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In many ways, The Woman in the Fifth is classic Douglas Kennedy. All of the staple ingredients are here: the stranger in a strange land trying to escape something back home, the plucky underdog pitched into a situation that's bigger, badder and murkier than they'd initially imagined, the alluring mysterious female and the naive, impulsive man.
This doesn't describe all of Kennedy's novels, but enough fall neatly into this pattern that's it's easy to recognise the motifs. Happily, also present here is the sharp sense of place and moment that Kennedy evokes pitched against a plot that rackets up the intrigue and tension to compelling, "just-one-more-page!" levels.
Yet it's also something of a departure in that the protagonist's mountains of ill fortune plunge him somewhere beyond the type of gritty, real-life drama that Kennedy usually writes of, and has him wandering into a world that's more ethereal and altogether more sketchily-drawn.
Said protagonist, Harry Ricks, pitches up in Paris a desperate man - having lost his family, job and social standing back home in America, he spends his first week in the throes of a sickness that costs him a large chunk of his meagre finances. With little other option, he ends up living in a squalid building owned by a local crime boss, haunted by the mess he's made of his life and dredging up an income in a shady night-time job.
In the midst of all this self-pity and darkness, though, light comes in the form of Margit - a Hungarian divorcee with whom Harry enters into a stop-start affair. Slowly clawing himself back into financial stability and with a passionate, enigmatic woman reciprocating his advances, things seem to be looking up - but then (most inconsiderately), people start dying in unfortunate ways, and Harry is forced to face up to this new, grimy mess he's got himself into.
Like the author's other books, this is addictive storytelling that manages to skilfully straddle the realms of literary fiction and fast-paced thriller. Harry's gloom and self-pity permeates the novel, and the supporting cast are wonderfully well-judged characters, complementing and clashing with Harry in all the right ways. If some are on the face of it slightly clichéd, they are so well-written that it barely registers.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is that it manages to skip between so many genres without slipping up on any of them - it's a great thriller, a beguiling love story, a modern ghost tale and it could even masquerade as a travel memoir, detailing the shadowy underbelly of Paris-lesser-seen.
If there's a negative, it's that this breadth of focus dilutes the strength of the tale just a fraction. Because of the nature of the story, the ending is less cut-and-dried than Kennedy's books tend to be. This is a strength and a weakness - it's an enduring, evocative finale, but it does mean the book goes with a bit of a whimper.
It's not his most affecting read - for me, The Moment takes that title - but it compares extremely favourably to the calibre of the rest of his work. There's something to appeal to just about everyone here - as at the heart of it, whatever genre it belongs to, it's just a darn good story.
I really enjoyed The Pursuit of Happiness and A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy and so when my sister in law offered to lend me The Woman in the Fifth I was sure that I would like it.
**A Little About The Author**
Douglas Kennedy was born in Manhattan in 1955 and now lives in London with his wife and two children. He has written several novels and 3 travel books. I find that he is really good at writing from a female perspective, so much so that in A Special Relationship I could almost believe he was female and just using Douglas Kennedy as a pen name!
The story is written in the first person with Harry as the character telling the story. Harry worked as a lecturer at a college in America but a romantic liaison costs him his job, splits up his marriage and damages his relationship with his daughter. He decides to escape and arrives in Paris during the winter with only a small amount of money and no where definite to stay. The story follows Harry as he tries to find a place to live and work in a city where he doesn't know a soul. One evening he meets a mysterious woman named Margit and thinks he has found a friend. However Margit will only see him at certain times at her apartment in the fifth arrondissement and is very guarded about her life, past and present. Harry continues to visit her but finds himself plunged into a world where things happen beyond his control and he finds it increasingly difficult to understand what is happening in his life.
The story is part thriller part romance and there are a lot of mysterious things happening which kept me guessing right up until the end of the book. I would like to discuss the curious happenings in more details but this would definitely give away too much information about the plot so I will stop here.
Harry is obviously the main character and as he is telling the story it is his feelings and thoughts that the reader learns most about. We are told right from the first sentence that his life is trouble; "That was the year my life fell apart, and that was the year I moved to Paris". My imagination was captured immediately by this sentence and wanted to find out why Harry's life had fallen apart and what was going to happen to him. Harry is portrayed at first as someone who has caused a lot of heartache over his inability to act like a responsible adult but it later becomes clear that the mess Harry is in is not all his fault and that is when I started to warm towards his character and have sympathy with him.
