Monday, 27 April 2015

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz



published 2002




All is Vanity


[Aspiring novelist Margaret finds herself using her friend Letty’s life in her writing]

I had had lingering qualms…. Whenever my pages had surged ahead, infused with Letty’s reactions, even sometimes with her own words, I’d reminded myself that this was only an exercise, a means of teaching myself how to create a character, a skill I would then apply to a far different character in far other circumstances. My reunion with my former student, however, wiped away all such niceties. A novel must be produced. Quickly. And this one was clearly well under way.

In fact, it occurred to me that it might even be a very good novel…

[Later, after talking to Letty] When I’d hung up the phone, I started for the bedroom, but stopped just before the door. The story pressed at me from within, pushing me irresistibly toward the closet/study. I turned on my computer and waited impatiently through its hemming and hawing. At last the screen was blank and my fingers pounced upon the keys.

 
observations: At one point Margaret, a teacher, says that she thought she was in Goodbye Mr Chips, but it turned out to be Lord of the Flies. It’s something like that for the reader too: one of the reviews quoted on the back says the book is ‘as funny as it is cruel’ which is quite a good description. The back cover also tells you most of the plot, so I don’t feel that I have to hold back in that area, though I think it is better to read the book not knowing what is coming.

Yes, it is funny. Margaret, in New York, is quite certain she can be a successful novelist, so she negotiates with her husband to stop working for a year. The description of her endlessly putting off writing, her writer’s block, her lack of subject matter, and her extreme self-delusion is very funny, and Schwarz manages to make her not as infuriating as you would expect. Meanwhile she is in constant contact with her childhood friend Letty, who lives in California and is a stay-at-home mother whose husband is about to get a new job. Margaret is running out of material and options and is lying to people about her writing. Letty gets caught up in a maelstrom of spending and home- and self-improvements. There’s a terrible inevitability that things are not going to end well for either of them. You want to strangle both of them at times. And at times I was hoping for a magical happy ending…

The jokes and observations are sharp and clever. I liked this on management consultants:
She convinced executives nearly twice her age to restructure corporations in industries and services in which they’d spent their entire working lives and in which she’d invested a few months.
And Schwarz is excellent on social events, embarrassment and mortification, and ways of fooling ourselves.

Letty’s life made me think of a long-ago book: The Serial by Cyra McFadden, a very funny 1970s classic.

I can’t decide what my overall conclusion on the book is. Schwarz is a very good writer, but there is something odd about the structure of this book. The first half is quite long and repetitious, and the POV changes are strange. I liked reading it, but wish it had been half the length...

I wanted a picture of a writer at her desk, but it seemed terribly unfair to use a living woman, who might reasonably object to being connected with Margaret in the book. So this is a ‘photograph of the Scottish travel writer, Saira Elizabeth Luiza Shah (who died on 15 August 1960), sitting at her desk with a typewriter before her’ from Wikimedia Commons. CiB has a long-standing campaign to bring back hat-wearing-indoors-at-desk, as seen in avatar, and in this blogpost.

Lilly dache smaller











10 comments:

  1. "Funny and cruel" work for me, but I'm probably going to leave you to savour this one alone.

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    1. You're probably right, though it was quite memorable - not a crime story really, but with crime story trappings.

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  2. I do like the description of the way the story begins to consume Margaret, Moira. It really does feel that way at times. And it sounds like there are some very witty descriptions of what it's like to be a writer; that appeals to me too. I understand what you mean about an oddly-structured novel, though. I've run into a few of them, myself. But what an interesting look at the life of a writer. Hmmm....may have to think about trying this one!

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    1. I think you might find it particularly interesting because of your own writing Margot - I imagine that although the character is (as I say above) not someone I would be comparing anyone else to, parts of her life might seem familiar to my writer friends.

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  3. Yes indeed, it does sound familiar. For one thing, I am commenting on your blog instead of drafting the short story I am supposed to be working on! I was caught by the reference to hat-wearing indoors, which I have often done, but more through absent-mindedness than style. But I do think my writing might go better if I wore a turban like the writer in your photo - I like the flowers, too.

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    1. There's something soothing yet purposeful about the picture isn't there? I'm sure the hat would be conducive to work. Now, get back to that file Christine....

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  4. This sounds like a light read, Moira. A touch of humour makes reading pleasant. I was looking at the top most picture and remembering Agatha Christie in a similar pose, in front of her typewriter, I think.

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    1. Yes Prashant I can see exactly what you mean about the picture: perhaps it was a general lady writer's pose! I did enjoy the book, but it was quite dark.

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  5. I am glad you read this one for me. It might be interesting, although the cruel part does not appeal, but not appealing enough to push aside one of my mysteries. It is good to know it exists.

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    1. It doesn't fall on the mystery side, and it's not so good that I'm saying it's a must read. But it was entertaining, and I'm glad I read it. For all of us!

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