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I've read many of Ben Elton's books and although there have been a couple I didn't like, I think overall he manages to capture interesting situations and to bring insights into them through the characters he creates. This book is no exception. It was lent to me by a friend of my mum's and I read it by the pool on holiday. It was an ideal relaxing pool read as it had a good balance of reality and humour.
The title 'Meltdown' and the picture of the dynamite strapped to a piggybank on the cover gives away the subject of the book. Yes, it's about that global financial crisis that hit us a few years back (that we are still trying to recover from). The book focuses on a group of six friends who went to University together and how they coped (or didn't) with the recession. Each of the six friends is in a different position: the city trader, the MP, the entrepreneur, the banker, the architect and the waster.
The story is told through Jimmy and his wife Monica who live the good life in Notting Hill with a big house, waiting staff and all the money in the world. Until the crisis hits that is. At that point, each of the friends is impacted in a different way and the friendships aren't as solid as they had hoped. Jimmy's parents are the voices of reason during the book - his dad an old fashioned bank manager who is appalled at the profit driven way the banks are being run, and worried about his long serving staff.
The characters are in many ways caricatures - the stuff MP who chastises the bankers but makes sure he gets every penny in expenses; the banker who dates younger women and has all the money in the world; the city trader who bets his home on the next big investment opportunity. They are entertaining characters and it's interesting to see the recession through different eyes, but I don't think realism is what Ben Elton is going for here!
Overall, it is an entertaining read. The financial crisis touched all of us in one way or another and this book shows how intertwined lives can be and how a little financial wobble can set it all tumbling around your feet. During the book I switched from liking a particular character to feeling furious with their stupidity, so it is certainly engaging. At a little under 500 pages long, it is a good summer read with just enough humour and just enough reality to entertain.
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Having read everything that Ben Elton has written I was keen to read his latest offering, particularly when I read the synopsis on the back. The book could hardly be more topical featuring a group of friends, one of a victim of a ponzi scheme, one who is a victim of the financial crisis, a third who in another life could be Sir Fred Goodwin and finally an MP embroiled in scandal. A group of friends who seem to be blessed with luck, suddenly find that everything in the garden is no longer rosy. In typical Ben Elton style, the book is witty and acts as a wry commentary on the current issues of the day. However, in parts, the book almost seems so close to life that it lacks originality. What Elton does well is ensures that ultimately you do care for his main characters who could so easily be one dimensional and formulaic. It is this skill of making you care for the characters which keeps that you reading until the end. I finished the book in a couple of days and was not disappointed although it is not Ben Elton's best.
Having previously enjoyed Ben Elton's Dead Famous (also reviewed), I decided to see which of his other books were available in the library when I last visited. I spotted his latest offering, Meltdown, on the shelf and decided to give it a go.
Meltdown focuses on the life of Jimmy Corby, an investment banker and his university friends. Many of his friends are identifiable as groups of people who have been focussed on in the news. There's Henry (a Labour MP, who got caught fiddling his expenses), Rupert (a fake toff who buys a peerage and runs his bank to the ground before being paid off with an obscene pension - Fred Goodwin anyone?), Lizzie, a lifestyle guru who runs her own business with her husband Robbo taggling along and David an architect who is working on a project backed by Jimmy.
For Jimmy life was one big party and money was no object. He lived with his wife Monica and three young children in a house worth millions in London's trendy Notting Hill, sent his son to a private school and had a nanny to look after the kids. He had even recently bought a street in run down Hackney to do up and sell on! Life had never been better. However when the credit crunch hits Jimmy's world starts to crash in around him. The story follows how Jimmy and his circle of friends are affected by the global financial crisis and how Jimmy learns there is more to life than just money.
The book was highly topical and it was this that attracted me to the story. I found the story to be realistic and very interesting. The narrative flicked between present day and the past, when times were good. In some novels this moving between past and present can be quite confusing but this wasn't the case here and helped put current events into context.
I warmed to the main character Jimmy quite easily despite his obscene amount of wealth. This is probably due to the fact that he admits he is earning a huge amount and cannot believe it himself. He doesn't come across as arrogant at all but when he had his money he did seem a bit reckless with it, rather like a kid in a sweet shop. His wife Monica is a sweet lady who has a calming influence on him, encouraging him to give some of his wealth away to the needy.
It was quite interesting to note when they lost their wealth they were forced to account for every single penny they spent and they realised how wasteful they had been previously and this is when Jimmy and Monica realise the true value of money.
When Jimmy lost his wealth part of me was secretly pleased (I sound like a right meanie!) but they had annoyed me somewhat with their attitude to being forced to send his son to a (*shock, horror*) state school! They had this stereotypical view of kids in state schools to all be knife wielding hoodies which did leave me feeling quite angry. There was also Monica's initial reaction of ' OMG what will we do without the nanny?' , which I actually found mildly amusing. However as the novel progressed and the characters adjusted to their new situation I found myself sympathising with them and hoped that things would turn out alright for them. They also realised how naïve their views were with regards to schooling and home help which increased their likeability.
