, so I found the shifting narration appropriate.

The verdict: The story felt intimate and personal. It was packed with details and the character's lives and world were fully imagined and explained. Its love stories are full of depth, but I'm not convinced the tale is as universal as Alison believes it to be:
"Perhaps life was one long story of separation, just as Wordsworth had said. From people, from places, from the past you could never quite reach even as you lived it."
The more time I spend thinking about this book, the more a few things seem to bother me. (minor spoilers ahead - be warned.) The idea of one true love comes off as overly convenient and inconvenient simultaneously. I don't believe there is only one person out there for us, especially in the face of tragedies. More importantly, I do not want to believe that one's only true love would be unrequited. For a story about love, no one gets to live it. No one finds it with the person s/he is married to, which seems unnecessarily tragic for a tale presented as so optimistic about love. I don't need a happy ending, but it seemed Alison thought this story was happier than I took it to be (end spoiler).

I liked it. I didn't love it. I loved what the story was about, and I loved her writing, but it didn't quite all come together for me after I finished the book. I'm glad I read it, and I could not put the book down while I was reading it.

Orange thoughts: Does this book belong on the Orange Prize shortlist? It's certainly weaker than the other debut novel on the list, Black Water Rising (my review). It's only the second shortlist book I've read, so it's hard to say absolutely. I'm glad I read it, and I probably wouldn't have discovered it if it weren't on the list, but my early hunch tells me this one deserves to be longlisted because it's a strong debut with an intriguing story, but it doesn't have quite enough oompf to make the shortlist.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 350 pages
Publication date:  It's finally out in the U.S.
Source: Interlibrary loan (oh, how I adore thee)

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  1. I'm really interested in reading this, I have read so many positive reviews... it's working its way up the TBR pile!! Thanks for a great review :)

  2. It is interesting that you thought this was weaker than Black Water Rising. I thought they were both of a similar (not very special) standard, but would say The Very Thought of You was slightly better.

    I did enjoy reading The Very Thought of You, but I think the more you think about it, the worse it appears - I agree with all the points you make in your spoiler.

  3. It's interesting that you said you weren't aware of children being sent to the countryside. I'll bet you are but haven't thought of it in a long while, as that's the premise for both Bedknobs & Brooksticks, and The Lion, the Witch, & The Wardrobe. It's just most people only remember the fantastical plots of those books, and not the setup.

  4. I am so intrigued to read this now after your review (I just won a copy)! I find this time period so fascinating and I am looking forward to comparing notes with you. Great, thorough review!

  5. I didn't really get the sense that each person has One True Love; I rather got the opposite feeling, that those who do think that can find themselves thinking it again later (e.g. Thomas) which casts the whole concept into doubt. But I agree it didn't leave me feeling warm and fuzzy; instinctively I expect to feel happier when the word "romance" appears on a blurb, but this seemed a very sad story overall, despite the contentment two of the characters realized eventually.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!