Sunday, 19 September 2010

My Favourite Wife (Tony Parsons)

--The blurb--
"Hot shot young lawyer Bill Holden and his wife Becca move their four-year-old daughter to the booming, gold-rush city of Shanghai. It is a place of opportunity and temptation, where fortunes are made and foreign marriages come apart in spectacular fashion. Bill's law firm houses the Holden family in Paradise Mansions - a luxury apartment block full of 'second wives': beautiful young women like JinJin Li, ex-school teacher, crossword addict, dedicated roller skater and the Holdens' neighbour. After Becca witnesses a near-tragedy, she returns temporarily to London with Holly - and Bill and JinJin are thrown together. Bill wants to be a better man than the millionaire who keeps JinJin Li as a second wife. Better than any man who cheats. Becca is his best friend. But in the end can he give JinJin anything different - can he give her the love she deserves? And can he love his wife too?"

--The review--
Tony Parsons, while arguably having not achieved the same level of fame as contemporary Nick Hornby, is in his normal state essentially him + 1. Sentimental and humorous in equal measure, he is able to blow readers out of the water with the poetry, quality, and depth of his expression. In fact, he almost makes budding writers want to give up because they feel that they could not produce anything of this calibre themselves.

However, in My Favourite Wife, Parsons does not live up to the reputation built up with novels such as Man and Boy. While his main focus previously was the family saga that everyone could relate to, told in ways never broached before, in My Favourite Wife Parsons' main agenda seems to be a social analysis of modern China. This marginalises the family aspects of the novel and inadvertently makes us care less about the characters. Even though the author admittedly handles the narrative arc well, building up Bill's respective relationships with his wife, lover and daughter effectively, reaching the climax of discovery and then bringing it down to a more subdued calmness, the constant chopping and changing between the personal and political prevents us from getting too involved, and this is ultimately to the detriment of the novel's efficacy.

Parsons is better when he returrns to doing what he does best in chronicling the decline and death of Bill's father: these segments are moving, heartfelt, realistic, and pack more of a punch than the other sections of the novel, which are punctuated by episodes of contrived symbolism and imagery, as well as a general feeling of predictability. Less effective than the parts regarding Bill's father is the demise of Bill's colleague Shane: there are perhaps too many characters, and we cannot give enough attention to them all, meaning that we do not care enough when it actually matters. As a consequence, My Favourite Wife lacks the wow-factor of Parsons' previous novels: it still has strengths, but these are outweighed by the weaknesses, and these strengths are therefore not enough to make the book a resounding success.

Other works by Tony Parsons
The Kids (1976)
Platinum Logic (1981)
Limelight Blues (1983)
Man and Boy (1999)
One for my Baby (2001)
Man and Wife (2003)
The Family Way (2004)
Stories We Could Tell (2006)
Starting Over (2009)
Men From The Boys (2010)

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