on March 29, 2004
The book operates on an interesting premise: in the alternate universe where it is set, literature is a popular pastime. Not only that, but there is a whole police section whose only task is investigating crimes of a literary nature. It is in that section that the literate, intelligent and sometimes touchingly vulnerable Thursday Next operates. She finds herself on the trail of a criminal mastermind named Acheron Hades, who has now started abducting and killing characters from original editions of books. Such acts have the effect of removing said characters from all the editions of that book. And now Hades is after Jane Eyre.
Wihle the environment created is fascinating, you do get the impression that the author was so pleased with it that he spent his time putting on extra layers. What I mean is that the characters, apart from Thursday Next, have little depth, Hades being of course one of the worst clichéd villains in the history of literature. The plot gets a flying start when Thursday moves from one division to the other, but after she is released from hospital and settles in Swindon, it seems to grind to a sudden halt despite valiant efforts to keep it moving by inserting sections involving Hades. The subsequent story is somewhat rambling (The Eyre side of it, apart from one little mention at the beginning, is never manifest until we are past the two-thirds mark), and the rushed ending seemed to me a little like cheating (if the author inserted signposts preparing us for it, I didn't see them, and what I hated was the use of a twist that seemed totally unjustified at the climax-the sudden discovery of something by Thursday without prior groundwork).
on April 27, 2003
Jasper Fforde (is this a real name?--I doubt it!) has put togther a reasonably amusing and workmanlike (workwomanlike?) first novel which we are promised (or warned?) is the first of a series. Fforde explores his/her borrowed premises of 'fact/fiction' and 'time travel' with facility and wit, though many American readers may be baffled by the relentlessly British references and names (how many Yanks know what a Bowden Cable is, for example). Some material is stretched beyond its elastic limit in terms of interest or credibility--consider airships, featured in the book, that could have been explored with far more insight and amusement but are merely tossed in without perspective or apparent information.
Flashes of brilliance and wonderful whimsy are interspersed by plodding and inconsistent use of the language and insufficient descriptive detail which would have enriched the text in a book that has been inflated to its 380-page length with wide margins and 32 lines per page. This is a pity, and might have been avoided by editing--realize, in context, that today's publishers eschew editing and expect the writer not only to be his or her own scrupulous editor and fact-checker but also the typesetter. In the case of Fforde this also gives rise, in the American edition, to confusion about words spelled differently in the UK and US, with 'theatre/theater' as a typical annoying example--make up your bloody mind, woncha? Some of the work obviously needed to be read aloud by the author (see my review of Steve Martin's SHOP GIRL for relevance) to reduce the clunker quotient.
Readers expecting divine inspiration or deep insight will be disappointed. Anyone who expects significant exploration of emotion will come away empty handed. Those who are easily amused or who think that a British author is all knowing about literature and has a corner on satirical wit will keep turning the pages, to dig up yet another analogy or manipulated historical name. Dig, dig, dig, but it never quite gells. The infuriating part about this process is that the promise is there in adbunsance but is never truly delivered. Does this, one cannot help wondering, reflect the experience and intellectual bandwidth of the Viking approval staff (Viking published the book in the US) or do both Penguin and Viking despise their readerships and settle for a lowest-common-denominator contempt for the people they expect to buy their books?
In all, this is a book closely akin to a bag of potato chips. One can't eat just one chip or read just one page, as we all know, but the over-all effect is just slightly 'lite' and hollow. In that sense it clearly matches much current popular entertainment (music, film or 'literature') but will probably sell well to readers who do not ask too much of their authors.
on April 24, 2003
If the world had never known the Bronte sisters, with their love of language, love of complex heroines and free-growing, uncontrollable landscapes--really, their love of love--would we ever have met their literary descendants, novelists from Victoria Holt to Rosemary Rogers, Anne Rice to Michel Faber? If all humanity has a mitochondrial Eve, then certainly authors have a manuscript Mama, a literary Lucy, if you will.
