I’ve said elsewhere that I really liked The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant. I read it on holiday, and liked it enough to go to Barnes and Noble and seek out – although not, in the end, buy (luggage allowance) – a couple of her other titles.
Superficially, it reminded me a lot of Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Both purport to tell the story of a woman, born more or less at the turn of the last century, and trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century and whatever that meant. The fact that the two novels are really nothing alike is a testament to both the century and the writers; as Boyd has his main character note, however full a life one lives these days, the world is so complex that we’re always going to feel as if ‘the century was galloping away without us’. However, one of these novels surprised me in a good way and one disappointed me, so I thought I’d deal with them together to soften the blow.
Let’s deal with the problem child first. I liked ‘Any Human Heart’ (I read it before the miniseries, thank you very much), and I also liked Boyd’s lesser-known but similar-format ‘The New Confessions’. ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ was better than OK, as was ‘A Good Man in Africa’, and I more-than-liked ‘Restless’, the only attempt of Boyd’s that I’ve read where he writes a female protagonist. Reading the blurb for Sweet Caress, then, I got very excited about Boyd’s century-charting story of Amory Clay.
Oh dear. It was…it was fine. There were great bits; Boyd is, on the whole, a fantastic writer; the moment when Amory comes into contact with British fascists, in particular, haunted me. And he prods Amory to get on her soapbox about some really important issues (euthanasia, war, the power of the state to shape individual lives), and to be very eloquent in her views of them.
But the thing as a whole just left me cold. I wasn’t convinced by her voice. In particular, her habit of describing in detail the penis of every man she slept with irritated me; it felt very, very male. (He never did this in ‘Restless’, which contains one of the best female-point-of-view first-kiss moments I’ve ever read.) In the end, it just annoyed me too much for me to be able to give Sweet Caress more than three stars, however much I wanted to.
The Boston Girl, on the other hand, was a delight. Charting the life of Addie, the first in her family to be born in the United States, it captivated me completely. There was an unbleak, but unflinching, portrait of growing up in poverty in early twentieth-century Boston; there was a lot about culture clash among first-generation immigrants. There was a constant thread about the redemptive power of art. An early ‘men-are-b*stards’ theme was successfully reined in and counteracted later on. And the ending, coincidentally in the same year as Sweet Caress, was charming, and full of hope.
At bottom, I think Sweet Caress is very British, and The Boston Girl very American. That is a sweeping generalisation for which I have very little evidence or justification, but here goes: The former deals with the years more evenly, and in particular has the big 20th century wars as defining events, but most particularly seems to subscribe to the theory that everything is getting just a little bit worse. (I won’t give away the plot. But read it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The latter is skewed very heavily towards adolescence, and the immigrant experience, a part of the American story still written so large in the nation’s history that – to an outsider, at least – it almost eclipses everything else. The later years are dealt with in comparatively few pages, but the narrative is explicit – very explicit, and down to its closing sentence – in its message that things are getting better, not worse.
Thing is, I prefer the American message. And Diamant wrote her Addie far more convincingly, to my mind, than Boyd his Avery. If there was a cage fight between these two novels, then for me, the American wins hands-down.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd – ***
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – ****