The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble

Anthony Keating is bored at his house in the English countryside. He had been bored with his life in the world of television and had gotten wrapped up in property development. However, the property world, and indeed much of England’s economy, is crumbling in the 70s. He’s trying to take it easy after having a mild heart attack at a young age, but the economic shakeout may make him lose everything and his love is off in Wallacia trying to deal with a rebellious daughter in prison for a fatal traffic accident. In the midst of all this, Keating is trying to figure out his life and what he wants to do with it. This is The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Douglas Coupland.)

If it seems like I’ve poured out a lot of detail without a lot of forward motion, this is kind of how The Ice Age felt for me. By the 49th page we’ve had a ton of backstory and Keating has gotten as far as cooking some sausages. Then more backstory:

The sausages were now burning on the outside. He cut one in half to see what it looked like on the inside. Rawish, still. God, he though, I need a drink. But he had vowed, promised himself not to.

Len would not be getting a drink in Scratby, either. Unless all those television series which showed prisoners secretly brewing liquor in the kitchen from yeast and old apple peelings were accurate documentaries rather than fantasies.

The fail in which Jane Murray had found herself did not sound as lenient as Scratby. Nor was the concept of bail much appreciated in Wallacia, according to Alison. Four weeks she had been there, without even a formal charge. Whereas Len, after the warrant had been issued, had had some months to rearrange his affairs, to sell this and buy that and transfer the other, before standing trial.

Anthony had never been fond of Jane. Sultry, sulky, she had resented his existence, his relationship with her mother, and had been rude and offhand whenever he spoke to her. It was largely on her account that he had never tried to live with Alison: they had been going to wait, till Jane left school, left home, before setting up house together. Perhaps she had had the accident on purpose, to keep them both apart? He recalled with distaste meals in Alison’s house, with Jane picking petulantly at her plate with a fork, making hostile comments on the cooking if ever she spoke at all and often walking off, leaving the room without a word as though Alison and Anthony’s joint presence was too much for her to be expected to deal with. A petty, childish creature. Nothing ever satisfied her. She criticized everything; Alison never retaliated. She was a pretty girl, heavier in build than her mother, with a heavy, sulking, pre-Raphaelite mouth: when she was older, he guessed she would look rather like Janey Morris, and just as destructively dissatisfied. He wondered what kind of treatment she was getting in the Krusograd jail. It would do her good to eat some disgusting meals, he unkindly reflected.

The sausages did not taste too bad. He had them with a tin of baked beans. Take it easy, the doctor had said. But it wasn’t very easy to take it easy. Mustard helped.

Frankly, most of the book appears to be a contemplation of the changes going on in England in this era. That’s interesting stuff, but the characters and story seemed a bit like decoration on top. I’m sure others would disagree, but it would have seemed better to me to leave the characters out of it and just talk about the changes in the world. Or, have more go on with the characters. That’s just me, though.

Just so little actually happens with the characters. They do some things, but most of the book seems to be backstory. 90% of the book appears to be revealing the status quo, and then suddenly at page 270 out of 320, something actually happens. Keating becomes a spy, goes to rescue Alison’s daughter in Wallacia, and ends up in a Wallacia prison camp.

Boom, extreme sudden burst of action at the end of a slow moving, dense book. Where the hell did that come from? I know the girl has been there from page 1, but this change was really sudden, and really strange given the rest of the book. I really don’t understand the motive for it much at all.

I still put that on just me, though. My tastes.

From all my whining, you might get the wrong idea. I did enjoy reading The Ice Age, but it’s just that it was a bit of a slog.

The writing is solid and it’s crafted well, but the pacing is really strange to me. There’s a little forward motion, then tons of backstory. Most of the motion must be in the backstory, but it didn’t feel like it moved very much at the time. Then, sudden action all at the end. I’m sure it’s due to my personal taste in not caring as much for endless lines of detail mashed together, which I recognize is not the way everyone feels, but that’s where I come out. The Ice Age a solid work, but it really was quite a slog for me.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.