Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How Did the Book Club Go? The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

We've been selling The White Woman on the Green Bicycle well since it came out, keeping it on our new paperback release table. The subject has been intriguing to customers, a complicated marriage told against the backdrop of post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago.  A few customers who read it came back to the store and gave it a thumbs up. Plus it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; even award nominations draw the attention of our customers.

So it was a bit surprising to me that the book has received little review attention since it came out, aside from blog write ups. Then I looked on Treeline, the service that publishers and booksellers use to share information, and I was a little shocked to find out we had sold the most copies of anyone on the service. Was this a novel whose award nom was a fluke, or was it simply being overlooked in the market?

After our book club discussion on Monday, I would definitively say that Monique Roffey's second published novel (though only in the UK) falls into the latter category. There was great approval for the story, which resonated in varying ways with our participants.  We had one naysayer (and just to put things in perspective, I ran into an occasional attendee at Beans and Barley who wound up hating last month's pick, Into the Beautiful North, from Luis Alberto Urrea--I really wish she had attended as it would have given the discussion some liveliness).

George and Sabine Harwood are among the last wave of British arrivals to Port of Spain. Eric Williams has already been organizing his PNM party to push for independence. But Sabine is fairly naive to the workings of the country.  She doesn't understand the race or class distinctions, she's oppressed by the heat and the smallness of the island, and she doesn't realize how strange it is for a young woman to be riding around in shorts on that old green bicycle.  What she does know is that she's in love with George and the posting will only last three years. (The original UK jacket is to the left).

Needless to say, things do not go this way.  The White Woman on the Green Bicycle starts with George and Sabine, still in Port of Spain in their seventies, their marriage disintegrated, and with thugs running the country, a mix of incompetence and big brotherism, represented by an oversized blimp that hovers over the city. Sabine is concerned by an attack on her housekeeper's son; George is more preoccupied with his journalism. Their daughter Pascale has married into the culture; their son Sebastian escaped to England. A reunion of the four is nothing less than bristly; who are these people, how did they get to this place, and why oh why is Sabine still there?

There were so many interesting ideas about the book, and it didn't hurt that most of us agreed it was beautifully written. There's a lot of dialog; I was hoping the patois would be subsumed by the story, and though it did not, the story moved rather quickly. Sabine's unsent letters to Eric Williams, the prime minister hit a note with at least one of us confessing that unsent letters had also been written. The smallness of Trinidad was well rendered, and reminded an attendee that she had been in the country in the late sixties and had felt the same way.

Most of us liked the parallels between the state of the country and the state of the marriage. Carolyn called it a double metaphor--did the colonialism represent the domestic oppression or was it the reverse? Roger spotted the parallels between George Harwood and Eric Williams. Nancy noted that the true villain of the story was compromise, and Gloria noted that for some, Milwaukee could be its own Trinidad.  I've known folks who felt that way too. One reader suggested Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place for another look at the constrictedness of living in such a situation.

Judy wondered about the author's ethnicity. Some digging revealed that Roffey would be Pascale in the story, if the story wasn't fiction and her parents' relationship had been remotely close to the one in the story. In a sense, she was Sebastian too, as she wound up going to boarding school and moving to England. Her recent memoir, not yet published in the United States, is an Eat, Pray, Love of sexual awakening titled With the Kisses of His Mouth. Her first novel was Sun Dog, and it turns out the cover art for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was the British mass market edition.  They still like their mass markets there--not sure why. I think the jacket works, but most of the other folks in the group didn't love it. I think it pops off the table.

So look for me to continue to push Monique Roffey's novel for the forseeable future. There's no reason why we can't sell 100 copies of this, and have the 95 readers come back and thank us for finding a great novel they wouldn't have spotted elsewhere.

Here's Large Hearted Boy with the accompanying playlist for the novel including two songs from The Mighty Sparrow, who has a bit part in the story.
And here's Roffey's author page in the UK.

Upcoming In-Store Lit Group Discussions:

Monday, November 7, 7 pm
The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

Monday, December 5, 7 pm
The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht
The paperback releases November 1.

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