Monday, June 10, 2013

A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE


Review of A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE by MADELEINE WICKHAM
(listened to as audiobook, read by KATHERINE KELLGREN)

For those who don't already know, authors Madeleine Wickham and Sophie Kinsella are the same person (real name: Madeleine Sophie Wickham). This discovery amused me since I had already singled out these two authors as my favorites in the chick lit genre years before realizing they’re one and the same. In many ways, Wickham and Kinsella works feel similar with the same voice and style shining through, and yet I understand why she divides her work with these pseudonyms. Her Wickham stuff is always a little grittier than her Kinsella stuff. Note: that's grittier, not to be confused with gritty. Wickham books star significantly more flawed and less likable characters and also contain far more substance use and abuse, swearing, and cheating. In a Sophie Kinsella book the lines of good and bad feel clear or at least clearer, but with Madeleine Wickham we read a tangled story and make our own judgments.

I listened to A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE as an audiobook, read by Katherine Kellgren. It took me a while to get into the narrator's voice and I found the voices Kelgren used for some characters, particularly Marcus and Duncan, rather jarring. (I would much rather a female narrator read men's lines in her own voice than attempt a male voice.) Marcus sounds sleazy - which made it difficult for me to understand this charming appeal that Liz finds so overwhelming - and Duncan sounds whiny; I often wondered how I might have interpreted their characters differently without these voices. I did, however, find Kelgren’s voice for Alice a perfect fit.
A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE is Wickham's second published book and that fact does show a little bit compared to her later works. (For those interested, she primarily published under the Wickham pseudonym and then switched to Kinsella rather than consistently publishing under both.) The story feels rather long-winded at times with much that could have been consolidated. As one example, the first lengthy scene establishes that Liz and her husband Jonathan are having money problems with some repetitive and roundabout conversations drilling home what could have been expressed in a few sentences or paragraphs. There are also some cases of unnecessary inner monologue and thoughts wandering off on pointless - but extensive - tangents.
If forced to choose, I prefer Sophie Kinsella books to Madeleine Wickham, though really they're different beasts. What I do admire more about the Wickham books is that the author feels far more like an observer telling a story about real people. The observer tells us about these people's actions but doesn't tell us what to think about those actions. In contrast, the Kinsella books are more formulaic with clearer-cut good guys and bad guys (or gals), or at the very least good and bad actions.
Money and sex are blatantly entangled in A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE. Liz's opinion of her husband is directly proportional to their financial well-being (so it’s plummeting with each additional monetary strain) and she turns adoring eyes on Marcus when he sweeps in to offer help in the form of money and influence. As the back of the book will tell you, Liz and Marcus wind up having an affair, throughout which money plays a prominent role. This touches on a discussion post I did about liking protagonists. I could never bring myself to like Marcus or Liz, but I found them intriguing, believable characters and liked the book. I did like other characters, though. Duncan in particular acted as an underdog; I dismissed him as a minor character until later in the book when I noted his subtle selflessness and unexpected maturity, especially considering his surrounding cast.

Speaking of Duncan, his character was one of the two things in this novel that distracted me in a negative way since I could never quite reconcile them with my definition of normal. Unless I missed an important detail, Duncan is merely a friend of Ginny and Piers and yet when they decide to relocate he follows and moves in with them, which didn't make much sense to me. In general, he's so clingy that they seem more like a threesome than a couple and I even entertained elaborate predictions that would explain his intense involvement and investment in their lives. Secondly, the interactions between adults and teenagers struck me as pretty bizarre, primarily in regards to strangers and alcohol. Alice’s relationship with Ginny and Piers never seemed…either realistic or appropriate. (I can’t make up my mind whether it’s realistic but inappropriate or appropriate but unrealistic.) Aside from the fact that they’re strangers when she starts spending more time with them than her own parents, they also offer her plenty of alcohol and encourage her getting drunk. While drinking during teenage years isn’t so unusual there’s also a casual attitude regarding young children not only drinking alcohol but lots of it! (This may well be a cultural/generational difference. My mother is British and was encouraged to drink alcohol from the age of five.)
Another key difference between Sophie Kinsella and Madeleine Wickham books is the ending. In Kinsella books, everything ties up neatly with occasionally unrealistically clean resolutions to big problems. With her Wickham books, the story finds a place to end, but plenty remains unresolved. In fact, with A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE I even checked to ensure I wasn’t missing a disk, because the ending felt so abrupt. Little to no resolution. Rather some startling revelations and climatic moments, but then the story cuts off and leaves the reader to imagine what the characters have learned from their experiences, if anything. While many criticize tidy wrap-ups for being too easy and unrealistic not to mention potentially harmful wish-fulfillment fantasizes, at least the well-done ones feel highly satisfying. I didn’t expect or want an orderly wrap-up for A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE, but I did wish for more resolution than I found.

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