Articles, Comment, Fiction

Adventures with Audiobooks: The Smart One by Jennifer Close

I used to listen to audiobooks as a child, but they haven’t really been part of my ‘library’ as an adult. We listened to A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings on road trips, but that was about it. My new job requires me to take a 30-minute bus to and from the office, and I get car-sick if I read on the bus (the bane of my life) so I decided to try an audiobook. Sadly there wasn’t one of the book I am currently reading as I thought that would be the perfect solution, to combine paper and audio. Instead I opted for a light read that wouldn’t distract me from my main book, and something that was on my long-term TBR. This was The Smart One by Jennifer Close.

I read Close’s previous novel, Girls in White Dresses, and enjoyed it without loving it. The Smart One sounded good though, and I thought I may as well give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, turns out it’s much harder to make your own judgements on a book, and get to know it in your own way, when it’s read to you by someone else. That person’s intonations and stresses affect how you interpret certain scenes and characters, and the person’s voice and tone sets a mood for the whole thing that you can’t really escape. This isn’t a problem if you like the reader’s voice and they remain fairly neutral while still conveying relevant stresses, implications, and free indirect speech. But if the reader takes over as it were, and you can’t see the book any way but theirs, then it’s kind of a problem. This is what happened to me listening to The Smart One.

2013 Vintage (UK) paperback edition

2013 Vintage (UK) paperback edition

It’s a novel about a family, and their successes and failures, and the two daughters in particular are having a pretty rubbish time of it when we meet them. We hear chapters from each of their perspectives (though all in the third person), and we hear all about their terrible lives – and because this is being read to you, by this particular reader, it is intense and hard to escape. They are normal life woes, nothing earth-shattering, but my impression of the whole thing was that it was really depressing. I think if I were reading the paper book, I would be able to brush these things off or at least see them in the wider context of the book; but when you are listening to an audiobook you are so involved in each moment, it being read to you alone, that it’s hard to remember everything that’s around it. I think this would be ok, and indeed good, with certain books, or a book that was better written or that I liked more. That was also a problem – it’s hard to get away from bad writing in an audiobook. Hearing a person read the bad writing is like hearing someone you don’t like talking at you for hours. You get annoyed, and you can’t skim over it. Suffice to say I have not chosen to listen to The Smart One for the last few days. In case you want to avoid it, the reader is an actress called Rebecca Lowman, and this version is on iBooks and Audible. She has a lovely voice, but she made the whole thing really bleak.

I think in future I need to be very selective about the audiobooks I listen to – it is a completely different experience from reading a paper book, one that isn’t always good.

Plus they are really expensive in the iBooks store. What is up with that?!

I know some people love audiobooks, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I will definitely try an audiobook again, but be really selective. I guess that’s a good plan?


Fiction, Reviews

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Before you say anything – Girls in White Dresses is not chick-lit. I wouldn’t have read it if it was. It just sort of looks and sort of sounds like it; but when you think about it, it only looks like it because the cover has pink writing and a girl in a white dress holding flowers, and polka dots. It doesn’t have a pink background, or a cheesy tagline, or a handwriting font that is all sparkly and aspirational. And it only sounds like it because ‘girls in white dresses’ sounds all wedding-y, but when you think about it, it’s a reference to The Sound of Music; it only references weddings a bit. It’s more metaphorical.

2012 paperback edition

The quote from Vanity Fair on the back of the book states that the central characters (yes, all female) have ‘the pluck and gimlet eye of Carrie Bradshaw’s younger, smarter sisters.’ Now. Be careful here. I watched Sex and the City on TV, and have all of it on DVD, and love it. Like, LOVE it. I saw the first film in the cinema and actually hated it. HATED. I have seen bits of the second film on TV, and it looks like complete rubbish. The films are NOTHING like the TV series, which was intelligent, witty, clever, funny, and modern. The movies are like crap adaptations of the TV series. Anyway, when you see ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ on the back of this book, do not think of the SATC films. Remember the sheer brilliance of the TV series, the sarcasm and witty quips, the frankness about dating and sex. The way Darren Star meant it to be.

A classic moment. Extra points if you remember what they’re looking at.

There has been a fair bit of hype about Girls in White Dresses, and so I bagged myself a copy from the lovely folks at Vintage. After having read the dark noir thriller The Empty Glass, I was well up for reading something a little lighter and happier – something that would make me smile rather than frown. And I found it. Author Jennifer Close takes three friends as her central characters (Isabella, Lauren, and Mary) but includes episodes from the lives of some of their friends, in which the three main girls pop up and offer a withering opinion. I really liked this structure. In a way somewhat reminiscent of early SATC (as well as the book, Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell, which I would recommend), chapters start with a random girl, and then it turns out she knows one of the three main girls – but this is done so casually, so under-the-radar that Close’s sneakiness makes you smile.

At times the shortness of the episodes means that the structure gets a bit ‘this happened, and then this happened, and then this, and this’, but mostly the humour and frankness win you over, and this doesn’t matter too much. Time flies by quite quickly, and sometimes Close jumps back to an episode in ‘college’ (oh, just say ‘university’), but not so much that you get muddled – it’s all background for the present. What’s good about the episodic style is that it feels like Close is only showing you the really important bits from these girls’ stories – there is no waffle or pages and pages of descriptions. The writing is neat, sparse and to the point, but still with plenty of humour and literary ‘flair’, if I can use that word.

Jennifer Close

The style is also quite chatty, and though there are dramatic scenes they happen quite quickly, like everything else, and so you don’t have a lot of time to wallow in them or analyse them. That said, they are not made to seem trivial – Close just does not dwell on anything. Time and the narrative move forward at quite a swift pace.

The only real problem I have with this book is the ending. It happens not unexpectedly but rather swiftly – too swiftly for me. Even at the end there is no philosophising, no wondering why these three girls took longer to settle down than all their friends. It’s a little too neat. I also have a couple of feminist gripes with the ending – but that would ruin it for you.


Published in the UK on 9th August 2012 by Vintage, an imprint of Random House. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.