Ideas-driven fiction is perilous ground for writers at any stage of their career. It poses the constant challenge of balancing the insistent voice of theme with the integral components of the story itself – character, plot and pacing. Too much theme, and you risk turning your fiction into a political pamphlet – too much story, and you risk drowning out what you were trying to vocalise in the first place.
Sarah Holt’s debut novel is an ambitious thematic work in an unusual field: chick-lit. Her study is that most ubiquitous feature of the genre, love. We follow three point-of-view protagonists – Missy, Claire, and Elizabeth – as they find, nurture and realise their own brands of affection. It is the growth of these relationships and the different ways in which they tackle life events that make up this exhibition of hearts. It’s a unique and interesting approach that privileges a structural exposition on the nature of love.
The prominence of this study is underlined by the occasional narrative interval where we are introduced to various theories on the topic. These range from a brief look at the evolutionary basis for relationships, to personality theories put forward by psychologists such as Erich Fromm and Zick Rubin. These asides, apart from being genuinely informative, succeed in illuminating the theoretical foundation behind each character’s attitude towards emotional attachments.
The downside to this structure is how much it restricts any full exploration of the characters themselves. The events each relationship is tested with – the holiday, the argument, the meet-the-parents – don’t make for particularly gripping dramas. Less typical scenarios would have helped take things in a more engaging direction. The protagonists’ white, affluent, twenty-something lives are hardly dramatic or divergent, and could similarly have benefitted from greater variety in their backgrounds; as it is, only one of the male interests is sufficiently flawed to engender sympathy. Once we have a handle on how the personality theories match with each relationship, the independent narratives become quite predictable. The potential of the story is thus hindered by the ideas that scaffold it. If the supporting theories had been questioned or experimented with, the characters and story would have been richer for it.
The author takes a certain delight in subverting or redressing various proverbs and clichés. The problem with this is not what Holt does with them, but how often she does it. When there are as many clichés as there are in this novel, attempts at subverting them only succeed in drawing attention to their presence, to the point where their arrival becomes ugly no matter how they are spun. The dialogue especially suffers from this, where truisms appear without any sort of clothing, and things quickly turn stilted. It’s a shame, as the prose is otherwise very accessible, carrying the story clearly and smoothly – which makes it all the more obvious when these narrative speed-bumps appear to jolt the momentum.
The other point-of-view character is Bea, whose adult self is abruptly killed off in the opening chapter. The significance of this only becomes apparent by the novel’s end, when a Borgesian twist threads a new perspective through the storyline and adds a much-needed poignancy. Whether this wholly rescues the novel is debatable. On the one hand it ties together the separate narrative threads and deftly concludes the author’s exposition; on the other it exposes what was missing in the story up to this point: a source of sufficient reader empathy – something that might have been addressed had we more opportunity to get inside the characters’ heads. An element of mystery earlier on would have helped given the twist greater resonance, but this and any what-happens-next anticipation is sadly missing.
Love and Eskimo Snow is a difficult novel to get on with: its undertaking is both admirable and likeable, it’s been intelligently put together, and there is clearly a good story at the heart of it. If the author had been braver and more willing to experiment, the story could have been much more compelling, but focussing on thematic clarity has left characters and plot severely lacking. Sarah Holt is clearly a well-informed and insightful novelist, and it is refreshing to see such a considered approach within a genre not renowned for such things. It will be interesting to see what the author sets out to tackle next – we can only hope that next time the key components of the story are given just as much attention as the ideas that drive it.
An edition of this article first appeared at deadinkbooks.com on 28th July 2014.