Saturday, 25 April 2009

26 & 27 - 'The Family Way' & 'My Favourite Wife' by Tony Parsons

After my epic struggle with 'Ulysses', it's back to some slightly simpler literary fare this week. A few weeks ago, I saw a copy of 'The Family Way', which I'd read once before, in the bargain bin of the local newsagent's for $5. So I bought it (no surprises there). On the day I started reading it, my wife went off to the library and brought back, alongside the children's books and DVDs for my daughter (a very tempting way to get to fifty books quickly, but I'll take the high road), a copy of Parsons' latest novel, 'My Favourite Wife'. So, lucky reader, what you get here today is a review of both of these books, for the following reasons:

1) Mr. Parsons' books contain several recurring themes, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two works.

2) I finished the first one too soon after posting the last review, and I really couldn't be bothered to start blogging again.

I'll leave it to you to decide which was the more pressing reason...

Parsons became famous in the U.K. for his novel 'Man and Boy', the story of a man trying to keep his relationship with his son intact after his relationship with his wife ended (mainly because he slept with another woman, but let's not get distracted). The book became a BBC television adaptation, and Parsons , along with one of my favourite authors, Nick Hornby, became one of the leading lights of the new (wholly invented) 'lad-lit' scene. Because, of course, men didn't read books until then.

The theme of family is what drives Parsons; all of his books examine the idea of the family in all its incarnations, and most of them involve the breaking up of the traditional family unit and the creation of new, different forms of families. The three sisters in 'The Family Way' all manage to have children within a different lifestyle; Megan, the baby of the family, gets pregnant after a one-night stand, middle sister Jessica has the perfect husband but has to consider her options after struggling to conceive, and Cat, who had to take on the mothering role after her own mother abandoned the family, is forced to examine her long-held belief of not wanting children at all after seeing what is happening with her sisters. On the other hand, in 'My Favourite Wife' (disappointingly, this book has nothing to do with bigamy), Bill Holden risks his nuclear family by having an affair with a Chinese neighbour in Shanghai while his best friend Shane (another of Parsons' dumb, blond Australian males) has problems of his own in his marriage to a Fillipina singer.

Don't get me wrong; I like reading these books. At times, the author can create some genuinely touching moments, especially when it comes to the relationships between adults and children, and the trials and tribulations involved in creating a new human being in the first place. Parsons also develops believable, recognisable scenarios which develop into whole stories which are interesting and comfortable to read. But.

Over the six books of his which I've read so far, I've never really had the feeling that the characters have been fully developed; to be honest, the characters exist only to help Parsons expound upon his beliefs regarding modern marriage and family. Milan Kundera gets the same criticism; his themes are a little more high-brow, though. I've never met old Tony (and I've only read a little about his life in the book blurbs), but, as my dad says, I'll bet you a pound to a piece of shit (my dad is a little more direct than I am) that Parsons has:

a) Been divorced (OK, I know that one already)
b) Had child maintenance issues
c) Lived or worked in Asia (no-one would mention Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China in their books so much without having a reason for it; unless, of course, they were actually from one of those countries).

Another issue I have is with the simplistic stereotyping, both of genders and of nationalities. I've already talked about poor Shane (and casting an Australian character called Shane from Melbourne is bad enough in itself. I'm just glad the poor bloke didn't have an addiction to texting), and the various Japanese and Chinese characters in his books, with the exception of Jinjin in 'My Favourite Wife', seem to be there just to act as people we Westerners will never be able to understand. It's also intriguing how useless most of the male characters seem to be. Admittedly, a book about a man who stays faithful to his wife and loves his kids may not make for quite such an interesting tale, but there seems to be a very high proportion of men in Parsons' world who wine and dine strange women on an almost-nightly basis (having said that, I've never lived in London, or Shanghai, so I may be the one who is out of the loop).

I've already hinted that the books are more of an outlet for Tony Parsons' personal manifesto than attempts at entertainment, and the final point I want to comment on is the actual style of writing itself. There isn't a lot of dialogue (which is good, because it's not his strong point); much of the text consists of descriptions of action followed by a character's thoughts on what is happening. Which tend to be very neat and profound, and wrap things up neatly with a final sentence.

Just so you know what to think (annoying, isn't it?).

After reading a few of his books, it becomes part of the rhythm; you know it's coming, and it can be extremely repetitive and a pain in the behind.

Now, after a few hundred words criticising the poor, unsuspecting (at least I hope so, or I may be in a spot of bother) author, what can I say to make up for all my nasty words? He's no Milan Kundera (or even Nick Hornby), but he writes interesting books about life and family, and he can write good scenes about ordinary people. Not everyone can be James Joyce, and, quite frankly, not everyone would want to either; it's good to have something to get through quickly on a cold, wet and windy day in Melbourne when the thought of having finished 'Ulysses' makes one feel much better than the idea of having another 500 pages to go.

Literary comfort food; not junk, but certainly no Emperor's banquet. Is that unfair?