The Passion

Sometimes after reading one of Jeanette Winterson’s novels (Sexing The Cherry, for example) I’m left thinking I like her as an author more than I like her actual novels. I just like her general attitude and her approach to writing. Maybe it’s a Northern thing. Even though she came down to Oxford along with the rest of the literary establishment, when she left again she didn’t take with her any sense of self-importance, and the establishment critics who have always hated her work actually did her a favour by either ignoring or disdaining her from the beginning. It’s meant that her books haven’t been able to coast to success because she’s been friends with the critics since they met at fresher’s week. They’ve got there on their own merits, by finding their own readership rather than having some broadsheet reader lap it up because he’s been advised to for the benefit of his educated soul.

Winterson’s novels are near impossible to pigeonhole. There’s an historical element to many of them, but all of them are timeless almost to the point of appearing anachronistic. Even reading the back cover is not a good indication of what you’re going to get, not least because Winterson’s eclecticism sometimes crops up within the books rather than just between them. The more of them I read, the more Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit comes across as the straightest of her books (in style if not in content, obviously). That said, The Passion is also immediately accessible and quite linear in the same sort of way, probably because that’s what a romantic tale which we are meant to feel our way through as much as read demands. And despite the fact I can still remember lines from Lighthousekeeping five years after reading it, I feel quite able to say I think The Passion is the best of Winterson’s novels I have yet read.

The Passion is the story of two lovers, though it’s not each other that they are in love with. Henri is a just another French peasant until he becomes a cook for Napoleon, following the newly annointed Emperor from battlefield to battlefield as he conquers Europe, and being swept up by the myth Napoleon cultivates for himself. Half a continent away, Villanelle is the web-footed daughter of a Venetian fisherman who disguises herself as a man so that she can work as a croupier, but then develops feelings for the wife of a rich patron at the casino. Very much a novel of two halves, the first half could be a Shakespearian romance (with plenty of scope for turning into a comedy of errors). It feels like other Winterson novels, full of colour and life and humour. The second half also feels Shakespearian, but it is pure tragedy.

Winterson apparently wrote the novel after her girlfriend returned to her ex-husband, and it shows. It might well be true what they say about all the best love stories ending badly, but then, this novel isn’t really about love, it’s about passion, even if – or especially because – the characters themselves don’t know it.

The Future of Us

By 2011, childhood friends Josh and Emma have parted ways. Josh is still living in their hometown, but is blissfully married to the most beautiful girl they went to school with, and has had three equally lovely kids with her. Meanwhile Emma has left town and is stuck in a job she doesn’t love, and a marriage she feels pretty much the same about.

But The Future of Us is not set in 2011, it’s set in 1996, when Josh and Emma are still teenagers, and still friends. Josh brings Emma one of those free AOL CDs that were everywhere in the mid- to late-90s and together they discover this thing called the Internet. Most interesting to them is this website called Facebook, which may or may not be an elaborate practical joke. After all, on it they can read all about their lives some 15 years hence. But for Emma especially, if there’s any truth to it, that means the opportunity to change all the things she doesn’t like.

The Future of Us is a young adult novel, but I doubt 15 year olds will get the jokes about AOL CDs and the farting dial-up sounds. More relevant to them is probably the not especially subtle commentary about how social media has encouraged us all to share everything and anything, whether that’s healthy or not, and about mistaking logging on for actually being sociable.

The story is alternately told from Josh and Emma’s perspectives, and apparently each author wrote only from one or the other. This does create a definite sense of delineation; especially important in a relatively short novel with little room for character development. Some of the minor characters’ arcs, meanwhile, are left feeling unresolved, but that was only mildly disappointing. It might be nothing new to point out how Facebook et al has led to a profligacy of banality, but Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler have written a novel that is anything but.