John Purcell: The Lessons


Mix gently in a large bowl D. H. Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald, Françoise Sagan, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, Patricia Highsmith and fold in ten years as Book Director at BooktopiaMix to a soft dropping consistency – don’t overbeat or the mixture will be too stiff. No cooking needed, it’s all in the mixing. The result is The Lessons. I don’t mean to say it’s a pastiche or  a knock-off, nor is it meta-fiction – it’s just a book written through an imagination drenched in these writers, an imagination that couldn’t work without them, and with an approach to the novel focused by years of experience of the publishing business.  John Purcell knows what sells, but he’s no cynic. In fact it’s an almost naïvely good-hearted book.   

Lawrence and Edna O’Brien are in the relationship between the teenage Daisy, reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover during the holidays from her expensive boarding-school, and the strapping inarticulate farm boy Harry. Edna is there too in Daisy’s lascivious Aunt Jane, with one scandalously sexy first novel to her credit, as is Patricia Highsmith in Jane’s credo that everyone in her life is material for her work. Jane is reminiscent of other women writers who make a name for themselves for work that seems to the public to be based on their own relationships with men but who are famously difficult interviewees – thus of course adding to the speculation about their lives and their characters. When Daisy’s parents send her to stay with Jane as a way of breaking up the relationship with Harry, Daisy of course falls under her spell, and her “lessons” begin.  Scott Fitzgerald and Sagan step in when Daisy spends the summer on the French Riviera with Jane, her wealthy young adorer Simon, her semi-estranged husband and a group of idle young rich people.  There are many references to The Great Gatsby here, both explicit and impicit, and I was reminded of Highsmith’s Ripley as well. You’ll gather that the summer, though luxurious, is pretty ugly under the surface. And where does Jane Austen come in? In Jane’s claim that Jane Austen insists that we become better people, and that is too hard a task for most of us. Preoccupied with our own lives, we cannot really consider the feelings of others. I should say that Jane herself is a spectacular case of going out of her way to mess with other people’s feelings.

Four different voices narrate the story: Harry, Daisy and Simon in 1966-8 and Jane in 1983. Whatever you might think about an undying love coming from a short summer affair between two teenagers, the book asks you to believe in it. Simon is one of the book’s more interesting characters: son of a rich man who seems to need constant reassurance that he’s worth something, he’s obsessively in love with Jane and prepared to accept all the humiliation she enjoys inflicting on him.  Jane is a horrible woman, though the book asks some sympathy for her struggle to be recognised as a serious writer in a world where a woman writer only gets attention if she’s young, beautiful and scandalous. 

This is a light, enjoyable read that people who’ve never read Lawrence, Fitzgerald or Sagan will enjoy on its own terms.  For those of us who have, it’s a rather disconcerting experience, entertaining though it is. It’s as if you’re at one party and can hear the sounds of another one coming through from the room next door. John Purcell’s previous book, The Girl On The Page has been described as an eloquent ode to literature and a brilliant satire of the publishing industry, so you can see the general direction of his work. I’ve put in a request with the library for that one. 

5 thoughts on “John Purcell: The Lessons

  1. Sorry Gert, I’ve read Lawrence, Fitzgerald or Sagan. However, your review has given me an idea for a novel of my own.
    Leslie 😉

  2. Crikey! “D. H. Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald, Françoise Sagan, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, Patricia Highsmith ”
    I imagine an Agatha Christie island weekend where the booze has run out, a dead cat decked in crinoline of found on the doorstep of the terraced house beside the chateau, and Hercules Maigret is summoned to save the day before the next death.

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