‘You’ve known there was something special about you for a long time, haven’t you?’
On paper, Arabella Hicks is perfectly qualified to teach a creative writing class on the Upper West Side; as well as being an author herself, she loves fiction, more than anything in the world.
‘You still feel something every time you pick up a book; you still connect to characters in ways you’ve never connected to people you actually know, and you know you’re more than you appear to be. You have to give it one more shot; you have to see if you can be a writer.
But neither her own novel, nor her life are working out quite as she planned, and she is beginning to wonder whether this year’s students will be just as bad, mad and complicated as all the others; whether, as she fears, real life will never be as enjoyable as a really good novel
She is wrong.
This debut novel by fiction teacher Susan Breen is different from most romantic novels, in that it attempts to enlighten the reader by showing the world of the author. In itself that is perhaps not earth-shattering, but when your world is all about books and writing, it is something different to the average reader. However, that said, (and ‘different’ is good), it may be one of the downfalls of the book. I am not sure how many readers would be interested in a writing class, and the exercises that go with it. At the end of each chapter covering the evening class, Ms Breen writes down the homework, and the reader, if interested, can make use of this. A good idea for aspiring writers, but I am not convinced that the avid romance reader will be impressed.
The book has several themes, notably disability and illness and the caring responsibilities attached to this situation: then there is the difficult relationship between mother and daughter; impending death; the romance; writing; the growth of the protagonist’s self-awareness and confidence, and faith – a steady thread throughout the book, which in a way is the glue that holds it together.
Initially I had problems with the characters. The main character, Arabella, didn’t come alive for me until well into the second half of the book. I am not sure why she remained transparent, but she wasn’t real for me. Once fleshed out and more believable, she stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. Her mother, Vera Hicks, was the only character who seemed believable. I’m not sure why. Whereas Arabella was a little too ‘goody-goody’, her mother was nasty, cruel and unfeeling, yet you felt sorry for her and could relate to how you thought she might be feeling, given her past life. Arabella was a bit like a character from an historical romance, a young woman from the Regency period perhaps, demure and sweet, and in the background. She was, after all, named after a character (and book) written by the romantic novelist Georgette Heyer, so perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the author, and in true Jane Austen style, we see the awakening and strenghening of the female protagonist’s character as the story progresses. I read Georgette Heyer in my teens and am now going to re-read her, having had my memory jogged! The other characters, Chuck her patient lover, and her students, were interesting to a degree, but a little clichéd, I felt, and I found myself confused by the sheer number. I began to mix them up.
I liked the originality of the story, and the boldness of some of the ideas and the questions arising from them, such as the daunting moral dilemma of whether a parent should be sent to a nursing home, or cared for at home, and the contrast between Arabella’s decision to do the latter, whilst her mother had given up her life to care for her husband at home. Arabella’s vague awareness that things are not always as they appear is given a sharp jolt as reality hits hard in some of her students lives. I felt that the reminder about disability became too invasive and whiny. It was in danger of being over stated. It is something I feel strongly about too, having been a carer, but I began to get irritated as I felt that it was used too many times in the book and the impact was lost. However, the idea of a woman’s faith keeping her together (no matter that it was a belief in a miracle) was important, and illustrated Vera’s humanity in a way that contrasted with her daughter’s genuine and gentle honesty, a humanity which could so easily have been her ruin.
I wasn’t sure about the book at first, as the first few chapters were slow and seemed repetitive, and the inclusion of exercises could have put people off. By the end of the book I was convinced that it worked, and was sad to finish it, and the characters did stay with me for a while afterwards which is always a good sign. I noted that there were many parallels between the author and her protagonist, (auto-biographic?) and hope that Arabella’s good fortune will perhaps rub off on her creator’s pen. I would certainly be happy to read any second novel that Ms Breen might produce and wish her well in her writing.
Susan Breen lives in New York with her husband and children and teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan