If this doesn’t look like the sort of book normally featured on this blog, you’d be right. Gold on the cover, lady in a swimsuit, some recommending quote containing BOTH the word “glamourous” AND the word “seductive.” What’s up?
It’s true: my motives are not pure.
This book was written by someone I was at university with. Same year, same course. I barely spoke to Lucy Foley; there were several hundred people on the course. But I knew her through a mutual friend and often spotted her around, looking well put together and generally like she was sailing through university without the emotional traumas and mushroom-growing kitchen carpets that characterised my further education.
I wish I could say I was pleased when I heard she was a published author. I wish I could say that I bought her book immediately, and didn’t eventually buy it then leave it on my shelf for 6 months, unable to handle the jealousy. I wish I could say I started it hoping that it would be excellent. But I am cannot say those things. I am not a good person.
So I started it reluctantly, looking for the flaws that would make it OK for my fiction writing career consist of 6 much-laboured-over chapters in the bowels of my computer. I read it unlike any other book: constantly evaluating the writing style, the characterisation, the narrative decisions, and comparing them to my own hypothetical approach. It was heavy scrutiny, and initially it seemed to crack under the pressure. There were undeniably cheesy lines; the title itself is taken from one of the worst: “In many ways my life has been rather like a record of the lost and found. Perhaps all lives are like that.” There’s a love plot you see coming from outer space. There’s a rather colourless protagonist. It was a romance-cum-mystery, for God’s sake. I felt I would have written something different (a bizarre critique for any book, I realise.)
But the more I read, the more I couldn’t deny that Lucy Foley is a brilliant storyteller. I found myself turning the pages, decreasingly analytical, increasingly enjoying the story for its own worth. The novel flits enjoyably between 1920s London, 1930s Paris, the Mediterranean, modern day New York, and benefits from the boost and cheer of each of these surroundings. The passages set in Corsica particularly are sensorial and give you a summer holiday feeling. It moves quickly forward and backward in time, ushering in new characters, changing location, generally sweeping you forward with its own momentum. And I promise you: that is not easy to do.
Still, it might not have gone further than an enjoyable, well-constructed tale, but for a key theme which was examined in a number of thoughtful ways. You can’t move in this book for artists, ballerinas, photographers, architects, muses, and so on. It’s overglamourised perhaps, but it isn’t trying to be Roth, and through this bevy of characters Lucy examines the idea of creativity, artistry, responsibility, risk, independence, and so on, from a variety of angles. Not just from a disinterested perspectve, either: it seemed to me that the author is grappling with her own chosen career as a creator through the protagonist character (the links between them are drawn in the author’s Acknowledgements.)
“Tell me,” she said, “I want to hear more about your photography.”
“I don’t know, I said. “I love it, but sometimes I wonder if I should give it up – get a proper job.”
… “Absolutely,” said Alice. “if that is what you want. You should not be doing it out of fear though.”
Surely it’s not too far fetched of me to hear a debut-novelist’s doubts about this new path echoed in this exchange? And for me, with my book-dreams always lurking around in the shadows, I connected with this theme of longing and doubt, of admiration for brilliance and desire to contribute your own creation.
This book isn’t high literary fiction: it’s a romance, and the writing style, with its many exotic verbs, isn’t exactly to my taste. But it says a lot that it vaulted my terrible attitude to become enjoyable, substantial, worthy of reflection. Lucy Foley has a second book in the pipeline and I for one will be buying it – and not for all the wrong reasons this time.