Surviving second book syndrome
Mauthors who enjoy great success with their first book become terrified when it comes to producing their second. There is enormous pressure, they’re acutely aware that the world is waiting, and there’s usually a contract to honour. Small wonder, then, that many second books can fail to deliver. Swiss author Joel Dicker’s first book, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, sold phenomenally well and was quickly translated from the original French. Similarly, Allegra Huston’s memoir Love Child, found itself being endorsed by the likes of Salman Rushdie and Joanna Lumley.
Joel Dicker’s The Baltimore Boys, is written as a sort of sequel to Quebert, with the same protagonist. Marcus Goldman, in the aftermath of Quebert’s success, rents a house in Florida to write his second novel. (A little meta-fiction anyone?) But progress is slow and Marcus spends his time with an elderly uncle who works in the local supermarket. This same uncle used to be a multi-millionaire and father to Marcus’s cousins, the eponymous Baltimore Boys, with whom Marcus holidayed every summer. Early on we learn that some unspeakable tragedy occurred in Baltimore, as the Boys are no longer around. And through a series of leaps from the 1980s to the present day, the story unfolds.
The plot will certainly keep the reader engaged. Dicker has a knack for the slow reveal, and since his uncle is a very likeable character, we wonder what has led him from the boardroom to stacking tins of beans. But if, as has been suggested by his first book, Joel Dicker is following in the footsteps of Philip Roth, he needs to infuse his narrative with a lot more gravitas. For instance, he describes his cousins’ family Thanksgiving dinners as being “perfect from beginning to end”. Indeed. And later in the same passage, having listed the dinner’s starters and mains, he writes; “the desserts were not to be outdone, either”. Really.
Cliches like these have their place. And it’s not between the covers of a novel with literary aspirations. There are oodles of examples such as this. One might be forgiven for presuming something has been lost in translation, perhaps, but this can’t be the case. The translator is Alison Anderson, who also translated Muriel Barbery’s exquisite The Elegance of the Hedgehog. That said, The Baltimore Boys is an entertaining read. I’m just not sure if it’s as good as it thinks it is.
Allegra Huston’s first book was a huge hit. The adopted daughter of John Huston, she was brought up in Galway after her mother’s untimely death. And a book about the Huston dynasty was bound to sell.
Her second book, Say My Name, is a novel about an older woman/younger man affair. Eve arrives home one day to find that her husband has disappeared. She’s angry but not surprised. Their marriage is tired and her only solace is her work as a landscape gardener and her various finds in antique shops. When she unearths an old viola, split down its belly, she suspects she’s found something extremely valuable, but she needs a real expert to mend it.
Enter Micajah, a young musician who knows a master craftsman specialising in restoring musical instruments. Eve and Micajah become a couple of sorts. There’s a level of disquiet in this novel, similar in style to Josephine Hart’s Damage, which led me to expect some kind of cataclysmic disaster. But that doesn’t happen. Or at least, if the turning point in the plot is meant to be the disaster, then I missed it and was left dissatisfied. The writing is dark and moody and Huston’s depiction of a loveless marriage is impeccable. Unlike some passages in The Baltimore Boys, this novel is expertly crafted. But then, Huston has had decades of writing experience as a film and TV scriptwriter — whereas Joel Dicker has barely turned 30. Maybe his best is yet to come.
Neither lives up to the hype. While Huston’s novel is beautifully written and linear, but flimsy on plot, Dicker’s novel is plot-heavy and clever, but certainly not a thing of beauty.