13 September 2010

An Experiment in Love, by Hilary Mantel

I guess I never wrote a review for Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which I read in the late-winter/early-spring. A friend of mine had absolutely loved Mantel's Wolf Hall (many people did) and when I bought it from amazon, I discovered Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution. I was trying to learn more about the French Revolution at the time, and the novel seemed like a good way to do it. It was not a revelatory book, but it was quite good. Amazingly dense with historical information - I can't imagine how much research went into it - but also wonderful, lively prose and well-drawn characters. It was, however, quite long. It needed to be, but still, I was reading it for weeks, and it kind of wore me out.

So I was happy to see An Experiment in Love at Costco, a nice short Mantel novel about British women in the 60s. The back implied that it would be all about the struggles of feminism and femininity and academia, which sounded just great to me. There was also some kind of suspense and/or gradual buildup to an explosive climax promised, which seemed iffy but ok.

But you know what? It wasn't very good. There was a climax. It was not very explosive or exciting. And there wasn't much of a build-up to it. In a way, I suppose, one could appreciate the subtlety of the book; the way it allows most of its characters their privacy. Unfortunately, they have so much privacy that they're basically shrouded in mystery - you have no idea what's going on with them, and you never really find out. Couple this with the main character's lack of self-awareness, and you get a novel where everything is kind of chaotic and unclear, but not in a particularly compelling way. Thinking back on it - and I only finished reading it a few hours ago - it's hard to say what even happens in the book, what occupies the pages and keeps the story moving. There's a lot about food (the main character, rather annoyingly, gradually becomes anorexic, except that she doesn't seem to do it consciously - at first she's just broke, then she seems to want to be thin, but the transition happens in a single paragraph). The whole reflection on feminism in the 60s part that I was so looking forward to was more like an afterthought, a bland generalizing sentence here and there.

Overall, a great disappointment - I like Mantel's prose style, but I barely kept reading this book, and if it wasn't so short, I would never have carried on.

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