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The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison
I swear, when I finished Rosie Alison’s historical romance The Very Thought of You, I kind of expected a final page with LULZ, JUST KIDDING in huge capital letters. But sadly none came.

I don’t dislike books this intensely very often. The Very Thought of You is a book I want to mock relentlessly, only I mistrust the inclination to be snarky because it can turn me cruel and careless towards other readers. I know; I worry far too much. Obviously I don’t think anyone should ever hold back their feelings for the sake of not hurting others, and I’m not going to refrain from expressing my borderline contempt for this book. But I do worry about how I express it. As a fan of fantasy, comics and children’s literature, I’ve been on the receiving end of “THIS BOOK IS DUMB AND SO ARE YOU” far too often to ever want to come across that way. I suppose it all comes down to what Jeanne very wisely told Iris in a comment recently:
But there’s always that moment where you know you’re going to have to justify yourself, and perhaps ultimately to stand symbolically naked before the world saying you love something and you’re going to continue to stand there while other folks take their shots at you for loving it. The “how could you love that unless you’re kind of shallow or silly or sentimental?” shots.
I’ve been there too often to ever want to deliberately put others in that position. So: as silly and ridiculous as I found this book, I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t think liking it makes anyone silly or ridiculous. Nor do I think that anyone who likes it incapable of critical thinking, or approves of all the things I found questionable about it. The way we read and relate to literature is fortunately far more complex than that.

The Very Thought of You is a historical novel mostly set in Britain during WWII. It’s ostensibly the story of a child evacuee, Anna Sands, who’s sent from London to Ashton Hall, a large mansion in Yorkshire, along with numerous other children. This and the fact that the novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize were the reasons why I picked it up in the first place.

Part of me is surprised that The Very Thought of You was included in the Orange shortlist; but then again I don’t really see literary awards as reflecting anything more than the taste of that year’s particular group of judges. I vaguely remember that there were some outcries because this was a romance novel being nominated for a “literary fiction” award. If anything, this predisposed me to like it all the more, but unfortunately I have to agree with the naysayers (minus the implications that everything I disliked about the book is an inevitable consequence of it being a romance, of course). I suppose this really just further proves the arbitrariness of it all (if you have ten minutes to spare do click the link; best vlog ever). Why, among all excellent genre fiction out there, was this distinguished with “literariness”?

I should warn you that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS from here on. I can’t really illustrate the WTFery of this book in its full splendour without spoiling it.

The first thing that disappointment me was the fact that The Very Thought of You wasn’t quite Anna’s story – she’s actually in the background for most of the book. Though I wasn’t crazy about the writing from the beginning, I actually mostly enjoyed the first section, which described Anna’s last day with her mother in London and her journey to Yorkshire. But it all went downhill from there. The Very Thought of You is first and foremost the story of the dissolution of an upper class couple’s marriage, Thomas and Elisabeth Ashton’s, plus the story of a bunch of random people they have affairs with, and whose inner suffering is revealed to us through extensive flashback. Alison manages to do the opposite of what Virginia Woolf does: Woolf effectively portrays the interior life of even minor characters in a sentence or two; here, we get pages and pages of back story and they still all feel like cardboard cuts. Possibly this has to do with Rosie Alison’s penchant from Telling, Not Showing, which plagues the entire book.

Alison’s writing quite reminded me of Kate Morton’s, and if you’re me, this is not a good thing. I couldn’t help it – I kept laughing out loud and reading paragraphs sarcastically to my boyfriend. And no, the irony of someone like me accusing others of writing flowery purple prose doesn’t escape me, but this book just crosses the line for me (I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the line is of course very personal – one person’s unintentional comedy is another’s beautiful prose). This is writing of a kind I absolutely can’t take seriously. I wish I had marked some of the most outrageous passages, but luckily I can open the book at random and find something worthy of the lulz:
He had hoped that this school initiative might rekindle their warmth, but perhaps it was just another false dawn. Any spontaneous intimacy seemed to elude them both at the moment. There was always that distance in her eyes. In his eyes, too. He knew his disability had short-changed her, but he sensed other patterns at play too. As long as he could remember, he had always been straining to know how to love. He couldn’t say whether it was his stiff upbringing or his siblings’ deaths which had cauterized his feelings, but he knew there remained something remote about his heart.
Or:
Barely spoken then, even in her mind, was the whisper of her empty womb. She was so stricken with a fear of barrenness that she could scarcely bear to acknowledge it. Every month, she kept up a faith that perhaps a child would come to relive the years ahead. But always she felt the sharp ache, the pang, the subtle inward wrench which preceded her menstrual flow. Then the blood oozed forth, washing away her hope.
Or:
By the light of a bare bulb they took off their clothes, Elizabeth’s nipples erect, her womb crying out for a child. She let him grapple her like an animal, his legs robust and his thick erection protruding from crinkly black hair. In a rapture of procreation she rolled on Luc’s unmade bed and cried out as she felt his hot rush inside her. Then she lay back to halt the ooze down her thighs, and luxuriated in the thought of her child forming within.
But still no child came. At the end of the month her womb washed itself out with blood, as usual.
(Ha – I hit the jackpot with these last two passages. I’ll have plenty more to say about the language Alison  uses here later.)

But if it stopped at the writing, it wouldn’t be so bad. What really bothered me were the trite ideas, the melodrama, the ideological stances that I personally find very dubious, and have I mentioned the cardboard characters? There is not a single multifaceted human being in this book; not a single character who didn’t feel like a puppet being manipulated for very specific purposes. I swear, you can actually see the strings hanging behind the text.

I also found The Very Thought of You extremely conservative – and I mean this more widely than in a political sense. This has in part to do with its uncritical presentation of a romanticised version of pre-WW2 upper class life. Think The Little Stranger minus all the questions it poses (except you can’t, can you, because that novel is the questions). Sadly, The Very Thought of You lacks any sort of self-awareness. I don’t mean that I wanted all the upper class characters to be portrayed as villains because if they’re rich they must surely be wicked. That would be every bit as facile as the idealisation we see here. But I’d love at least some degree of acknowledgement of the social implications of their grand lives, instead of seeing them be played up for drama and romance. This is the same sort of think that annoyed me about The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson, though I’ll be the first to admit that my patience for this sort of thing is very short.

Moving to the tragedy-slash-melodrama: you know, it’s not that I want to dismiss what these characters go through. A lot of it may seem ideologically questionable, but I could read and sympathise with a story about these things anyway – isn’t that what the best fiction does? The best example is perhaps Thomas Ashton and his disability – he become ill with polio early in his marriage, and as a result he ends up on a wheelchair for life, which makes him feel “humiliated and emasculated”. This is a realistic reaction, especially for an Edwardian man. It makes sense that Thomas’ disability would affect his sense of masculinity, but I have huge issues with the way the whole thing is dealt with here. It’s presented more like an unexamined assumption (of course a disabled man will feel emasculated, because he is) than as something Thomas struggles with.

It can be hard to explain what I mean when I say I wanted it to be examined – I didn’t want heavy-handedness or didactic asides. Just… fewer absolutes, I guess. I didn’t want Thomas’ “emasculation” to be presented as universal or inevitable. I don’t want to censor his feelings, of course – there is a place for an exploration of an issue like this in literature, just like there’s a place for anything that belongs to the spectrum of human emotions. But it needed more depth than this. I suppose the main issue here is that the whole thing is only explored very superficially. It’s not really addressed in any amount of detail, which makes a normative, ableist reading much too easy.

So: the world of The Very Thought of You is a world where men in wheelchairs inevitably feel emasculated; where “barren women” are driven to murderous rage by their bitterness and frustration; where mothers who go dancing in London while their daughters are lonely and far away are punished by bombs, but are of course given time to Repent Their Wicked Ways before they die; where woman who “walk in sensuous ways that make them seem available” get what they deserve; and where people pine for their true love forever and ever and ever — because obviously it’s impossible to connect with another human being ever again once you have found and lost The One (or worse – if The One doesn’t love you back). Even if you think you have, it will all turn out to be a lie. Sooner or later, the truth will surface and the emptiness inside you will EAT YOU UP.

And just in case you’re wondering, I’m not making any of this up. Take this gem of a passage, for example:
When I was younger, I met a wonderful woman, the right woman, and she loved me. We loved each other, and we both knew that. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Mutual love? The memory still sustains me, every day. So I may seem like an old wreck to you—but inside I’m still dancing, as they say.
This really bothers me, because it’s so (excuse the made up word) romanticonormative. Apparently “true love” is the only source of real happiness, and it’s what all of us really want deep down. Here’s a radical idea: what if it’s not? What if – insanity of insanities – there are people out there for whom romantic attachment is not actually that much of a priority? What if there’s nothing wrong with them? What if the ways in which they chose to live their lives are every bit as valid as a normative life path? Yet in the world of the novel, this is all absolutely unthinkable.

The Very Thought of You is a sad story, and it actually had the potential to become a novel about how people who overinvest in love, who put all their eggs in one basket, are destined to fail and to miss plenty of opportunities to enjoy life in other ways. Only it never takes that step; instead, this kind of fixation on romance is glorified. Thomas Ashton lives in despair for twenty years, until Anna hands him a letter from his true love, Ruth, which brings him comfort and gives a new meaning to his final days. Thus we learn that the memory of having loved and been loved is the one thing that makes life’s other pleasures enjoyable. Anna, on the other hand, realises in her final moments that her own life has been a desert because she’s never known that kind of love. To which I can’t help but say: WTF.

