I first heard of Richard Ford around Christmas 2013 when his novel ‘Canada’ was reviewed and recommended among the Guardian Christmas reads. Suddenly everyone had heard of this book-we decided to read it for book group, some old uni friends were passing it back and forth and I really enjoyed this story of children who had lost their parents and the evocation of the vast expanses of Canada. A friend mentioned that she had even enjoyed Ford’s book ‘The Sportswriter’, despite having no interest in sport, so when I saw it lying about at the Hathersage book sale for 50 p I had to pick it up. It stayed on the pile on the hall table for a month or two, then inveigled its way into my rucksack as a holiday read, thereby confounding at least two of my recent self imposed reading guidelines- not to read any more novels about American family life, to prioritise novels which would tell me about things I didn’t know already (far flung places, different cultures)-these first two sort of go together- and to favour novels written by women. That first criterion is already tricky: on the one hand it seems as if America is so familiar, we’ve been reading American literature at school ,at uni, watching American films and TV forever,of course its all tediously familiar and predictable. Except of course it’s not- so much difference in culture hides behind a common language and here I was surprised by the main character, an educated guy, going to a fortune teller -what for? advice? solace? ( And since reading ‘The Goldfinch’ where Theo’s father is also driven by astrology I’m wondering if this is really a pervasive phenomenon?), also by the incredible primacy of sport in the lives of Americans, obviously the book is about a sports journalist, so it’s bound to be a feature, but actually the importance of sport for less obvious characters like the teachers at the minor American college. As for the third criterion- avoiding the books by men- when I got to Frank Bascombe’s confession that one way he dealt with the loss of his son was to sleep with numerous women, I felt like chucking the book in the bin, thinking ‘here we go again, men and sex,…’ but didn’ t because what kept me going was the portrayal of his character as someone complex, attractive, witty with the gift of the gab as far as women were concerned, which landed him in some comic situations. This lightness contrasted deliberately with the more serious and consuming affair he has with a colleague, consummated just after his wife and children have left when we really see what he is capable of. But by this time, Ford’s narrative skill has really drawn us in, so that even I kept on reading: this is a strong first person narrative where we, the reader, are directly addressed. We may balk at Bascombe’s philandering but the understated way in which Ford drops references to Bascombe’s grief into the narrative is convincing and moving. Ford is also a master of dialogue and creator of character through dialogue; we see some minor characters, his ex father in law, Fincher Barksdale, his neighbour Delia, entirely through their conversations with Frank, and Ford’s ear for the language of men and women across a whole range of age and class backgrounds is remarkable. So I did really enjoy this book despite it lying outside the remit and was interested to see in the Guardian’s Autumn reads that Richard Fords’ fourth book about Frank Bascombe, ‘ Let me be Frank with you’ is being published in November. I won’t rush out and buy it but would happily pick it up in a sale in a few years’ time.
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