On a trip to Washington state over the Thanksgiving weekend I stopped at the Olive Pit in Corning, California, the olive capital of the world. It was there that I met my downfall: chipotle pepper-stuffed olives. Holy Mother of Pearl these things are amazing, especially when strategically placed in a gin martini made with Plymouth Gin. Just saying.
Why am I rambling on about this? Well, because not only am I totally enjoying a martini made with Plymouth Gin and laced with a chipotle pepper-stuffed olive as I write this, but also because I'm a bit stymied about what to say about this book. I somehow remember when I was in college that my roommate, who is now a raging right-winger living in Texas, had to read this book for one of his classes and described it as "putrid". Well, I wouldn't say that. It's an interesting book, and is clearly very well written. But is it one of the great books of the 20th century, as Jane Smiley would have us believe? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. Oh it's good, alright, but it seems a bit dated and emotionally distant.
The book is in first person, and the narrator, an American named Dowell, is clearly shown to be unreliable near the beginning of the book. In fact, he's a frickin' idiot who was unaware that his wife was having an affair with the husband of an English couple with whom he and his wife were best friends. He's unaware of a lot of things, which made me not like him...he's an idiot and after awhile I just didn't care any more. If I were his wife I'd be fucking someone else too, because he's so clueless. I think if I read this book in 1920 I might not have this criticism, but after having read Nabakov's "Pale Fire", which has the best and most cynically funny unreliable narrator EVER, this book was probably a bit ruined for me. The narrator is a jerk and I just couldn't deal with him. If he was crazy, in an interesting way, then I'd cut him some slack, but he's just a dolt.
Having said that, I have to admire this book's craft. It's the story of two couples, the narrator (Dowell) and his wife Florence, and their pals Edward and Leonora. Dowell and Florence are Americans and Edward and Leonora are British, but they're all living in other countries when they meet up. Both couples are wealthy and they become friends. Then Edward starts an affair with Florence. Dowell doesn't find out about this until they are both dead. Leonora tries to tell him but he's a clueless idiot. We learn that Edward can't keep it in his pants, and has affairs with other women too. Leonora knows all about his wanderings, and keeps hoping the new one will be the last one. We learn that Dowell never has sex with is wife because she claims she has a heart condition and can't "do it". We learn all of this in a haphazard order, because Dowell the narrator doesn't really know how to tell the story. And he says so at the beginning of the book. But really he does know how to tell a story because reading this book and finding out about the inner lives of these two couples is like peeling back the skin of an onion...layer after layer is exposed and it all gets deeper and deeper as the story moves along. That part is incredibly well done (although it's so well done that it belies a bit the stupidity of the narrator). But Dowell is still an idiot, and for me the emotion of this story never hits home...as I said it's well crafted but maybe it's just too British for my tastes...I never feel in my heart the emotion and the tragedy of these characters. And I couldn't get past the fact that the narrator is an idiot.
But who am I to criticize a book that's been deemed one of the 100 great books of the 20th century? Maybe more chipotle-stuffed olive laced martinis would help.