Thanksgiving Book Review: Still Life

Image from Amazon.com

I was so busy Nanowrimo-ing and having holidays, that I never read the Thanksgiving book that I had slotted for this year. Yes, there are some Thanksgiving books, though so far (the past two years) I have found them to be a stretch. This year, however, the book is clearly a Thanksgiving book while also being a murder mystery and, ahem, being Canadian.

Now, normally, reading a Canadian book doesn’t mean a whole lot of difference from an American book. However, this being a Thanksgiving book, you should be fore-warned: not only are the traditions going to be different so that you won’t find all the usual American Thanksgiving trappings, but you won’t even find quite the same season. (Aha! I had forgotten.) Thanksgiving in Canada is on the second Monday in October, and while the weather in Canada may be chillier and the winters longer, you might be surprised to find Thanksgiving in Still Life by Louise Penny to be an early-harvest holiday and the weather to be milder than expected. But now that you are warned, here is the real review. After this:

Disclaimer: This is Still Life by Louise Penny, not the new, breakaway novel of the same name by Sarah Winman. Likewise, the movie reviewed below is Still Life: A Three Pines Mystery, and not Still Life, the 2013, theater movie about life and the afterlife.

Louise Penny is a popular murder mystery author and her famous detective is the Quebecoise Armand Gamache. Still Life is the first of her novels and the first we see of Gamache, so if you are interested in detective novels, Thanksgiving would be a good place to start reading these. They do have a small amount of French in them (taking place in and around Montreal) and are steeped in Canadian (specifically Quebec) terminology and culture, but that just makes it more interesting. Otherwise, her stories are supposed to be very standard murder mysteries (as this one is) and I kept seeing characters from all over the place appear with new, Canadian names (like Cameron Tucker from Modern Family as Gabri). In some ways, then, Still Life is not surprising, but a familiar book that has been quite successful since 2005.

I give it a middling rating. To be specific, I kept leaping back and forth between really enjoying the book and really not being sure. At times I thought it was almost terrible and then it would be redeemed by some great scene or even paragraph. I guess what I’m saying is that I found Still Life to be ultimately uneven. I could list the things I like about it (Gamache, a couple of the other characters, the setting, the insight about life) and also the things I thought kinda sucked (most of the other characters, telling and not showing, not really giving us enough real clues, the uneven writing style). The worst of it, though, were the three (all female) characters who were just despicable (which we were told, repeatedly). One was a little redeemable, but the other two were so bad they were cartoons and I’m not sure at all why one of them was even there. I was given a character I thought was important and that I was supposed to have sympathy for and then everyone around her was always gasping at her seemingly benign actions and giving her speeches about what a horrible person she was. I didn’t get it. And I don’t understand why she was even there. I’m pretty sure that her plotline is what brought this book down to a three-star rating for me.

But there were other reasons, which I’ve mostly said. Sometimes I was confused. Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes I was engaged. Sometimes I was appalled by the writing. Sometimes I was underlining. Sometimes I was wondering where the author of the previous page had gone. Maybe it’s because it was Penny’s first book and maybe things get better, because Gamache himself was one of the characters I actually did like (except for where he interacted with that weird character I mentioned earlier) and I love floating into scenes in this bucolic, artsy, town-with-a-green. I wanted to know who dunnit. I wanted to know why. But I found one plotline (a red herring, but still) to be dropped unsatisfactorily and one to be oblique almost to confusion/missing it. And while Penny actually had me mostly clear on who was who in a large cast, there was some definite confusion about POV/perspective as it suddenly jumped now and again to random characters. Still, there were other things that worked fine, and moments of joyful reading with Gamache and Jean Guy. The story is ultimately thoughtful and people-centric, but also a little fluffy. And so, so uneven. (Also, people don’t talk in quotations, anymore. And if they did, other people wouldn’t recognize those quotes and join in reciting. Not since at least the 1800s. I like this touch, but it’s strangely unrealistic.)

So you know how I feel. Still Life had good and bad points, the good not overcoming the bad in the end of this uneven read. But if you are a murder mystery fan, you might want to check out Gamache and Louise Penny. Or if you really want some thematic reading during Thanksgiving. It fills a hole, either way.

QUOTES

“’That’s the necessary first step,’ said Myrna. ‘They dehumanize their victim. You put it well’” (p18).

“As Gabri said, people don’t see it coming, because the murderer is a master at image, at the false front, at presenting a reasonable, even placid exterior. But it masked a horror underneath. And that’s why the expression he saw most on the faces of victims wasn’t fear, wasn’t anger. It was surprise” (p71).

“Life is choice. All day, everyday …. And our lives become defined by our choices. It’s as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful” (p81).

“They are four sentences we learn to say, and mean.’ Gamach held up his hand as a fist and raised a finger with each point. ‘ I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. And one other’” (p82). [Later, we find out, it’s “I was wrong” (p162).]

“But no more. / Lucy knew her God was dead. And she now knew that the miracle wasn’t the banana, it was the hand that offered the banana” (p82).”

“The people who don’t insist on their sorrow can often be the ones who feel it most strongly. But he also knew there was no hard and fast rule” (p96).

“Clara noticed most things, Myrna realized, and had the wit to mostly mention just the good” (p100).

“…because he knew every parent of a teenage boy fears they’re housing a stranger” (p123).

“Many of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea. But change imposed from the outside can send some people into a tailspin” (p139).

“The fault is here, but so is the solution. That’s the grace” (p140).

“Murder is often like that. It starts way off” (p141).

“Gain, or trying to protect something you’re afraid of losing…” (p171).

“Loss. It wasn’t the shriek it had been, more a moan in her marrow” (p176).

“I think she’s desperate to prove herself and wants your approval. At the same time she sees any advice as criticism as catastrophic” (p180).

“People who were angry were almost always fearful. Cockiness, tears, apparent calm but nervous hands and eyes. Something almost always betrayed the fear” (p188).

“But Gamache knew the human psyche was complex. Sometimes people reacted to things without knowing why. And often that reaction was violent, physically or emotionally” (p256).

“We artistic typed never take a straight line” (p265).

Image from Rotten Tomatoes

MOVIE: STILL LIFE: A THREE PINES MYSTERY (2013)

Yeah, so the movie was fine. It has middling reviews, but I bet people who like cozies mashed with murder mysteries would find this a nice afternoon with a cup of hot tea and a fuzzy blanket. I think it was probably made for TV, and has that kind of feel. A few things. First, most people looked too pretty for the way they were described in the book. Also, one of the “main” characters stood in the background and literally didn’t say a single word. Also, two of the subplots were dropped, making some of the things not make sense. Then again, they left in the one subplot that was seriously bizarre, which I mentioned above. After watching the movie, I still don’t understand what the whole Agent Nichol thing is even about. So bizarre. But a fine, simple, TV movie for those of you who devour that sort of thing.

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