Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Favourite Wife, Bill Parsons (book review)

Posted by lea at 10:47 PM
Apparently Tony Parsons (my 'P' author for the Great Library Challenge) has sold a ton of books so I decided to give this one a go. The short verdict: failed to grab me.

The protagonist is Bill Holden, a 'good' man and ambitious lawyer who, in his drive to make partner, moves to Shanghai with his beautiful and intelligent wife Becca and their adorable four year old daughter Holly. If they sound typical, it's because they are. The family is a walking, talking, one-dimensional modern cliche of the Western world.

Becca, who initiated the move, finds the craziness of Shanghai overwhelming (a major factor being the discarded baby she finds in the trash of their luxury highrise apartment, populated largely by the 'second wives' (a.k.a. mistresses) of rich men) and takes Holly back to London for a while. During her absence, Bill takes up with JinJin, a local leggy second wife who is lonely during the long absences of her married partner.

Parsons paints Bill as a man caught between two worlds: troubled by the corruption he finds in the dizzying economic growth of Shanghai and trapped between two loves. Although most of the ingredients are there (Bill is genuinely interested in the plight of second wives and feels more keenly for the Chinese locals than his Western counterparts), his character never quite reaches the complexity required to engage our empathy. Parsons' attempt to keep Bill high-minded backfires quite badly too, as it smacks of Western elitism and hypocrisy, because when you strip away the facade, the basic fact is that he is cheating on his wife with a local, just like many other men before him. The layers of supposed complexity are simply that: contrived to make his affair with JinJin appear more a matter of the heart than the other major male organ.

Normally I quite like hearing the male perspective in modern fiction (Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper for example), but I just couldn't find the connection point with this novel, so it totally failed to engage me. Sorry Mr Parsons.

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