A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky

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A poster for the Chippendales' Vegas show (nothing to do with this blog post, but it made you look...)

A would-be novelist on my old creative writing MA course once got very frustrated. We’d been discussing the thorny issue of titles and how difficult it is to make your book stand out from the thousands of volumes tumbling on to bookshop shelves every month. After half an hour or so of pulling apart various possible ways of evoking that elusive blend of atmosphere and intrigue that the book in question needed to get readers interested, he gave up. ‘Why don’t you just call it “Buy me, you c**t”?’ he said.

It’s tempting to think that Barbara Trapido had the same thought process when trying to package up Sex and Stravinsky. There’s so little of either in the book that the title feels like a bit of a fudge, a shrugging resort to the old adage that ‘sex sells’. So much so, that when I mentioned to a friend that I was writing my next post on this book, she couldn’t even remember that she’d read it until we hashed over the plot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything memorable in the book itself. Weaving together the lives of two couples who married the wrong people, this insightful and touching novel unpacks the loneliness that exists in the gap between the narratives we find ourselves caught up in and the stories inside our heads.

It works best in the delineation of characters’ backstories and the conflicting pressures that create their personalities. Make-do-and-mend Caroline, the thwarted academic who excels at homemaking on a shoestring, for example, is a marvellous mixture of post-feminist empowerment and little-girl-lostness. 

This mining of experience allows Trapido to spark tension through different characters’ views of the same events (a tricky feat to pull off, as anyone who’s ever had a go at split narratives will testify).

There are some lovely comic touches too: the French exchange who describes himself in his letter of introduction as a ‘tall, merry fellow’, the ball dress ‘ruched like a festoon blind’ because it has been ‘made out of a festoon blind’.

For all that, though, something’s missing. The resolution, when it comes, is too neat and predictable. The whole thing feels ever-so-slightly smug and cynical: the work of an accomplished writer who knows exactly the notes to hit to keep the marketeers happy, as though Trapido is bored by the ease with which she is able to shuffle the characters into a pleasing configuration.

I hear she’s done better in the past, so perhaps I’ll have to give her another shot. Maybe next time I’ll pick out something that trumpets itself a little less cynically.

Incidentally, that would-be novelist decided not to resort shock and awe to sell his first book. When he landed his deal with Canongate, his book came out under the title Fresh. Well done, Mark McNay.

Picture by TheJose


Written by Ann Morgan

May 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm

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