Posted on November 28th, 2014
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Of course it’s serious, my love, but it’s fucking hilarious!” This is one of my favourite lines from Getting Colder and it suits the whole book really, which is a black comedy.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for a review, and I dived in with eager anticipation. Getting Colder is a fast read that kept me flipping pages as if it were a thriller. It tells the story of an emotionally remote woman — or a highly passionate but repressed one, take your pick — who leaves her husband and children to run off with the (legend has it) great love of her life, a famously drunken and “brilliant” playwright. When the book opens, this woman Sara has died, and her family is attending her funeral. The rest of the book deals with the family individually and collectively coming to terms with how little they really knew or understood this woman who was their mother and wife. Primarily, the story belongs to Nigel, the adult son; Louise, the adult daughter; and Patrick, the playwright husband; though, Louise’s teenage children also play pivotal roles.
In the midst of the family’s post-funeral gathering, when tension and grief are already at full tilt, a young graduate student named Mia shows up to interview Patrick, planning to stay a while. Coe writes her characters well, as if she really knows them. I found Mia to be the most satisfying, in many ways, because she adds intrigue and humour to the story, whilst having the straightforward motivational clarity of a sociopath, e.g. “Sara was only a person, like any other, and what do people matter?”
Patrick, the grieving widower, turns out to be (in a fine and subtle twist by Coe) the most sympathetic character in the book. This is one of the funny things Coe’s writing does to you when reading her book: you find yourself siding with the bullies and wanting to smack the whingers. (To be fair, though, there is a lot of whinging and self pity. One can only take so much.) The character interplay that brought this about, and my response to it, both shamed and amused me. For instance, I was well aware that I should not like Patrick, that a decent and kind human being would feel sorry for his step-daughter Louise when he insults and ridicules her. But, in the context of the book, that’s not what I found myself doing. I found Louise to be such an incredibly annoying and self-deluding fool that whenever Patrick would set her straight, I would tacitly agree with him and cheer him on, as if he were speaking for both of us. (Having said that, there are powerful moments of empathy with Louise, too, so it’s not one-sided, but rather a complex series of vacillating emotions, as we have in our own relationships and lives.)
Coe’s writing is intelligent and clever and nuanced. It gives the reader aesthetic distance: a quiet spot in a dark theatre from to watch the play unfold. I felt removed from these characters and their challenges, always holding the meta perspective rather than lost in the story, but that worked well for this particular book. It allowed me the same experience of remoteness and emotional wanting-in- but-kept-out frustration that the main characters struggle with and mostly fail to resolve. (I kept hearing Little Richard’s “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in!” playing in my head, which is an apt enough theme song, even if it is American and a bit too perky.)
And now, a warning: If you are the sort of reader who needs to like or love your characters, this book is not for you. The characters work brilliantly as an ensemble, but I am not sure I would want to know any of them in real life. Coe is not writing Sophie’s Choice here.
I do not wish to give the plot away, but I would recommend Getting Colder as an especially good read for the holidays. It’s the kind of book you can take to your room with a pot of tea and indulge in for a few hours, with relish. It will make you think about what it is we mean when we say we know and love someone, and whether others mean the same thing when they say it back to us. This book has a way of staying with you, playing around the edges of your mind, for several days after you finish it. Or, it did me, anyway.