When retired actor Buffy decides to up sticks from London and move to rural Wales, he has no idea what he is letting himself in for. In possession of a run-down B&B that leans more towards the shabby than the chic and is miles from nowhere, he realises he needs to fill the beds - and fast. Enter a motley collection of guests: Harold, whose wife has run off with a younger woman; Amy, who’s been unexpectedly dumped by her (not-so) weedy boyfriend; and Andy, the hypochondriac postman whose girlfriend is much too much for him to handle. But under Buffy’s watchful eye, this disparate group of strangers find they have more in common than perhaps they first thought.
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I listen to audiobooks because the format allows narrators to put voice to words better than I can in my own head. Only twice out of nearly 200 listens has a narrator been so bad that he ruined what might otherwise have been a good book. Make that three. Nicky Henson's rough voice, dense accent, and breakneck pace is, in a word, painful. The irony is that the main character, like the narrator, is a veteran English actor -- famed for his mellifluous voice, in stark contrast to Henson.
But I took one for the team and kept listening long after my better instincts demanded that I stomp my earbuds into pulp. Does the book hold up despite the poor performance? Sadly, no. In a newspaper article that appeared around the same time as this book, the author listed her twelve rules of writing. Number 10: "There are no rules." Not sure how a rule-breaking rule is number 10, not 1 or 12, or why have rules at all if there are no rules.
Well, there is one strict rule of writing -- show, don't tell. But it is not enforceable -- there are no literary police (except in Thursday Next's world). "Everyone has their own methods," as Moggach goes on to say in Rule 10. But it does offer an easily distinguishable explanation of why one book falters where another excels. And I have never before seen a case that so perfectly exemplifies the all-importance of this rule.
The concept here is stellar: an aging actor takes over a country B&B and attracts guests with "Courses for Divorces" that teach newly single people how to do the things their exes did. In the show-don't-tell model, the guests would arrive and their back stories would unfold during their visit, with an expert literary novelist using the nature of the course as metaphor, symbol, or objective correlative.
Not only does Moggach leave all that low-hanging fruit to rot on the tree, she totally blows it even you accept her chosen "tell" structure -- she spends chapters and chapters telling us how individual characters' relationships failed, sends them to the Courses B&B, and then dismisses them with alacrity, turning instead to newly introduced characters, telling us their backstories -- and then in most cases dispatching them quickly to the scrap heap.
The result is a series of loosely connected character sketches rather than a cohesive novel -- which may indeed appeal to some readers, but did not do it for me. And the ending is pure unimaginative drivel -- in fact, the ending so betrays the high concept of the novel, it stands as the author's self-rebuke to her own idea. The shame of it is that a potent concept that could have produced an excellent novel is squandered.