Despite having developed a rather reliable picker as regards books (picker is unfortunately rather poor with most other life choices), I sometimes buy and read the odd palate-cleanser, which means a literary mid-snack between very good books so as to appreciate superb writing afterwards.
One notorious cleanser was the Lululemon-fiasco* (of the Lauren Weisberger oeuvre) a couple of years back, and rather unexpectedly I stumbled onto another one during the holidays. Unexpectedly, because initially I purchased this novel as a psychological thriller, not as a shaky collage whose plot had not taken off at all by page 137 (which is where I had to leave it, I’m fast approaching old age and must be precious with my time).
So the book in question is Voyeur, and it’s supposedly about tension between young Leah who is hired by a middle aged British writer Michael to work as his assistant in the south of France. The book is narrated, in turn, by Michael and Leah, and takes place in contemporary Paris, Saint-Lucy and 1960s ‘debauched Soho’.
Written in a blog-style (= unnecessarily wordy), with hints at social media-speak and gimmicky darlings that should have been killed on the editing table, Voyeur stays very superficial in descriptions “every garment she wore looked like it was purloined form a reclusive octogenarian” (so what did she wear, given she was also described as one of Leah’s most stylish friend?) and full of Emily in Paris –cliches: “Oh. My. God!’ She’d clasped her beautifully manicured hands together in glee. ‘It’s like the freaking Aristocats in here!”
Then there’s the occasional very random reference to current affairs (in addition to the many discussions the characters have about the looming Brexit-vote, which are justified, as this likely was much talked about among British Erasmus-students during their pre-Brexit Parisian exchanges).
But sandwiched between a description of Parisian summer weather and a bicycle trip to Jaurès, there’s suddenly something like this: “Earlier that week, a student in Stanford on a swimming scholarship had come out of county jail after serving a six-month sentence for dragging an unconscious freshman behind a skip and attempting to rape her. He was about to embark on a summer-long tour of the States, promoting temperance. I couldn’t shake the image of his globular blue eyes and perpetually damp mouth, bulging with grinning teeth. The papers all used his yearbook photo instead of his mugshot. His face was fleshy and salmon-coloured. Apparently alcohol had thwarted his Olympic dreams.”
This piece of stand-alone information is spectacularly random, as it has no relevance to the plot or the characters. We are never told what type of fish lent its colour to the protagonist’s face, nor she, or any other character ever returns to this piece of news (or if she does in the end of the novel, apologies, as I only made it to page 137). Sloppy editing, maybe?
Without going too much into details (which is pointless), the novel is the literary equivalent to Emily in Paris. Except you will likely enjoy the Netflix-show more.
Then to Vienna. I was reading All of You Every Single One together with Voyeur. The former is an epic novel set in Vienna circa 1910-1938, ‘the Greatest City in the World’, and tells the survival stories of a group of gay neighbours. There’s the case of Freud’s Dora woven into the plot, as well as many other historical events (murder of German diplomat in Paris, triggering Kristallnacht). Taking place in the centre of Vienna, the main characters live in constant fear of being outed, while at the same time having strong desires to have fulfilled lives with children and careers.
All of You… manages to give the characters depth and develop proper tension. It is not exactly a masterpiece of historical fiction, but an elegantly devastating take on the old “boiling a frog” -metaphor: from turning tricks during the intervals at the Wiener Staatsoper to being forced to eat grass on all fours in front of uniform-wearing youth to finally being sent to the camps. This is part of European history that deserves to be told again and again (as we don’t seem to learn), and a millennial take such as All of You… will hopefully find a wide audience. What the novel maybe lacks in pomp and completing some of the storylines (one central character just takes off in the middle of WWII and we only hear about her via a second-hand explanation in a letter – very Samantha Jones à la And Just Like That), it tells the stories of the protagonists’ relationships very beautifully and credibly.
All of You… does not technically qualify as a palate-cleanser, as it is quite beautifully written and has a plot. Voyer would probably qualify as a beach read, which I understand is an actual category of fiction. It takes place in the south of France in summer, after all. I gazed up at the thousands of stars (the same ones, I suppose, that I’d gazed at every night of my childhood), and shivered involuntarily.
Quotes in cursive from Voyer by Francesca Reece.
*Airport-purchase of “When Life Gives You Lululemons”.