Self Help Hardcover – 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
Highly recommended (although when I ordered it, I thought it was another Edward Docx novel and was excited to find it, only to discover it was the original U.K. title for "Self-Help").
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
There's a great story at the heart of Pravda, lots of insightful passages on male-female relationships, cities, politics and psychology. The Russian scenes are truly evocative. And, as with the first book (The Calligrapher) and as other people have said, there's also some really beautiful writing. The tale is a family one - with some pretty unexpected twists and turns. The children are the focus. But for my money, the best character is the father - I've not read someone as deep and as dark (but weirdly likeable) as him anywhere else in all my reading. Though I was fascinated by the mother too, because she is (in one way) what the whole book is about but somehow she hovers just out of reach - a ghost in the writing, as well as in the fact of her death.
In summary, this is the real deal - a finely written novel for readers who are interested in literature and all the amazing things that good books can make you think about and feel! Would recommend it highly, no question.
There's more to it than meets the eye with the Glover family. Maria's sudden passing is the trigger for the unraveling of family secrets which explain the state of tangled relationships between Nicholas and his two children Gabriel and Isabella. The existence of Akady, Maria's Russian son before her marriage to Nicholas, and his desperate search for a chance to fulfill his potential as a musician propels the plot to a cataclysmic conclusion when the two halves of Maria's family finally collide in London.
Though the Glover children's troubled and unsatisfying professional and love lives take up substantial page space, it is the characters of Nicholas - their hopelessly decadent and bisexual father whom they detest and are estranged from - and of Henry Wheyland, Arkady's one true friend and sponsor - an Englishman in Russia and a desperate drug addict himself willing to sacrifice his own life in order that Arkady may have his - that take centrestage in the reader's heart and mind because they form the emotional core of the story. Though Maria's character exits no sooner than the story begins, her invisible presence - rather like Ruth Wilcox in Forster's "Howard's End" - is implied and revealed through the impact of her life on that of her children. Nicholas Glover and Henry Wheyland are my favourite characters. They are complex and multifaceted, showcasing Docx's expert craft in characterization.
If there is one criticism to be made of Docx's prose, it is that he tends to get carried away with his extended non-stop stream of consciousness type chatter when writing about the feelings and thoughts of his characters (mostly Gabriel and Isabella). This can be exhausting if not downright irritating and may be one of the reasons why some readers didn't take to the book.
Still, I enjoyed "Self Help" tremendously and recommend it highly to fellow readers.
Overall what comes to mind in reviewing Pravda is the famous quote from Hamlet "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Docx often presents his characters as having worked out some fundamental universal truths about life and most especially relationships. In reality, what they discover is truth for their situations and ultimately themselves alone. The fact that Docx fails to give his characters this narrower but more realistic perspective often results in the novel's, as well as the characters', having the air of pretentiousness. Both the novel and the characters seem to take themselves much too seriously. The seeming universal scope of the presented insights begins, after much reading, to resemble a cocktail party conversation or the much-maligned self-help magazine.
The pretentiousness of the characters and their insights often spills over into the prose itself. It is not unfair to say that it is, at times, overheated to the point of distraction. One wonders if a better editor or a more open relationship with the existing editor would have prevented these excesses from reaching print.
It would be easy, and perhaps not inaccurate, to attribute these excesses to the authors age and lack of life experience. One often has the feeling in reading the book that the author does not have sufficient life experience with the theme being discussed and thus falls back into emotional overstatement to compensate. Another possible indication of a paucity of relevant life experience comes in the character of Nicholas. We are told the character is in his early sixties. Yet the entire psychological (not to mention physiological) portrait is more akin to a man in his eighties. One is left to conclude that the author is not really familiar with the internal psychological landscape of people over fifty.
Lastly, there are more issues that good editing should have brought to light. A major character, Arkady Artamenkov, is initially presented in some depth. Yet, as the novel closes he is reduced to a prop with no exploration of his development as a result of events. We must assume that Arkady made some significant psychological adjustments off stage somewhere. In fact the entire ending of the novel seems hasty. After what has been at times painful introspection, the characters in the end reach resolution easily in a few dialogues. Was there some need to rush to what in many respects seems a formulaic ending?
In conclusion, what could have been an excellent thoughtful novel by an obviously talented author is reduced to a tiring story of self-absorbed, pretentious and ultimately whiny young people. Docx needs more life experience, more humility, and better editing.
Docx has produced a powerful family novel teeming with rich ideas and universal themes concerning identity, loss and social/familial dislocation. Each character is explored in depth and with great sympathy. Nicholas' psychology and relationship with his young male lover who schemes to get a steady allowance from the older man is complexly drawn. Henry sees his resources dwindling in his struggle to assist Arkady and kick his drug addiction. His slow downward spiral is written in a way that feels harrowing and true. However, this portion of the story seems glued on to the larger narrative about this family's struggle to reunite and discover how they fit together. This is a difficult novel which yields many great rewards, but the story can be a bit unwieldy in its focus at times. One of Docx's greatest talents is for describing the numerous cities this novel travels through over the course of the story. St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York are all vividly evoked in rich sensual detail giving real character to the places and making them physically real. More than that, he holds up a reflection of the values and sensibility of Russia compared to the West. Docx has many intelligent and heartfelt things to say about the responsibility we have to accept ourselves fully. While Self Help isn't meant to be prescriptive, it does give you a lot to think about.
My niggle with Pravda is that it was a bit treacly, a bit too touchy-feely for my tastes. It lacks a certain edge, grit; is a little too gauzy in places. I believe Docx loves a few of his characters a little too much.
But his prose are great, again, remeniscent of vintage Amis. His insights are not earth-shattering, but he lays them out in inventive, entertaining, and rich ways, and they are certainly ideas that bear repeating. This is fine, fine, fine contemporary Brit-Lit at its best.