The time-traveling, rollicking-romance, "wittier than most" novel THE EYRE AFFAIR works on the premise that simple changes or adjustments in a book's plot can rock the interior world as well as the external one. Author Jasper Fforde has a lot of characters, plot points, storylines, puns, and historical accuracies and inaccuracies to juggle. Does he succeed in his Cirque du Soleil style of writing? Let's just say he puts on a marvel of a show, but when all is said and done, the audience has been entertained but has also been distracted by all the flash and sequins, bells and whistles.
Characters emerging from fiction to intermingle with "real" people is nothing new. Woody Allen has tackled the conceit twice: once in his brilliantly funny short story "The Kugelmass Episode" and, of course, in his poignant, comical, and ultimately melancholy movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo." For all his personal flaws, Allen is a tough act to follow, and Fforde doesn't quite fill the New Yorker's shoes.
THE EYRE AFFAIR is a book that is in love with books. Its characters are all manuscript-mad; in fact, the whole parallel universe is besotted by Byron, Milton, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. They trade quips about Quilp and Dickens as readily as we exchange comments about the Yankees and the Mets. (Feel free to fill in your own baseball giants and underdogs.)
As a former journalism and American Literature major, I so wanted to be swept up in the travails of Thursday Next (the novel's courageous and honest heroine) and her private-eye-type escapades. I found it tough going, though, because of the number of sci-fi devices thrown into the mix: time travel, portals into other dimensions, airships, plasma guns, and mad-scientist experiments gone awry.
At its very best, this book is a delight. It rewards any person who maintained a B+ average throughout high school and college. You can feel empowered for knowing the character references and the historical analogies.
At its worst, it seems like the author never expected to be published, so he wrote a novel for his own pleasure--throwing in any and all devices that tickled his fancy. He liked A WRINKLE IN TIME--here, there's a pinch of time slippage. Banter between smart, adult protagonists--let me sample THE THIN MAN and even MOONLIGHTING. Plus, Jack London's THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (made into a super movie with Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed)definitely colored the writer's alternate universe, where derring-do is done on airships and among gaslit corridors.
It's not a big book--my edition was under 400 pages, yet it took me a while to go through it. There're just too many folks and flummoxes to wade through.
Bottom line: THE EYRE AFFAIR is witty, ambitious, spunky, and convinced of its own originality. The more well-read you are, however, the less witty and original it seems. Though it certainly is spunky!
on February 27, 2003
It's not many books that can make you wish that reviewing them were a bit more like grading ice-skating performances. I would really like to split my rating for Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair into two grades - for artistic expression and technical merit. On the first count, The Eyre Affair is definitely a 5. Fforde costructs his alternate universe with an assuredness that is remarkable in a first time writer. His world is instantly believable, both strikingly alien and oddly familiar. Fforde is a master of the tiny details that distinguish a truly superb alternate reality - details like pet dodos, machines that will spout a Shakepearean monologue for 10p., and practically Dickensian feats of naming (it seems hard to credit but Fforde manages to make his protagonist's name, Thursday Next, seem normal). The plot - a master villain stealing characters from beloved books - fits right in this cockeyed universe, and while it is a little thin, The Eyre Affair is so brisk and energetic that you hardly notice. Thursday herself, while hardly a very original character, is quite likable.
Unfortunately, Fforde also gets a 0, or possibly a negative score, in technical merit. I realise that, as it is a parody of Jane Eyre (as well as many, many other staples of classic literature), Fforde had to write The Eyre Affair as a narrative in the first person, but that is a style that should only be attempted by professionals, and Fforde only suffers by the forced comparison to Bronte. Or, for that matter, to any half-way decent writer. The Eyre Affair features some of the flattest, most uninteresting prose that it has ever been my misfortune to read. Entire paragraphs run on in sentences of 'I did this, then I did that, then I walked across the room and did that again'. Even worse, the dialogue is atrocious - lines like "You may have might in your back pocket, but I have right in mine." are spoken with entirely straight faces. Most of the time, Fforde wisely allows the plot to sweep the reader along so fast that the deficiencies of the prose go (almost) unnoticed, but during important moments, such as the climatic love scene, one can only groan at his inadequecies.
