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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Review- Sebastian Faulks' 'On Green Dolphin Street'

I feel remiss at not having reviewed any books in a while, so I'm making an effort.

Having finished the MA and now finding myself with free time to read for pleasure my latest books have been diverse and interesting. Most recently I picked up 'On Green Dolphin Street'. I've read several of Faulks' novels before ('Bird Song', 'Human Traces' and 'A Fool's Alphabet') enjoying his eloquent style and competent characterisation. Having said this, I had made an attempt to read 'A Week in December' (his most recent novel), but found some of the characters difficult to engage with and abandoned the book part way through, something I rarely do.

I was pleased to find that 'On Green Dolphin Street' has what I like most about Faulks' fiction; characters with realistic troubles and desires, set against an interesting historical period. The novel tells the story of Mary van der Linden, wife of British diplomat Charlie living in Washington during the time of the Cold War. Having been the ever-present, ever-supportive wife and mother, Mary's life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Frank Renzo, a political journalist now living in New York and they fall in love. Mary and Frank battle against their desire and the conflicts it produces, while Charlie comes ever closer to complete collapse. The novel ends with a decision we know is inevitable from the moment Mary and Frank admit their feelings for one another.

While I really enjoyed the historical sections of 'Bird Song', what really makes 'On Green Dolphin Street' for me is the characters. Faulks manages to create three highly sympathetic characters.

Mary is simultaneously struggling with the absence of her children at boarding school, her mother's terminal illness and Charlie's failing mental state. Frank and New York City offer her  the chance to act in her own interests for the first time in many years.

Frank has been struggling to rise up in journalism after being branded a communist sympathiser. Wandering around considering how many of the ordinary men he comes across have killed during war, Frank is a considerate character, never placing undue pressure on Mary, and indeed, abstaining from physical intimacy for quite some time. A lonely individual, Mary seems Frank's first legitimate experience of love.

Charlie is an alcoholic, who drinks to blur out the pointlessness of his life. There is something overwhelmingly pathetic and all too understandable about his break down, given his experiences at war and the pressures of his job.

With this being the case, there was no possible happy ending for this novel, from my point of view!

I enjoyed the passion of Mary and Frank's relationship, but also the tenderness of Mary and Charlie's relationship. The novel highlighted that all too difficult difference between 'love' and 'in love' in a thoughtful and provocative way.

Yet, it's not merely a story about an affair, and the reader is given snippets of the character's lives during the war, contextualising their behaviour in the present day and giving us a sense of 'who' they are. This makes moments such as the death of Mary's mother extremely distressing because we are all too aware of her history.

We really believe in Faulks' characters and that is why I would recommend this book.

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