Newest Review: ... huge success. The language here is stunningly beautiful, intelligent and evocative. O'Farrell knows how to show the reader what her charact... more
All About Alice
After You'd Gone - Maggie O'Farrell
Member Name: TheChocolateLady
After You'd Gone - Maggie O'Farrell
Advantages: Beautifully structured, the language, the characters
Disadvantages: Could have cut out some of the suffering, some spots of telling instead of showing
There are advantages and disadvantages to reading a first novel by an author after you've read their later works. When I went back to read Maggie O'Farrell's debut book "After You'd Gone" I realized this more fully than before. The story here is about Alice, a woman very much in love who has recently had a terrible tragedy happen to her. The book starts with the line: "The day she would try to kill herself, she realized winter was coming again". With an opening like that, there's no way you won't want to read on, and this perfect combination of foreboding and the mundane could easily become a classic "gotcha" opening sentence.
But this book isn't just about Alice and why she would want to kill herself. It's also about her mother and sisters and even her grandmother. Of course, there are other characters involved, but what we're given here is a kaleidoscope of these women - their strengths, their weaknesses and the usual things that life throws at them, and how all these things shaped their lives.
As a debut novel, I can see instantly why O'Farrell became such a huge success. The language here is stunningly beautiful, intelligent and evocative. O'Farrell knows how to show the reader what her characters are going through, and that creates an intimacy with them that blank descriptions can never achieve. What makes this even more powerful is that instead of going chronologically, she uses the result of this suicide attempt - Alice being in a coma - to become a central focal point around which events of the past are brought fourth to connect with the present. In this, O'Farrell hands us an intricate jigsaw puzzle, while giving us one piece at a time, until only at the end, can we see the whole picture. After now having read three out of four of O'Farrell's books, I can now identify this as being part and parcel of her unique voice.
Because I read O'Farrell's fourth book first, I can see how she's developed as a writer. What I noticed are those little spots where she allowed herself to tell instead of show. I also could see and where she needed a more forceful internal editor. For instance, watching Alice suffer through the pain she's in after the tragedy was just a bit too much. This is especially true because we're not sure what that tragedy is exactly until about ¾ through the book. While I liked how she kept us guessing, at one point I found myself saying "okay, we get it, so could you please tell us what happened already?" and that's not such a good thing. This is the reason why I can't give this book a full five stars.
I should mention that while this is a book about women, it's hardly chick-lit - at least not in the classic sense. By that I mean we are spared the frivolities of things like fashion and shopping and parties, and are able to concentrate on what makes these ordinary women's lives into ones that fascinate us. And yes, these women are basically very ordinary. They don't have perfect lives, jobs, homes or husbands, and if you saw them on the street, you might never notice them. They are normal people that go through the types of things that everyone can recognize. This together with compelling language, the fascinating way she develops a story and depth in which she develops her characters bring her solidly into the realm of contemporary fiction. If you're a guy who can appreciate that, you'll enjoy O'Farrell's work as much as the ladies will.
So yes, this is an excellent debut novel, and it is no wonder O'Farrell became instantly popular after its publication. It isn't as good as her last one, since it could have used some paring down to make it just a bit tighter and pointed. But her style is enticingly strong, her characters are vivid and how she weaves the past into the present is practically lyrical. This is also a surprisingly fast read, and you'll find yourself soaking it up like a sponge. So while I'm giving it four out of five stars, I still highly recommend this novel as an excellent introduction to Maggie O'Farrell's work in general.
Davida Chazan © May, 2010
Maggie O'Farrell's web page can be found at http://www.maggieofarrell.com/ and you can buy this new from Amazon for £4.00 or through their marketplace from 1p.
Maggie's newest novel "The Hand that First Held Mine" has just been released and I'll read it after I get my copy of "The Distance Between Us".
Details from Amazon:
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Headline Review; New Ed edition (11 Aug 2008)
Summary: Maggie O'Farrell's debut novel is a stunning character study