Monday, September 10, 2007

The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson

When I think about the books I've started and never finished or forced myself to finish, I always wonder what they did to make me unhappy. I mean, when it comes to reading, I'll admit I'm a cheap date. I'll read almost anything.

When I'm in a thoughtful, analytical mood, I'll pull down one of the many Norton anthologies I collected as an English major. When I want something fast-paced, James Patterson and his two-page chapters will do just fine. When I want a sappy romance minus all the Harlequin cheese, I reach for Nicholas Sparks. I turn to Sophie Kinsella for chick lit and Amy Tan or Anita Shreve when I want something deeper but not too deep. There's the Yada Yada Prayer Group series by Neta Jackson and any of Beverly Lewis' books set in the Amish culture when I'm in the mood for Christian fiction. I like both classics and contemporary novels, and most of the books I read are stories I never would have picked up had they not been sitting on the library's "New Fiction" shelves.

But if I'm so easy to please, what is it about certain books that make me give up after a couple of chapters? Sometimes the story is just another reincarnation of something that's been done over and over again. (This is one reason why I stopped reading chick lit, except for Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series, unless I happen to come across a unique storyline.) Sometimes a story is just a little too much, when every possible bad thing that could happen to a character actually does, or the story is so far-fetched that tragedy becomes laughable. For me, I think the biggest problems are tied to the characters.

A year or so ago, Serena and I attended a meeting of a local writer's group. It was a small affair, only four of us total, and though I didn't bring any of my writing because I wanted to test the waters first, I thought it could turn out to be a good thing for someone like me who is often too shy to share. But shortly after the first meeting, we were unofficially kicked out of the group. You see, one of the members had just finished his first novel and was getting ready to shop it around, so he emailed all of us his 300-plus page manuscript and requested comments. Serena and I struggled through 40 pages before we gave up. I think he was expecting the usual "good job" he received at the meetings--not the red-speckled pages of comments and suggestions we returned to him. After mailing what we thought would be helpful, we were never invited to another meeting, but that was fine by me because I don't see how patting someone on the back and not pointing out real issues with a story would further my writing career.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded story is that the characters were all wrong. The main character had no motivation, he was apathetic about EVERYTHING, and by page 40, we still had no idea what his name was or the overarching goal of the story.

When reading The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson, I took issue with the characters at every turn, but that's not to say this is anything more than just my personal preferences. The book is about Adam Woods, a recent college graduate from England who plans to tutor a young man in Venice. When those plans fall through, he begins a stint as a personal assistant to the eccentric, reclusive writer Gordon Crace, whose first novel was a major success, but he never wrote a follow-up. Crace doesn't want to discuss his writing or his personal life, but Adam begins uncovering the details. He tells Crace that he's in Venice to write a novel, but soon he decides he will secretly gather information to write Crace's biography.

This is where things should get interesting. (**Serena thinks I should include a spoiler alert here, so I did!**)

However, Adam doesn't have to do as much searching as you'd think. He conveniently comes across letters addressed to Crace by the stepfather of Crace's lover, a young man from the school were Crace taught who took his life many years before, and an aspiring biographer asking for Crace's permission to tell his story. Adam answers both of these letters secretly, makes an excuse to travel back to England, and gets the information he needs for the book.

Despite the lying, violent plotting, and murderous rage that occurs during this part of the book, it dragged, and I think Wilson's use of a first-person narrator contributed to that. Listening to Adam say 'I must do this, I must do that, she must be stopped, he might be a murderer' blah, blah, blah just seemed as though Wilson was telling--not showing--and it made it difficult for me to feel like I was invested in the story (evidenced by the fact that it took me more than a month to plod through the 300 pages).

And then there was the issue of the characters. Not a single one was likable, and Adam was the most unlikable of them all. I will acknowledge that Adam was quite motivated, mainly by greed. He was, in short, a rapist, murderer, psychopath, and the first person narration was a little disturbing because you were able to see how he justified all of his actions and thought he was quite normal. The one thing that made it so difficult for me to finish the book was that Adam had not one redeeming quality. I couldn't stand him as a person, and by the end, listening to his inner thoughts was such an annoyance that I wanted to reach into the book and tear his brain out.

It's nice when even villains--I'm talking main characters here--have just one quality that makes you feel for them, that makes them human, that makes you understand why they were driven to do what they did. This is what made Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes such a good story; you could simultaneously be appalled at the boy who opened fire in his high school and murdered several students and be heartbroken to learn how he was bullied and broken down day after day since he started kindergarten. I think the first-person point of view is restrictive in that way, like maybe if you could see the character from another person's point of view you'd think differently of him. I understand that Adam wasn't supposed to be likable, but everyone reads with their own personal preferences. This is not to say that first-person narration never works or that it's not possible to write a good book with extremely unlikeable characters--I just don't believe it works here.