As you can see, rating this book was quite a problem, so I decided to split the two scores. The Eyre Affair is both a very good book and a very bad book, depending on what matters most to you as a reader. If you're capable of overlooking poor writing for the sake of an imaginitive plot, by all means read this book. Otherwise I would avoid it like the plague.
on January 14, 2003
I absolutely LOVE the book(s) and am addicted to the author's very imaginative website and Fforum. However, I found the Audio version of this book to be a bit dry.
I'm not sure if it was the fact that the retrospective chapter headings (which are hysterical and explain what's going to happen in each chapter) were left out, or whether it was Elizabeth Sastre's voice sounding rather monotone. She doesn't differentiate the characters' voices very well. It's difficult to tell the men apart! But she does the women okay. And her accent is affected. Like you never know for sure if she's actually British or not. Sounds a little fake.
The endless jokes and sly winks in the book just don't come through in the audio. While reading the book, you get the feeling Mr. Fforde is winking at you, but the audio is flat because she doesn't give the slight pause needed for comic timing.
BUT, all this said, for those of us who have very resistant spouses who stare blankly at us while we laugh out loud when we read the books over and over, this is invaluable. It at least makes it possible to open a real dialog about this wonderfully imaginative romp through alternate universe 1985 England.
All this said, I will probably still buy the Audio version of the next book, "Lost in a Good Book" just so my husband will quit giving me 'those' looks.
on October 25, 2002
Years ago, Woody Allen wrote a short story called "The Kugelmass Episode". It was about a man who wound up in the pages of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" and romanced the title character.
The jacket doesn't say, but I have to assume that this was the catalyst for Jasper Fforde's new book, "The Eyre Affair". The basic premise of the story is similar to "Kugelmass" - it is possible to cross over from the world of literature to the real world, and vice-versa.
But it takes more than a reference to one short story to make a good novel, and unfortunately it doesn't look like Fforde could find anything else. His characters are completely one-dimensional (with the exception of his heroine), and the names he gives them - oy vay! And it was very hard to follow along with some of them - they appeared to change locations and alliances without explanation (and in the case of alliances, at the drop of a hat). Except for the heroine, Thursday Next, and the villain, I really couldn't figure out which side anyone was on.
Still, the basic premise is good, and I enjoyed that. And who knows? With a little more experience under his belt Fforde's next novel might be easier to follow.
on June 26, 2002
Argh. Argh. Argh.
That's the sound of a man who wanted desperately to like a book being bitterly disappointed. "The Eyre Affair" is a novel with what sounds like an interesting premise, but winds up reading like the bastard love-child of Woody Allen and Douglas Adams.
Of course, my disappointment is largely my own fault. I was sucked in by the jacket copy that sort of promised a romp through Jane Eyre in a world where people could enter works of fiction. For some reason I didn't stop to consider how patently ridiculous that idea is and how bad previous attempts at doing the same thing have been. Woody Allen tried it twice, once in a short piece and again in "Purple Rose of Cairo", and neither was particularly successful, so I don't know why I thought Fforde would be able to do any better.
Actually, I do. It was the protagonist's name: Thursday Next. To come up with a name like that, I thought he must be a genius.
What the jacket does not tell us is that a large portion of the plot hinges on time travel and huge, gaping paradoxes, a la Dirk Gently. Not that I mind such things, I just didn't expect them, and expecting them would have allowed me to suspend that particular logic detection system.
But these quibbles aside, there was a lot to like about "The Eyre Affair". I liked the smug feeling I got from "getting" most of the English Literature references sprinkled throughout. I liked Thursday's dotty old uncle, an inventor who accidentally merengued one of his assistants to death. I liked the idea of a world that treats Shakespeare's Richard III as a "Rocky Horror" costume fest.
