Book Review: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

It is always a little dispiriting not ‘getting’ a book that others hold close to their hearts. Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition is a Goodreads smash, its appeal straddling ages, genre-snobbery and borders. Not only that, but national treasure and the unofficial-cleverest-man-on TV, Stephen Fry, LOVES it. As proof, there’s a great big quote on the cover assuring us Notes from an Exhibition is the best thing since the invention of the printing press (“this novel is complete perfection”). Perfection! Wow, this has got to be good, right. Right?

But Notes from an Exhibition sort of drifted in front of my eyes like a piece of seaweed on a calm Cornish sea. I kept waiting for that magical moment when a book comes to life and you click with it like a soul mate. But this novel and I never made it past that first awkward date.

Canadian-born, Cornwall-dwelling, Rachel Kelly is a once successful artist who has spent her life in the shadow of bipolar. She drops dead in her attic studio one morning where she had – as she did everyday – locked herself in to paint furiously, even though her work had fallen out of fashion in the years leading up to her death. Despite popping her clogs within the first few pages, this is Rachel’s novel. It’s about her legacy, both personally and professionally, as well as a posthumously unearthing her secret history and identity.

Notes from an Exhibition certainly doesn’t want for a plot, it’s stuffed full of story lines that meander across oceans and time zones, veering from 1970s Cambridge to small town Canada and back again to modern day Penzance, Notes from an Exhibition’s true base. It’s choc-o-block with drama – and characters, oh my god, so many characters – but despite the constant drama, the tension never seemed to build; the big reveal or twist would sneak past me and it was several pages before I realised I’d missed another character’s personal tragedy.

Nothing is too trivial for Gale to try and tease out some suspense. There was a whole mini-drama involving Rachel and Anthony’s third child, Hedley who was convinced for about five pages that his husband was having an affair with a woman. This woman and the entire narrative were then dismissed a few chapters later with an unconvincing sentence.

Beyond the tangle of story lines, Notes from an Exhibition examines, at arms length, the link between talent and depression. Rachel, it’s suggested, is less productive when she’s drugged-up, while during her manic periods she is capable of painting her greatest work. Gale stops short of suggesting that there is a direct correlation, although Rachel seems to believe it. Gale also doesn’t wince from the impact bipolar has on the sufferers’ family. Rachel has few redeeming features – she’s short tempered, mean to her children, rude to her husband, selfish, indifferent and self-absorbed – personality traits that can’t all be blamed on her condition. But her fragile state means her family must dance lightly around her, bending to her moods and whims. Anthony, Rachel’s gentle, patient, honest Quaker husband – and potentially the novel’s most interesting character – gets rather lost in the dysfunctional noise of a family of four children damaged by the power of their mother’s personality.

Despite dealing with a heavy subject matter and including several very dark events, there was something rather twee about the style of Notes from an Exhibition, its tone almost jarringly jolly. It’s not that Gale doesn’t take bipolar, or any of the other problems raised – and boy, we’re not short of dysfunctionality here, we’ve got drug use, homelessness, underage sex – seriously. He’s clearly done his research, but perhaps this is part of the problem, this novel doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart, but from the textbook. And while the novel is well constructed – I liked the conceit of framing each chapter with the notes from Rachel’s posthumous exhibition – and a thoughtful one, it was, for me at least, as dramatically gripping as a cream tea and not as enjoyable. But I can’t help feeling that I’m the one missing out…

by Suzanne Elliott

Film Review: Summer In February

Summer in February

Dan Stevens and Emily Browning in Summer In February

I feel a bit of a fraud writing a film review as I am not much of a film fan. In my cultural league, films languish mid-table, somewhere above medieval art and modern dance. There are many films I like, but no movie has ever had a life changing effect on me in the way books and music have, or had me absorbed like a great piece of theatre, work of art or even (even!) a brilliant TV series.

With some notable exceptions, I find modern movies too often derivative and unimaginative, especially those adapted all-too clumsily from books. It’s an oft touted cliche that film adaptations of books are inferior to the original, but the only film I’ve enjoyed more than the original novel was Trainspotting and I suspect that had a lot to do with the soundtrack and Ewan McGregor.

Where books can be multi-layered, rich in detail and introspective, films are often one- dimensional, conventional and necessarily plot-driven, hitting viewers over the head with symbolism, character traits and spelling the details out to us like the popcorn-munching idiots they think we are.

Sometimes it’s simply Hollywood’s arrogance that ruins book adaptations, with directors and scriptwriters believing they can do a better job than, say, this jumped up writer called Thackery can do (what Mira Nair did to his Vanity Fair in her 2004 film still makes me angry years after subjecting myself to it).

I read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February last year after hearing about a film version that was, at the time, being shot.

Intrigued by the synopsis I sought out the novel, keen to get in with my ‘but the book was better’ opinion before anyone else. The film, out this week, is scripted by Jonathan Smith himself, looks lovely and sticks pretty rigidly to the original story – although the skeletal version of it. Understandably, Smith reins in the details and focuses on the love triangle between Florence Carter-Wood, Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings and our hero Gilbert Evans, while Laura and Harold Knight, Joey Carter-Wood are amongst the characters swept largely off the screen (a particular shame in Laura Knight’s case; she was an intriguing character and played by the brilliant Hattie Morahan could have been a scene-stealer). But romance and scenery are what sell cinema tickets and Summer in February has both in spades.

