Where Rainbows End was published in 2004 (I know, I know, I’ve gone back ten years; but as the film’s coming out this year I’m still feeling pretty relevant). It tells the story of Rosie and Alex, best friends from childhood. It goes through their lives from the age of seven to fifty, covering all the muddles, misunderstandings and unexpected babies in-between
This is a book about the intertwining lives of two people who somehow keep missing each other. It is definitely my sort of love story. The five or so people fortunate (I use the term loosely) enough to have read lots of my writing may understand what I mean by that. I’m also in general a big fan of novels that span a large period of time. Admittedly, Where Rainbows End lacks the historicism that often appeals to me in books like that, being vaguely set in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century, in a world where the internet existed but mobile phones did not (which probably didn’t actually last for the forty years it does in the novel). Still, I did enjoy watching the characters age.
In general I have slight reservations about epistolary novels. Admittedly I haven’t all that read many since I was a child, but I alwaus sort of feel they allow a bit of a cop out, that writers are able to hide behind their character’s bad or mediocre writing. I’m not sure this is absolutely true. For truly brilliant writers (as with Coulombeau, who I reviewed last week), good writing shines through the characters’ voices and enhances them. Here, Ahern is able to get away with fairly indistinct voices through the epistolary form. With the exception of Alex’s misspelling of ‘know’ as ‘no’ (which began cute and became a bit jarring), I didn’t think the character’s voices were that developed or distinct. They spoke and wrote to each other normally, but it was always the plot, and never once the writing, that I appreciated. It’s not that Where Rainbows End contains a lot of bad writing so much as that there isn’t all that much actively good writing present. The story is strong, the style less so. The novel lacks poetry, and when it does attempt to be poetic it comes across as forced and ridiculous.
This is another problem with the epistolary form. Take, for example, the letter Rosie writes Alex describing Dublin in June. If it were not a letter from one friend to another, this would be a strong section of description. However, as it is it reads as simply silly. No one would ever write that to a friend. The only way Ahern would be able to justify it would be if, say, Rosie was an aspiring writer and sending work to Alex. As it stands, the description simply feels out of place. Alex commenting on how ‘poetic’ her last letter was doesn’t change the fact that the description is out of character.
Character is in fact another issue I have with this book. Apart from Alex and Rosie – and Ruby, who was perhaps my favourite character – I don’t really feel like you get to know the other people in the novel. Again I think this again may be a side effect of the epistolary form. Other than one or two of Rosie’s ‘notes to self’, you never get to see properly inside anybody’s head. Several of the minor characters, such as Philip and Stephanie, feel as if they were only there to function as confident to Alex and Rosie respectively, so that we know what they’re feeling. Meanwhile, the characters of Greg, Sally or Bethany also seem to be plot devices more than humans. Katie and Toby seem primarily (although not entirely, I’ll admit) to exist as a mirror of Rosie and Alex. None of these characters feel like people; we never see enough of them to understand them in any way. I wonder if this is often the case with stories like this (I found a similar situation in Rowell’s Eleanor and Park), but aside from Rosie and Alex themselves, the other characters feel undeveloped. The exception here was Ruby, who I thought was fantastically drawn, and consistently hilarious.
As it may so far have somewhat escaped your notice, I do feel I ought to say that I did actually really enjoy this novel. The plot is gripping, and I like watching the aging and developing relationship between Rosie and Alex. It’s at times a frustrating book, full of clever missed opportunities and misunderstandings – which, plot wise, are impressive, because I imagine such things are relatively hard to engineer in this world of internet and instant communication. And while the ultimate mechanics and ending of the plot may be a little predictable, all the twists and turns along the way are not.
You grow, over the novel’s five-hundred or so pages and fifty or so years, to really care about Alex and Rosie, which I always think is a good sign. The novel is also moving at times and, if it doesn’t manage to capture a breadth of character, it does manage to capture a breadth and depth of feeling within those characters it does focus on.
Another thing. Where Rainbows End is funny. I mean, it’s not all light humour, but there were several bits that just made me smile, and several more bits that made me laugh aloud. Ruby, as I mentioned before, is very funny, and at times so is Rosie. Their conversations are unfailingly enjoyable to amuse me.
So, is this the greatest novel ever written? Probably not. It’s cheesy, frustrating, and often overdone. But it’s also lovely, moving and entertaining. And worth a read.
I’m also rather excited for the film, rebranded as Love Rosie, to come out next year:
Greatest strength: The plot, and Rosie and Alex themselves.
Greatest weakness: I’m inclined to say either the form, which I found a bit limiting, or the fact that most of the minor characters were fairly undeveloped.
Let’s finish on a quote: Ruby: ...What's so good about being 20? I call them the materialist years. The years we get distracted by all the bulls***. Then we cop on when we hit our 30s and spend those years trying to make up for the 20s. But your 40s? Those years are for enjoying it.
Rosie: Hmmm good point. What are the 50s for?
Ruby: Fixing what you f***ed up in your 40s.
Thank you Céline for the recommendation!
Next week: The Life of a Banana, by PP Wong