Friday, June 29, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Title: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar
Author: Suzanne Joinson

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / China / Missionaries / Cultural Differences / London / Parallel Plot Lines)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (6/4/2012)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: Sort of -- I started skipping sections to do so!
One-sentence summary: A British missionary in 1920s China and a modern Londoner have a common thread in this dual narrative novel.
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it so captures the bucolic ambiance of the the bicycling guide that the missionaries use, all polite and refined. It's delusional in the best way.

I'm reminded of...: Melissa Bank

First line: I unhappily report that even Bicycling for Ladies with hints as to the art of wheeling - advice to beginners - dress - care of the bicycle - mechanics - training - exercizes, etc. etc. cannot assist me in this current predicament: we find ourselves in a situation.

Does... this book win for best title of 2012?: YES. If not THE best, at least in the top ten.

Did... I contemplate taking up biking after this?: YES. Lackadaisical biking, of course, no mountains for me! I could kind of see myself on one of those old-fashioned bikes, pedaling slowly...and then my imagination runs out of energy.

Am... I desperately keen to read Joinson's next novel?: YES. Joinson's writing was lovely and I can't wait to see how she handles female pilots and inter-war London.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- the historical portion of this story is marvelous and must be read!

Why did I get this book?: The title and the cover -- I know, never judge blah blah -- but it's so pretty!

Review: I started this book on my evening commute home, more out of curiosity than any desire to dig in; when I lifted my head, I was at the end of my line, and nearly one hundred pages in. I was hooked -- sort of. In my flash judge-y way, I hadn't realized this was a dual narrative; I thought it was entirely a historical novel.

The story is split between two characters: Eva, a 1920s English missionary in Kashgar, China, and Frieda, a contemporary Londoner at the end of an affair. Eva and her sister Lizzie, freshly minted missionaries following the charismatic and commanding Millicent, end up in Kashgar, China, detained after Millicent assists in a birth that results in the mother's death. Millicent is enthralled with their circumstances and Lizzie keeps up with her photography, but Eva finds herself unlikely nursemaid to the orphaned infant, scared, worried, and overwhelmed. Her own project, writing a lady cyclist's guide to the East, doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

In contemporary London, freelance journalist Frieda meets Tayeb, a Yemeni man on the run from authorities. One night he sleeps in the hall of her building, leaving a beautiful drawing in his wake. When Frieda discovers she's inherited something, her pursuit of who -- and who her benefactress is -- connects her with Tayeb and her family's past.

In my opinion, Eva's story was marvelous. I loved her voice and her arc in the book: her doubts about Millicent, her doubts about her faith and missionary work, her concern for her increasingly dreamy-eyed sister, and her anxiety about the alarmingly foreign world she's in. I love 19th century travelogues and while this is 20th century, there's that wonderful (English) fish-out-of-water feel that I ate up. Frieda's story, however, was yawn-worthy and really should have been left out of the book -- or at least, plunked into another novel. She was having an affair with a married man, who was a total bore, and vaguely ignoring her free love parents. Her journalism work trotted her around the globe but she felt wildly pedestrian compared to Eva and her coterie. Even Tayeb and the mystery of Frieda's inheritance couldn't save her side of the story.

While this book might take best title for 2012, sadly, it just didn't totally win for me. Ultimately, this became a DNF as I got so sick of Frieda that I just started skipping her sections to remain in the portions with Eva. Eventually, Frieda's story connects with the one involving Eva's, and I liked that enough -- but not enough to go back and read Frieda's bits again.

I'd describe this book as slightly more chick-lit-y than hist-fic-y, but maybe that's because Frieda's sections felt fluffier than Eva's. A fun enough summer read -- might be fun for book clubs due to the differing voices -- and certainly pretty enough to carry on the train or show off at the beach!

13 comments:

  1. I've been very curious about this novel...mainly because of the title :-) I generally enjoy dual narratives, but often find I like one of the narratives much more than the other. It sounds as if I'll experience the same thing with this one.

    Thanks for the review.

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    1. I know, the title is amazing. The chapters all have little excerpts from the bicycle guide as well -- very fun. Others didn't hate Frieda has much as I did so you might dig it -- but I too often lean one way or the other when there are two voices telling a story.

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  2. This sounds interesting. It's too bad Frieda's voice was so bothersome.

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    1. As I told Melissa, other readers didn't feel so strongly about her so it very well could have been me.

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  3. I loved the title, too. Alas, the title was the thing I liked best about it, even after reading it. I didn't mind the Frieda sections, actually. It was just the book overall was too uneven and not particularly well written--and the "big reveal" for each woman was totally foreseen. still, i thought the concept was pretty interesting, despite my heavy skimming of the last 75 pages.

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  4. I have not been very successful with the dual-time narratives this year myself -- I always seem to like one story better than the other. Still, I really appreciated your honest review!

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    1. Normally I prefer one over another, but usually I like both enough to keep chugging along. This year I've been more annoyed by dual time narratives tho -- I was a bit aggravated by it in Lauren Willig's book and Katherine Webb's.

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  5. On the TBR pile for July -- the "chick-lit-y" description scares me a little but I'll try to have an open mind!

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    1. I could be being harsh! Have you read Lauren Groff's Monsters of Templeton? Frieda reminded me a bit of Willie -- who I couldn't stand -- so perhaps you'll like those bits more than me!

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  6. I liked this book a lot. I think I'm in the minority as although I preferred Eva's storyline, I liked Frieda's too, mainly because of Tayeb. I thought they connected in a satisfying way at the end.

    And I didn't know Joinson was writing another book - how exciting!

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  7. I've been on the fence about this one, but uneven dual narratives rarely work for me. I will be on the look out for the author's next book, however!

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    1. I'm reading another with dual narratives right now -- it's making me crazy! I'm super grinch-y these days, I guess -- it's killing me to be so cranky.

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  8. No.... I had high hopes for this one! Mainly because I'm a book cover dork and I thought the cover of this one was fantastic. Ah, well.

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