Book Review: Readings

Coe's latest is a somber work that unravels four generations of British women, each daughter curdled at an early age by the mother

Readings

The Rain Before It Falls

by Jonathan Coe
Knopf, 256 pp., $23.95

While British author Jonathon Coe is best known for his comic novels, his latest is a somber work that unravels, in not-quite flashback, four generations of women, each daughter curdled at an early age by the mother. Their respective stories are revealed in the posthumous airing of audio tapes made by the elderly Rosamond; nearing her end, she decides to recount her family's troubled backstory, using 12 photographs as a jumping-off point. Her intended audience is Imogen, granddaughter to Rosamond's cousin and childhood best friend, Beatrix, who was ill-loved as a child and grew increasingly monstrous as an adult and, especially, as a mother to Thea, who begot Imogen. But Imogen is out of the picture (for reasons later explained), and the job of listening to Rosamond's tapes – a final testament – falls to her great-niece Gill and Gill's two daughters. A flowchart, frankly, would've helped keep track of all these mothers and daughters (the men are, at best, an afterthought) or perhaps more vigorously drawn characterizations. While Beatrix is forcefully portrayed, the successive generations read somewhat blankly, and as the tapes track later decades, the emotional connection to the family thins, rendering certain turns late in the novel emotionally inert. Coe – who has a masterful ear for cadence – seems most interested in lavishing attention to detail ("the sun was setting and sending splinters of sad, low orange-red light across the treetops and hedgerows"), but after so many minute renderings of what was worn, what car was driven, how the light looked, etc., that lavishing does a real job on the narrative thrust. (On the cusp of describing a fiery quarrel with her lover, Rebecca, Rosamond stops herself – "Perhaps I should describe the flat to you, first of all" – and it's all the reader can do to keep from groaning.) The most moving passages involve Rosamond's account of the time she and Rebecca created a makeshift family with the abandoned child Thea. Just as Rosamond considers that time in her life the definitive one – and everything after the wrong path – so goes Coe's novel: The Rain Before It Falls and tired, regretful Rosamond, petering out in concert.

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