The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J. Murray

Every so often I read a book that was a hit for others and a total miss for me. Such was the case with The Biographer’s Lover by Ruby J. Murray. And I do want to stress the ‘hit for others‘ part because some of my blogging friends adored this book.

The book is about an unnamed writer, employed by a wealthy family, to write a monograph about their mother, artist Edna Cranmer. Edna was not known for her work in her lifetime, however her daughter is intent on changing that, by having her paintings of the  landscape, Australian’s at war, and intimate portraits recognised. As the biographer delves deeper into Edna’s life, she discovers seccrets that some family members have worked hard to keep hidden.

I’ll get what I didn’t like about this book out of the way first –

  • The overly complicated plot – multiple timelines, lots of characters, and numerous locations all became too busy (and it had me doing sums on characters’ ages at the end).
  • Indistinct voices – lots of characters are fine but they need distinct voices. The biographer’s perspective was convincing but the parts told from Edna’s point-of-view were noticeably weaker.
  • The unlikeliness of it all – I struggled with the central premise that this artist with tonnes of work was not recognised during her life but then, a few articles in Geelong Advertiser (placed by the pushy daughter) had her obtaining national fame. I just didn’t buy it. Likewise, I didn’t believe the task was as enormous as the biographer made it, and that she would continue working on the project when she wasn’t being paid properly. And then there were the coincidental intersections between the lives of the biographer and members of Edna’s family (they all lived in Geelong).

I began calling the Whitedale aunts and organising interviews. It turned out that Edna’s life would take me into hundreds of homes over the years.

The less people knew about Edna, the more they wanted to talk – it is easier to describe things from a distance. People who barely knew her at all fell over themselves to ramble into my dictaphone. They begged me to stay for one more cuppa. They pulled out their own sketchbooks and photo albums.

  • Poor sense of time – the ‘historical’ chapters sat uncomfortably alongside the modern, noticeable because of my pet-peeve, info-dumping (all sorts of fun facts are included from the Brownout Strangler and bromide poisoning of nurses, to the history of the wooden pencil and the end of the Cold War).
  • Attention given to irrelevant details – okay, I get that the red Ford Falcon (mentioned 11 times) is well looked after and always polished to a high shine, and yes, I understand the difference between a monograph and a biography (mentioned 17 times!).

I did enjoy the descriptions of Geelong, Swan Bay, and the Bellarine and Mornington Peninsulas.

Edna Cranmer grew up on my peninsula, on the Bellarine, with its pockmarked marshes and factories, bays within bays, the smell of sewage, salt, smelters, sheep, woodchips and bird shit. But she grew old on the Mornington side of the bay: a straight coastal road skirting the water lined with stately white limestone hotels.

At the broadest level, the novel explores the idea that how we choose to tell a story can change the ‘outcome’, and that ‘truth’ might be open to interpretation –

So much of the story depends on where you stop telling it.

Murray’s way of exploring these themes is interesting and ambitious, but I do think she could have tackled it just as successfully with fewer plot lines.

In summary, if you like a book with careful and intricate plot structure, one that unravels the past, and has a little twist at the end, then The Biographer’s Lover is for you. Check out Lisa’s glowing review.

2/5 Not for me.

The homes where book clubs were held, where I sat on upholstered chairs and ate the dry sand of Arnott’s Assorted Biscuits.

Most of the Arnott’s Assorted are rubbish, but I do love a Monte Carlo.

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 22): Belfast 6°-17° and Melbourne 5°-15°.

10 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I’m getting an irrational – and I know it’s irrational – aversion to novels with titles along the lines of The [Job title]’s [Noun] so anything like The Calligrapher’s Niece or The Welder of Chelsea (I really hope I’ve just made both those up) are very off-putting! I think it’s because it feels like there’s been a lot, and the one I read I didn’t like. I completely accept this is my failing and not the novels!

    Other recently acquired irrational dislike: blurbs on books that use the word liminal 😀

    • Now that you mention it… 😀 (a tattooist comes to mind…).

      Funny that you mention the word liminal. As I was driving my son to his final English exam, we were talking about the text he had studied and I used the word liminal (honestly, it was pertinent to the themes of the book). Pretty sure he worked liminal into his essay, thus accounting for his excellent result 😉

      • See, I knew it was irrational! I definitely used liminal in my English essays so I’m a total hypocrite 🙂 It just keeps appearing on book blurbs recently and it’s got to the point where it’s all I see 😄

    • Not just you Lisa – another reading buddy who doesn’t blog loved it, and the bookshop owner at Queenscliff also recommended it – I’m filing it alongside Crawdads, another that everyone loved and I didn’t! Anyway, it’s the differences of opinion that always keeps things interesting 🙂

  3. I haven’t read this so can’t comment, really, but I’ll leap in anyhow. I take your point re “fact dumping”. I’m just writing my post on The Tolstoy estate and the thing about this is the lack of fact dumping. It’s a cliche so I’m not going to say it in my post but “it wears its research lightly”.

    Another thing about The Tolstoy estate that seems to be opposite this one is the complexity and individuation of the characters. My reading group particularly commented on that.

    However, from what you say, I don’t find the premise that unbelievable. I am pretty willing at suspending disbelief (unless it’s fantasy which I just have never liked) so maybe that’s it, but the hunt for the story here sounds interesting and believable.

    • Hmmm. Thanks for the heads-up on Tolstoy Estate (in my reading stack). Love your phrase, ‘wears research lightly’ – expect me to reference this in the future!

      The bit in this book that I didn’t find believable was the biographer’s commitment (time and financial) to the story, for what would seem little possible reward. We all have to pay bills…

  4. I was vaguely wondering who did the adverse Crawdads review. I have just borrowed it (the book) from Borrowbox to see for myself. Desperate times – I’m about to head out on a trip and all the libraries are closed for our latest snap lockdown. I won’t be borrowing this one though I don’t think.

    • Please remember I was in the minority – plenty loved it. Ultimately, I like writing that’s spare, and stories that track the emotional plot – overly descriptive and ‘flowery’ is not my thing (especially because it usually comes at the expense of a strong emotional plot).

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