Dawn French, Oh Dear Silvia (Harper, 2013)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
I’m not usually a big comedy person, so my love for Dawn French has always been kind of bewildering to me. But as far as comics go, for my money, there’s no one better. She’s the only comic who has ever made me—literally—pass out from laughing. And thus it is that I feel extra-bad about giving a review to Oh Dear Silvia that, no matter how I paint it, I can only get up as high as “lukewarm”.
Plot: Silvia, just shy of her sixtieth birthday, topples from a balcony, strikes her head, and goes into a coma. (“Can’t imagine you’d do that”, Ed tells her, “unless you were pissed. Or pushed. Or both.”) The book details a week in Silvia’s comatose life, and we learn about her through those who come to visit her (and those who are conspicuous in their absence)–head nurse Winnie, ex-husband Ed, housekeeper Tia, best friend Cat, son Jamie, sister Jo, and a handful of minor characters. As the novel progresses, we get a picture of Silvia through their eyes, and we start to understand the events that led to her being in this hospital bed.
All of which would be wonderful save for two complaints. I wish I could say they’re small ones, but you know better if you’ve read a random half-dozen of my reviews. The first, smaller, complaint is that I never bought Silvia as a character. I grant you, she’s not, really; this is a story about the people around her. But you know how sometimes you read a book and you end up wanting to describe the city it’s set in as a character? Or a particular building, or what have you? That is what Silvia should be here, and she’s not. As well, part of the idea here was building a comprehensive, coherent picture of Silvia through the thoughts and reminiscences of those around her, but those depictions are often so wildly different that no middle ground is ever gained, and we’re left with a number of different ideas about who Silvia is.
The second problem is worse, because it’s a structural defect. I’m not sure whether it started halfway through the novel or whether I just didn’t notice it until then, but one way or the other, the book is riddled with tell-don’t-show passages. This was a very bad idea, as it always is in fiction. (Why? Take a look down at the bottom of this review, those of you reading it where I can embed video, for a great little screed from author Sean Cummings about the importance of showing, but for the rest of you, how about this? “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. (–Anton Chekhov, supposedly, though google is failing at giving me the primary source and wikiquote doesn’t list it)”, quote courtesy J. Regina Blackwell’s Better Book of Quotations than Bartlett Ever Came Up With.) The surface result of this is that the book bogs down something fierce about halfway through; my spreadsheet reports to me that it took me forty-seven days to finish this book, which is nuts for a person who usually reads about three hundred a year. But the deeper, and more important, side effect is that many of those passages, which should have been leaving deep, lasting impressions on the reader, simply roll off like water, duck’s back, etc.; by the time you’ve started the next chapter, you’ve forgotten them, because French didn’t create those images that fire the brain’s neurons and make passages memorable.
This ends up being more frustrating because (oh, third drawback, though to me this one is minor; this book is full of foreshadowing-with-a-sledgehammer, which makes a number of the novel’s plot twists predictable much earlier than it seemed to me they should be) it actually is a pretty darn good tale at the bottom of all this; it would have made for a cracking episode of French’s nineties TV series Murder Most Horrid. (And for the record, the entire time I was reading the book, I had French playing Cat’s part in my head. Which actually made the final five or six chapters way funnier than they probably otherwise would have been.) But as a novel, there are ways it could have been much, much better than it is. ** ½
Sean Cummings’ excellent show-don’t-tell piece.
It’s not a book trailer, it’s a TV commercial. No, really.