There were other aspects of the book that slowed me down as well. Much of the book involved Adam trying to find out why Crace's lover killed himself and whether his death actually was a suicide. When Adam finally gets his hand on the suicide note and the truth comes to light, it became obvious to me how the book would end--and I still had many pages to go. When I got to the end of the book, it was anti-climactic, and I felt a little cheated.

The book jacket promises a battle between Adam and Crace about Adam's "project," so I was a little disappointed to realize I had about a quarter of the book left, and Adam was still digging up clues in England. By the time Adam returns to Venice, everything is wrapped up in only a few pages. It was disappointing because it was the most action in the entire book, and it was over before it really started.

Finally, Wilson doesn't provide great details about Venice, though there is plenty of talk about the artwork in Crace's home. By making it so Crace never leaves his home and has no desire to see the sights, it's sort of an excuse not to describe the city for those of us who have never been there.

Still, I give Wilson kudos for a unique storyline that intrigued me enough to keep on reading.

Disclosure:  I borrowed The Lying Tongue from the library.


Serena said...

ahem, there was no spoiler alert

I have similar problems with that whole writing group and that 300-page drudgery someone called his manuscript and the group that kicked us out because we actually gave real criticism. Why bother writing if you don't expect it.

Anna said...

I didn't think I needed one. I didn't spill the beans on who dies or how it ends or what's in the suicide note. Oh, and the fact that he's a psychopath is evident quite early on in the book.

As for that writer's group...maybe we're the first people ever to be kicked out of one for constructive criticism.

Anna said...

I included a spoiler alert just for you, my dear. :D

Serena said...

thanks for the spoiler alert. LOL yeah i wonder if other people get kicked out of groups...maybe you should do a poll.

Anna said...

I kinda like feeling like we're the only ones. Makes us special somehow. LOL

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing such a great post, Anna. I'm a bookworm (though knitting's been really eating into the reading time since I'm not a fan of audio books LOL) and can so relate to what you're saying! Too bad you guys got "kicked out" of that writing group - if people can't accept honest criticism then I say, their loss!

Anna said...

I prefer to knit at home, so my 2 hours or more on public transit each day is spent reading. I really plow through books that way.

Alan Bryce said...

I too felt that neither Adam nor Crace had any redeeming qualities, and hoped the worst for both of them. How Adam could rape his girlfriend, plan and then carry out the murder of the competing biographer, and then kill (murder?) Crace at the end, without even the first comment or thought by Adam, except to lament how sad his life is, to me is plain ridiculous. That Crace at the end suddenly developed strength and verve, and found out the entire story of what Adam was up, to was just lazy writing. I was tempting to dump the book in the trash after that, but kept it as a reminder to myself to focus as much, if not more, on the ending of my stories as I do on the beginning. I never heard of the novel nor the author, but simply found the book at Borders in the sale bin for $4, and only bought because I am working on a novel set in Paris. I was hoping to learn a thing or two about how to make the place a character in the story. Clearly, that didn't occur hear, as except for the name and a few passing references to canals, bridges, and gondolas, Venice was largely invisible. It could have been set anywhere there is a river running through a city. The story line itself may have promise, but it reminded me of a twisted, sick version of the movie "Finding Forrester" (is that based on a novel?), and provided much less enjoyment. I learned from it though; main;y things not to do. All part of the life of an aspiring writer. Thanks.

Anna said...

Alan: Thanks for stopping by, Alan! I agree with you; I wish Venice had a greater role in the book. I think this book had so much potential.

Robson9 said...

I thought the book was a great read and absolutely loved it!

I didn't mind that Adam was a nasty piece of work and that Crace wasn't much better. It was refreshing to see/read such work and I was blown away when he had his flashbacks with his ex-girlfriend. It turned the book for me and kept me gripped until the end.

I've since lent the book to several people. Some really enjoyed it as well, but two didn't like it at all and found it predictable and boring like yourself. At the end of the day it's all about opinions.

I would agree with you when you say that Wilson doesn't describe Venice very much, but with that he keeps it within the context of the book: dark, gothic, insular. I think decribing Venice too heavily would have taken the story away from the eccentric Crace and his quirky palazzo home.

I found this book and Sorrento, Italy in a quaint bookshop and couldn't believe my luck at the gem I uncovered. Can't wait for his next book or for the film!

Anna said...

Robson9: Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I think this book would make an interesting movie.