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The last Jonathan Coe novel I read left me a little disappointed, as he is one of my favourite authors and I look forward to his new releases. When I read this book, I was pleased to see that he was back on form, and this book is engaging, enjoyable and all too true of modern life.
Maxwell Sim is the main character, who finds himself ill at ease with the fast pace and impersonal nature of living in this century. His wife has left him, he's off work with depression, and a friend gives him the opportunity to start a new venture. The book tells the story of this venture, with many twists and turns along the way.
Maxwell is portrayed as a bit of loser, but in reality I think everyone who reads this book will be able to relate to him, as he struggles with modern life and feelings of inadequacy. He feels that everyone else is better than him, and is convinced his wife left him because he's an average man, with average knowledge, in an average job. This spirals into self hatred and depression, and some soul searching about his family and past.
Jonathan Coe does an excellent job in this book, of describing the modern world we live in. He talks about how impersonal everything has become, and how popularity is measured by how many friends you have on Facebook rather than how many you actually keep in touch with. He describes how all the independent shops have disappeared, but you can always find a Costa or Starbucks on every high street. It's a very thought-provoking book, and makes you think about your own life and how different things are these days.
The plot is good but I think becomes a bit unbelieveable towards the end, and as big a fan as I am, I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the ending. It seemed a bit 'lazy' to me and left me wishing it had ended differently. The journey that gets you to the ending is a fantastic read though, and definitely one not to be missed.
Maxwell Sim presents himself as a rather pathetic character. He has been off work for some time suffering depression, his marriage has collapsed and now he is flying home from Australia after a disastrous visit to his dad. He tries to start a conversation with the man next to him on the plane, and launches into a monologue about the advantages of living in Watford, not noticing that the other man is not listening....
Two of my favourite Jonathan Coe novels tell the story of a group of friends growing up in 1980s Birmingham (The Rotters' Club) and then in the sequel (The Closed Circle), as adults in the Blair years. Coe's latest novel is set in the present, or at least early 2009, after the financial crash, and includes not only very modern day technology and references, but also a perspective on some very contemporary concerns, as the narrator's new job is as a salesman selling more ethical toothbrushes.
Although Maxwell Sim is portrayed as a terrible bore, the novel is far from dull. I found it a very fast, engaging read, with real warmth and wit. I don't know if this portrayal of the Brown years will have the lasting appeal of some of his previous work - will we ever feel nostalgic about the Noughties? - but the contemporary references now are great fun, as this lonely man begins to think of his SatNav as a friend and be comforted by her voice. I was also amused by the use of one of my favourite websites, Mumsnet, in a story I find all too believable - Max has ended up finding out about what his ex wife is doing with her life by making up a female identity to befriend her online. This is just one example of the novel questioning how we develop a sense of self.
The story contains several other stories within it, such as a short story supposedly written by Caroline, various letters and diary extracts. Coe uses lots of plot devices, but this novel never becomes inaccessible, it stays quite easy to read. The denouement of the story will probably annoy some people intensely but I found it quite interesting.
This is not Coe's best work but I found it quirky, sad, witty, engaging and very readable and it has reminded me that I need to catch up with some of his other books.
I borrowed a hardback copy from the library but it is available in trade paperback at an RRP of £12.99, currently £8.44 from Amazon. There is also an unabridged audio download available.
Publisher: Penguin Viking trade paperback £12.99, also available in hardback
ISBN: 978 0 670 91738 9