Archive for the ‘Romance Fiction’ Category

I’ve noted before that the choice of books made by my book club, admittedly often on very limited information about what to read next, is idiosyncratic, sometimes good, sometimes less so. This one is definitely less so. When I started reading the book, I realised that I’d read at least some of it before, but I hadn’t any memory of what happened. It’s that sort of book.

The story is set partly in seventeenth century Venice, and partly in more or less present day Venice (there don’t seem to be many mobile phones or computers). The plot begins with Corradino Manin, a master glass blower, who has returned to Venice from France, where he revealed the secrets of glass blowing and mirror making to Louis XIV’s court. His defection now means he is a marked man, for glass blowers were forbidden to leave Venice so as to maintain its monopoly in fine glass making. The story of why he left and why he returned runs throughout. Alongside it is the story of his distant descendent Leonora Manin. Distraught at the breakdown of her marriage, she flees from London to Venice, the home of the father she never knew. She already has some skill in glass blowing; now she wants to work as a glass blower in Venice. And she is driven to find out more about her ancestor, Corradino. Most of the story is told from the perspective of these two characters, though there are a few odd cases where we get the perspective of other characters.

The plot conforms to two genres. On one level, it is a romance. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, but there are no prizes for guessing that they overcome these and end up together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romance plot – Pride and Prejudice, for example, has one – but the formula needs better handling than it gets here to remain fresh and interesting. On a second level, it is a mystery story, where Leonora undertakes a quest (sort of) to find more about the life of her ancestor, which she needs to do in order to achieve her dream in the present day. There are some potentially interesting parallels between Leonora and Corradino’s motives, but little is made of them. There are some links between the romance and the mystery, but it is hardly what you might call intricate plotting. Some of the story is pretty silly, too.

One aspect of a book that can rescue a fairly predictable formulaic plot is the setting. Fiorato, who is herself part Venetian, has certainly chosen an interesting place and an interesting craft to write about. Who would have known, for example, that the glass blowers of old had worn away the skin on their fingers so they had no fingerprints? The details of the glass-making trade seem to be more or less authentic, both then and now, and Venice is a clearly a magical city. Can the setting carry the book? Unfortunately I don’t think so.

The problem is that the writing is pedestrian. As always, I find it hard to say exactly what it wrong with it, but it just doesn’t ring true. The characters fail to come alive because they are described in unimaginative ways. The journalist Vittoria, for example, has hair that ‘flashed blue-black in the sunlight’, ‘perfect teeth’, ‘glossy red lips’ and ‘sexy confidence’. This is the language of Mills and Boon romances. What characters say is stilted and trite. Even when Fiorato is trying to be dramatic, she succeeds only in producing melodrama. ‘He laughed harder with the last of his breath.’ Really? And most annoying of all is her habit of placing what is supposed to be a character’s self-reflection and insight in indented italics, as in ‘I shouldn’t have said that. How presumptuous and … clumsy. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl.’ There should be no need for such signposting of feelings; they should be expressed as part of the ordinary writing. I found these indented sections increasingly irritating.

So overall, pretty much a disappointment. Fiorato has a history degree from Oxford, so one might have expected better. You can find out more about her – and her three subsequent books – here. And if you think I’m harsh – after all, the book seems to have sold well – have a look at these comments on Goodreads. There’s lots more detail there about what one reviewer thinks is wrong with the book. And I have to agree with him. Not all of the other Goodreads reviewers feel the same way; some find it harmless escapism, or think the setting redeems it somewhat. I’m all for harmless escapism sometimes, but not when it makes me bored and irritated, as this book does.

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Yes, you’re seeing straight. This is Sense and Sensibility – 2013 style. It is the first instalment of the Austen Project, a series that rewrites Jane Austen’s six novels for the modern age. I don’t usually like prequels and sequels to Austen’s work, let alone the ridiculous vampire version of Pride and Prejudice. But Joanna Trollope is an interesting choice because in her own work she is very good at catching the speech and behaviour of the modern English middle class. She should be able to do a make-over of the 1811 original if anyone can.