Based on a true story, the film follows the gentle, eminently sensible Gilbert Evans, an estate manager in the Cornwall coastal town of Lamorna. He’s resolutely middle of the road is our Gilbert, but he finds himself taken into the bosom of the bohemian artist set, in particular by the captivating horse-loving painter AJ Munnings. They have sing-alongs in pubs and matey chats while trotting on horseback along the beach, avoiding the life-drawing nude models. Then Florence Carter-Wood turns up as Australian Emily Browning whose lovely cheekbones and pouty lips soon bewitch both AJ and Gilbert. Their story – in short: a marriage, a death, a trip to London, lots of drinking, a bit of painting – all takes places against the beautiful backdrop of Lamorna which is everything you want from a Cornwall movie scene, all frothy waves, spectacular cliffs and a lovely sandy beach. Well played Cornwall.

The actors are all perfectly fine; no one does spurned-in-love puppy-dog sadness like Dan Stevens while Dominic Cooper, who I thought too slight, too young, too unassuming to play the demonstrative, overbearing, charismatic AJ Mannings strikes a good line between being a sexy bad boy and an oafish bore. I liked him; AJ isn’t a bad man, just one that lacks that sensitivity chip.  Emily Browning pouts beautifully and is winsome and fragile enough, but she’s concentrating so hard on her (very good) cut-glass English accent that for the most part she forgets to inject Florence with a personality.

Summer In February is lovely wet Sunday afternoon kind of film. The intensity and spell-binding passion and intrigue of the original may have been swept away like a sandcastle at high tide, but what’s left is pretty and enchanting. Just make sure you read the book too…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Summer in February by Jonathan Smith


What is it about the beginning of the 20th century that fascinates us so much right now? From Downton Abbey’s first two series, to Parade’s End and the recent television production of Birdsong, those late Edwardian years seem to be the era of choice for TV writers. Do those last years of a fragile world, shattered by the First World War, resonate with our own uncertain times? Maybe in the face of so much unknown, we’re fascinated by those years of contentment giving way to such horrors? Or perhaps it’s simply the rather fabulous frocks and clipped accents?

Jonathan Smith’s 1910s based Summer in February pre-dates our current Edwardian-obsession and has now been adapted into a film, set to be released early next year, starring Dan ‘cousin Matthew’ Stevens and Dominic Cooper. It might share a timeframe with other recent cultural highlights, but Summer in February isn’t simply a tale of posh people in big houses bracing themselves for the end of the world as they know it; it’s a tale of the extraordinary, ordinary people that made up the Lamorna artist community, led by artist and horse lover Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings.

The book opens with Munnings making his famous final speech as Chairman of the Royal Academy. He gives a damning, if rather incoherent, diatribe on modern art, before stumbling on a word that transports him back thirty years when, as a young artist he moved to Lamorna in Cornwall and became part of the larger group of Newlyn School of artists. The son of a Suffolk farmer, Munnings rather belly-flops into this quiet community, demanding everyone looks up from their easels and pay attention to him – which they duly do.

His attention, meanwhile, is drawn to the beautiful Florence ‘Blote’ Carter-Wood whose resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus mesmerises him and it’s not long before she soon goes from his model and muse to his wife. But the partnership that works so well on canvas doesn’t translate into real life and the marriage is a catastrophic disaster from day one.

And the reason? While AJ may demand our attention, at the heart of this novel (he even gets his own first-person chapter) is Major Gilbert Evans, local landowner Colonel Paynter’s (although he’s not one) land agent. A gentle foil to Alfred, he’s a quietly magnetic figure – and we’re not the only ones drawn to him, he’s already stolen Blote’s heart before she agreed to marry Alfred, himself equally dependent on his new friend.

Gilbert – or ‘Ev’ as he’s known to AJ – is the opposite of the bullish, boisterous Munnings – quiet, gentle, sensitive and selfless – he too falls head-over-heels in love with Florence. He is heartbroken at being passed over for Munnings and attempts to retreat from the newly engaged couple only to be drawn back into their lives when it becomes apparent to Blote, and Alfred, that they can’t survive – quite literally in Florence’s case – without him in their lives.

Rather than keeping her at arms length, Gilbert, ever the gentleman, takes Blote under his (outwardly) brotherly-like arm at Alfred’s request. For a while this love-triangle remains chaste with an uneasy, unspoken truce between Blote and Gilbert, until Gilbert, at breaking point, makes the decision to flee his agonising situation and accepts a job offer in Nigeria. His decision is the catalyst Florence needs, and in their few precious remaining weeks, the pair embark on a passionate love affair.

In addition to the three lovebirds, there’s a lively host of other characters including artist (Dame) Laura Knight and her quiet, but all-seeing, husband, Harold. The wild Cornish coast and the quirks, obsessions and passions of the community are beautifully, understatedly drawn by Jonathan Smith. He’s not an elaborate writer, his prose is economical and precise, but with a beauty and richness that belies his simple style. He evokes the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the prickling sweat on a unnaturally hot February day and Gilbert’s heavy heart so wonderfully that you can almost taste the salty sea water (or maybe that was my tears at Gilbert’s predicament).

The one character that remains as two-dimensional (I believe intentionally so) as a painting is Florence. What we know of her, we know through the eyes of the two men in her life. At first she seems like another privileged idle woman, but through her early sittings with Alfred and later meetings with Gilbert, we get glimpses of the woman behind the paintings, but she still largely remains an enigma, a beautiful figure on horseback sat passively in the dappled shade. We hear nothing of her thoughts or feelings. We never learn why she chose Alfred over Gilbert only to then regret her decision so suddenly and with such gruesome results.

I don’t think Florence’s ephemeral nature is a failing on Smith’s part to draw her, I think he’s making a point that she was an almost powerless woman in a time when female voices were silenced, even upper class ones. And Blote isn’t just a pawn in a man’s world, she’s also trapped and controlled by her mind that will ultimately destroy her.

Summer in February is one of those books that you want to buy all your friends copies of. It’s beautiful, haunting, powerful and, at times, very funny, book about fascinating people in a fascinating time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Summer in February is reissued on 23 May 2013, £8.99 from Waterstones.