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Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: 'A Week in December'


By Sebastian Faulks
March 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-53291-4
Seven days, seven characters, seven lives that nearly intersect but don't quite -- this is the way Sebastian Faulks tells his latest story. The main focus is on a cold character who manages a hedge fund, one of those shadowy capitalists who live only to make money. As with many characters of this ilk, he has a wonderful family that he neglects and no clue about what has real value in his life.
John Veals already has more money than he and 20 clones could spend, but amassing more fortune isn't what drives him. It's beating the system. And since he's been so good at it, the stakes keep getting higher. He gets more sanguine about what his amoral plotting may do to innocent people and the world economy (his deputy feels the same way). Meantime, his teenage son displays his heritage only by becoming more jaded about how much pot he smokes and how much time he spends watching a reality show featuring genuinely mentally ill people. The boy's only other pastime is spent in on online world.

This same online world is fascinating to an Underground train driver. Jenni appears to enjoy her job where it is calm and quiet and she's in control, much as she is in control of her online persona. Not even a sponging brother or a jumper phase her. One of her passengers is a young Muslim man who gradually becomes more disenchanted with the West, even as his father gets ready to be presented to the queen after being named on the latest Honours List. To prepare, he hires a tutor to educate him about literature. He finds the drippiest old toad of a reviewer who clings to the farthest edge of the British literary world.
And so on.
Unlike, say a Kate Atkinson novel where the various storylines connect, these characters barely bump up against each other. Their storylines doesn't intersect the way it initially appears they might. And the focus soon turns to whether Veals will be able to pull off his latest scheme to play fast and loose with the world's financial markets.

Although each character's story has a resolution, Faulks is more interested in reporting, in creating a story of "it is what it is". And in a real world where the actual Dow Jones plunged 1,000 points in May because a Citi trader hit "b" for billion instead of "m" for million, it's easy to see how a schemer such as Veals is tempted daily to take the money and run. His tracks are practically covered for him in this era of shadow markets, derivatives and deregulation.

While this writing strategy lends itself to inferring commentary, it also weakens that commentary and so does not add up to much. Faulks deals with some important issues on both global and familial scales. And he creates intriguing characters, from the sniveling book critic (who reminds me of that odious the Rev. Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice) to an earnest young lawyer reading the Koran in a freezing bedsit. But as crucial as characters are, and as worthwhile as certain issues and themes are to explore, they do require a plot worthy of their potential. This is where A Week in December falls flat. It's not a complete failure, but it isn't a great book. And it could have been.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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