Everyone pretty much knows the story, and Trollope sticks closely to it. It is a romance in which there are obstacles to the happiness of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in the shape of initial wrong choices of partner – ie wrong choices by Edward Ferrars and Marianne herself. Elinor reacts with sense to her situation; Marianne gets into hers by excessive sensibility. But as in all romances – see my discussion of romance novels here – it comes right at the end. Trollpe’s version includes most of the original scenes, translated into a modern setting. Norland is not left to Mrs Dashwood and her daughters at least partly because she isn’t actually married to Henry Dashwood, who hasn’t left a will. Barton Cottage is a rather ugly new house. Sir John Middleton has turned Barton Hall into the location for a high-end clothing business. John Willoughby arrives to rescue Marianne in his Aston Martin, not on his horse. On their visit to Allingham, they have sex. Marianne’s humiliation by Willoughby is recorded and posted on Facebook. Willoughby tells Elinor that he really loved Marianne at the hospital where she is recovering from an asthma attack, rather than the fever she suffers from in the original. Why asthma? Modern medicine says you can’t catch a fever from being wet.

The characters are also very much true to their originals. Elinor – often called Ellie – is practical and considerate of others. She gives up her architecture course to get a job to support the family. Marianne – often called M – wants to be ‘overwhelmed’ – to drown herself in emotion – and is scornful of anyone who doesn’t meet her romantic standards. The modern M is perhaps even more disdainful of others than the original. Margaret – here Mags – is a typical young teenager, convinced her family want to ruin her life; she gets rather more exposure than Margaret does in the original. This is also true of Bella – Mrs Dashwood, from whom M has learnt her love of drama and impulsiveness. She is more fully drawn, with her ‘gift for bohemian home making’, and maybe even a bit more demonstrative than the original. The adaptation of Edward Ferrars is possibly the least flattering; a man who is ‘of no profession’ in Austen’s day is a gentleman, whereas today he looks more like ‘a waste-of-space man’, sweet, but ineffectual.

It goes without saying that Trollope has done a great job updating the language of the book. Two examples will suffice. When it first seems that Edward is attracted to Ellie, M says ‘Wouldn’t it just completely piss off Fanny if you and Ed got together?’ And M is relieved to find that she wasn’t wrong in trusting that Willoughby loved her – he wasn’t just ‘a shagbandit’. Trollope’s ear for the idiom of the young – and not so young – middle class hasn’t deserted her.

But what has she managed to do with the social mores and expectations Jane Austen was working within? Clearly respectable marriage is no longer the only acceptable path for a young woman, though of all the major female characters, only Elinor has a job. Marriage – or at least romance – is still shown as a priority for women. ‘Do we have to have boyfriends?’ asks Mags. And Elinor replies ‘Of course we don’t have to. But we seem to want to, to need to, don’t we?’ But she agrees there’s no need ‘to make them our whole world.’ Money also remains important: Trollope has a little bit of fun here. When Elinor says: ‘this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships’, her mother replies ‘It does for some people.’  Willoughby deserts Marianne for a Greek heiress, and Lucy is after Ed for what he might inherit. Bill Brandon eventually finds Ed a job, but it remains unclear why he didn’t have one already. His dependence on his mother, OK in the nineteenth century, looks like weakness in the twenty-first. And Elinor can’t help finding his honourable nineteenth century behaviour in sticking to his engagement with Lucy as ‘utterly idiotic nobility’, as indeed it seems. Lucy’s decision to marry Robert, a gay party planner in this version, doesn’t have much justification other than to manufacture a happy ending – but I guess this was pretty much true in the original.

And what of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’? Ellie finds her role as the sensible one even more trying than Elinor does, and she wonders if she can go on coping with it. When she hears that Lucy is married, apparently to Ed, she is really upset; has she overdone ‘not wasting emotional energy in yearning’? ‘Serves you right,’ she says to herself. ‘Serves you completely right, stupid stupid Miss Sensible.’ Both Marianne and her mother come to see, as in the original, that there is more to ‘the good life’ than ‘allowing emotion to prevail over everything’. But there is a bit in the original, where Marianne is talking about how she bitterly regrets her misplaced devotion to Willoughby and her slighting of everyone else that is not in this version. Elinor asks her if she compares her conduct to Willoughby’s. Marianne answers ‘No. I compare it to what it should have been. I compare it with yours.’ In this passage it seems to me that Austen is endorsing sense over sensibility. I think Trollope is sitting a bit more on the fence.