Jasper Fforde's storytelling skills are breezy and fun, and he doesn't get too caught up in the cuteness of his own jokes; in fact, some of them are so subtle they hit you a few pages later. The characters are mostly interchangeable, with the exceptions of Thursday's dad, the chronoguardsman, Thursday herself, and Acheron Hades, the villain.
Hades deserves some attention here. He almost works as a bad guy, just for the sheer joy he gets from being a bad guy. But if this were a cartoon, he would be constantly turning to the camera and grinning, saying, "Ain't I evil?", or something equally obvious. This gets old fast and Fforde would do well to arrest it in later installments. Also, we are offered no proper explanation for Hades' powers, which include invisibility and the ability to pass through solid matter. Cool tricks, but the laws of fiction demand we know why he has these powers when no one else does.
I'm not sorry I read this and I wouldn't try to steer you away from it. But I do think you should have your Disbelief switch in the "Suspend" position when you start it. If you can get past the plot holes, you're in for a terrific ride.
on May 16, 2002
Okay, so unlike the books it alludes to, "The Eyre Affair" is not serious literature. It's more like a fictional cream puff--light and flaky, kind of empty in the middle, but still lots of fun to indulge in. I guess it's beach reading for people who consider themselves a cut above reading the latest Jackie Collins or Tom Clancy novel.
The premise is clever (and reminiscent of Jonathan Lethem and Douglas Adams, though not quite in the same league). The character names are hilarious and some of the ways things have turned out in this alternate 1985 make for a very entertaining read. The plot is somewhat predictable in that the reader can guess how things are going to end, but you are never quite sure by what twisted path Thursday Next is going to get there.
You can, however, tell it is a first novel, or at least a poorly edited one. The perspective constantly switches from first-person (Thursday's point of view) to third-person omniscient, and the transitions are often messy--Thursday will narrate her own adventure and then say "Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle were back in the basement laboratory" and relate a whole series of events referring to "my aunt" and "my uncle" even though she wasn't there and couldn't possibly have known what they said to each other.
Still, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to any English major-type who has a good sense of humor and wants something light to read in between digesting more serious literary meals.
on April 23, 2002
I'm not done with The Eyre Affair yet, but a third of the way through. The idea behind the story is highly imaginative; I love the idea of a world where people are so passionate about literature and philosophical movements that there's a need for a literary detective branch of law enforcement. Too cool! I find myself re-reading passages simply to confirm that I read what I *thought* I read. But then again, I'm not a purveyor of sci fi. Still, I think the author has done a great job to weave a tale that is so far free of vulgarity, gore, violence, or perversion.
I give this book only 3 stars because in spite of its virtues, there's a lack of depth here. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but I find myself wanting M O R E substance to the story. Not to change the story, but for it to have more depth. Perhaps more character building, more of an inside view of our girl Thursday. Also, I wish there was more of an intermingling of the classic tale with the main story. But perhaps it will develop in the next third of the story.
Meanwhile, I look forward to digging into this book. I'd say it's worth the hardcover price, especially with a discount.
on April 15, 2002
... but I thought this book would have worked far better if it were aimed at the teenage market. Call me cynical, but I have an idea of how this book came to be published. The publishers wanted to cash in on all the adults who are reading the Harry Potter books on their own. So they combined English Lit with the sci-fi genre and they came up with the character Thursday Next, convinced they would have a sure-fire hit on their hands. Yes, there are clever literary allusions sprinkled throughout the book, although none that are too terribly challenging for anyone who has had an introductory high school class in English. Literature. Also, there are frustrating inconsistencies within the book. For instance, whenever Thursday's father appears in a scene from recent time travels, everybody freezes except for Thursday. Why? Her immunity to the "time freeze" is never explained. Is it a genetic thing? Also, with the Chronoguards ability to travel through time, why isn't the "Shakespeare-authorship" issue (a theme which, tiringly, runs throughout the book) already settled? I know that with the science fiction genre, one is not supposed to get too analytical, but let's at least remain consistent and "logical."