I found Rupert the most annoying of all the characters. He was arrogant and looked down his nose at people less fortunate than him. In fact he felt that rich people deserved to be rich and feels no guilt at earning the amount he does. Jimmy's father, an old style bank manager, who is mildly amused at his son's job, and lives in the suburbs is the voice of reason when Jimmy's world comes crashing around him. He takes a step back and explains Jimmy's options to him and to us the reader, almost like a narrator. This was quite clever and worked really well.
The book had a more serious nature than Ben Elton's other book I've read which was much more light-hearted. There weren't that many funny situations but given recent events in the financial industry it was interesting to see how people working in that field had been directly affected. We all hear about 'evil bankers' but this book made them more human and in some ways made me a little more understanding, not of how irresponsible they were, but how they too were affected by the consequences of their actions.
The story was very readable but not in an 'un-put-downable' kind of way. It's one of those books you can start reading, put down and pick up a few days later to continue where you left off. So middle of the road 3/5 dooyoo stars from me.
Meltdown is a novel about 6 friends and how their lives were affected by the economic downturn of recent years. Written by one of Britain's most provocative and entertaining writers, Ben Elton, I knew I couldn't leave this one on the shelf.
**The Characters and Plot**
The main character is Jimmy Corby, a city trader who earned a huge salary (plus even huger bonuses) from moving money that didn't really exist between different companies and people. With this money he bought himself a six storey house in Notting Hill, complete with basement garage and a gym. He shares this house with his kind-hearted wife Monica and their three young kids. Jimmy is a nice guy who accepts that he was lucky to be earning such a fortune, and despite his hideous level of wealth, I warmed to his character very easily.
Jimmy's university friends figure a lot in this novel. There's Henry, a labour MP who begrudges the fact that his friends earn ten times as much as he does. His MP salary was so tiny, he had to sometimes be a little creative with claiming expenses in order to live a comfortable life. Then there's Rupert, who spent his university days trying to appear very rich and very posh. Now the CEO of a major bank and a Lord, he's certainly both of those things. His belief is that rich people deserve to be rich and he feels no guilt at all about the absurd difference between his salary and the average Joe's. Next we have David, a critically acclaimed architect who has just invested in some huge projects, one of which is being backed by our main character Jimmy. Lastly we have Robbo and his wife Lizzie. Together they run a company that specialises in selling completely useless things in simply gorgeous packaging, and they're making a killing. Lizzie's the brains behind the operation, whilst good-natured Robbo blunders around drinking a lot and generally being a nice chap.
The novel touches on issues like: insider trading, expenses fraud, insurance fraud, class, capitalism and general economicy stuff.
The credit crunch affects all these characters in many different ways. Some lives are ruined, some relationships die, and not all of them make it through to the otherside...
Reading this novel is like overhearing a group of upper-upper-upper middle class Londoners talking at a "supper" party. As you might expect, a lot of what I read filled me with rage. ~How will we cope without the nanny?~ ~What if we have to sell our ridiculously huge house?~ ~What if we have to send our precious kids to a gasp state school!?!~ When the characters are saying things like this, it's quite hard to warm to them. It's really hard to tell whether Elton shares the same beliefs on these subjects (as let's be honest, he's not short of a few bob, is he?) or whether it's all ironic. If this book had been written by socialist author Sue Townsend, it would have been dripping with irony and we would have had a good laugh at these rich people's despair. As it is though, it's hard to tell. Although I warmed to the main characters Jimmy and Monica, who seem like nice people, I still didn't feel any sympathy for them when they started getting in financial trouble. I mean, they weren't even doing free scratchies/ daily clicks/ storecupboard challenges etc and after becoming unemployed Jimmy doesn't even bother signing up for mystery shopping! I absolutely hated the way they talked about state schools as if they were full of drugs and knives and no-hopers. They eventually concede that state schools are fine for most but not for their own children, who were too sensitive, intelligent and creative for state school. Because of course, no working or lower-middle class kids are sensitive, intelligent or creative! I don't want this review to turn into a rant (too late!) so I'll just move on...
I enjoyed reading this book because I love the whole riches-to-rags set up (my favourite kids book was A Little Princess) and it was interesting reading about all the big events that have happened over the last two years and how different people were affected.
Ben Elton is an entertaining writer, but his books can be a bit hit and miss. He has written some absolutely brilliant ones, like High Society, Inconceivable, Past Mortem, Dead Famous and Chart Throb, but in my opinion all the others were quite mediocre. His most recent offering, Blind Faith was OK for the first time but when I tried re-reading it last month I found I just couldn't. I think Meltdown goes in the "good" pile though.
Buy this book if you enjoyed Ben Elton's other books and if you enjoy seeing rich people get what's coming to them.
RRP £18.99 but available online or at the supermarkets for about £10.