And does this revised version suggest the Austen Project is worthwhile? I can’t see this book leading anyone to read the original. It’s fun in its own right, but I’d choose the original any day.

You can read more about Joanna Trollope here. The references to the tree house come straight from Ang Lee’s delightful 1996 film – a must-see if you haven’t already.

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Vigilant readers may remember that some time ago I reviewed Kostova’s first book, The Historian (2005), and found it quite enjoyable but lacking whatever it is that turns a good book into an excellent one. Why did I read her second one (2010)? I was attracted by the references to the historical side of the story, which is set against the rise of French Impressionism, and I like books that relate the past to the present. But I should probably have known better, because it was a repeat experience – a pleasant enough read, but certainly reaching no great heights.

The painter Robert Oliver becomes a patient of psychiatrist Dr Andrew Marlow because he has tried to attack a painting in the Washington National Gallery. After saying a few words when he is admitted to the psychiatric hospital, he refuses to speak at all. Marlow, who is an amateur painter, gives Oliver painting supplies. He finds that Oliver obsessively draws and paints only one subject, a young woman in nineteenth century clothes. In order to find the reason for Oliver’s outbreak, Marlow tries to understand this apparent fixation. He visits the painting Oliver attacked, talks with his former wife Kate and girlfriend Mary and has some nineteenth century letters in Oliver’s possession translated from the French. Marlow is the main first person narrator; he is looking back at events that happened several years before. Kate and Mary also have their own sections where they tell Marlow, or write down for him in the first person, their experiences with Oliver – in quite unrealistic detail, I might add. The letters are included, and there are also sections dated 1879 which, in the present tense, tell of the life of a French painter, Béatrice de Clerval, who is the writer of some of the letters. It is not giving anything away to say she is also the object of Oliver’s obsession, since this is obvious to the reader, though not to the other characters, from the first.

There are two main themes in the story – obsession and love. Given the title, the main narrative drive should come from the mystery of Oliver’s obsession, mirrored to a lesser degree by Marlow’s near obsession with finding out about it. But the story proceeds at such a leisurely pace that this focus is often lost. In the early pages especially, I found myself getting impatient. Where was all this going? But at the same time, the Marlow’s narrative is also a love story, and it is almost worth thinking of the book as a classic romance – the meeting, the obstacles, the way they are overcome. The nineteenth century section is also a love story, as in their way are Kate’s and Mary’s stories, though not all of these romance sub-plots end happily. The historical and the main modern romance have some elements in common, so Kostova clearly meant parallels to be drawn. Seen as a mystery, the story is a bit far-fetched for my liking, with a bit too much coincidence in the dénouement. Seen as a romance, it works quite well. Kostova writes very readable prose, and her characters are likeable and interesting, though the voices of Kate and Mary are rather too similar – a criticism I also had of supposedly different voices in The Historian.

But for me, the main interest is the painting, both the activity and the works produced. Almost all the main characters are painters, and there is a good deal of discussion of their craft, both in the present, and to a lesser degree in the 1870s. Oliver is a good painter and a good teacher; he ‘made it seem easy, this viewing of basic forms and blocking them in, adding color, touching them with light’. Mary’s painting was ‘a scene of soft, rough colors – the blue of the sea with the colorless sheen of evening already on its surface’. And the description of ‘The Swan Thieves’ brings this imaginary painting so much to life – ‘a largish canvas, about four feet by three, rendered in the bright palette of the Impressionists’ – that it is hard to believe it doesn’t really exist somewhere. Some of the paintings discussed are real, though most are not. The ‘Leda and the Swan’ Oliver appeared to be attacking is not real, though the artist to whom it is attributed, Gilbert Thomas, is. Nor is Thomas’s ’self- portrait’ real. The book begins with a prologue in which Alfred Sisley is painting a snow scene in a French village, and while he did paint snow scenes, I can’t find any that match this one. However like Béatrice de Clerval in the story, several of the Impressionists did paint in Etretat and other villages in Normandy, and I enjoyed following up the works referred to.

