The Forrests book group discussion

by Guy Somerset / 18 May, 2012
Emily Perkins's novel meets its Waterloo.
Spoiler alert ... spoiler alert ... spoiler alert

Well, the Emily Perkins love-in had to end sometime, and it might as well be here as anywhere. Perkins may have wowed our bookseller podcast discussion, the crowds at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival and book reviewers up and down the land (although not all of them), but this month’s “real-life” Book Club book group is a tougher audience. Much tougher.

The all-women Auckland group has been meeting once a month for several years - in cafes, homes and now at Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden.

Numbers have varied from eight to 15 – with six of the group taking part in our discussion.

According to the group’s Alison Kagen: “Choices on books and discussion about them tend to be at the flexible, ad-hoc, creative end of the spectrum, more than the structured, ordered end. Discussion is generally passionate and opinionated; we often have ‘I loved this book’ and ‘I couldn’t stand this book’ on the same night.”

The group tends to read women authors, fiction more than non-fiction. “We try to read New Zealand authors when we can, so The Forrests was already on our upcoming list.”
Some of the group “are motivated by being introduced to and challenged by work we might not otherwise read; some - most, probably - appreciate the ongoing connection with a group of women who are fellow book lovers; some of us thought a group would help us structure our reading - ha ha ha, that hasn’t happened - some of us are more motivated by the opportunity to discuss what we like and dislike; some of us have found the coffees encouraging.”

As well as Kagen, 56 (favourite book “currently” Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer in an audiobook read by the author – “fantastic”), taking part in the discussion are:

  • Alicia Cortez, 45 (Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant)

  • Mary Gilmer, 44 (The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame)

  • Cathy Head, 45 (The Passion by Jeanette Winterson)

  • Catherine Lee, 60 (Room by Emma Donoghue)

  • Gabrielle Southwark, 45 (anything by Margaret Atwood)


Enough already of what they like; let’s find out what they thought of The Forrests.

The discussion took place over several days via Facebook.

They started off enthusiastic – about the packaging.

“First off, I have to say this is a beautiful book-as-artefact,” said Catherine. “Produced by the newly formed Bloomsbury Circus, it feels lovely in the hands; the unconventional size, the attractive cover, the quality of paper, the font, the way the cover can be used as a bookmark (I forget what this is called), the weight...”

“It’s interesting, isn’t it?” said Alison. “We say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ and yet we do, really. It’s a good size for reading on the bus and train.”

Alicia was taken by the cover, too. “Likewise, I thought the presentation was lovely; the cover draws you in.”

Don’t let all this complimentary talk about the cover draw you in, however. Alison aside, it’s the equivalent of saying “Isn’t she … distinctive-looking ” to the mother of a new-born baby.

Alicia: “Generally, the characters weren’t developed very well, if at all, so I didn’t really connect with any of them because of that. If I had to describe Dorothy, I’d describe her as bland, depressed, detached and unfulfilled. There were too many children/siblings. It was probably Daniel who I got the greatest sense of - there are lots of men like him in the world, a bit of a Casanova, jack-the-lad, that was conveyed quite well.”

Catherine: “I guess what was most evident for me was that the book had no emotional impact on me at all. I could admire the writing, was interested in the characters, but in fact there was no one I really cared about.”

Alicia: “I absolutely agree with you, Catherine, about the book having no emotional impact. I felt completely disconnected from the characters and the story and had to force myself to finish it.”

Cathy: “I agree with you both. I just did not feel at all involved with the protagonists in this book. None of the characters seemed sufficiently interesting or sympathetic to have any empathy with. I felt rather depressed and disappointed with the book, which was how I felt the characters all felt about life.”

Alison: “I think the characters being depressed and disappointed is authentic and so Perkins has written this really well. I did find myself questioning at times whose story it was, partly because the one-sentence book review that has been in the papers is, ‘This is the story of one woman’s life from age seven to the end’. But, of course, it’s much more than that - and there are places where the story feels it’s much more like Eve’s: visiting their father in chapter three, being with Daniel in Canada in chapter five, being a housewife and looking for work in chapter eight. But, then, isn’t that still legitimately part of one person’s story? That the focus is more on someone else. And that’s part of Dorothy’s story, isn’t it? That she is disengaged from maybe her family, her life, life in general, in everyone other than Daniel. And then not properly, really, engaged with him.”

Alicia: “Although I really didn’t like the book at all - which you have probably gathered from my comments so far - I think it highlighted how easily life can pass us by and the importance of making the most of what we have and what we do and how we are in the world.”

Catherine: “I was interested in the media response to this novel (potential Man Booker winner, etc) so much that I thought maybe I had misjudged it. So I started rereading it - very unusual for me (there are so many good books and not enough time). I was at the Women’s Bookshop [in Auckland] yesterday and a woman came in asking for The Forrests, to be told copies were all at the bookstall at the Writers & Readers Festival. The woman wailed, ‘This is the third bookshop I’ve been to and they’ve all run out.’ So I felt somewhat vindicated by the review in the Herald on Sunday by Nicky Pellegrino. Now, she’s usually fairly lightweight as a reviewer, but I had to agree with her verdict that it was an amalgamation of a lot of vignettes. I had actually thought of that word - vignettes - to describe the book before I read her review. Yes, there are clever touches. Like when Eve visits her father in chapter three and her interactions with him are interspersed with scenes of Dot and Dan at the pub seeing a band, and afterwards in his flat. Is this to show that Eve’s words to her father are a lie, that Dot is not too busy, but too involved with Dan?”

