Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Why not Bulgaria?

😦

Sweet CaressIn the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decided to emulate her uncle Greville and become a professional photographer. Many years later, Amory reminisces about where her profession has taken her over the years. And of course it has taken her to all the places we’d expect – the decadence of ‘30s Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, WW2, Vietnam, in most of which places, this being a Boyd book, she has sex with a “scandalous” edge – married men, women, etc.

I’m afraid I abandoned this halfway through, after it taking me over a month to get to that point. I used to love William Boyd and still think his earlier books, and an occasional later one, are great stories well told. But recently I’ve found myself struggling to get up any real interest in the lives of his characters or in their stories. This one has been told before and told better by Boyd himself, in Any Human Heart, the story of a man who lived through all the major events of the twentieth century (and had lots of sex). Why Boyd felt it would be a good idea to do it again with a female lead beats me, but even if I wasn’t having strong feelings of déjà vu I doubt if Avery would have won my heart.

The thing about her is that she goes to these interesting places – Berlin, London, New York – and seems to miss everything interesting about them, perhaps because she spends so much time in bedrooms. I found myself wearily wishing that just once an author would find somewhere new to explore rather than the overtrodden path of Nazis/WW2, etc. Not to labour the point, but the twentieth century lasted for a hundred years and involved countries other than the UK, the USA and Germany. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some author leapt into the unknown and took us to, say, Bulgaria, or Bahrain, or Venezuela? I assume something must have happened in these countries over the course of a century. I know, I know – plenty of authors have gone further afield, but I was feeling bored and a little bitter while I was musing. Boyd used to be one of the authors to whom I looked to expand my fictional horizons, but recently his books feel safely settled in the overly familiar.

He also uses an odd device in this one, which I feel doesn’t work at all. Over the years in real life, he has collected random photographs from sales, etc., which he presents here as Amory’s work. This meant that, firstly, it often felt to me that he was manipulating the story to fit round the photos so that oddly random episodes would be included, like Amory briefly working as a fashion photographer, which didn’t sit well with the character or the overall thrust of her life. Secondly, the photos are not particularly special – for the most part they are rather mundane snaps of people doing random things. I felt that if these were supposed to highlight Amory’s talent, then the poor girl clearly didn’t have much.

Boyd, William
William Boyd

My other major complaint is that Amory comes over as such a passive character, which I don’t think was Boyd’s intent at all. I think he was trying to portray her as adventurous, daring, ahead of her time – an early example of a woman playing men at their own game. But at every step of her life (up to the halfway mark when I gave up), every job she gets is arranged for her by a man – her photographer uncle, her rich lover, and so on. Even when she crosses to Berlin to photograph the seedy side of life with a view to gaining some notoriety, she does so at her uncle’s suggestion and funded by his money, and on her return, it is he who arranges her exhibition and tempts the interest of the press. Amory fades to near invisibility in terms of her own input to the trajectory of her life.

So, bored and dismal, I gave up. Sorry, Mr Boyd!

People's Choice LogoBook 6 of 12

Oh dear, People! This was Your Choice for June, and I don’t blame you at all – I had high hopes for it myself. But I fear it turned out to be a major fail. Oh, well! 😥🤪😥

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56 thoughts on “Sweet Caress by William Boyd

  1. Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy’s mostly set in Romania, and Diane Pearson’s Csardas is set in Hungary, just for a couple of different settings. I’m trying to think of something set in Bulgaria! Margaret Pemberton’s Zadruga is set in Serbia. But, yes, I get very fed up of Second World War books – there are so many set in concentration camps that it’s starting to feel a little distasteful, as if people want to use horrific events to boost book sales.

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    • Oh, excellent recommendations! I’ve heard of Olivia’s Manning’s Balkan books before, but not the others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Bulgaria. Yes, I’m increasingly unhappy about our fascination with romanticising the Holocaust – it doesn’t seem healthy to me, almost as if we’re nostalgic about it rather than disgusted by it.

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  2. Oh well, at least it’s off your list now. I can’t see myself having patience for this book either. Boyd is an author I feel as if I’ve read, but on checking I find I haven’t yet, but I do have Brazzaville Beach on my TBR list.

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    • I liked a lot of his early stuff, and Brazzaville Beach is a great novel which I’m sure you’ll enjoy. But recently I feel he’s been off form more often than he’s been on. He always wrote about sex quite a lot but now that seems to have become the major menu item for his characters whereas it used to be a side dish. And he’s running on comfortable well worn tracks in terms of stories and settings rather than forging out in new directions.

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  3. I agree – the 20th century was so full of political upheaval and change all over the world, and the narrow focus on Western Europe (especially the UK and Germany) and the US gets very tedious.

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    • It really does. Even if authors feel they must concentrate on the war, as if that was all that happened in the 20th century, I do wish they’d take us to different parts of it sometimes. I feel I’ve visited decadent Berlin so often I must have frequent flyer miles by now… 😉

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  4. Oh, and it seemed like such a good premise, too, FictionFan! I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t turn out that way for you. It’s funny that you mention Boyd using a similar plot device in two books. I wonder if an editor or publisher or someone did the ‘Well, it worked last time..’ sort of thing? In any case, I see your point about getting a look at what was going on outside the bedroom in those interesting places. Sorry to hear this didn’t work better for you.

