Daniel Williams

‘Perfect Lives’ (2010) Polly Samson

In Book Review, English, Literature, Review, Writing on 21/08/2011 at 12:05

Despite the glowing words of praise that cover the copy of Perfect Lives (2010) I can’t say I was impressed with it. The quotes call it funny, compelling and moving, but I thought it never gets beyond its middle-class trappings. Polly Samson seems to be lampooning the middle-classes while remaining very much a part of it, and celebrating it in the final story. The book begins with an epigram from Leonard Cohen, and on finishing Perfect Lives, I found that one quote had something more interesting to say than the stories in the book.

The prose had a tendency towards a knowing lyricism; you can almost hear the author saying ‘I am going to be poetic now’. I’m not a fan of that kind of prose. She makes some melodramatic descriptions, the worst offender been this, which I had to read three times before I realised she was been serious: “Leszeck’s eyelashes would always make every woman he met think about having his baby.” I’m sure some people think it’s marvellously poetic but it’s very silly to me.

The stories are all set in a seaside town. Not much is made of the setting, other than it’s a middle-class seaside town. Characters crossover, much like in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan. In A Visit From… the connections between characters are never presented with a flourish, but appear casually and without comment, as connections between people do in real-life. In Perfect Lives when a character from another story turns up in another, there often is a melodramatic flourish in the reveal. The character that appears most (an unnamed amateur photographer) is sadly the least interesting and goes on no real journey other than a happy acceptance of a bourgeois life.

Unlike A Visit From… none the stories in Perfect Lives moved me. Polly Samson finds nothing insightful about the characters she presents. I think part of my trouble with reading this book was I took a dislike to it pretty early on. Taking a dislike to a book early on is like when you take a dislike to a person you just meet- no matter what they say you’ll always find it a bit irritating.

I imagine that if I spoke to Polly Samson (after she hits me for disparaging her book) I’d find little crossover between the authors we like. There seems to be a hint of the British Victorians to her prose and I really dislike British Victorian literature. I can see why people would give this book glowing quotes, but it is not things I enjoy in a book. I don’t imagine she’d think much of my stories, either.

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