About a year ago at the final Booktopia, I sat in front of an audience in a room in Petoskey, Michigan discussing the many merits of Any Human Heart by William Boyd with Simon Savidge, and Ann and Michael of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. When Michael chose AHH for us to read, I had already had it in my TBR pile for quite some time. I think I had been drawn by the cover and the jacket blurb certainly tripped some of my triggers. But for some reason it was pretty low on my list of what to read next. Something about its size and seeming complexity gave me that feeling I was never going to get to it. But then Michael assigned it and I ended up loving it. It wasn’t perfect but had so many things going for it, the imperfections really only seemed to exist to provide a little grist for the discussion mill.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd
As we wrapped up Petoskey and our road trip back to Washington, Simon gave me a copy of Boyd’s (then) newly published novel Sweet Caress. From all accounts it was similar to AHH. And now, having read it, I can say it is similar to AHH but from a female perspective–kind of. Like AHH, it takes us through most of the 20th century and the protagonist is an artist with a fairly unconventional approach to life. Whereas AHH was chock full of fun, faked, non-fictional seeming, footnotes, Sweet Caress had black and white photographs littered through the novel like a scrapbook depicting many of the characters that crossed the pages. From what I understand, Boyd used photos that he found for sale at flea markets and antique shops. Just like the footnotes in AHH, I loved the way the photos gave added depth the the story and made the characters feel so real.
Despite the similarities Sweet Caress can easily stand on its own. The stories in the two books are in no way linked, and one doesn’t have to have read one to enjoy the other. Amory Clay is a photographer who knows at an early age that she wants to be out of her childhood and into something exciting. The fact that she tries to seduce her gay uncle at the age of 19 gives you some indication that there is a fire burning somewhere. Through the years we follow the ups and downs of her unconventional (for the times) personal life and her life as a photographer. From society photography, to ‘obscene’ interwar photos of Berlin prostitutes, to being a war photographer in both WWII and Vietnam.
A totally compelling, enjoyable read. It somewhat satisfied my need for a sweeping, epic tale of the 20th century from a female’s point of view. However, I’m not sure I entirely buy the female point of view. I will set aside whether there is a such a thing as a male or female POV and whether or not one sex can write from the perspective of the other. But as much as I am willing to believe and celebrate characters that go against traditional gender roles, I’m not sure Boyd’s depiction feels authentic. I won’t say too much more about that because it’s all very squishy and subjective, and subject to long, complex, discussions. But I think there is one objective observation that begins to prove my point.
Almost every phase and facet of Amory’s life relies on the agency of men. Pretty much every advancement of her career was due to the intervention of some male. And I don’t mean that men made the decision whether or not to hire her, but too often she only gets an opportunity or a leg up because of some male who essentially does her a favor or who has an ulterior motive. I don’t think there is one instance where her career trajectory seems self-propelled. One could argue that it is easy to see a male character having a similar trajectory, but there is no implied or explicit commentary in the book that gives you any feeling that Boyd did it on purpose. It felt more like he was completely unaware of it–as if he couldn’t fathom how a female could progress through the 20th century without the continual help from men with whom she had a personal connection. Even if Boyd was deliberately trying to show the obstacles a female photographer would have faced, I think his lack of comment on it feels more like ignorance than insight. My guess is that a female author would have allowed Amory at least one thought or comment in passing. It’s particularly jarring when it’s her former lover who is continually responsible for the success of her career. It’s clear that Amory’s work is successful at different phases in her life but never once does Amory have a moment where she thinks “God damn it, I’m good at what I do. Why do I have to grovel for favors just to make a living?”
I would love to know what female reader’s thought of Boyd’s female point of view. I found the book totally enjoyable and worthy of a read, but I wonder if it would have made me nuts if I was a woman.