Review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot 2016 Read Harder Challenge #4 read a book out loud to someone else.

I’ve finally finished Read Harder 2016! Yay! Applause! I’m so happy! But then, you probably knew that because you read my summary post, right??? I’ve just about managed to squeeze this post in before the end of the year, ready for normal blogging service to be resumed in the New Year (as I start Read Harder 2017!)

As previously mentioned, this is the final book that I completed as part of Read Harder 2016. The reason for this is not because I started it last, or because I was savouring it (although I believe all Patricia Highsmith novels should be savoured, she is the mistress of suspense and foreboding) or because it was a particularly long book. No. It is simply because reading out loud TAKES SO FREAKING LONG. I HATED how long it took to get through even a few pages. I thought I would enjoy reading out loud but actually this experience has taught me that I definitely don’t have the patience for it.

In terms of the actual book, the story is about two men who meet on a train (they are strangers funnily enough – the clue is in the title), both of whom were struggling with a significant person in their lives. They realise that no one will know that they’ve ever met and drunkenly plot to commit murder on the others behalf, providing they both go through with it. The novel unfolds as one character descends into alcoholism whilst the other barely holds it together as the weight of their crimes haunt them. As with all of Highsmith’s books Starangers on a Train is a tense melodrama with a sociopathic character at the centre whose side, bizarrely, you end up on.

In saying all that I admit that I found the book quite slow. I’m not sure if it was because I was reading it aloud or because I just didn’t engage immediately with the storyline. I thought that the idea for the plot was really inventive (its very difficult to imagine how to commit not one but two perfect murders) but in places where it was meant to be suspenseful it just dragged. I usually love Patricia Highsmith so I was quite surprised not to really enjoy the story.

The novel itself is very cleverly written and I enjoyed the language that it used – many of the passages are incredibly elegant. I found that the bits where action happened were very engaging and well written but large swathes were just a commentary about the stress the main character was under which after a while became a little tiresome.

Perhaps it would be better if I read the book again normally (i.e. in my head). I may need to read it again to verify this theory *checks reading challenges for a re-read category* hmm, there is one, I’m not sure if I can face it though. I think I’d be better with a book that I read longer ago. We will see.*

*update – since writing the draft form of this review Christmas has happened and guess what I got – a VMC copy of Strangers on a Train! Now I’ll have to read it again! :-/

Overall rating 5/10.

Review:The French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #15 Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.

I hate to say it but… I really didn’t like this book.

The novel is written about a young couple who are due to be married, staying in Lyme Regis during the Victorian period. At the resort, another young woman is seen often staring out to sea mournfully – after the French Lieutenant who reputedly stole her heart. She has occasional conversations with Charles (the fiancee) and the book is the story of what begins as his desire to help her going horribly wrong.

I found The French Lieutenants Woman to be quite a long book with not much action, especially by today’s standards. In particular, I found it really strange that the author would suddenly start talking to the reader to explain what was happening and what he thought he would do with the characters next. This took me out of the story, initially confused me and then annoyed me. There is an especially weird chapter 90% of the way in, where the future of each character is summarised and it appears that the book is over. Brilliant! I thought. I’ve finished unexpectedly early! But no. The author then writes that they are only joking and (ha ha ha) this is what really happened. You can imagine how happy I was to read that.

There is always a few lines of poetry at the beginning of each chapter (there are many) which I struggled to understand without the context of the rest of the poem and which I found very hard to relate to the text. Again, this broke up the narrative flow as some of the chapters are only a few pages long.

I hated the way that the women were portrayed in this book as simple minded and either foolish or scheming. The male characters appear to be entirely without guilt despite acting in morally questionable ways. I couldn’t warm to any of them and didn’t really care what their outcomes were.

The last 10% of the book seemed to squash a lot in, so the whole thing felt a bit rushed. I felt that all the way through, the characters acted in quite bizzare ways with very little explanation. It would also have been good to have a bit of explanation about what was acceptable behaviour at the time as you were left guessing if the characters had acted due to propriety or because they had had some kind of change of heart.

Overall I struggled to get to grips with this book. It’s long, there is very little happening for great swathes of it, there are very few characters, I didn’t like any of them and failed to be engaged in their story. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone despite the fact that I know it’s seen as a classic. Not for me I’m afraid.

Overall rating: 4/10.