Sometimes you get more ‘enjoyment’ thinking about a book after you’ve finished it, rather than while you’re actually reading it. I use the word ‘enjoyment’ loosely because the post-book thinking I’ve done about Conrad & Eleanor by Jane Rogers has been about how irritating the characters were rather than what was intended (reflections on a dying marriage).
The story is moral-thriller. Conrad and Eleanor have been married for decades. Both are scientists yet Conrad is more interested in their four children than his work, while ambitious Eleanor is focused on her career. When Conrad fails to return from a conference in Munich, Eleanor begins to speculate as to why – her affairs? His jealousy over her career success? His discovery of their daughter Cara’s parentage? Meanwhile, Conrad finds himself in Italy, on the run from a crazed animal rights activist. He has lots of time to think. It’s a hot mess.
By moving the narrative back and forth over time, and between Conrad and Eleanor, Rogers manages to continuously flip the power-balance. It’s a clever way of illustrating how their relationship evolved and particularly how decay sets in – it’s not necessarily the big betrayals, but the small, incremental things that are the most damaging.
“Hasn’t he gone from loving her to hating her and back again so many times that the path between them is worn out? There is no love. There is no hate.”
“If it was guilt that made her love him, well, it didn’t make the love any less real.”
Conrad & Eleanor has been praised for its subtlety. Interesting, because I didn’t find it subtle at all. I thought the characters were stereotyped (the resentful stay-at-home parent, the self-involved bread-winner) and the animal-activist plot silly. Conrad vacillates between being paranoid and a complete twit, and the justification for some of his actions was flimsy.
Eleanor’s narcissism was the highlight, particularly the bits where she made Conrad’s disappearance all about her. For example, when her colleagues fail to bring her casseroles and cakes in her time of need (despite the fact that she’s never done the same for them) – “She’s about to cry for lack of kindness”.
I don’t need to like the characters I read about but when you give me a moral thriller, I expect some emotional growth and in this regard, Rogers does not deliver (and not even a scrap, as the last page of the book proved). Rogers lays out the evidence but the question of whether Conrad and Eleanor are each other’s greatest support or enablers of bad behaviour is left to the reader to determine.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 17): Belfast 12°-24° (a heatwave!), Melbourne 4°-17°.
Conrad loves cooking. Eleanor is not interested in food (she’s one of those people who think of it as nothing but ‘fuel’) but she did have nice things to say about Conrad’s smoked salmon quiche.