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    • I don’t know why he decided to do it again – a very odd choice. And somehow his male character having sex around the world seemed more credible than a woman of that era doing the same, though I’m probably showing my own sexism there! But I wish if he felt he had to do it, he could somehow have made her able to make her own opportunities rather than getting all her breaks through the men in her life. Oh well!

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  5. It’s funny you mentioned Bulgaria, something I looked into recently to compare to extremism in UK in the interwar period. In 1934 the king turned into a dictator, so I imagine that would have offered a lot of interesting details for a book. It’s a shame you did not like this one, hopefully there will be better ones soon.

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    • Now that is a fascinating fact, and one I’ve never heard about before – wouldn’t that be a wonderful basis for a novel? I do wish authors would step off the beaten track of the two world wars occasionally – it seems to me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said…

      Haha, I just looked up the king/dictator and I see he was another Boris… 😉

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  6. Ooh, another one-star review, right on the heels of the last one — well panned, FF! I haven’t read this one and have no intention to, but I get such a kick out of reading reviews on books you didn’t like.

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    • My recommendation is always for Brazzaville Beach, which is great! But a lot of his earlier books are excellent – it’s only been in the last decade or so he seems to be running in comfortable well-worn tracks… and bedrooms!

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  7. I’m feeling a bit smug since this was not my pick (or even second choice) for June. Even the cover of it puts me off for some odd reason. At least it’s off the TBR pile now.

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    • Hahaha, see, you should have voted for your pick twenty times and saved me! I did think this might be good – I’ve loved loads of his books in the past – but sadly this was nowhere near his best. 😦

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    • I don’t know why he did it, and I suppose it might work better for people who hadn’t read the earlier one, but I found it just made me make comparisons which didn’t do this one any favours…

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  8. I know I didn’t vote for this one so I feel good about that! 😉 Too much time spent in the bedroom, ho hum, sounds rather tedious. Good for you for abandoning it even if you made it halfway. Sometimes if I get that far I feel like “Oh well, I might as well finish.” Why??

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    • There is something about male authors over the age of sixty – they seem to spend an awful lot of time in the bedroom and not for afternoon naps! ) I usually just reach a point where I realise I’m doing things purely to avoid reading and that’s when I know to give up. It’s either that or end up in a complete reading slump…

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  9. Yes, yes and yes. My reaction was pretty much the same though I think I struggled through to the end. I loved a couple of his earlier books but this one was SUCH a disappointment that I’ve been leery about picking up any more.

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    • Ah, I’m glad it wasn’t just me! Yes, I was a big Boyd fan for years and still think he’s written some great books, but recently he seems to be off form more often than he’s on. I think I need to stop reading his newer ones since I feel bad about giving a favourite author negative reviews… 😦

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  10. Oh… that’s disappointing. His most recent book, Trio, was very good, though. I reviewed it on my blog. But if you’re looking for a WWII book that doesn’t take place in Europe or the US, how about “When We Were Young and Brave” (aka “The Bird in the Bamboo Cage”) by Hazel Gaynor, which takes place in China under the occupation of the Japanese. I reviewed it on my blog as well.

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  11. Sorry that this one didn’t work for you! As a Bulgarian I can say that Bulgaria is very often forgotten by authors. I don’t remember the last time I came across the country in a book!

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    • I didn’t know you were Bulgarian! Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Bulgaria or seen a Bulgarian book translated into English. I do get fed up with authors running on well worn tracks when there must be so many stories out there no one has ever told before…

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  12. I’m completely with you about there being far too much coverage of WWII in fiction, especially from the perspective of Germany, the UK or USA. I have no desire to read any more, certainly for a long time, so I will keep away from this one. I don’t remember voting for it, I think it might have been the month I was having tech issues, so my conscience is clear for once. Another great one star review to add to the collection.

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    • I usually avoid them too, and on the rare occasion I do read one I usually end up wishing I hadn’t. If they must tell WW2 stories I wish they’d find a new perspective – there really can’t be much left to say about the three major countries, or France. I’m not sure it’s healthy wither for us to be so nostalgic about a war. Haha, OK, you’re off the hook – but actually I’d probably have voted for this one myself, so I don’t blame The People… this time… 😉

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    • His earlier books were often great, though he’s always been variable. But recently he seems to be off form more often than he’s on, and I suspect it’s time for me to stop reading them – I hate giving negative reviews to favourite authors. 😦

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  13. I’ve put off reading this one for all the reasons you’ve given: how smug I feel now! (Although I have no idea if I voted you into having to read it for me FF 😲 If I did, my apologies and thanks in equal measure 😅) It’s disappointing though, and frankly seems rather lazy of Boyd.

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    • Haha, if you did, I forgive you! 😉 Yes, I’ve felt his last several books were kinda repeating things he’s done before and done better. It feels as if he’s run out of steam a bit. Of course, they might work better for newcomers who haven’t read his earlier stuff. But he used to take us to such interesting places, and now he seems to be set in a kind of mid-20th century European groove…

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