Completing the Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project and Voting

In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post.

This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)

(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)

This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.

Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.

The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.

Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.

My rating:

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)

A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.

New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.

Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…

The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)

An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.

My rating:

 

Skims

I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?


It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:

(*not at all)

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Property by Valerie Martin

Small World by Andrea Levy

Home by Marilynne Robinson

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride


You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.

As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)

You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!

Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.

Who gets your vote?

30 responses

  1. I’m totally impressed you read all the WP winners! I still have a long way to go and won’t complete them in time (neither did I intend to), but I agree that people have short memories and a recent winner will probably win. You absolutely got my curiosity about Larry’s Party now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I at least *attempted* all of them — there were a few I didn’t make it very far with.

      I hope you enjoy Larry’s Party if and when you get to it. Carol Shields was a wonderful writer and is still underappreciated.

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  2. Great to see your list! Our thoughts on the Grenville are indeed very similar, as are our thoughts on the Smith, from what I remember of it. I’m surprised that our overall rankings aren’t as far apart as I thought they might be; we have two books in common in the top five.

    My prediction for the public vote is A Spell of Winter, purely because the voting widget is so badly set up that I’ve already accidentally voted for it once, and I bet others will too! (Fortunately I managed to work out how to vote for my preferred option eventually.) If people manage to overcome the widget issues, I can also see An American Marriage taking it, or possibly Small Island. Am I right in thinking that the judges also choose their best of the best, though, ie it isn’t totally down to public vote?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I bet I can guess which two overlap in our top 5 🙂

      I don’t know about the judging process. It would kind of be a shame if the winner didn’t reflect the public vote. This year the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize is treating the public as 2 votes out of 5, with 3 judges on hand as the others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would make sense, to treat the public vote as one vote out of several. But with 25 novels I’m not sure how it could be meaningful (as the judges will have a chance to compromise if they all pick a different book from each other!)

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    2. When the Booker did their best-of they had authors choose one winner per decade and then those went head to head for the public vote. That was a clever way of narrowing it down so nominations weren’t all over the place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always like Grenville’s books, so your review makes this one sound more disappointing. I’ve been fairly good about tackling many past winners – as you say, quite a mixed bag from often reliable authors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was pleasant, but maybe had a little less substance than I was expecting from a prize winner. I do look forward to trying her historical fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope you’ll like it. She does her research properly, but uses it with a light touch. I never feel there’s info there for the sake of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Agree absolutely about the arbitrary nature of prizes. Decisions by committee! And pleased to see Larry’s Party get your vote. Hard to say which I’d choose without a marathon reread but I’m pretty sure that would be close to the top.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah go on, have a vote anyway 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So impressed (as always) by your prodigious reading. I’ve read precisely 2 of the winners (Property and Glorious Heresies – loved the latter). I’ve DNF’d McBride and Michaels. That’s the extent of my women’s prize reading – although a few are on my shelves (Hamnet, The Power, and I’m sure I have Larry’s Party somewhere). I’ve copied that spreadsheet to see how many nominated books I have read- thanks for including that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love a good project! Sounds like McInerney gets your vote; why not? I reckon you’ll enjoy the Alderman, too.

      Like

      1. I skimmed through the list so quickly – I’ve actually read three more! Obreht (meh) Shriver (enjoyed) and Adichie (VG).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. You’ve read 3 of my top 5! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I adored A Girl is a Half-formed Thing but it is hard work. It was adapted for stage here in Ireland and is one of the most powerful productions I’ve ever seen.
    https://746books.com/2015/08/19/the-magic-of-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-on-the-stage/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be such an interesting way to experience it! And for me, more successful than the book, I imagine.

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      1. I think so. It had a better flow when performed I thought.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Small Island got my vote. Still the only novel that engrossed me so much, I forgot all about the concert I was meant to attend!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’ve read 20 of the list and my vote went to Bel Canto. The Road Home is the one I’d least like to win.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A fine showing! I’ve enjoyed other novels by Patchett much more than that one, but I do love her writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. On Beauty and An American Marriage are my two favourites here. I would not read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing to the extent of even one paragraph, so you did well there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I somehow missed your comment last month! Sorry about that. On Beauty was a favourite of mine in my 20s, but I couldn’t get through it on a reread, so that pushed it a ways down the list.

      Like

  10. […] You can also check out Bookish Beck’s ranking of all 25 novels here. […]

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  11. […] is the Women’s Prize’s Winner of Winners for Half of a Yellow Sun? Her novel came out at #2 in my ranking of all 25 winners, so I’m […]

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  12. Awww, I think it’s so sad that you feel Felicity’s storyline in Grenville’s novel to be unnecessary and unimportant, since that’s really why Felicity feels and acts like she does, because she feels she doesn’t matter at her core. You already know this is one of my favourite novels, and I think the part that I most appreciated at the time was that it was so uncommon to find a love story that felt awkward and true; maybe other parts of it would jump out at me on rereading. We’ve also had very different experiences with the Smith novel; where you see ‘pretense’ I’m thrilled by the layers of crafting and attention to detail. But, I do agree that I might not have made it through the novel, when we first started to read it together, if the historical half had been presented first, because I was expecting something contemporary from the start, and it took me awhile to feel as though I had an investment in the historical voice, past the half-way point. As much as I enjoy reading about history, I don’t often choose to read historical fiction; I have to be in a particular mood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t realize the Grenville was an overall favourite for you! How have you felt about her other books? I did think the awkward love story sweet.

      I’m used to Smith’s work being super-contemporary, and that energy just wasn’t there for me with the historical strand.

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  13. Well done on this achievement!! (And I’m glad you found my spreadsheet helpful!) I thought about trying to read all the winners this year but it just wasn’t in the cards for me – I think I’ve only read 10… but it’s definitely a longterm goal of mine. Bummer to see The Glorious Heresies and A Girl were skims for you – they’re two of my faves! I actually voted for The Glorious Heresies, but it’s very much my kind of book. I’m even more excited to read Larry’s Party now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sad when I don’t love the books my bookish friends love. Sigh!

      Like

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