Moving on to the gender shenanigans (I’m almost done, I promise): Elizabeth Ashton’s greatest sorrow in life is her inability to have children. I absolutely don’t want to dismiss her feelings, but I found the language in which this unhappiness was consistently expressed highly problematic (as you can see from the two passages I cited above). We’re told she resents her “shrivelled womb”. Because at first she believes that her husband is the problem, she attempts to get pregnant by sleeping with other men, her “trysts in Soho” driving her to “a rapture of procreation”. All through the book, Elizabeth’s infertility is described in essentialist language that very firmly ties down her misery and frustration to the imperatives of female biology.

Obviously there are biological elements about the decision to procreate, but the novel makes the overwhelming urge to have a baby a) strictly female and b) inevitable and “natural”, as opposed to those “unnatural” women who feel otherwise. The worst part is that I suspect that all of this is supposed to make Elisabeth sympathetic – of course she turned bitter and resentful and ultimately murderous when confronted with another woman’s pregnancy. Of course – how could a barren woman possibly react otherwise? Which is just… NO.

Another thing I found problematic was the fact that a disproportionate amount of blame goes to Elizabeth for the failure of the Ashton’s marriage. On the one hand, the novel shows how Thomas makes himself emotionally unavailable, and ostensibly tells us that he’s every bit as guilty as Elizabeth is; yet on the other hand, the subtext tells a very different story. When all is said in done, he’s the tragic, sympathetic, romantic figure, while she’s the bitter scheming madwoman whose rage cost him his happiness. To be completely fair, Ms Alison is not entirely to blame for the fact that the characters come across this way – part of it has to do with how we’re culturally conditioned to perceive men and woman in these roles. But again, this is never ever questioned. All these assumptions are taken for granted, and that’s that. Similarly, Thomas is portrayed heroically in his lifelong longing for Ruth; Anna kind of pathetically in her fixation on him.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Anna’s mother, Roberta Sands. Roberta goes dancing in London while her daughter is in Yorkshire, has an affair, and is of course punished by death. But! Not before spending hours trapped in a ruined house, which gives her plenty of time to regret her selfishness, her “sensuous frivolity”, and her “abandonment” of her daughter (which of course results in lifelong trauma). Just to be completely clear, Roberta didn’t send her daughter away to be free to go dancing (not that this would make killing her okay, but it might raise interesting questions about the responsibilities any adult has towards the child they bring to the world). No, she sent Anna away to she would be safe from the bombings, like countless other parents did. And once Anna was away, she began to enjoy living the life of a single young woman again. Obviously this makes her a horrible, wicked, selfish woman – better make sure she dies a horrible death.

In case you were wondering about the father, he too is away all the while, doing war work. I realise this isn’t something a man would have much of a choice over (just like Roberta didn’t have much of a choice in evacuating Anna), but I can’t help but wonder why he’s not held equally responsibly for Anna’s childhood loneliness. He was just as absent as Roberta was, after all. Again, the text and the subtext tell us very different things: there might be passages about how Anna’s father was absent too, yet at the end of the day he’s neither punished nor vilified.

Ugh. What an absolute trainwreck of a book. Though feel free to argue with me if you feel otherwise, of course.

Date: 2011-04-11 04:15 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
When I saw how you rated this book on Library Thing, I was really hoping you'd talk about it. :) And after reading what you had to say, I'm impressed that you stuck with it and finished it. Honestly, it sounds like a downright painful experience!

Of course, you weren't dismissing her feelings about her infertility. I know damn well you'd never dismiss anyone's feelings. But god, that whole business makes me livid. As you know, I've dealt with infertility, and for me it was a bitterly painful thing. But here's the thing--a lot of what made it so painful (and I can't imagine that this applies only to me) is the whole fucking attitude that seems to be being portrayed in that book. "If she's a woman, then of course she wants children." Followed by "And if she can't have children, she can never be happy because she's not truly a woman." *sigh* I'm not expressing myself very well here, am I?

Anyway, "trainwreck" sounds pretty generous.

Date: 2011-04-11 04:16 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oops...that was me. (Though I suspect you knew that.)

Debi

Date: 2011-04-11 10:16 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (charmed)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I am going to use the powers of my icon here to reinforce what you said.

'rapture of procreation' - cries. 'whisper of her empty womb' - with that and it crying out for a child I am imagining the creepiest womb ever with a maw full of teeth.

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