(Summary reject: Still Life, Louise Penny)

22 Jan


I told a clerk at The Mysterious Bookshop that I like Dorothy Sayers, and he recommended this atrocity, Still Life, by Louise Penny, which is funny because the writer is obviously indebted to Barbara Pym, whom I also love. But I guess it’s one of those “so close yet so far” situations.

The real mystery is how books this badly written sell. The author has won all sorts of awards, published a dozen in this series, and obviously has fans. How? How does anyone stand it?

I’m not a snob. I can appreciate all kinds of genre writing, and will give writers with a killer plot or great characters lots of leeway with cliche or purple writing. (I loved Shantaram, and the George R. R. Martin series, if that gives you any indication of what a tolerant, peace-loving soul I am.)

But wow. This thing was in simply the worst school of superfluous, overly dramatic, inane prose. It’s the kind of book where it takes the characters a page and a half to decide to reconvene at a diner in 5 minutes, and the decision isn’t important, the diner isn’t important, it’s all just verbal garbage. Or, a character blushes then experiences 5 more emotions while searching her apartment for her mislaid wallet, which also doesn’t matter. There’s something wrong with every sentence in the book.

Here are a few examples:

When Clara finds out her friend Jane has been killed:

“Clara sat in her kitchen, drained and stunned with the overwhelming need to call Jane and tell her what had happened. What had happened was inconceivable.”

Really? Can anyone imagine, actually, that upon the death of a close friend, the bereaved person’s primary feeling would be the need to call the friend to tell them the big news? Also, drained, stunned, overwhelming, inconceivable. The writer is trying to tell us something instead of show us something about her character’s inner state. And do you like that pileup of two “what had happened”s in a row?

Here’s another one, describing the town common:

“Four roads led off the commons, like the spokes of a wheel or directions of a compass.”

Do those two awesome cliche metaphors help in creating a mental picture of how the roads intersect the town common? Nope? And of course it’s completely irrelevant how many roads there are, or what direction they go in.

And here’s what happens when an old lady knocks her cane on the floor:

“A great bang, so sudden and violent it made even Gamache jump, filled the bistro. None of the other patrons, he noticed, even flinched. It took him just an instant to realize that the noise came from Ruth Zardo whacking her cane against the floor, like a caveman might wield a club. … But Ruth Zardo had picked up her cane in a swift and apparently practiced move, taken hold of the straight end, and swung the cane over her head until the curved handle whacked the floor.”

Got that? A noise like the crack of doom, that bothered no one else in the cafe, that the inspector didn’t understand the source of, though was then in the next sentence able to describe just how it was made. And does that description of how she did it, complete with caveman cliche, make any sense?

I am mad that I spent my money on this.



2 Responses to “(Summary reject: Still Life, Louise Penny)”

  1. Jennifer B. August 21, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks for your candid online review. I picked this up at the suggestion of a friend and, being Canadian, was curious about a series set in Quebec.
    While I didn’t dislike it as strongly as you I definitely found it lacking. It doesn’t feel like an adult novel but I am not sure who the targeted audience is. The characters need to be better flushed out rather than caricatures of themselves like Miss Mustard and Major Peacock from the game Clue. Also the ending is really weak as is motive and culprit.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova August 25, 2013 at 2:19 am #

      Glad someone else found it lacking, too. I don’t know about good Canadian mysteries but the Dorothy Sayers/ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are my favorite of all time, if you’ve never tried those. You must have tolerance for Upper Class English People, though.

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