Sunday, September 16, 2007

Writing about Ordinary Life

Anne Tyler - Breathing Lessons vs William McIlvanney - A Gift from Nessus

I read both these books while we were in Orkney. Both of them feature ordinary people living ordinary lives and in both novels, the main characters find themselves in effect in the same place as they were at the beginning.

Breathing Lessons won the Pullitzer Prize and Anne Tyler has been described as 'the greatest living writer in the English language" yet I found this book disappointing. Yes, she is a good writer with the ability to create believable characters and dialogue and she highlights the funny little details in people's personalities that make them unique and therefore not as ordinary as they may appear on the surface. However, I feel she doesn't really delve very deeply, I want more insight. I came to the end of the book and felt that none of the characters had learned anything or changed in any way and that they would remain forever in the same unsatisfying situations. Am I missing something here?

A Gift from Nessus is different, I loved it. The characters are again ordinary people, but they are truly three dimensional characters that felt much more self aware than Tyler's characters. I felt the writing was full of insight. The prose is beautiful and not afraid of metaphor and allusion though I didn't feel it was ever pretentious (apart possibly from the title). On the surface, again nothing has changed by the end of the book, however I felt that the characters had learnt a lot about themselves, enough to change their unsatisfactory lives round to become more fulfilling.


odessa said...

i read Breathing Lessons a long time ago and i barely remember the plot. which means, it might not be that great - for me at least. the ones that i remember are the ones that move and change me and i go back to them again and again.

will check out A Gift from Nessus soon. thanks for the review.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Hi Odessa - I've never found Anne Tyler to be memorable either. Not a good sign, I agree! If you read A Gift from Nessus, hope you enjoy it as much as I did!