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Following the success of the fun and quirky "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" and "Two Caravans" author Marina Lewycka returns with her third effort "We Are All Made of Glue."
Georgina Sinclair is your average family woman with a husband and two children. When her husband walks out on her following a row, she has to cope with her new-found independence. Matters are further complicated when she is befriended by a rather odd, elderly neighbour, Naomi Shapiro.
It's fair to say that Glue divided the SWSt household. Mrs SWSt read it whilst we were on holiday and thoroughly enjoyed it. She could regularly be heard sniggering at the antics of the quirky cast of characters and read a few choice passages out to me. When I came to read the whole thing myself, I didn't enjoy it quite so much. It certainly had its moments, but to my mind is the weakest of Lewycka's works to date.
There were times when Glue felt somewhat contradictory. Sometimes there seemed to be so many characters and subplots evolving that Lewycka didn't really seem to know what to do with them all. This led to parts of the book feeling underdeveloped. At other times, the focus appeared to be too narrow and the subject matter a little safe and predictable.
It's probably this first element that is more serious. There are several plot strands competing for space: Mrs Shapiro, Georgina's separation, her son's increasing religious mania, the burgeoning (and slightly suspicious) romance with local estate agent Mark Diabello, Sinclair's on-going freelance work for a publication devoted to solvents (hence the title), her relationship with her colleagues, and Georgina's cringingly poor attempts to write a book. PHEW!
All these ideas are thrown around and only a few of them (forgive the pun) really stick. The main plot (surrounding Mrs Shapiro's past and present) is very good and uses Lewycka's trademark wit to make amusing observations on the way people behave. The trouble is everything else gets a bit lost. Plot strands come and go randomly and never fully seem to tie in with other things that are happening.
As a result many of the sub-plots feel underdeveloped and unsatisfactory. A few are rather predictable and the ending is a huge disappointment as Lewycka suddenly realises she has all these plot strands flapping around and tries to wrap them all up quickly and a little too neatly. The ending was trite and something of an anti-climax. There is a late attempt to introduce a bit of black humour and pathos, but it's too, little too late.
What was perhaps most disappointing was the lack of consistent humour. Lewycka's previous books have been marked out by odd characters and quirky behaviour that lead to amusing situations or funny conversations and misunderstandings. Her books were never meant to be out and out comedies, but they did make you laugh. Such moments are more limited in Glue. Whilst there are flashes of Lewycka's trademark humour, they are less frequent. Lewycka certainly has a way with words that can turn relatively ordinary situations into funny ones but I never felt completely at home with the humour in this book. Some of it seems a little forced; other bits borderline offensive.
Again, the sheer number of characters is partly at fault, since Lewycka is only able to give them fairly sketchy attention. In previous books, she has concentrated on a smaller cast which has allowed her to develop them much more. As such, the reader became sympathetic to their situation. In Glue, this is given less emphasis and many of the characters and the plot suffer as a result. Worse, several border on stereotypes (particularly Mr Ali and a Jewish character who appears late on).
After the excellent, insightful and amusing Two Caravans and Short History, this feels a lot more by-the-numbers. As I said at the start, though, this book divided the SWSt household and Mrs SWSt enjoyed it far more than I did, so perhaps you will too. It's certainly worth reading, although I'm not sure I could recommend going out and buying it at full price. At around £6 for the paperback or Kindle edition, my advice is to wait until you can pick it up cheap in a second hand bookshop.
We are all made of glue
Penguin, Re-issue, 2012
© copyright SWSt 2013
I found this book such a disappointment...
It started of well; describing a woman whose life is falling apart as her husband leaves her, her son is troubled, her job is proving tedious etc. She meets an unusual old lady - Mrs Shapiro - who lives nearby and before she knows it she has been dragged into her life and is in the middle of a very confusing dispute over Mrs Shapiro's property. The character of Mrs Shapiro is a lovely, quirky and eccentric old lady, but the main character fails to make you care about what happens to her.
As the story moves on it leaves it's amusing beginning behind and becomes, quite frankly, a bit dull. As details of Mrs Shapiro's life unfold we should be gripped, as she has indeed had a very interesting life, but somehow it misses the mark and just seems to witter on. Not only this but there are some completely ridiculous and mostly pointless characters introduced which only served to annoy me further. At around the half way mark I had become a bit bored but stuck with it, but a little further through I had lost all interest, it seemed obvious where the story would end and I was not wrong. I only continued reading it as I was so far through and hoped there may be some exciting ending - which there wasn't!
