When I read other readers’ reviews of The Red House (I recently posted my own comments on it here), I noticed that others had, like me, enjoyed Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but found The Red House fairly disappointing. A few mentioned that A Spot of Bother had been pretty good, so I promptly got it out on interlibrary loan.
For the first few chapters, I wondered if I really was going to like the characters in this book any more than those in The Red House. It’s another family where there are a lot 0f strained relationships, though in this case the “children” are grown and out on their own.
It also has a storyline that extends over a longer period of time (a few months, I think), rather than just a week, so the characters have the opportunity to change and grow. They see the effects their choices and their actions have on other people and on their relationships with them, and they realize their own shortcomings and need to change.
The change doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes there’s fear that it might be too late, but reconciliations do take place. They don’t fix all that was broken, or make past hurts go away, but there is positive change. There is a strong sense of the importance of family, of being there for one another and needing them to be there for you, and finding something good in all the craziness of family life.
They all have their faults – as do we all – but over the course of the novel I came to care about how things turned out for them. And everything isn’t all rosy – any more than in real life – but I found the ending satisfying. And in my book, likable characters + good ending = a pretty decent book.
One review states that “Haddon’s descriptions of the characters’ misery, especially George’s rapid descent into madness, are too graphic to be comical.” Yet there is a fair amount of humor in the novel – some reviews refer to it as a farce. I don’t care much for farce, but I thought Haddon struck a good balance between the comedy of the crazy situations he sometimes put his characters in, and the grim reality of dealing with strained and broken relationships and one’s own fear of death.
One blogger’s review of the novel criticizes it as being a bit contrived, with hackneyed elements such as the neglected housewife having an affair and the “perfunctory gay character.” (I’m not sure what is perfunctory” about Jamie). Perhaps Haddon could have been more original in creating his characters, but there’s a reason those kinds of characters show up a lot. If you want to explore strained relationships among family members, adultery and homosexuality bring out lots of conflicts.
All in all, both the book and the characters grew on me as I read. And I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it. And that’s definitely a sign of a pretty good book.