About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

#31: Ordinary Thunderstorms

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

"One May evening in London, Adam Kindred, a young climatologist in town for a job interview, is feeling good about the future as he sits down for a meal at a little Italian bistro. He strikes up a conversation with a solitary diner at the next table, who leaves soon afterward. With horrifying speed, this chance encounter leads to a series of malign accidents, through which Adam loses everything -- home, family, friends, job, reputation, passport, credit cards, cell phone -- never to get them back.

"The police are searching for him. There is a reward for his capture. A hired killer is stalking him. He is alone and anonymous in a huge, pitiless, modern city. Adam has nowhere to go but down -- underground. He decides to join that vast array of the disappeared and the missing who throng London's lowest levels as he tries to figure out what to do with his life and struggles to understand the forces that have made it unravel so spectacularly. Adam's quest will take him all along the river Thames, from affluent Chelsea to the gritty East End, and on the way he will encounter all manner of London's denizens -- aristocrats, prostitutes, evangelists, and policewomen -- and version after new version of himself.

"Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd's electric follow-up to his award-winning Restless, is a profound and gripping novel about the fragility of social identity, the corruption at the heart of big business, and the secrets that lie hidden in the filthy underbelly of every city."

Opening Line:
"Let us start with the river -- all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt -- but let's wait and see how we go."

My Take:
Wow! For some reason, I had a hard time getting around to starting this one, even though it's been on my reading list for nearly a year and on my library loaners shelf more than once before. Then yesterday I had a bad day (ah, the ups and downs of unemployment), polished it off in a few hours ... and man, Boyd really knocks this one out of the park.

As the jacket blurb above suggests, Ordinary Thunderstorms is most certainly a page turner. There's mystery, espionage, corporate malfeasance, a halfway-decent riches-to-rags story, and even a glimmer of a romance that manages to neither seem forced nor dominate the novel from the time it's introduced (both big peeves of mine, if that wasn't already obvious). Adam is compelling and makes you want to root for him largely because he's not perfect; he makes a few colossally stupid blunders early on in the novel (granted, if he hadn't, there wouldn't be much of a story here), and we learn that a spontaneous, unthinking fling with a grad student cost him both his last job and his marriage.

The supporting cast is likewise fun to watch and follow, even if it's more often than not in a can't look away, train wreck sort of way. With the exception of Rita, the marine police officer who unknowingly comes this close to Adam more than once before becoming obsessed with why the higher-ups suddenly released one of her highly-armed collars; and Philip Wang, the doctor/ pharmaceutical researcher whose murder Adam stumbles on in Chapter 1; they range from unsettling to sketchy to downright scary. There's Ingram, head of the company for which Wang had worked, who seems to have it made ... except for the growing realization that it's not he who's really calling the shots, and the suspicion that his mysterious ailments may be more than stress. There's Mhouse, the illiterate prostitute who laces her young son's meals with rum and Diazepam so he'll stay asleep when she goes out to work. Most ickily, there's Jonjo, the highly-trained ex-soldier who makes quite a comfortable living freelancing at what he does best, and whose sole redeeming quality seems to be that at least he loves his dog.

On top of being a darned good story, Ordinary Thunderstorms also has a lot going on between the lines. It's no accident that Adam is (or was) a climatologist by training: a man who made a living seeding clouds, demonstrating man's power to alter even the most elemental of forces. Throughout the novel, he goes from being someone who controls the weather (as his grad student, the aptly-named Fairfield Springer, observes just before their assignation, "It's like you're playing god,") to someone who struggles to control even the most basic aspects of his own life. The reader comes to realize, as the story unfolds, that the seemingly-random events that make Adam's life fall apart are, in fact, like the clouds he once seeded in his lab: the result of innumerable, interrelated human actions. Though hungry, penniless, and in fear for his life, Adam rejects the idea of turning himself into the police because he knows in doing so, he'd give up what little control he still has. Likewise, in their own ways, Ingram, Rita, Mhouse, and Jonjo all struggle (with varying degrees of success) to carve out patches of autonomy and dignity in a world where storms and uncertainties far beyond their control seem constantly at work.

Yeah, I guess I kinda liked this book -- that, and maybe I'm vicarously expounding on behalf of my daughter, who finished the ELA tests at school today. (Good thing no one's grading my blog, eh? I'd settle for someone reading it.)

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