Alison: “A couple of quick thoughts about time in the novel: it’s clearly a major theme, and I really like how Perkins has dealt with it, though I can see it might also be a bit annoying for those who don’t like it. One thing is the episodic nature of the story: jumping forwards and backwards and sideways; sometimes really brief, not-really-related (or not clearly - yet – related) vignettes; different uses of sentence construction. I feel conscious through most of the book of these style/structural elements, although not in a bad way and not nearly as much as, for example, Ali Smith [whose There but for the was recently read by the book group] - she has a hugely obvious and idiosyncratic writing style.”

Alison (again – after being asked whether the huge sweep of narrative works with so many gaps in it between time periods): “It does for me: I think it’s about how much it challenges me to think about what’s going on. I don’t like really ‘difficult’ reads, but I don’t want something to be too simple, either. The ambiguities in the novel are clearly deliberate: where is Eve in the ski resort? Is that the same Daniel she’s with? How did that happen? Who’s the neurotic/trapped housewife: Eve sabotaging her job application or Dorothy unable to leave the house? But along with these are the other Eves and other Dorothys and that is part of the fun: reconciling them with the picture we’ve already got, integrating that new partial picture with the others, adapting our view of them, thinking about how time changes us ...”

Alicia: “I found the minute attention to detail and the physical world around the characters intensely boring, mundane and irritating. If the style of writing had been interesting or innovative or at least vaguely literary or poetical, then perhaps wading through endless description would not have been so bad, but it was none of these things. Giving Emily the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the almost banal descriptions of nothing much were a deliberate attempt to illustrate how much of life is just that, routine and mundane, particularly Dorothy’s life. In essence, I found the story and the style of writing in this book less than mediocre and have struggled to understand why it has received the positive reviews it has - can someone enlighten me with what they think are its redeeming features?”

Alison: “That’s so harsh. I don’t think I was especially conscious of the descriptions of the physical surroundings, although that’s something a lot of the positive reviewers have spoken well of; I think overall the attention to detail maybe heightened tension? It made me wonder what we were getting to. Sometimes it was nothing much, so I guess that’s a tad irritating. I was just thinking of an example and it’s the chapter when she’s agoraphobic and Sam from the mechanic’s comes round - don’t you think there’s a sense of menace? You’re waiting for something terrible to happen and it just doesn’t.”

Catherine: “I think she does some physical surroundings really well and because I have just reread that bit will give the example of the father’s living conditions through the eyes of Eve. That said, I had no sense of a New Zealand childhood (the childhood part was very brief, really), and having lived in Westmere around that time, and having had friends in alternative lifestyles in Northland, the commune part didn’t ring true for me, either.”

Cathy: “I don’t think Alicia was being harsh. I would have preferred less description of trivia and more character and plot development. I just don’t get what all the hype is about.”

Gabrielle: “I don’t like difficult reads with gaps in the narrative and I found the minute attention to detail and long descriptions of simple events distracting and annoying. I haven’t been able to finish the book - I’ve found the characters and situation believable so far, but distanced and unattractive. I thought the father was the least believable and one-dimensional. It’s a nice tilt to the 70s and the women’s movement by including the commune - a nice bit of social history not normally written about in New Zealand.”

Alison: “I’ve been thinking about the holiday episode, where the two couples, Eve and her child and Dorothy and her two, are all together. I think here, and in other pieces around this time, Perkins really captures the trappedness of the young mother/mother of young children: Dorothy is feeling fat and inadequate and that she isn’t doing things ‘right’ - she doesn’t know what ‘right’ is, but she knows she’s not. It’s after the period of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, I think, but she captures the feeling that book addressed. You could – well, I could - hear an ominous soundtrack in my mind. I was waiting for something terrible to happen and in one way nothing terrible happens; but then maybe it does – what’s terrible is that her whole life doesn’t work out the way she thought it might. (Although I’m not sure she has really thought what her life will be - it’s just much later on that she’s wondering, ‘Is this all there is/will be?’ Then she’s thinking about what she should have already thought about.)

Gabrielle (asked if there were any particular passages of writing that stood out for her): Yes - the annoying first chapter: too many words. I wanted to like the book - to support a New Zealand author – but basically it’s not my cup of tea. It was difficult book for me to like, enjoy or finish. I’m a practical kind of gal and it was too esoteric for my liking.”

Mary: “I haven’t finished the book [either]. I’m not enraptured by it. In my view, it’s overly verbose, clever but emotionally disconnected.”

Catherine: “I felt I was shown Eve’s distaste for the conditions her father was living in, as well as the experience of being in a crowded pub listening to a band, rather than being told, which is good writing.”

Alicia: “I don’t think I was being harsh. I was just reflecting my experience of reading the book. As I said previously, if I hadn’t committed to the Book Club discussion, I wouldn’t have finished it, and had to force myself to do so. I had really wanted to like and enjoy this book and was keen to read an Emily Perkins novel for the first time, so I’m not just being negative. You know how I have enjoyed many of the books we have read at book club! As for there being several different Dorothys, I think her character remained pretty much the same throughout and she lived her life in a distant haze. The only change for me was her age.”

Catherine: “I found this book instantly forgettable, whereas a family-story 20th-century novel I read a couple of years ago that I found totally deeply engaging was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I read it compulsively and it still lingers. With The Forrests, Alison goes, ‘What about when they were skiing?’ and I go, ‘They went skiing?’”

Alison: “Sorry, Catherine, it feels like I’m trying to have the last word, but I want to say about the Canada/skiing/Eve and Daniel bit: I just reread this section this morning and there has to be something significant about the family staying in the resort where Eve and Daniel are, presumably earning their keep. They are a visiting (presumably) family, parents plus four children, three girls and a boy, being happy families: that’s got to be a contrast to/commentary on the Forrests, surely?”

Sounds like one for Question Time with Emily Perkins.

If she’s not at the drinks cabinet by now.
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