Review: Alys, Always

Posted 11 March, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Alys, Always
By: Harriet Lane
Format: Paperback; courtesy of the publisher & GoodReads First Reads programme

On a bitter winter’s night, Frances Thorpe comes upon the aftermath of a car crash and, while comforting the dying driver, Alys Kyte, hears her final words. The wife of a celebrated novelist, Alys moved in rarefied circles, and when Frances agrees to meet the bereaved family, she glimpses a world entirely foreign to her: cultured, wealthy, and privileged. While slowly forging a friendship with Alys’s carelessly charismatic daughter, Frances finds her own life takes a dramatic turn, propelling her from an anonymous existence as an assistant editor for the books section of a newspaper to the dizzying heights of literary society.

I received a copy of this book through GoodReads; the premise sounded fascinating–I always enjoy a good, contemporary novel and a story involving family dynamics and the protagonist entering a totally different section of society. Contains spoilers ahead! (I will note it in my review because it’s just too hard not to avoid it =P)

For quite a slim volume, it started off a little plodding as we follow Frances’ everyday life, Alys’ accident being the only notable moment in an otherwise uneventful life. Once she becomes a regular fixture in the Kytes’ life, the plot picks up; I couldn’t put it down until I finished reading it.

What can I say about this book now that I finished it? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Harriet Lane has a wonderful way of constructing sentences, lyrical and yet precise. Her descriptions of the places that Frances visits, the situations she finds herself in, are detailed enough for the reader to colour in the rest of the picture. Yet at the same time her narrative can come off as cold, perhaps more of a reflection of Frances’ association to everything around her (after all, it seemed as though she was drifting at the backdrop for most of her life).

Frances is an intriguing character. On the one hand, I sympathised with her, how lonely and detached her life is. Her job was a bit of a bust, she didn’t have any friends, her family made the Kytes look rather normal if you compared them side-by-side (however dysfunctional and privileged the Kytes were). Frances was the odd one out. So I could understand why she was drawn to the Kytes; not so much for the merit of being in that particular social circle but because they were fascinating and she was useful to them in a way.

But in the end, I found the book rather unsettling because of the main character. The following paragraph contains major spoilers to the plot:

It took me a while for me to realise what exactly was happening. What started off as a kindness–sitting down with the Kytes (though I was already a bit suspicious about Frances when she added that flourishing detail)–became a way for Frances to enter their circles. And boy did she shoe-horn her way in (even when her narrative made it sound like she was hesitant to do so and venture in). For a person who was apprehensive about social contact at the beginning, she was able to move with ease once she was a permanent fixture in the Kytes’ lives. Warning signs started ringing at the back of my head with the way she took Alys’ scarf from their holiday home, the way she used her abilities to listen to people and pass it off as knowledge she knew beforehand to colleagues at work. By the last third of the novel, I couldn’t help but feel like she calculated the whole thing right from the moment she stepped into their house for the first time (re-reading the first meeting again, there was one sentence she mentioned that could’ve hinted at this but it’s vague enough to go either way)

And for what? She certainly used the connection as an advantage at work, moving up to deputy book editor at the end. She’s more notable now: people notice her, including her own parents, she has that something that makes her not another forgettable face in the crowd. Time and again characters throughout the novel ask where she came from that she was suddenly such a fixture in their lives. By the end of the novel, I’m not quite sure what her endgame really was: to be with Laurence? For work? For becoming a permanent member of that social circle? To reinvent herself through another person’s former life? Her early narrative never hinted that she had such ambitions, she seemed like she was just passing through, her old room at her parents’ place void of true bastion of memory. It seemed almost as though she assumed a new persona. I never watched Fatal Attractions (I knew of the story though) but reviewers are likening this story to that movie. I’m not sure about the comparison; even Frances admits that there was this something between them that they felt in those early days but yeah, I think she took the situation in the end and made it something that she could profit from. And so far it looks like she succeeded.

Here endth the spoilers

The characterisations of the other characters were interesting enough; some characters obviously had more time to develop than others, like Polly and Laurence. I wish the reader got to know Teddy more than what was expressed on paper, I was curious about how different he was compared to his sister. Yet as interesting as these characters were, they also seem rather straightforward, like the depth doesn’t separate them from similar characters one would come across in other books. Laurence’s temperament as a writer seemed rather cliche in a way and I guessed his big secret quite early in the novel, that all was not well between the spouses.

Overall, I enjoyed Alys, Always with all of its contemporary themes and complications. As straightforward and predictable as some characters and plot progressions where, the mind-boggler/head-scratcher/mystery was really the character of Frances; she’s a fascinating character though my thoughts on the character at the end remains rather…let’s go with the word “uncertain”. I recommend this novel for those who enjoy a contemporary novel, family drama or a story featuring a rather mysterious, curious main character that will leave you guessing to the end.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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