Margit at first comes over as a slightly mysterious but genuine friend, however as the story progressed I alternated between sympathy for her and anger at the way she treats Harry.
There are several other characters in the book, such as Adnan the young Turkish guy who helps Harry, Omar the man Harry has to share a toilet with in his lodgings, Harry's daughter and wife, but mostly the other characters have relatively minor parts to Harry and Margit and so the reader only gets to know them as accessories to Harry's story.
Towards the end there are some graphic and brutal descriptions so beware if you are a bit squeamish!
I really enjoyed this book. The first few lines captured my attention and I found it really difficult to stop reading it, sometimes staying up much later at night than I intended to as I had to see what happened next! Douglas Kennedy writes novels that have good pace and don't allow the reader to become bored. Although there is plenty of description of places and people it is done in a way that is interesting and not so long that the reader gets bogged down and wants to skip onto the next bit of action - it all seems to blend together in a way that kept me interested. Douglas Kennedy is brilliant at getting the reader to understand the character's thoughts and feelings and see the world from their perspective. He seems to have a thorough knowledge of how people feel in different situations as I can always identify with his characters.
The only bit about this book I didn't like was the ending. I felt that it fizzled out a bit, almost as though the author wasn't quite sure how to finish the story. However, that may be something to do with the fact that the ending wasn't how I envisaged it and I found it a little surreal. On the whole though I really enjoyed this book, it kept me guessing and wanting to read more, so that has to be a good thing and I was sad when it came to an end, which is always the sign of a good book.
~ INTRODUCTION ~
I bought and read 'The Woman in the Fifth' by Douglas Kennedy recently for two reasons. First, I really liked one of his previous books, A Special Relationship I read a year or two ago and had decided back then to read more from the author. Secondly, and most importantly, it was the blurb on the back of 'The Woman in the Fifth' that ultimately sold me on.
~ ABOUT THE AUTHOR ~
Born in Manhattan in 1955, Douglas Kennedy is a contemporary author of popular fiction novels - many of them bestsellers and translated into over a dozen languages. His most well-known works include The Big Picture (1998) and The Pursuit of Happiness (2002). He currently resides in the UK and spends his time be-tween London, Berlin and Paris.
~ THE PLOT ~ * no spoilers *
Forty-something Harry Ricks embarks in Paris or rather finds refuge in Paris after being sacked from his job as a film lecturer in a typical Midwestern art college in the States. Down and out, things aren't looking good. When he ends up in a questionable accommodation run by the Turkish community and gets a night job from them, he's at least able to stay but already caught up in these people's affairs, soon enough, trouble looms.
One evening, he meets Margit, a mysterious woman in her fifties. She's beautiful, enigmatic, and as we learn later, a Hungarian political immigrant from the 1950s, and lives in the chic and affluent 5th arrondissement of Paris. Unaware and naive, he's happy to obey her strange rules in this twisted game of seduction...
What secrets are hid behind the lives of illegal immigrants? What dangers does Margit have in store for him?
~ WRITING STYLE ~
The book is written in the first person, Harry recounting his experience of a tumultuous start of a year spent in Paris. I immediately identified with the main character. Like many others, I've been down and out in Paris myself more than a decade ago. Kennedy made me relive my experiences I had, the long, lonely walks along the Seine, the smoky cafés, the chilly wintertime, being sick and unable to face the day while staying at a youth hostel near the Eiffel Tower, and the rare job interviews I had scattered across town.
What made the pages so easy to turn is the fact that Kennedy writes in a very readable, spoken style pep-pered with witty observations and spot-on descriptions of places, people and situations. Though Harry's narration mostly ranges between self-pity and self-sarcasm verging on being annoying sometimes, his acute observations of people and places are all very enjoyable.
~ CHARACTERISATION ~
We do get an indication early on that Harry is not a flawless person; in fact, he's running away from a lot more than just a lost job. Despite this, he is still a likeable fellow, a fallible, but ultimately, human being. I felt an enormous sympathy for Harry.
What is remarkable about Kennedy is that once again in his books, he manages to slip into his protagonist's mind. His powerful and emphatic story-telling actually make us, readers experience first-hand what the main character himself feels and thinks.
The secondary characters were also quite believable including Margit's, though as a woman, I found it diffi-cult to capture her essence, but that may be down to the fact that we saw everything from Harry's point of view, who being entirely seduced by her, he didn't see how manipulative and sometimes even cruel she was to him.
~ READING EXPERIENCE ~
I practically devoured the pages from the start. I was overjoyed to find someone like Harry with his inner ramblings and awkward situations in a city I've also known from its not so glamorous side. Without revealing too much, at some later point, the story does depart from the utterly down-to-earth, believable and 'could happen to me' story of a wannabe writer searching for inspiration in the city of lights and ends up in something sinister and surrealist.
The way the events in the book were turning into a big jumble of inexplicable things reminded me of 'The Bedroom Secret of the Master Chefs' from Irvine Welsh. If you liked that book in question, you'll most likely enjoy The Woman in the Fifth, they are quite similar plotwise. In my opinion, and this is a question of taste - the story would have been so much better without it.
~ CONCLUSION ~
As again, Kennedy played the 'romance mixed with a bit of a crime' story card well in this book. His talent of characterisation and empathy have also come across well in 'The Woman in the Fifth'.
The incongruent, Hitchcockien happenings did create a 'whodunnit' atmosphere and you couldn't help but guessing and read on. Once this side introduced though, for me the book felt tainted and left me wondering as to the author's motive behind such a plot.
To sum up, a well thought-out, great story of our lives with some crime and mystery thrown in. It was less enjoyable for me than A Special Relationship that stayed believable throughout. Expect some brutal and graphic descriptions towards the end too.
~ PRICE AND AVAILABILITY ~
Retail price at bookstores: £6.99
Amazon UK: From £0.01 used or £0.70 new
Thanks for reading.
©powered by lillybee also posted on ciao.co.uk
Douglas Kennedy is an author I came across a few years ago and I generally love his books so couldn't resist this one in a charity shop.
Douglas Kennedy is an American author and writes novels based on relationships - usually involving Americans. He does not set his novels in any one time period - for example one novel is set during the 50s and this is set today.
His stories tend to be loosely romantic - but before the "un-romantics" get turned off they are not typical love stories at all - they examine relationships in a "warts and all way" - often commenting on issues relevant at the time as well.
His novels also have an element of the thriller genre about them, somehow very well combined with the romantic elements!
The Woman in the Fifth is based around the story of an American who has to leave the country following a scandal around him having an affair with a student - leading to her suicide. Ostracised by his wife and daughter and forced out of his job he flees to Paris.
There he meets a range of characters - becoming involved in the criminal underworld of violence and suffering. He also meets Margit a rich widow, who is both mysterious and beautiful.
The story follows his life in Paris with all its confused elements and twists and turns, the details of which I will not spoil!
Harry Ricks - American professor forced to leave his job and family following a romantic mistake. A character that initially the reader feels little sympathy for - but throughout the story I found myself forgiving him for his initial mistakes and liking him a lot more.
Margit - Rich widow (aged 50something) - the type of woman that we would all like to be in our 50s glamorous, beautiful and mysterious. Rich and well connected (but of course with a past)
Other characters flit in and out of the story adding a rich depth to the story.
Kennedy tells the story in the first person through the eyes of Harry Ricks so of course the story is biased and this probably explains why you begin to like him as the book goes on. His descriptive tone is well developed and I could really picture all the events. The story is told more or less consecutively although we are told what happened before - but as memories at relevant points in the story rather than flashbacks so this works.
What did I think?
Well the reviews say "a romance for those that don't like romances - a thriller for those that don't like thrillers" and I would have to agree. I was captivated by this book and honestly did not foresee any of the many twists and turns in the plot. Kennedy manages to keep you guessing (with what I am not going to say!) and I was surprised even by the ending!
Kennedy manages to bring in issues such as revenge, and illegal immigration to the story well - passing comment on his views on them - without making it the focus of the story. This makes the book feel more heavyweight than a pure romance or thriller!
Overall I loved this book and would recommend it to both males and females - serious and light readers - I think that it has something for everyone!
Price and stockists
Any good book store - RRP £6.99