Tag Archives: Heather the Totality

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner: Delivers on its promise

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I first came across it in Canongate’s catalogue. Some of you may have already heard of Matthew Weiner, or you may know his writing from Mad Men or The Sopranos but not his name. As is so often the case, it’s the starry actors’ names that stay with us – Elisabeth Moss or James Gandolfini – but not the scriptwriters’ without whom, of course, there’d be no boxed set to watch and rewatch. Heather, The Totality is Weiner’s first novel, a slim, dark piece of fiction which more than fulfilled expectations raised by hours spent in front of his screen creations.

Mark and Karen have just tipped over into their forties when they meet. She’s something of a beauty, working as a publicist but happy at the prospect of marriage and a family. He works in finance, no physical match for her with his chubby plain features but successful in his way, if only through luck. They marry, set up house and soon Karen is pregnant. Heather is a beautiful, intelligent child, almost preternaturally empathetic. She becomes the centre of Karen’s life while Mark resentfully accepts whatever crumbs are thrown his way. When the penthouse apartment is renovated, most of the residents move out for the duration but Karen insists on staying, reluctant to disturb Heather’s routines. One of the workers arouses Mark’s suspicions when he’s caught ogling Heather, now a startlingly attractive teenager. A child of poverty and violence, Bobby is the opposite of Heather with whom he has become obsessed. For Mark, his intentions are terrifyingly clear.

Weiner’s smart, sharp debut explores privilege and deprivation, marriage and parenting, love and jealousy with precision and insight, all wrapped up in a taut piece of noir. The perspective shifts smoothly between the four main characters intensifying the novel’s suspense and our relationship with them. Weiner’s prose is as polished as you might expect from his screenwriting: clipped, crisp yet vivid.

Mark knew that unlike his Sister, who had starved to avoid breasts and menstruation and men, Heather would be a normal teenage girl, and that was no comfort either

Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her and was now incisive to the point of pain

Heather’s privilege and Bobby’s lack of it are quietly contrasted in parallel narratives woven neatly through the novel’s episodic structure. It all works beautifully and the ending is a triumph. Weiner’s book comes proclaimed ‘superb’ by Philip Pullman, and indeed it is.

Books to Look Out for in November 2017

Cover imageEdging ever closer to the end of the year with this preview which may well be the last set of new titles from me unless December has more to offer than novelty books and humour. Let’s hope it does. November kicks off with a novel I’m in two minds about, Richard Flanagan’s First Person – I avoided the Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road from the Deep South but very much enjoyed Gould’s Book of Fish. Based on a true story, First Person is about Kif Kehlmann, a ghost-writer who takes on the task of writing the memoir of Siegfred Heidl, about to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. ‘Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl – and who is Kif Kehlmann? As time runs out, one question looms above all others: what is the truth? By turns compelling, comic, and chilling, this is a haunting journey into the heart of our age’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.

The lure of Heather, the Totality is the writer rather than the novel’s premise which sounds as if it might wander off into thriller territory. You may already know Matthew Weiner’s name from the addictive Mad Men series. Set in Manhattan – inevitably another lure for me – Weiner’s debut is about the wealthy Breakstone family whose sweet-natured, beautiful daughter Heather takes a wrong turn as a teenager. ‘An extraordinary first novel of incredible pull and menace. Heather, The Totality demonstrates perfectly [Weiner’s] forensic eye for the human qualities that hold modern society together, and pull it apart’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some smart, stylish writing.

Set in 1950, Eliza Robertson’s debut, Demi-Gods, is also about a girl who finds herself led astray.Cover image Willa’s mother has a new boyfriend whose sons come as part of the package. When her sister pairs off with the elder son, nine-year-old Willa finds herself caught up in his younger brother’s wicked games which become sexual as they grow up. Willa’s efforts to change the nature of their relationship result in a devastating turn of events, apparently. ‘Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature’ say the publishers which sounds up my street.

Jussi Valtonen won his country’s Finlandia Prize with They Know Not What They Do, bought by one in two Finns, apparently. Hard to imagine those kind of sales figures for a novel here in the UK. It’s about a celebrated neuroscientist living with his family in the States whose lab is targeted by animal rights activists. Shortly after the attack he’s called by the wife he abandoned in Finland over twenty years ago together with their young son who may now be after revenge. ‘As Joe struggles to protect his new family from the increasing threat of violence – and to save his eldest daughter from the clutches of an unscrupulous tech company – he is forced to reconsider his priorities and take drastic action to save those he loves’ say the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound my cup of tea but how can one in two Finns be wrong? And it’s published by Oneworld whose sharp editorial eye I trust.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet got around to Ali Smith’s Autumn, which kicked off her Seasonal Quartet last year. It’s November so it’s time for Winter whichcasts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ say the publishers. I could do with something ‘merry’ to help me along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

There was a time when my heart would have sunk when I discovered that a new title from a favourite novelist was a collection of short stories but I’m a reformed character. The subjects of the stories in William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth range from an art dealer who tries to give up his philandering habits to a couple who tell the story of their relationship backwards while the eponymous Bethany’s tale is about a year of tentative self-discovery, apparently. I won’t say my heart sang as loudly as it would at the announcement of a new Boyd novel, but I am looking forward to reading this collection.

 That’s it for November’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested. Shortish paperback post to follow soon…