Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stone's Fall

Like most other novel-reading folk, I enjoyed Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, so when I saw his new one--written in the "historical mystery" style of that one--on the shelf at the Kenyon College bookstore, I picked it up and took it home to read.

Well, it's been a busy spring. I said "yes" to at least one more thing than I should have, which is really not like me. I'm contemplating saying "yes" to two more things than I should for this summer. Something's got to give. I don't know yet what it will be. Anyway, I couldn't quite find the time and attention to really settle down with Stone's Fall. I read the first 70 pages in short spurts and couldn't really sustain enough interest, so I was about to toss it aside. Except that I did something I often do at that point; I read the last page.

AND WOW! Having read the last page, there's no way I could set aside Stone's Fall. I began the laborious process of carving out time from my days so I could get from the opening that didn't quite hold my attention to the ending that made my eyes open very wide.

Once I began making time to read the novel in larger spurts, even some of the off-hand remarks from the first 70 pages started coming back to me, like the comment "the rich believe they are allowed anything, and they are right." And as I went on, I met with this observation on a man named Mr. Philpot who is "the very epitome of the English lower middle classes": "If a factory worker kills his wife, or an aristocrat fathers a child, it is scarcely remarked upon; if a Philpot does so, it is a shock. Philpots are held to higher standards than most of mankind, and on the whole they live up to them." The financial underpinnings of the novel, which failed to interest me on first acquaintance, became important in terms of the lives of the characters, which kept me reading.

The novel has a three-part structure, each part told by a different character, starting from the outsider's point of view and moving inwards as the mystery unfolds in all its fascinating complexity. I scarcely had time to resent the switch in narrators, as I usually do when I have to forsake one point of view for another, before I fell under the spell of the second one, who could say things like "I had dreamed of something, and it is the more difficult to put aside dreams which are unformed, for they can never be exposed as mere childishness." One common thread throughout all three of the male narratives is a fascination with "the Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala, a woman of exceptional allure."

As more than one reviewer has already noted, the financial themes of the novel are oddly modern. In fact, I was irresistably reminded of a section of Christopher Buckley's Boomsday in which a rich politician funds his own presidential campaign to show that he can't be bought when I read "Do you think that a Rothschild or a Reinach or a Baring can be corrupted? In terms of morality, a banker and a beggar are similar; money matters little to them. One has it, the other does not want it. Only those who want but do not have are liable to be corrupted."

By the time I got to the third narrator, the financier, I almost felt like I had reached the point at which I'd left the first narrator, a journalist struggling to understand the world of finance, because--as in many good murder mysteries--to follow the money is to find out what motivates the characters. It took until the very last page for me to piece together what I knew with what is revealed at the end of this sprawling story. It was exquisitely satisfying. Knowing the ending may even have intensified my satisfaction.

This is a good book to immerse yourself in when you have some time this summer. And if you're contemplating taking on too many things to let yourself have enough time to read this summer, well, you may be in good company. I'm trying not to be right there with you.


FreshHell said...

I think I've read everything Iain Pears has written - I particularly like the series of mysteries set in Rome - the art fraud ones (?). It's been awhile but I think that's right. Glad there's a new one to find and good to hear it's good.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...this sounds like something I might enjoy. But I've never read anything by Pears, so if you have a recommendation for something else of his to try first, let me know. Also, please allow me to express my astonishment that you read the last page having decided to give it up. Shocking behavior indeed, although it certainly worked!

Jeanne said...

Sounds like FreshHell has read more Pears than I have--An Instance of the Fingerpost is the only previous one I've read, and I enjoyed it.

Don't you read the last page of a book before giving it up? Otherwise it will live forever in my brain; I'll be making up various endings.

FreshHell said...

Two of my favorites are in his "art history mysteries" series: The Raphael Affair and Death and Restoration. Loved them and they aren't very long.

Dreamybee said...

I've never read any Pears, but I do have An Instance of the Fingerpost sitting on my shelf. I keep thinking about starting it, but it looks so intimidating next to all my smaller paperbacks!

Cschu said...

I first heard of Pears when my favorite Uncle mentioned "The Dream of Scipio" to me. He said that he had read it and really liked it. However, it was out in hardback at the time and I was a poor grad student, so I got "An Instance of the Fingerpost," instead. I eventually bought "The Dream of Scipio," but haven't yet gotten around to reading it. Something to look forward to. (I also liked some of the art fraud books, though I don't remember much about them. They are fun, but kind of forgettable.)

farmlanebooks said...

I can't believe you read the last page! I am surprised that you enjoyed it knowing the secret - I found the twist at the end so shocking and it is why I loved the book so much.

I agree that it needs to be read in large chunks though - it does need some concentration to be able to follow the story.