Where's the book?

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Chateau: #20

I absolutely adore William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, a brief, beautiful, powerful novel of love and loss and family. I would say the same about So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I would not repeat the praise for this book of his.

The Chateau, unlike those two slim volumes, is a long book. I don't mind a long book. In fact, some of my favorite novels are long books (A Suitable Boy! The Goldfinch! Anything by Anthony Trolloppe!). But this book felt long. Set in France just after World War II, the story -- if what the book encompasses can be called a story -- is of Barbara and Harold Rhodes, a young American couple spending three months traveling in Europe. Maxwell captures well the feelings of travel, the thrill of new vistas, the discomfort of not understanding the habits, the awkwardness of getting the customs wrong. And it is interesting to get a view of France immediately after the way, especially after so many books I've read recently that are set in Britain in the same time period. But there are paragraphs, sometimes pages, that chronicle the couple wandering down one street and another, walking for hours, trying to find a hotel...it all becomes nearly as tedious as doing it in real life.

The book centers around the couple's visit to a chateau, a once-regal home that, because of the new post-war circumstances, is now accepting paying guests, where they meet various people and don't do much of anything. They visit other towns, have a picnic, eat dinner, meet people who are sometimes nice, sometimes not, rarely interesting. There are questions raised -- of how the family lost their fortune, why one visitor is pleasant one minute and rude the next. But those questions are not answered until part two of the book. Entitled "Some Explanations," this relatively brief section poses the questions readers might have, and answers them. The tone reads as condescending, a bit snarky, as if Maxwell is saying, "Do you really need to have everything explained to you, you dim hidebound provincial reader?" And the explanations are anything but rewarding. Perhaps if more of the background had been woven into the thin framework of the narrative, it would have felt like a more robust, more fulfilling novel. But as it is it reads as a beautifully written travelogue, and frankly I'd rather experience the journey than read about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment