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23rd January
written by Steph

As I revealed in my last bookish post, The Morning News's Tournament of Books books (heh) turned out to be quite difficult to borrow from my campus library.  Consequently, I turned to the local branch of the Nashville Public Library, and decided to raid their collection for whichever ToB contenders they had on hand (while placing holds on the other ones).  Thankfully, when we arrived at the library, the four books they claimed to have were easily located, which made the trip immensely more rewarding than my frigid foray into the campus library.  This is of course barring the little snafu in which we arrived at the library at 1 pm, under the impression that it opened at noon, when in fact it doesn’t open until 2 pm on Sundays.  But with that extra hour we just popped over to the Humane Association to play with puppies to while away the time, which is really just as good a use of our time… so it wasn’t really all that catastrophic.  Anyway, all of this backstory is really just leading up to the part where I even dutifully paid my overdue fines while at the library, which amounted to the exorbitant sum of 10¢.  Why do I share this?  Because the dude at the fines counter actually asked if I wanted a receipt for this transaction.  I hope he is required to ask that of everyone, but felt chagrinned for doing so.  Seriously, people.  I paid my fine with what looks like a Toronto bus token (but was worth far less than that), and he asks if I want documented proof of this. Aaaaanyway, back to the real topic at hand: books!  I was going to start the one book I had to borrow in large-text (it was the only copy they had available!), but it smelled really strongly of old-lady perfume and was making me feel nauseous just holding it, so I’m gonna hold off (heh) on that one for a while.  [As an aside, I think I’ve heard that you can put smelly books in plastic bags and place them in your freezer for a few days to destinkify them, but I might have just made this up.  Have any of you successfully dealt with this issue in the past?]  So, I wound up picking up A Partisan’s Daughter instead, perhaps in part because it was the shortest looking book in the stack.  And that’s how we got here. Have you noticed that I’ve kind of been dragging my feet when it comes to talking about the book? I am going to go out on a limb, pull off my gloves (as if I ever wear any!), and just put this right out there: This book is not going to win the 2009 Tournament of Books.  I will actually go so far as to say that the only way A Partisan’s Daughter could be considered one of the top 16 books of the year, is if only 16 books were published in a given year, in which case this book would definitely fall in the lower 50th percentile, and might even come in 16th.  That is how not good this book is. A Partisan’s Daughter starts with a middle-aged British man named Chris whose marriage has essentially devolved into a sexless, desolate wasteland.  While driving, he sees a young woman who he takes to be a prostitute, and he on a whim decides to solicit her services.  Only this tarted up young lady turns out NOT to be a prostitute, and much embarrassed apologizing takes place, and she finally says that he can make up for it by driving her home.  And then she decides to extend an open-ended invite for him to drop by again at some point for coffee, while dropping the tantalizing tidbit that she isn’t a bad girl NOW, but that she used to be.  (This all happens in like, the first 10 pages, by the way)  And Chris winds up visiting her quite frequently because he still wants to bone her, and their little coffee dates ultimately serve as a vehicle through which Roza (the girl) can tell him her life story, beginning with her childhood in Yugoslavia.  It is Roza’s story that primarily forms the bulk of the novel. So, there were a lot of things that I didn’t like about this book, but I will start off with the fact that the entire premise was never believable to me in the first place.  Not the trawling for prostitutes thing, but the fact that these two people would keep in touch afterwards.  Why would they become friends?  Oh, because De Bernières really just cooked up Roza’s story and this was the most convenient and “ingenius” means he could devise for translating that story into a book.  The meetings between Roza & Chris are essentially one-sided conversations in which she tells him stuff about her life, parts of which are told from her own perspective, and so we get suggestions that she might just be making large portions of this narrative up just to get a rise out of Chris.  The two essentially never have a dialogue, so it is incredibly baffling as to how we’re supposed to believe that these two people are possibly in love with one another.  Honestly, most of this book is just Roza talking, which I think embodies one of the reasons why this isn’t a great read, primarily because De Bernières does that thing that all authors are warned about not doing: he does an awful lot of telling about his characters, but not a lot of showing.  It makes for a pretty exasperating read that failed to connect or resonate with me in anyway that wasn’t negative. Now, I haven’t read any De Bernières prior to this, but I do have Captain Corelli’s Mandolin sitting in my TBR pile, and my understanding is that was a very good book.  I can’t compare this to that, but I can say that I do hope that CCM is written much better than A Partisan’s Daughter.  Writing mechanics aside, I wasn’t blown away by the actual prose in this book, and it felt both overly colloquial and dated to me.  Why did he set the novel in the 60s/70s if not to make awkward “hip” references to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and myriad other cultural icons of the era?  Is it so he could talk about Yugoslavia, which wasn’t such a vivid/important setting in my mind that he couldn’t have subbed in some other communist country.  OK, that minor nitpick aside, I just found the writing kind of… vulgar?  There are instances of sex throughout the novel, but that’s not the kind of vulgarity I’m getting at here.  It’s not an issue of lewdness as it is the whole thing feeling crude in the way that a kindergartener’s drawings are crude.  It all just felt so shallow and uninspired and inauthentic and hackneyed.  None of the characters ever felt like real people or transcended anything other than caricature.  The chapters are short, and in each one a new portion of Roza’s tale is revealed to us; of course, each segment has to be significant and dramatic, so something big always has to happen.  So she dabbles with being a lesbian, she seduces her father, she gets cheated on by her first boyfriend, she drops out of university, she sneaks into England after working on a sailboat and traveling Europe, she gets a “hostessing” job that devolves into prostitution but not before she gets raped and then subsequently needs to have an abortion…  It’s just so over the top that none of it winds up feeling genuine (and in fact, good portions of these supposedly monumental life moments are probably fabricated by her anyway).  How can we feel bad for Chris when he ultimately bungles things when we know nothing more about him at the end of the book than we did at the beginning?  Are we supposed to care about Roza’s past or the current relationship between her and Chris (which is hardly developed and actually makes me want to say: what relationship?)? I get that this book is about loneliness, that we can be lonely because we don’t get to have human contact with other people (Chris), but that even with lots of human contact, we can still feel isolated from those and the world around us (Roza).  Maybe this duality could be interesting and poignant, rather than trite, if the author had conveyed this message with any skill.  But he doesn’t.  He takes this idea and makes it boring and totally lukewarm. Blech.  I think this only got published (and named a ToB book) because De Bernières is already a relatively successful published author.  No way this would have gotten through the pipeline otherwise.  And I wouldn’t have finished it if it weren’t only 193 pages and weren’t in the tourney.  But I think everyone else on the planet can safely skip this one, even if you’re trying to read the ToB books.  I pretty much think that no matter what this book goes up against in the first round, A Partisan’s Daughter is going to lose.  If it wins, they need to send De Bernières not a rooster, but a turkey. Rating: 1.5 out of 5


  1. Eva

    I hate reviewing books I didn’t like! Usually I just avoid it, lol. You handled it well though. 🙂

  2. 01/24/2009

    It’s the reading of books I’m not enjoying that’s really problematic for me! 😉 I know some people skip reviewing books they don’t like, but honesty really is the key with me on this front. Also, sometimes I find I have more to say about books I didn’t enjoy than those I did! 😉 I recognize that with most things, there’s always going to be an element of personal preference and taste, but I think the best way I can ensure that people trust my reviews is by posting what I really think about a book. I think it also gives people an opportunity to gauge how similar my tastes are to theirs, which I think will help them adjust the amount of salt with with they take my reviews. For instance, if I only wrote good reviews, then people might mistakenly assume I enjoy everything I read am not a very discerning reader. OR I might get a lot of people recommending Virginia Woolf novels to me, when I would really rather they didn’t. Finally, I think about professional book reviewers, and they will not back down from writing a negative review if they believe the book they were set calls for one. Obviously I’m in no way a professional, but if I’m offering people a service of recommending books, then I think it important to recommend they stay away from certain books! Of course, people are free to do whatever they like, and I don’t expect my review will damn any book’s sales, but I just want to do my due diligence. Plus, I do try to point out any redeeming merits in a book that I didn’t enjoy on the whole, and also specific what type of person I think might enjoy the book!

  3. 01/25/2009

    Thanks for the review. I surely won’t be picking up this one. I’ve read de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings recently, only because I picked it up really cheap at a second hand bookshop and it was sitting on my TBR pile for a year. While there was an element in that book that I liked, overall it was unremarkable and forgettable. The characters were a bit two-dimensional, and the stories felt a bit forced. It’s like you said, that other book did not also seem very believable. I didn’t love it but didn’t hate it, and so was neutral about it, but I dont know how it came across on my ‘review’ as I really don’t know how to write proper reviews.. but I love that you can be so brutally honest here. I am pretty easy to please but I also like to be honest in my reviews. The only reason why I don’t write negative reviews so much (well, I’ve barely only started blogging he he) is because I don’t finish reading books that I really can’t stand, so there’s no way I could review them.

  4. 01/25/2009

    Claire, I’m glad you found the review helpful! I know some book bloggers shy away from writing negative reviews, but as I said to Eva, I think it’s just as important to let people know what books you aren’t enjoying. Also, I do still write reviews if I’ve started a book but wasn’t able to finish it, because hey, that’s worth knowing about too! I do try to qualify what exactly about a book I didn’t like, and unfortunately, there was a lot not to like in this one. I do think I will still give Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a try one of these days because I do already own it. I’ve read reviews suggesting that this one was a bit unlike his other work, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt… this time.

  5. 01/26/2009

    You know what, that’s a good thing to consider, writing about books you haven’t finished, if only to give other readers a sampling of your taste, right? I will be looking forward to what you think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, as I also think de Bernieres has potential.. maybe all of it went to that one ha ha.

  6. 01/26/2009

    Thanks for this review. I definitely won’t be reading this for the tournament. I should have known something was up given how quickly it was available after I requested it from the library! I just finished Unaccustomed Earth and will be reviewing it soon.

  7. 01/26/2009

    @Claire: I’ll definitely post about CCM when I read it! And if your blog is a reflection of you as a reader and a writer, then I see no reason not to post about books you didn’t finish or didn’t like. That type of diversity is what keeps things interesting.
    @Chavonne: Yeah, totally skip this one. It’s not worth your time!

  8. 01/29/2009

    Luckily, the last few books I have read have been pretty good, so I haven’t had to write a negative review lately. When I do though, I always feel like I have to say at least a couple of good things about the book. Sometimes I just say that it was not a good fit with my tastes, it might fit another type of reader better. There were a few times though, that I had to forgo even that, because the books were just so terrible, I couldn’t even believe that they had been published. I always feel bad about ripping an author’s work, but sometimes, it’s just plain necessary.

  9. 01/29/2009

    I think this is one of those books that had very little to redeem it. Normally I can tease apart whether I think a book is no good versus whether it just wasn’t for me. At the very least, I do always try to qualify what I didn’t like about a book (and what I did, because sometimes in a book I dislike overall there are elements that worked), because I do recognize that other people might not have my tastes, and things that annoy me might not annoy them. But this was one of those books that I could not think of a single person who might enjoy it and would not be better off reading something else.

  10. […] hateful and not nearly fun enough given its chick lit roots.  That said, I also was not a fan of A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis De Bernières (which I gave 1.5 out of 5), which I thought was pointless and a waste of time.  Obviously I also […]

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