Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You
Alma Books, 2009

Here’s something simple to begin with (because I’m having an inordinately hard time writing about Rosie Alison’s debut novel): I am grateful.

And that is because Victoria, of Eve’s Alexandria, sent me her copy of The Very Thought of You in plenty of time for me to be able to read it before the Orange Prize announcement next week.

Mind you, I was so sure that I wouldn’t be able to get a copy of this myself (the Canadian rights only having been sold a few weeks after the prize longlisting) that I had already read her response to it, (whereas normally I would have filed it and read it after I’d read the book myself) so I knew she hadn’t enjoyed it and might even be relieved to send it on its way! ::grin::

All the better to have an ocean between a disappointed reader and the object of her reader’s disaffection, right? But it was still a kind and generous offer!

And, honestly, I thought there was a good chance that I’d enjoy it more than she had, that it would find a comfy corner in the ‘A’ bookcase next to the fireplace (not a working one, but the sort one fills with candles so it’s a little *like* it works) and would be better loved here. I thought it was possible, maybe even likely. (But, as it turns out, our responses were remarkably similar.)

The fact that it had been considered for Romance Awards didn’t make me nervous; in fact it made me more keenly interested because I’ve been lucky to find strong writing in every genre I’ve read to date and I expected this would be a welcome find. (Over the years I think I’ve dismissed nearly every genre at one time or another and then later realized that I’d just been reading in the wrong places: I even discovered that I like westerns…some westerns anyway!)

And a welcome find it might well have been. I might have found a new favourite romance writer. If that had been the reason I read Rosie Alison’s novel.

But that’s not why I read The Very Thought of You: I read it because it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

And there my expectations took root. And those expectations had grown because in recent weeks I have read some amazing Orange Prize longlisted books and some highly sophisticated Orange Prize shortlisted books.

Including Rosie Thomas’ novel amongst my longlist reading might have worked for me, but reading it alongside novels whose complexity almost demands a second reading raised my expectations in such a way that I could not help but be disappointed by her relatively straight-forward tale in unadorned prose.

What I regret about that is that I’m not sure Rosie Allison intended her work to be compared to intricate, multi-dimensional novels.

She does reference some classic authors in The Very Thought of You and in her interview, but she may not have intended her novel to be placed on the shelf next to the accomplished creations of Henry James, e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene.

Still, when the Orange Prize jury placed it on a shortlist with so many layered and literary novels, they set up The Very Thought of You to be compared, set it up to be perceived as lacking something.

And that’s something else that I’m not sure of, that The Very Thought of You is lacking in any real way. When I think about many of the novels that I’ve read as reprints by Persephone Books and inter-war novels in the Virago Modern Classic series, I think Rosie Alison’s novel could nestle right in there.

A lot of what seemed to disappoint other readers didn’t trouble me. (And here, again, I’ve broken one of my own rules, because normally I would scrupulously avoid other readers’ responses to a novel, but here I have struggled with the fact that my approach to it dictated a set of expectations that I don’t think were necessarily fair to impose on the novel, so I’ve gone looking for reviews to test my own response). The adulterous themes, the sequential losses, the overwhelming sense of loss and tragedy, the seemingly diminished presence of the war in this homefront story: all of that fit just fine with the story for me.

But I, like Anna, evacuating London, leaving her mother behind, had expectations.

“She was expecting adventure; she had read so many fairy tales that she longed to set out into the world alone. Like Dick Whittington. The long road, the child with a small case, it seemed only natural.” Anna did not find adventure and I did not discover a novel as satisfying as the more complex works it’s listed alongside for this year’s Orange Prize.

And so I am disappointed, because I think I might have enjoyed this far more, if I’d read it under different circumstances.

But I’m still grateful. Because, thanks to Victoria’s sending a copy of this, I can still enjoy and fully participate in the discussion surrounding the shortlist.

Just a week from Wednesday and the 2010 Prize Winner will be announced. Oh, no: how can I possibly finish Wolf Hall in that time. Especially when I seem to be tempted in a dozen different directions just now.

How is everyone else doing with Orange-ness?

On Mondays and Thursdays, until the 2010 Orange Prize is announced,
I am Buried In Print. 15 bookchatted here; 3 not available to me, sadly;
Still reading 2, with Wolf Hall underway, and one more in the wings.