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There are some books that are easy to condense in a 500 word review - sometimes it's even hard to get to that number because you run out of things to say. Then there are other books that seem impossible to discuss properly in just 500 words, or even 1000, or 2000, or anything less than the actual word count of the book. Every single sentence in the book just seems so important that you have to discuss it. Every small character has an impact on you, so how can you leave him or her out of the review? Unfortunately, today my job is to somehow condense Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn in a reasonable length review.
Plot: Character rating
And the first problem is trying to summarise the plot. I read this book for Southbank's First Look Bookclub. A handful of readers had the chance to discuss the book with the author present. This was an amazing experience and everyone was very interested and interactive - until it came to summarising the book. No one could do it. "Too many characters", "But so much happens", "You just have to read it". So bear with me while I attempt this.
Curtain Call is a characters piece set in 1936 (more on that later) that has five main characters: Stephen, Nina, Madeleine, Tom and Jimmy. The easiest way to discuss the book is by discussing each character - I'm going to rate them from least favourite to favourite so there will be opinion weaved into the discussion.
Jimmy is a famous theatre critic who is past his moment of shine. He's getting fat, old and broke, while also fearing for his job. See, Jimmy is quite an outspoken gay man and in 1936, this wasn't appreciated by the newspaper bosses. However, besides those fears, Jimmy has, what we would call nowadays, a luxury obsession and can't prevent himself from splurging all the money he has. A great example of this is the fact that he keeps a cab waiting, for hours at times, when he goes to dinner or to a party. Jimmy's journey in the book is from being a big deal to becoming average. The fame is fading, the interest is disappearing and Jimmy has to handle this.
And he doesn't do this very well. In my opinion, he is reckless and a constant outsider about everything that might even come close to responsibility. He has an assistant, Tom, who is supposed to be more of an intern, but ends up doing everything Jimmy just doesn't feel like doing. Towards the end of the book, Tom really needs Jimmy (it's a life or death kind of situation) and Jimmy leaves and saves himself. Not Tom. At this point, I was done with Jimmy. He was very interesting to read about, but there were just no redeeming qualities in him for me.
While talking about outsiders, Stephen needs to be mentioned. He is married to Cora, has two great kids (though he might say only his daughter Freya is great), but embarks on an affair with actress Nina. This is his first affair and Stephen has to deal with feelings of guilt, while also being confronted by his own gullibleness and the situations that puts him in. Being that it's 1936, caution would be advised when associating with certain people....
I liked Stephen a lot more than Jimmy. He has some sides to him that I didn't relate to, mainly his ability to always be an outsider and avoid any blame. The book opens with him and Nina at a hotel. Nina witnesses an assault in a hotel room nearby and wants to report it to the police - she feels responsible. Stephen talks her out of it (at least for a while). When Stephen gets in a "predicament" (I don't want to spoil it) with people he shouldn't be seen with, he cries innocence. His redeeming quality is that he actually is quite innocent. Unlike Jimmy, Stephen doesn't treat people badly. You even feel like he's making sure his affair won't hurt his wife - he just wants to make her and Nina happy. He tries to be a good person, and in the end of the book actually comes through with this, to my surprise. But God, why is he so weak in the beginning?
I hate having to put all the male characters at the bottom of the list, but I just can't help it with this book. Though I really really liked Tom, and even debated putting him on number two, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Tom is the assistant of Jimmy and has big dreams of becoming a theatre critic himself. Nine years after starting to work for Jimmy, it's pretty clear that he is learning more about being a secretary than learning how to become a good writer. Yet, Tom is a really good person, so he doesn't want to leave Jimmy.
And that was kind of my problem with Tom - he was just a really good person. He has epilepsy, but doesn't want to tell anyone. He says he doesn't want to be judged, but I think he doesn't want to be a burden to anyone, because he's just that nice. He also gets romantically involved with Madeleine and does everything a good guy would do - he's nice and romantic and non-judgmental. I just missed some kind of edge to Tom - he's a bit too vanilla for me.
Finally, we get to the ladies of this novel and I have to tell every single person who is looking for a book with some realistic women (finally!!) that this is the book for you. Both Madeleine and Nina are very different, but they are both amazing.
Madeleine is an educated girl that lands off the track due to circumstances. To support herself, she has to become an escort. She tries to keep this a secret from most people, especially Tom. Madeleine also happens to be the girl who was almost killed, but saved by Nina, in the hotel. This binds the two girls as they are both scared of the tie-pin killer: a man who chokes women and then stabs their tongue with a tie-pin. He tried to get Madeleine and Nina stopped him - will there be revenge?
Madeleine is number two on my list, because she is so strong. She's forced into a situation she doesn't like, but she does it so she can support herself. There's no endless internal monologue or weeks of weeping - she knows what she has to do and she does it. Her personality itself is more on the quiet/shy side (quite surprisingly considering her job) and I would have loved to have known even more about her. She's a mystery to everyone in the book, especially Tom, and she also remains a bit of a mystery to the reader.
Unlike Nina, who throws herself out there to reader and character alike. I ADORED Nina. She's ballsy, independent and yet extremely caring for people. She saves Madeleine's life, she supports Steven in everything he does, she tries to find the killer and at the same time also performs in a West End theatre play. She doesn't have any support - her mother makes a few cameos and is clearly not Nina's favourite, nor is Nina her favourite child - and she doesn't seem to have many friends.
Yet Nina manages to be there for everyone and to always try and do the right thing. She lives in the 1930s, so don't expect a feminist rampage from Nina, but for her era, she is the most feminist character I have encountered. I wish there were more Nina's in literature.
Character 6: 1936
You could say that the sixth character of the book is 1936. It was an important year in Britain (think the affair of the King and the Crystal Palace) and the book plays into these historical elements. The nazis are very prominent and get involved with several characters. More importantly, I think it was probably a year of uncertainties and secrets about what was happening in Europe - and these uncertainties and secrets are reflected in the characters. What will their future hold? Who will they be? They don't know, just like Europe didn't know.
The best part about this is that the historical setting doesn't overrule any of the main characters, but that it's interwoven with the characters. I hate when authors try to remind you explicitly of the time setting in every single sentence. However, Anthony Quinn's writing reflects the time throughout the story, without forcing it upon you. It's in the small details in the story; the newspapers, the clothes, the way people interacted with each other,... The major plot elements would not have happened if there was internet (are there still any secrets now?) and that makes the story so very 1936.
Due to this subtle writing, you really get lost in this world and get carried away with Anthony's view of 1936 London and its inhabitants. This is, what I believe, an amazing writing skill and made the book a page turner for me.
After that last paragraph, I doubt it would be a surprise to anyone that this book is a five out five for me. It was absolutely wonderful. I've mentioned before that characters are important to me and these characters were just right. I might not have liked all of them, but they were all human and realistic. I actually liked that I disliked Jimmy - when in real life would you meet a group of people and just take a fancy to all of them? Probably never. And that's what makes Curtain Call so good. I believe every single reader will find a character they dislike in this book, but I also believe that most readers will fall in love with the book (and hopefully Nina!).