Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her. [opening paragraph]
Under the Skin by Michel Faber
Harvest Books, 2001Science Fiction; 319 pgs
I read The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber for an online book group a few years ago. It is a historical novel set in the 1800's about a prostitute who is taken in by a married man as his concubine. I really enjoyed the novel, especially the author's writing and approach to the social issues of the day. His characters weren't particularly likeable, but they were interesting and connecting with them was no problem. After reading The Crimson Petal and the White, I knew I wanted to read more by the author.
Fast forward to this past month. Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the February selection for the face to face book group I recently joined. I was both excited and eager to jump in and give it a try. My husband just happened to have a copy of the book, having received it as a Christmas gift the year before last.
The description of the book on the back cover is very vague, offering only that the book is about a woman who picks up a certain type of hitchhiker--well-built males with no attachments and very few commitments. I read no reviews of the book going in and so had no idea what to expect. Was this a serial killer novel? Was the protagonist, Isserley, an alien or some sort of supernatural being or just a psychopath? It was clear from the first that something bad was happening to the men she picked up. I don't think that's much of a spoiler. And perhaps by sharing my initial speculations about who--or what--she might be, I am giving too much away.
Sounds interesting, right? It was. To a degree. The novel held so much potential, but it fell flat for me. I was taken in at first but soon began to wonder where the novel was going. So little happened in the first half or so of the book--it just meandered along. It seemed as if the author was attempting to reveal a little bit more about Isserley and her purpose as the story unfolded, which he did. I just wish the reveals hadn't been so drawn out.
Like with The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber tackles pertinent social issues in Under the Skin, including corporate greed and classism. At times I swear the author was trying to turn me into a vegetarian. I came away from the book feeling like I was being preached to--the messages being too obvious and strong.
My new book group met the last Saturday in February to discuss our thoughts about Under the Skin. And I think the discussion went quite well. Only one person mentioned liking the book. The rest of us were less satisfied. I did walk away from the discussion with added insight to the book just the same. I can't tell you how good it felt to be a part of a book discussion like that. I have only really experienced book discussions on line and, while great in their own right, there's something to be said about an in-person discussion, people bouncing ideas off each other as you go.
I think what I most got out of the discussion was a clearer impression about the main character. I never really warmed to her as I read the book; but during the discussion, I began to have more empathy for her. There was a point while reading the book that I thought how much she was like so many people, wrapped up in her own world, insecure and just trying to survive. She was reluctant to see the world any differently than how she had for so long seen it, coping as best she could. As the novel progressed, she grew, however subtly and reluctantly. I wish, as the reader, I'd been privy to more of her back story. I think I might have found her more relatable if I had known a little more of what she had been through in her earlier years. The book hints at it, but I never got the full picture. But perhaps that is part of the point. Like Isserley who kept an emotional distance from the men she picked up, the reader is kept at arm's length to get a better understanding of what she was experiencing. Or it could just be me.
When all is said and done, I still can't say I liked Under the Skin. I didn't hate it though. I think it made a good book for a group discussion even if hardly anyone in the group liked it. Perhaps that's what made it even more discussion worthy.
Source: My husband received this book as a gift. He kindly loaned it to me to read.
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