Catch me when I fall – Nicci French

3 July 2008
Part-way through Chapter 7
It’s the first novel I’ve read by these collaborators, not quite a quarter of the way in. It’s situated in McEwan-land… which is ok I suppose. Young, flying-by-the-seat-of-her-pants success Holly has a dark side which she normally treats as a sort of pet. Suddenly, because of a bit of forgetfulness on her part, it’s biting her back. She’s only been married a year but she’s let herself have a drunken night out – rather well described – and a drunken one-night stand on the back of it. Guilt, shame… for an hour or two, then it’s time to get on with life.

Two strands conveniently come together on the day after: she meets the person who’s got her lost mobile phone – who turns out to be last night’s mistake and a hideous control freak demanding more of the same – and she sacks an apparently high-powered assistant who has been slacking and lying about it. So we get the horrible conversation with the bloke – grip on the wrist, high talk of what a bitch she is, hints of blackmail and stalking, a slap from her in retaliation – followed by the horrible conversation with the assistant. She can’t wait to tell her she won’t take it lying down, that Holly’s not as highly thought of as she thinks she is, etcetera.

There’s Charlie the illustrator husband – now there’s a McEwan-type non-job – and dependable business partner Meg. (The Frenches aren’t exactly subtle about the names they choose….) Meg disapproves of the adultery but realises Holly has a certain je ne sais quoi they need. We see this in action at one of their team-building workshops: dangerous Holly, the life and soul – but also someone who realises we’re only the person people think we are as long as we can keep it up. At this key moment she has a thoughtful late-night conversation with a middle-aged man who’s gloomy about his fading powers and lost dreams. He’s a plant by the authors, to remind us how fragile it all is. Because, obviously, poor Holly’s about to be assailed from at least two sides by people who want to do nasty things to her public (and no doubt private) persona. Gulp.

4 July:
To the end of Chapter 7
I wasn’t quite a quarter of the way through, but now I am. Chapter 7 revealed that the Frenches had thought about Charlie’s job after all: he’s in crisis with it, in terms of both his morale and his account books. Holly spends a manic night sorting out the latter, but she’s not careful enough about the former: she suggests he re-trains as a plumber. (Not a postman, notice.) Meanwhile in Thriller-land: the stalker’s phoned Meg and made a nasty visit to the office. And the sacked employee’s filing for unfair dismissal. Holly is blasé, but has to cover up her inability to sleep with long bouts of nocturnal activity. Candle. Both ends.

6 July
Not quite half-way through
Holly’s done another bad thing… and another, and another. She’s bought a stupidly expensive art work because she was pissed, she’s got herself into a high-powered poker game and lost thousands because she was pissed, she’s seen a few things that have caught her eye in shops and bought them in sets of 30…. The Frenches describe manic behaviour pretty well, even if I don’t believe the specific examples. Particularly the poker game, more like Mamet’s House of Games than anything the Frenches know about, I suspect. Bu..ut, it moves the plot along, gets somebody else on to Holly’s back. And now the support network is falling away: Meg’s had enough of her prima donna style, behaving as though nobody else exists or contributes anything (etcetera); Charlie’s been called by the creep, knows she’s been unfaithful and is not very happy about it. In one of her thoughtful moments she thinks about when her dad used to get her to jump from a wall into his arms – but now (wait for it) he’s gone and there’s nobody to… etcetera. But at least she’s managed to get a good night’s sleep. Everything’s going to be all right, isn’t it?

No, obviously, not when there’s more than half the novel to go yet. She goes into the office and works so hard she notices nothing and nobody around her. But something’s happening. Meg calls her into their conference room, and there is… Charlie. Time for… dunno yet, I haven’t read that far.

14 July
Just over three quarters of the way through
Turns out that what they’d wanted was for Holly to seek medical help… but she’s too quick for them. That’s the personality the Frenches have given her: self-destructive and quick on her feet.

However… the fall has happened. Not that I believe any of it: we’re asked to believe that Holly’s bipolar disorder, which it’s taken her 27 years to notice, has led to a bout of self-loathing. Naturally, being the slippery character she is, she’s hidden this little fact from herself as well as from everybody else – but if we were just beginning – just beginning, of course – to suspect that it was very convenient for everything to go wrong at once for her… well, she’d subconsciously planned it that way. Everybody’s out to get her because she’s put herself in that position. And made all the important people in her life as sick of her as the reader is.

Anyway, we’ve had the nasty visit from the nasty little shit whose job it is to put the frighteners on her; we’ve had the violently threatening confrontation with the control freak; we’ve had an openly violent visit from the shit she was playing along, who’s now standing up for the woman she sacked – a visit that ends up with the police called and both of them in hospital. And guess what: she’s worked out that her dad – the only one who, in her myopic view, was ever there to catch her – must also have been bipolar. His death, she concludes (probably wrongly, as she’s never right about these things), must have been suicide….

…So she decides to keep up the family tradition and ends up in hospital, again. And suddenly the point of view changes. Meg is now narrating, so, as if we need it, we get a more realistic portrait of Holly than the one she presents herself. This is crude. I’ve got nothing against changes of narrator, obviously, or unreliable narrators. But why do the Frenches think we need Holly’s dark side spelling out like this? To show what’s been plain from the start – that everyone around her is always catching her when she falls? Well, duh. Oh, and Charlie and Meg’s affair – one of the things that sent her to the pill-bottle – is only happening inside Holly’s head. Only self-obsessed Holly could ever have imagined such a thing. (So where’s Charlie been going to? What’s this job interview where he doesn’t need to take his portfolio? I suppose he’s discovered the joys of plumbing.)

16 July
To the end…
…thank God. It gets worse…. In fact the last third or so, narrated by Meg, turns into a cack-handed whodunnit. Charlie sees Holly’s self-destructiveness as a way out for him: he’s been (wait for it) catching her when she falls, clearing up after her, putting her back together again for so long he’s lost his own sense of himself. So he tries to fake a second suicide for her. Fortunately Meg’s put two and two together (always half a step behind the reader because the Frenches make the clues so blindingly obvious) and is able to rescue her friend approximately five minutes before she’s about to die in the carbon monoxide-filled car Charlie’s left her in, deep in Suffolk. Yeh, sure. And she just happens to have in her handbag the top half of the torn suicide note Charlie is using to make it seem genuine, so the cops realise her allegations aren’t those of a raving lunatic after all. So, Charlie in jail, Holly on the road to recovery, Charlie’s lover and accomplice (it was only the joys of her plumbing he’s been exploring, ho ho) regrettably free to be smug and self-righteous again.

Worse still is the sentimentality. In heavily signposted contrast to Charlie is Meg the real friend. She’s paid the gambling debts, caught her for a lot more years than the low-stamina Charlie and (gulp) saved her life. She’s the (time for a group hug) True Friend to Charlie’s false one. And, just in case we were worried that the pills had taken the edge of Holly’s legendary brilliance, the novel ends with her point of view. She’s bought two colossal pyrotechnic rockets to celebrate Meg’s marriage (she had been seeing someone but, obviously, not Charlie) and one of them goes wrong. Meg narrates the description of the explosion in a bedroom caused by one of them (and which the Frenches are a bit too earnest about assuring us only causes some soot-blackened faces). Holly hardly notices that one. She only sees the one that goes up into the sky, and the novel ends with its ‘blossoming flower of perfect shedding light…. Twice, I died; now, I live.’ Bless.

2 Responses to Catch me when I fall – Nicci French

  1. Amanda says:

    i dont think any of the book was obvious. i never wouldve guessed Charlie had been on the street with her or in the bedroom when she was dieing. Though i agree its not the French’s best book

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