I gather there are quite divided responses to this book among readers. For me, it’s a case of character and setting winning out over story. As I said, a pleasant read, though not a really compelling one.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Kostova here.

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New writers these days seem to have to do a lot of their own publicity. So it isn’t surprising that along with everyone else who writes a book blog, I get requests to write reviews of books that might not catch the eye of mainstream reviewers. And though they may not be books I would normally gravitate to, it seems only reasonable to read and write about them if that is going to give their authors a bit of publicity.

In this case, the book falls into a category I haven’t written about before: chick lit. I do not mean anything disparaging by this label. Being mostly about women, chick lit suffers the same disparagement as does romance fiction. And while the Mills and Boon style of romance may be rubbish, some of the greatest works of English literature are romances. OK, I don’t think it’s likely that the chick lit genre will produce something of the quality of Pride and Prejudice, but neither do I think it should be automatically dismissed.

Chick lit addresses issues faced by modern women, especially those around identity, and relationships with friends and family. The search for a partner is important, but does not dominate the agenda as it does in romance fiction. Coffee at Little Angels deals with a group of eight friends, and while half of them are male, I think this is essentially a book about women, for women.

Maxine, Sarah, Kaitlyn, Melanie, Josh, Phillip, Grant and Caleb identified themselves as a group at their high school in a small town in South Africa.  They were not all equally friendly: ‘You don’t get to choose your friends when you live in a small town. There are simply people in your general age group who you make do with because you don’t have a choice’.  Partner swopping and jealousies didn’t help either.  After school, several of them moved away, and effectively lost contact. But when some ten years later Phillip is killed in a hit and run accident, they get together again for his funeral.

The book is about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the relationships between them, both in the past, and now that they see each other again. None of them is really happy or satisfied with their life. The action takes place over three days and is mostly located in the nameless small town, where the only place you can get decent coffee is at the Little Angels coffee shop. This is not a book where plot is of over-riding importance, though there is a bit of a twist at the end. Indeed the narrative is constantly broken up by Larter’s device of telling the story in short bursts in the first person from the perspective of all eight participants, including Phillip – both before and after he dies. When each character is speaking, their circumstances are what distinguish them from each other. Their language, both in thought and conversation, is hip and modern; no doubt Ms Larter writes as she speaks. But none of the characters has a distinctive voice.

The town may be dilapidated, the hotel cold and its furnishings threadbare, but these white South Africans nevertheless exist in a modern western world with a gen Y sensibility. The fact that one is married to a black woman and another is gay does not really challenge this. I think Larter is most powerful when she looks outside this bubble and includes the black population of the ‘township’ which lies outside it. Phillip has been doing charity work there, though its hopelessness depresses him. His friends find evidence of his work, and acknowledge the impact of AIDS on ‘a dying nation’. ‘It’s easy to have a superficial knowledge of these kinds of things. It’s easy to agree or act appalled when people say stupid things like HIV is God’s way of cleansing the planet. But to know it for what it is? To really know it. We don’t.’ This awareness changes the lives of at least some of the group. They also reject the stuffy impersonality of the funeral service in the local Dutch Reform Church, and join the black Africans singing and dancing outside. ‘It is perhaps only in this country that so many people mourn death by celebration,’ one of the characters notes. This may be standard fare in South African novels, but it is moving to an outsider.

Nadine Rose Later is twenty-nine, and lives in South Africa. This is her first book. You can find out more about her from her blog.

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This book, published in 2009, is a fictional account of a real affair between the Australian journalist, medical practitioner and adventurer, George Ernest Morrison and Mae Perkins, a young American, in China, during the Russo Japanese War of 1904.

Morrison’s extraordinary life is well documented, including the fact of the affair. But Jaivin says that the truths of human nature cannot be expressed through history or biography; it is a task for literature. The book is based on Morrison’s letters and diaries, which are extensive, but with the added spice of a playful imagination. She has, she says, taken a few liberties, but has tried to preserve the spirit of the real people in the story. Her interpretation seems, as she claims, both possible and reasonable.

