Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The hipster scene…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.

In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.

While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Book 4
Book 4

34 thoughts on “Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

  1. This does sound really interesting, FictionFan! The setting, the context, it all sounds great – so does the publishing context. And it’s so nice to hear about new authors who are creating fresh, new characters. Time and a good editor will hopefully help her develop the ‘polish’ that makes a book memorable.

    • I loved the time period and setting and think she’s great at creating them – I’m sure in time she’ll learn how to get the balance right between creating something complete and providing too much detail. And her characterisation is brilliant. One to watch, for sure!

  2. Firstly I have to say that this is a beautifully written review, FF! It sounds like Rindell is a very skilled writer indeed and the characterisation of Cliff sounds magnificent. It’s not the sort of thing to grab my interest, but I find myself really rooting for Rindell to do really, really well in her career!

    • Why, thank you, kind ma’am! Her characterisation and ‘voice’ is brilliant – the two books are in different time periods but each time she’s really caught the feel of the language of the time. I suspect she’s going to have a long and successful career… hope so! The films rights of her first book were snapped up by Keira Knightley – can’t be bad!

        • Ha! She’s probably been working at it for years, though – I always think of Peter May, who became an overnight success with The Blackhouse. He’d been writing for about thirty years at that point… 😉

          • Ah, yes – the ‘overnight success’ – people don’t realise that poor writers (and musicians and the like) have spent years in soul destroying obscurity before all the good stuff starts to happen! There’s hope for me yet… 😉

            • Yep, so much of it is just down to chance. With Peter May, his sudden success was because Richard and Judy featured one of his books, so after years of plodding along with a small but loyal following, he became a megastar! So if you ever meet Richard (or indeed, Judy!), flirt!!! Like mad!!! 😉

  3. Both of her books are on my (endless) TBR and I loved reading your review. The Village scene and time period are intriguing to me and I am a huge literary fiction fan, so this sounds right up my alley.

    • I sat on The Other Typist for ages, but I’m so glad I got to it in the end, and then rushed to read this one. Neither book is unflawed in terms of structure, but the characterisation and writing makes up for any weaknesses. Hope you enjoy them! 🙂

  4. Not totally convinced I want to read this one, FF, but you’ve done an outstanding review. Perhaps the cumbersomeness of the middle section was begging for an editor?? At any rate, I admit that character studies can make for interesting books — I just prefer something with a bit more ACTION, ha!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I constantly wonder why editors aren’t tougher about keeping the structure tight – it’s such a common problem at the moment. Of course, maybe it’s me – maybe other readers really enjoyed getting absorbed in the scene-setting. There’s a fair amount of action in the later part of the book, though… 🙂

  5. I’m not sure that this one is as much to my taste as The Other Typist partly due to the sagging middle section – as much as I love the exploration of characters I do prefer the storyline to move along at the same time. A great review, as always though and it’s always a bonus when I’m not overly drawn to one that you review 😉

    • Yes, I did struggle with that long first half. The Other Typist is definitely more typically crime, though even then it’s not at all clichéd – I love that her plots feel fresh and original. This one has a crime in it too, but I didn’t feel that was enough to make it a ‘crime novel’, if you know what I mean.

  6. It’s always interesting to watch a new author develop. I agree about editing, so many books would benefit from the skillful use of the red pen!

    • Yes, some of them seem to take several books while others just seem to dive right in. Rindell’s a diver, I think, but hopefully will keep developing too. I’m sure they must get paid by the word…

  7. Not to put too much of a downer on things, but don’t you find that there’s too much historical fiction around these days? Every time I encounter a new book, it seems to be set in the past. It’s not like there weren’t plenty of writers on the scene at the time. There are loads of novels around about 50s New York written by people who were really there.

    • There is a lot of it going around and I do like literary authors to try to say something about their own time. But I also think historical fiction can look at things from a different perspective from people who were writing at the time – some of whom probably weren’t even aware of their own prejudices, or may have felt they coudn’t tackle subjects that can be more openly discussed today. I’m always wary though of modern attitudes being forced on historical characters, which happens too often in historical fiction… but Rindell manages to avoid that pretty much completely.

    • Thank you! 😀 And hurrah! Yes, I do think you might enjoy this one, probably more than her other one in fact. I’d be intrigued to see if you feel her New York feels as authentic as I did – I know neither of us was there at that time(!) but at least you know New York, whereas my impression of it comes strictly from books, films and TV.

  8. This sounds really good. I fear that if she wasn’t stopped from being over the top with the content in the first one, she won’t stop doing that for a good while, what a shame. But great to see a good new talent coming through and producing decent and different books.

    • I’m hoping that maybe she’ll learn from reading reviews – loads of reviews are saying similar things… love the book but too long before it gets properly underway. But I do love her writing and am really interested to see how she develops – a talent to watch!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, a great setting for a story and she captured it so well. I’ll be sticking with her for sure, so perhaps I’ll be able to tempt you to one of her future books sometime…

  9. Great review! I must get to this; I thought The Other Typist a promising debut, and I’ve had this for a bit but wasn’t sure whether to go for it, as I hadn’t read any reviews. It sounds great, though – at least, once it gets moving halfway through!

    • Thank you! 😀 This one’s much less typically crime than The Other Typist, though as you know it was fairly untypical too. This one does have a crime but it’s almost secondary to the story. I’m surprised actually that it hasn’t had many reviews after the success of The Other Typist – maybe because it’s more lit-ficcy? I hope you enjoy it – I think you will…

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