Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Coming Home

Rosamunde Pilcher writes a story of a British teenage girl before and during WWII in her novel, Coming Home. The novel spans approximately ten years of time in Judith's life as her family leaves her at boarding school while they rejoin her father in Singapore.  While the family is separated, WWII erupts, separating the family members indefinitely.  During Judith's stay in England, fortune smiles upon her as she gains fame, a surrogate family, and eventually love.

The story is fun, and it is nice to see how a country more directly impacted by WWII was affected.  Although the story focuses on Judith's daily life, that life is changed by the events around her (such as having to make blackout curtains, or waiting for gasoline ration cards).  But eventually Judith's daily life also adjusts and changes as she joins the armed forces. 

As this story focuses on Judith's daily life, it is enjoyable to follow her relationships and interactions between her and those around her.  However, her character gets lost among some of the others.  Judith is supposed to be the main character, but Pilcher devotes almost as much space to all the members of the Carey-Lewis family, Judith's surrogate family.  At the beginning of the book, Judith is a relatively weak character, whereas all of the Carey-Lewises are exceptionally strong and charming.  As a result, Judith as a character, a person, an entity is lost somewhere along the way and she does not come into her own until the last third of the novel when she is distanced from the Carey-Lewises.  I cannot tell if this is a result of poor writing on Pilcher's part, or just a generally weak character type portrayed by Judith.

Pilcher wrote this novel in the 1990s, but her writing style is reminiscent of the War era.  As I prefer a more contemporary style of brevity and relevance, this was a difficult novel for me to finish.  I had to keep scanning ahead in the story to find out what would happen with certain characters in order to keep my interest going (and I rarely skip ahead).  Don't get me wrong - the story was interesting; I just felt Pilcher took too long to get there.  Her writing and description is beautiful, but there is just too much of it.  The first 200 pages or so was filled with background story, establishing the historical and geographical setting, and introducing the characters.  Very few actual events happen.  And in a novel that is 700+ pages, that is too long to expect your reader to stick with you to get somewhere.

My final complaint is more of an annoyance than a glaring problem.  As I stated above, Judith is the main character, but there is no clearly defined character viewpoint.  The novel is written in third person, so it could be omniscient (in all the characters' heads), or limited (only expresses internal thoughts of one character).  But Pilcher combines both conventions.  She is only in one character's head at a time, but that character shifts and changes.  Sometimes this shift in viewpoint is indicated by a section break, but it just as often happens mid-scene.  For example, at one point, the reader is in Judith's head as she is preparing to meet with the headmistress at her boarding school.  We hear her concerns, preparations, and fears.  She attends the meeting, which is described factually without any character commentary.  Finally, as Judith leaves, we are transferred into the headmistress' mind where she mentions how nervous she was about this meeting.  All of this happens within the space of a couple of pages.

Overall, the story is interesting and the characters are wonderful and distinct.  Unfortunately, Pilcher takes too long to get to the resolution.  I would recommend reading the abridged version rather instead (if available).