The book is meticulously researched. I found many interesting historical insights, such as how Morrison’s role as a journalist in China incorporates diplomacy and information gathering almost amounting to spying. Morrison is a thorough-going Imperialist, always ready to justify Britain’s role in China. Reporting for The Times he actually shapes that role; some people even called the conflict ‘Morrison’s war’. Jaivin does a good job of making the racism and paternalism in British policy towards China come alive, and indicates, without being anachronistic, how reasonable was the Chinese desire for independence and reform.

But the heart of the book is the relationship between Morrison and Perkins. Morrison is forty-two, and beginning to worry about getting old. (He was still very good looking, though, as you can see here.) He is jealous of his reputation as one of the leading correspondents in China, and vain – with some justification – about his exploits in defending westerners in Peking from rebels in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. ‘Morrison mined for respect like other men mined for gold’. He has thoroughly conventional turn-of-the-century views about women’s place. He has had a series of sexual relationships, but in true judgemental double standard fashion, thinks respectable women should be – well, respectable. ‘He revelled in gossiping about women who were loose, bold and bad as much as he revelled in such women themselves’. Imagine his surprise, horror and delight when he meets the sexually adventurous Miss Perkins, daughter of a US Senator and heir to a fortune.

The exploits of Mae Perkins show that life is sometimes stranger than fiction; who would have believed a ‘respectable’ young woman in 1904 would not only argue for sexual equality but act on her belief in it? Jaivin has put words of sexual emancipation into her mouth, but has not invented her character or her behaviour. ‘Who are men to set the rules anyway?’ she asserts. Jaivin’s research has even turned up new material in the shape of Mae Perkins’s love letters, which play a role in the book. I was interested, however, that Jaivin makes reference to a different concept of emancipation through the character of Eleanor Franklin, one of the first female war correspondents.

The story is told in a light-hearted way, as can be seen from the chapter headings. The first, to illustrate the point, reads ‘In Which Following a Useless Day, Our Hero Finds Himself Irresistibly Drawn to Trouble’. I find the tone sometimes a bit arch, where for example the progress of the liaison is described in military terms. Some dialogue is also less than convincing, sounding more like one of Morrison’s articles in The Times than a chat with a friend, though Jaivin catches Mae’s tone brilliantly. I suspect the issue of finding a vernacular conversational range for characters is a chronic problem for writers of historical fiction. But overall, it is a pleasant book to read about an Australian who deserves to be better known – in all aspects of his career.

You can find out more about George Ernest Morrison here. And Linda Jaivin talks about what it was like being ‘in bed’ with Morrison here.

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There’s just one more novel I’d like to comment on in my current fixation with romance fiction.

Kingsley Amis (1922 -95) would probably have been surprised to think that he had written a romance. (Certainly he considered Jane Austen to be snobbish and ‘second rate’.) Lucky Jim, published in 1954, can be seen as a war between Jim and everything that he hates – arty pretentiousness, academic laziness (though Jim is hardly a shining light in this area) and emotional manipulation. Some see it as a satire on the ‘redbrick’ universities, though equally it could be seen as an attack on the way in which the vices of the traditional universities like Oxford got transferred into the newer ones. But for all this, it has the conventional structure of a romance. Jim and Christine meet, their relationship faces obstacles, and these are ultimately overcome.

Jim Dixon is a junior History lecturer of no particular academic achievement in an unnamed provincial university, still on probation, and anxious to make a good impression – or rather to correct the bad impression he has already unintentionally made. He is a very ordinary young man of no particular social class, but with a flat northern accent – enough to mark him out as being different from many of his colleagues. He is attempting academic life because he doesn’t think he would be any good as a school teacher. But he is bored with his subject, mediaeval history, despises his boss, Professor Welch, and feels uneasily that he is being drawn into a relationship he doesn’t really want with Margaret, a colleague in the department. At an ‘arty’ weekend at the Welches’ house, he meets Christine, the girlfriend of the Professor’s son, Bertrand; she seems to sum up everything in a young woman that he wants but can’t have. After a series of very funny social disasters, culminating in the shambles of Dixon’s public lecture on Merrie England, each of them rejects their previous emotional entanglement, and they end up together.

The book differs in two main ways from a traditional romance. First, the main character is male, and the story is told from his point of view. He feels out of his depth with women, especially women like Christine. ‘The notion that women like this were never on view except as the property of men like Bertrand was so familiar to him that it had long since ceased to appear an injustice. The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk’. When he gets to know her a bit better, things seem just as hopeless. ‘The girl was doubly guilty, first of looking like that secondly of appearing in front of him looking like that’. When Christine proves friendly, he can scarcely believe it. Dancing with her, he can barely resist ‘breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride’.

Second, Christine’s feelings are never really explained, and she remains very much just a symbol of what Dixon wants but doesn’t think he can get. ‘You don’t think she’d have you, do you? A shabby little provincial bore like you’, a jealous Margaret screams at him. And it isn’t really clear why Christine does like him.

I haven’t much enjoyed anything else that Amis wrote. I find it interesting that it is just where he departs from the concerns of female romance writers that I find him lacking in his other books – his relentlessly male approach, and his disregard of, and even disrespect for women. 

Lucky Jim is incredibly funny. This is partly because of the inner dialogue in Jim’s head, as in the following example: ‘The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought. “You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation,” he said’. It is also partly because of the hilarious situations he gets himself into, and partly because he overcomes such deserving targets as snobbery and pretension. And it is the humour that lets him get away with a character like the unregenerate Jim. While Lucky Jim fits the romance formula, it may be popular despite this rather than because of it. But it’s still well worth reading.

 Lucky Jim also made it onto Time’s All Time 100 list. You can find out more about Lucky Jim here.

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While I’m on my current kick about romance fiction, I thought I’d write about book that isn’t a traditional romance, but plays with the romance formula. In it, boy meets girl, their romance meets obstacles, but these are overcome. Or are they? John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman was published in 1969. Fowles didn’t set out to write a typical romance. Rather, he was consciously using the nineteenth century romantic convention in a modern way.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is set in Lyme Regis in 1867, a hundred years before Fowles, who also lived in Lyme, started writing the book. Charles Smithson, a young man with expectations of inheriting his uncle’s title and estate is engaged to pretty Ernestina, daughter of a wealthy merchant. He needs no profession, and dabbles happily enough in the sciences, particularly palaeontology; he is stirred by the ideas of Darwin about evolution. But he is vaguely dissatisfied with his life. Walking one day with Ernestina on the quay, they come across a mysterious woman dressed in black, Sarah Woodruff, and Charles is immediately disturbed by her face. He learns that she is supposedly awaiting the return of a French sailor she nursed back to health, and had an affair with, making her a complete social outcast. He meets her again apparently by accident. And he gradually finds himself becoming obsessed with her, ‘like an intolerable thirst that has to be assuaged’. She represents to him what he will give up if he goes ahead with his unadventurous marriage to Ernestina.

So we have a romance, but with a twist – who is the romance going to be between? Will it be Charles and Ernestina, who have to overcome the obstacle of Charles’s attraction to the ‘other woman’ in order to settle down in rational happiness? Or will it be Charles and Sarah, who have to overcome the obstacle of Charles’s conventional view of the world?

I’m not going to say which it is. But rather like Mr Rochester, Charles has to lose almost everything before he can find his beloved again. And Fowles has written the story with two alternative endings. Readers can choose which they prefer – and consider how far the conventional romance structure places constraints on the free will of characters set within it.

Fowles departs from conventional romance fiction in other ways. The story begins as if it is being told by a first person ‘I’ who is reporting the past from the present, as in ‘This remarkable event took place in the spring of 1866, exactly a year before the time of which I write’. The author offers observations and comparisons with the present day, and comments about modern consequences of actions at that time. This is the god-like view many nineteenth century writers took to their stories. Then, without warning, the writer breaks off and addresses the reader. ‘Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come? I do not know. The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters that I create never existed outside my own mind’.  And he goes on to question what is real and what imaginary. ‘We are all in flight’, he says, ‘from the real reality’. But you can read the story without paying too much attention to these postmodern musings.

This novel of course stands on its own without reference to its place in romance fiction. Indeed it made it onto Time’s All Time 100 Novels list (actually since 1923). But I still find it interesting to consider how Fowles has used the romance formula to such clever effect.

The Time All Time list can be found here.

More about John Fowles can be found here.

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