Cross-Blog Reviewing: Tony & Susan

My friend Christine Poulson (her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life) and I decided that we would set each other a book to read, then each publish our reviews (as yet unseen by the other) on the same day. So earlier this year she got me to read the wonderful Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins - my review is here, Chrissie’s here.
So then it was my turn - and this is what I offered:

*You can read Chrissie's review of Tony & Susan here.

the book:  Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

published 1993

tony and susan cover

My choice was a book I hadn’t read myself, always a chancy business. I have no idea, yet, what Chrissie made of it, and I had a very complicated reaction to it – but for sure it was a good choice because you wouldn’t run out of things to say about it, and I think it probably divides readers rather dramatically.

Some history: Austin Wright is an American academic (1922-2003) who wrote a handful of novels. This one was published in 1993 to very good reviews, but didn’t find many readers. It was republished a few years ago as one of those cult classics, with plenty of publicity to tell us all that we should have read it, that it was a lost masterpiece (a bit like John Williams’ Stoner).

This is the back-cover summary of the book:
Many years after their divorce, Susan Morrow receives a strange gift from her ex-husband [Edward]. A manuscript that tells the story of a terrible crime: an ambush on the highway, a secluded cabin in the woods; a thrilling chiller of death and corruption. How could such a harrowing story be told by the man she once loved? And why, after so long, has he sent her such a disturbing and personal message...?
There are alternate sections of Edward’s novel, and of Susan’s reactions and circumstances as she sits at home reading it. She also looks back at what happened between her and Edward, how she left him for her long-time current husband, Arnold. He is away at a conference, up to who-knows-what.

So. For the first half of the book I was astonished and gripped, completely held by the story, and full of admiration for the writing and the structure. Edward’s thriller is a truly terrifying story of death and violence, as a cheerful happy family sets off for a vacation. You can imagine it as a standalone book. It is grim, with some very strange characters, and gruesome violence. (I wasn’t particularly expecting this to be the case – I knew of the double structure before starting, but naively thought the second tale would be some drama of US academics’ lovelives… couldn’t have been more wrong.)

tony and Susan 1

Susan’s sections give the reader a welcome chance to draw breath, and are entertaining in a different way: this is everyday life and recognizable situations. (There’s a role for Susan’s cat – on reading the passage beginning ‘Jeffrey wants to go out. She opens the door, lets him go’ I had a few moments when I thought this was one of her children.)

Her reactions to the book are interesting:
She feels bruised by her reading, and by life too. She wonders, does she always fight her books before yielding to them? She rides back and forth between sympathy for Tony and exasperation. If only she didn’t have to talk to Edward afterwards. If you say Tony is going mad – or turning into a jerk – you need to be sure Tony is not really Edward.
[Tony is the protagonist of the book-within-the-book]

But the book started to lose me in the second half. I still very much wanted to know the outcome, but the whole setup was starting to annoy me: a bit too clever, and the tribulations of Tony became less convincing. I think it’s often the case that when writers of literary fiction try to write a crime novel, they find it not as easy as they think.

I was very conflicted by the ending - because it was clear in one way, but inconclusive, and it actually took me completely by surprise and made me laugh, as well as mystifying me. You are left to make up your own mind here, he is not going to spell out for you what is going on, what you are supposed to take from the book. Can an ending be clear, and inconclusive, and mystifying, and enjoyable? Yes, apparently…

I really didn’t know what I was supposed to understand from the book. There were the classic questions from literary theory: who is the narrator? What is the story? – and I think Wright may have very clever and academic answers. But I was left rather puzzled by it all, I’m still not sure what I was reading. Looking at the (very varied) amazon reviewer responses to it was instructive, and then I came across this one:
Talk about nuance! If you're not a careful, close reader you will miss the staggering impact of this book's conclusion. Very well done.
Which made me feel even worse. No, no idea.

One thing’s for sure – Wright thought about every aspect of this, nothing is casual or without meaning. I just don’t think I got all the meaning.

The book has been made into a film – it’s called Nocturnal Animals, which is the name of the book-within-the-book, and due out later this year. The picture above is a still from the film. It’s hard to imagine, but perhaps it will be something like the double-structure film version of John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman in the 1980s.

Chrissie is an academic who also writes crime fiction – so might be the intended reader for this book, and I wonder if she understands better than I do the literary theory questions here. I am more than usually curious to see what she has to say, and am going over there in great anticipation – suggest you do the same.

ADDED LATER: Now I've read Chrissie's review - and obviously we had very similar reactions to the book. She and I have really got to find some books we disagree on!


  1. I have no idea what the staggering impact is, either! Perhaps someone will enlighten us. Now I am wondering if I didn't read it carefully enough - I did get rather impatient in the second half. Interesting that we both have pretty much the same response. I think it was a brilliant idea that was then very difficult to pull off. And like you, I can't imagine how it could be turned into a film.

    1. Oh I'm glad it wasn't just me. It did promise so well. I a normal crime thriller I might think the author ran out of ideas, but it did seem that every aspect of this one was planned and placed - which made it more disappointing.

  2. Oh, that really does sound like a very unusual book, Moira! I understand the plot structure as you describe it - well, at least for the first half. But the rest? I think I'd really have to think about that. And perhaps that's the goal, anyway. Hmm.....very strange, indeed.

    1. It is a very unusual Margot - and I really didn't know what to make of it in the end...

  3. Well, I've not read either of these books, although THE HIDDEN LEGACY sounds as though it delivers whilst this one doesn't, or at least not fully. It's a rather reductive view of literature, but I think that if you've coughed up some money in order to read someones book, then you deserve to get satisfaction from it. I don't mind an ambivalent ending, but if you're really not satisfied by the end of the book then the author hasn't done their job. I'm afraid that self-conscious 'literature' makes me grind my teeth a bit at times.

    1. You make a good point. The Hidden Legacy will never be seen as 'literay' in the same way as Tony & Susan, but is a lot more fun to read, and I would be more inclined to recommend it. Depending what you want from a book of course...

  4. I have been thinking recently about one thing you said: "when writers of literary fiction try to write a crime novel, they find it not as easy as they think." I had read similar thoughts about non-fantasy writers trying to do fantasy, and not understanding the world building that has to go with it. It is like they miss the point of what makes the crime novel work.

    I like the idea of the alternating chapters in this, but I think you two have talked me out of giving this a try. I had not ever heard of it before.

    1. I definitely think it can be true about 'outsiders' trying a new form - they assume it is easy, anyone can do it. I believe the same might be true of the romance genre! Everyone thinks it is easy but it probably isn't.
      And I can't honestly say I think you should read this one.

  5. I am not altogether convinced that he thought he was writing a crime novel. I'd be very interested to know what he intended. It is a pity he can't tell us.

    1. Oh, intriguing. It would be very helpful to have his inside track on it - we need, also, more people who have read it. I thought some might turn up, as it is considered a lost classic, but perhaps more lost than the arbiters hoped!


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