I guess the only good thing I could say about it is that it is an easy read, so if you want something to read whilst on holiday by the pool which doesn't require much concentration then this may be for you.
Georgina is in a bit of a mess. Her husband has left her for another woman, her daughter hardly speaks to her, her son is going through a mid-teen crisis, she can't seem to get anywhere with her steamy romance novel, and she's stuck writing articles about adhesives for a trade magazine. Just when she thought things couldn't get worse She meets Naomi Shapiro, a lonely widow living with lots of cats in a run-down and filthy mansion who needs her help. Despite her better judgment, Georgina does get involved, and this is story of Marina Lewycka's third novel "We are all made of Glue".
The first reason why I liked this book is because all the above information isn't how this novel begins. The story actually opens with Georgina meeting one of Naomi's cats - Wonder Boy - who immediately pees on her. With this kind of opening, Marina brings the reader into the story immediately, and thereby catches our attention. But it doesn't stop there. Added to the cast of characters are an Arab builder and his "useless" crew, a bunch of shady and/or sexy estate agents, social workers, municipal agents and even Georgina's editor and his son. All this, and more, gets flung together in a conflagration that, well, gets all gummed up. Of course, being a comic novel, we know things will get unstuck eventually, but how it does will be a true delight and surprise to the readers.
As confusing as this may sound, what makes this work is how Lewycka narrates the story using Georgina as the main voice. While I've recently been feeling that first person narratives have been overdone, I have to admit that if done correctly, this can work very well. It does give the story a very personal feel to it, as if we're in the brain of the main character. Marina also does two other things to help us better understand the other major players in the story - these being Naomi and Ali, the Arab builder. With Naomi, she wheedles some of her background out of her over some disgusting tea, and then at other times, uses Georgina's overly nosey character to find out more about her when she's "inspecting" Naomi's house and later when she has to cat-sit for her. What she's unable to uncover in her investigations, she gets out of Ali, who also offers her some of his own history.
All this is done slowly throughout the book, giving it a type of mystery feel to it, which unravels as we go along. Of course, this also make us want to read on, straight through to the end to find out the whole story and see how things turn out. This makes this story a real page turner, and with everything that happens, there's not a slow bit anywhere in the book. Even Georgina's introspective parts are interesting, as she punctuates these sections with excerpts of her attempts to write her novel. The fun part here is you see the text she's written with strike-outs and notes to herself, as if she's photocopied a bit out of her notebook. One could compare these bits with the inclusion of DOG's narrative from "Two Caravans", but I find this far more successful then that was. Finally, the characters also develop so nicely, that the reader feels that they're getting to know them right along with Georgina and her own self-discovery. As far as readability is concerned, this book gets top marks in all areas.
I have to admit that being from Israel, there was one passage that worried me a bit in that I was worried Marina was getting a touch too political. This has to do with the builder Ali and his early life in Palestine (pre-Statehood era). Thankfully, Marina smoothes this out without being judgemental regarding either side of the conflict, by having Georgina be both politically and historically ignorant. This works well because in reality, there are many people who have no opinions about such things simply because it isn't an area of interest to them. This also brings in an element of naiveté to Georgina's character, which allows her to draw parallels between such conflicts, her own personal adventures and - yes, you got it - the title of the book. By this I mean the essence of what glue does - bonds things together. And yet, not every adhesive is the right one for the job. Lewycka takes this metaphor and applies it to everything in the story, making this an added philosophical (and yet amusing) bonus, but which you'll only get the full effect of after you've finished reading it all.
And read it, I highly recommend you do! The story, the characters, the writing and basically everything here just flows and keeps your interest from start to finish. I should mention that there are some truly hilarious bits here which only add to the enjoyment. Dare I say this might even be better than her debut novel? Well, I wouldn't go quite that far, but I certainly like this better than "Two Caravans" and feel that Ms Lewycka has not disappointed in the least. What's more, I'm really looking forward to reading even more from her. After all that, and on reflection, I don't think I can rate this book less than five out of five stars.
Davida Chazan © July 2010
Available new from Amazon for £4.99 or through their marketplace from 1p
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Penguin (24 Feb 2010)
"The first time I met Wonderboy, he pissed on me. I suppose he was trying to warn me off, which was quite prescient when you consider how things turned out". So beings 'We are all Made of Glue'
The singer Moby claimed that "We are all made of stars" whereas writer Marina Lewycka's third book is a little more down to earth. We are all - according to Lewycka - made of glue. Quite what she means by this is open to the interpretation of the reader and there are plenty of different directions your interpretation can take. If you want to look on the dark side, it's hinted in places that it could be a reference to the Nazis making glue from the bodies of their gas chamber victims. For those who see life in a lighter way, it's perhaps her intention that we are all made up of the relationships that bind us together - the glue of society if you like. Mind you, I just think it's a great philosophical expression - there's nothing to beat a bit of ambiguity.
She's a dab hand with titles is Ms Lewycka. Her first novel "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" must have been in the running for 'best title of the year' when it was released in 2005 and soon other books were sitting temptingly on our bookshelves with similar whacky titles - "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday" is one that springs to mind. I can't help but think Lewycka's book suffered for being a bit too accessible and might otherwise have stood a good chance in the 'Diagram of Diagrams' award for the oddest book title of the last 30 years which went to the non-fiction "Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers".
Anyway, enough of such digressions and back to the book.
~So what's it all about?~
Georgina is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. When her work-obsessed husband, Rip (yes, that's his name - honest) ignores her request to put a new toothbrush holder up in the bathroom, she flips and throws him out. When he fails to come and collect his possessions, she chucks them in a skip and as a result meets a seemingly batty old lady. Mrs Shapiro, is caught dragging Rip's books and classical records out of the skip. Despite only the briefest of contact, when Mrs Shapiro has to go into hospital she names Georgina as her next of kin and Georgina is sucked into her weird and wacky world.
Georgina's new friend has a run-down old house that's potentially worth a packet to the right people but only if she didn't live there and if it weren't full of rubbish and incontinent cats - including the Wonderboy of my opening line. With no apparent family to protect her interests, Mrs S can see the vultures circling to try to get control of the house. Can Georgina rescue her new friend, can she find new love and can she stop her son going completely potty as he succumbs to religious fervour in a sub-plot of the book? Will she find a good man to replace Rip and still manage to juggle life, Mrs Shapiro, the cats, her own family and her job as a freelance writer for an international adhesives magazine? There you go - more gluey sub-plots.
~A 21st Century Fairy Tale~
If you've read Marina Lewycka's books before you probably already have a fair idea of whether you love or hate her work. I'm a little bit ambivalent. I found her first book (the aforementioned Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) swung between hilarity and tedium, almost entirely dependent on whether the bit I was reading was about tractors or not. Her second book, Two Caravans, absolutely delighted me as it wove together the lives of a group of immigrant fruit pickers and their dog. By contrast 'We Are All Made of Glue' seems to be trying less hard to be clever and instead focuses on just telling a fascinating and oddly believable fairy story of modern living and contemporary relationships.
Regular readers will spot the hallmark references to previous books - such as the staff at the nursing home referring to a previous tenant who had engine parts in his room (the gentleman from the Short History who also appears briefly in Two Caravans). And of course it's inevitable that sooner or later she'll send her protagonists to Peterborough but in this one it's a rather self-conscious and unimportant aspect of the plot. She has an outstanding talent for writing dialect and accents which is exploited to the full with the cast of characters in every one of her books.
There are the good and bad 'fairies' of the social work field - Mrs Bad Eel (Badiel) and Mrs Good Knee (Goodney). There's the devilishly handsome Mr Diabello with his handcuffs and crotchless panties and his partner the beastly Mr Wolfe and my favourite characters, Mr Ali the Palestinian builder and his nephews - the 'uselesses' - who want to do the house up in return for somewhere to stay. If Jewish Mrs Shapiro and the three Palestinians (who she mistakenly refers to as 'the pekis') can find a way to live together, surely there's hope for us all in this lovely morality tale.
~Does it work?~
For me it works totally. I loved Lewycka's take on the modern family and the way that we're evolving our own networks of interconnection. I could relate to the way that friendships, even bizarre strange ones, can occur between the oddest of people and bind them together at a time when their conventional family base is breaking down. Georgie's husband has gone, her kids are about to fly the nest but suddenly there's a whole new bunch of people filling the gaps. Despite the crazy almost cartoon-like characters and situations, I wanted only the best for these people in their contemporary take on the battle between good and evil. Lewycka's firmly back on my 'must-read' list, fully forgiven for all the tractor stuff and firmly back in favour. In my opinion she's getting stronger and better with every book. I just wonder if she'll ever be able to write one with an ordinary title. Now where did I put the Araldite?