Reviews Round-up: Atwood, Wolitzer and Danahar

The critics' verdict on Atwood, Wolitzer, Danahar and Ripley

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

With MaddAddam Margaret Atwood concludes her “speculative fiction” trilogy, which began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. In the final instalment, the focus shifts to Toby, who plays a more minor role in the first two books, and sees the subplots and loose ends rounded off and tied up as Attwood’s satirical dystopia reaches its climax.

Sarah Churchwell, writing in the New Statesman magazine, found the conclusion to be a little too neat for the tone of the trilogy noting that “One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly”.  While not unimpressed by the finale, she still rates the opener as the “tour de force of the trilogy”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, however, was spellbound by the finale, suggesting that Attwood’s witchlike ability to charm her reader would have had her burnt at the stake in times gone by. Her cutting prose is “diamond edged and perfectly pitched” and while Churchwell might think it is unnatural that the subplots of the previous two works are brought together so conveniently, Adair feels that “MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories”. He concludes that, in this case, three is better than one or two as “Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in a way that could not have been foreseen in the first two books”.

James Kidd of the Independent was also impressed by final work, commending both Atwood’s reflective side (“It ends with a bravura meditation on the power, consolations and endurance of literature itself”) and her subtle humour (“Atwood is not always praised as a comic writer, but MaddAddam reveals a fondness for bad puns, off-beat one liners and some inventive running gags”). He judges Atwood to have given an almost distressingly accurate reflection on humanity in all its depravity concluding that “It is not always a pretty picture, but it is true for all that.”

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s tenth book The Interestings follows a group of otherwise unremarkable American teenagers, who meet at a summer camp in New York, as the unquenchable excitement of youth gives way to the inevitable dreariness of middle age in a tale that has received a positive response from critics.

For the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson, it is a breakthrough novel, worthy of five stars and a gleaming review. She is charmed by Wolitzer’s wit “which can even make clinical depression entertaining” and impressed her “fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend’s new walk-in refrigerator”. Above all, Pearson hails The Interestings as “a great feminist novel” concluding that “Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys’ League, it’s her.”

Rachel Cusk, writing for the Guardian, acknowledges that the plot-line might be considered somewhat “old-fashioned” but thoroughly enjoyed the novel, calling it “essentially a cheerful enterprise with a guaranteed entertainment value” and attributing to Wolitzer a “knack for comic-satirical perceptions of character and culture”. Whilst she laments the occasional excess of “narrative bulk” she ultimately concludes that the reader is constantly “waiting to see what happens next”.

In the Independent, Holly Williams gives the novel another positive reception, hailing in particular Wolitzer’s brilliance in writing about “normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous.” She finds it refreshing that the heroine “isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous”. Williams also points out the success of Wolitzer’s socio-historical contextualisation and concludes that although the prose is sometimes forced, and she thinks that Wolitzer occasionally and unhelpfully indulges her “urge to run down every available narrative track”, ultimately “this novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed."

The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, by Paul Danahar

In The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring Paul Danahar reveals his own insights on the Arab Spring, having worked on the "axis of evil" during the revolution. In vivid prose, Danahar narrates the events that removed the "stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships" from the Arab Continent and have yet to reform: he notes that the end product is still an unknown entity.

Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for the Guardian, considers that the book is somewhat out of its depth; despite "a smattering of horror" and "exotic frisson" he concludes that there is "little to surprise an even moderately attentive reader of the foreign news." Indeed, the paper mocks Danahar’s willingness to embrace the obvious when stating that "in war, seconds and inches are the difference between life and death." There are also criticisms of the content itself: Danahar seems to have neglected the ever-changing nature of the situation when writing that the Arab Spring has left "a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam." In fact, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party has been toppled in Egypt and Assad’s Shia regime continues to remain in power. De Bellaigue also appears to be mildly amused by the author’s naivety; to the statement, "God has returned to the Middle East," de Bellaigue responds "did he ever leave?"

However, the New Statesman’s Philip Maughan offers a more sympathetic view. He reminds us of Danahar’s expertise, running "the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013," before describing how the book leads us to some important questions concerning these newborn democratic states, nominally difficult matters of "statehood, secularism and religion."

Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph, also shares some of the Guardian’s concerns; he criticises the scapegoat Danahar places on "the shortcomings of American intervention" whilst ignoring Al-Qaeda’s nihilistic resistance. Freeman feels that this is completely paradoxical to the Arab Spring itself, for it adopts "that old mentality that still dogs the Arab world – namely, that whatever goes wrong, someone elsewhere is always to blame." This mantra appears contrary to the progressive mindset that typifies the Arab Spring.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Amanda Ripley condemns the grim state of American education, reiterating the view that is rife contemporary politics. She answers the pressing question "What exactly is happening in classrooms in foreign countries that are out-performing the U.S.A?" by spending time at the heart of the action: she follows three American teenagers choosing to take a year out as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. She presents the startling effects this has on their academic performance and attempts to discover what other countries are doing right and the U.S. is doing wrong.

Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, tells potential readers Ripley’s book will "amaze you" and agrees that she drives home some very accurate points on America’s failing schools: "kids are bored, mentally unchallenged and could do so much more with their time."

The Huffington Post’s Jonathon Edelman shares Keller’s view that Ripley’s book is "gripping" and admires her "fascinating characters" and "fresh observations." He admires that, "Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around," and is adamant that Ripley’s suggested improvements to America’s educational system – "parent involvement, heightened levels of expectation and well respected teachers" – ought to be at the core of the organisation and inculcated into its pupils.  

The Economist agrees that Ripley’s "wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading" and praises the "startling amount of insight" the book offers. The reviewer connects with Ripley’s frustration at America’s focus on "tracking students at different cognitive levels" where "low expectations are often duly rewarded" and, like Ripley, laments "the perverse sort of compassion that prevents American teachers from failing bad students."   

The consensus suggests that this book successfully crystallises why America’s schools are declining; the reviewers all hope that the contempt for the American education system this book breeds will spark a desperately needed overhaul.

Joe Iles and Irfan Allana

Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Getty Images
Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror