Saturday, March 23, 2013

Completed: The Little Stranger


I'll be honest with you, I found Sarah Waters' novel The Little Stranger to be a bit of a disappointment.  This book was recommended by a colleague, and although it wasn't awful or anything, it just wasn't what I expected. (I should have thought more about this. The guy who told me about it loves Jane Eyre and all that Victorian crap.)

The back of the book and cover blurbs describe the book as a spooky ghost story. I'm not one for really scary books, but I do like a good tension-filled yarn. Stephen King said it would guarantee me several sleepless nights! Although I do suffer from sleeplessness, I can safely say it was not the result of this book.

This is the story of Doctor Faraday, a doctor in his early 40s living in a small village in England in the late 1940s. He's slowly drawn into the lives of the Ayers family. This is the family of landed gentry that own a huge, crumbling mansion called Hundreds Hall. Roderick is a man in his early 20s who was dreadfully wounded in World War II. His older sister Caroline is a spinster in her later 20s. Their mother, Mrs. Ayers, is probably only in her mid-50s, but she plays the elderly, matronly role in the story.

As the Doctor gets to know them, an accident with a young neighborhood girl sets into motion a series of tragic events that one by one effects each member of the Ayers family. Is Hundreds Hall haunted? Or, as Doctor Faraday insists, are they strictly imagining things? But the as the events at Hundreds Hall become more and more frightening, the Ayers family is convinced that they are being haunted.

Here's the deal. I was sort of in it for the ghost story, but it just wasn't that tension filled. The book was 500 pages and the spooky ghost parts happen hundreds of pages apart.  However, the biggest problem, I think, is that the narrative structure of the story is revealed through the perspective of the Doctor. He's not a first person narrator, but it's a tight third person focus on him. But he doesn't live at Hundreds, he just visits and becomes close to the family. So all the good, scary stuff is always told to him later, after it happens. It's just sort of bloodless because the immediacy is gone for every single one of the frightening events. And the Doctor never, not for a second, really believes in the ghost, so there's always a distance between the reader and the events in the mansion. I just wanted all the omg-ghosts-are-they-real-maybe-maybe-not to be a far bigger part of the book. It's interesting how suspicion shifts from character to character, but it's just a bit plodding. There's a lot of ambiance and an overall tone of dread, but it was, for me, ultimately unsatisfying.

As it is, the book is really about the changing class structures that affected the British aristocracy in the 20th century. The Ayers family are just in a different realm than the local country doctor. The crumbling house and their attempt to keep it in the family while slowly selling it off piece by piece was the real story in the book. They struggle to get on with their one servant, but even that stretches their budget to the limit. The doctor is seen as uppity for associating with the family, while at the same time, the family never truly accepts him because he's of a different class. I mean, I guess if you're in to that sort of thing, this would be a good story. I find that stuff to be pretty boring, and so I found myself feeling unmoved by the characters and their difficulties with the class issues.

Meanwhile, I read it pretty fast because it was the only book I had with me on vacation. I made my way through it pretty quickly. It doesn't drag, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The writing was strong. I bet it would probably make a good audiobook! It's a good story. I feel bad that I'm not more enthusiastic about it, because there was certainly nothing wrong with it. I think if I hadn't have been more interested in by the ghost story, I wouldn't have felt as disappointed. In the end, it just wasn't my cup of tea. Heh.


1 comment:

  1. Isn't it interesting how much expectations of a book (or movie or experience... anything, really) can end up making that thing so much better or worse, depending on whether or not the expectations are high (like for you in this case) or low (for instance Gone Girl for me -- I really expected to hate it).

    I don't really know how to control or change that. The good news is that the Expectation Circle sometimes benefits us (someone gives us a book and says, "It was okaaaay." and then we love it because of lowered expectations) (I find this *especially* true for movies) and sometimes we can help someone else (if I read/listen to this book now, my expectations will be lower and therefore, the book may be better!)

    I guess March was the month for this, as I am having the same experience with the my TBR book. My expectations were heightened by blurbs on the back + the very first sentence of the book, which was hilarious. The rest of the book has not been hilarious. I should have my write-up done soon.