Monday, March 05, 2012

Bookish Thoughts: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

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, 2001
Science 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.


© 2012, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

16 comments:

  1. I thought the first paragraph you quoted was intriguing - it's too bad it ultimately didn't work well for you. I wish I had a face-to-face book club - it sounds like fun!

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    1. I enjoyed the group very much and am so glad I joined. I am reading the March selection now and it is so good! I wish there was more time during the day to read.

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  2. That is awesome that you found a book club! I have one group where most of the members are older, and it is wonderful because they all read the book and all have been around the block so that they have opinions and insights. I get so much out of that group, whether I liked the book or not. I do appreciate your honesty with this one, so I can resist if I ever it is offered to me!

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    1. My book club is quite diverse age wise--and taste wise--from what I can tell so far. From what I gather, membership is actually quite large and it's not always the same members attending each time (only about 12 to 15 usually attend). We'll see. My goal is to participate more often than not--not being only when I have something else I can't get out of.

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  3. When I bought this book, I had the feeling it would be creepy and full of twists, but that's not what it sounds like at all! I don't really enjoy books that are slow and meandering, unless they are character studies, and I know that going in. I am pretty sure that I would not like this one very much, but do really appreciate you taking such pains to explain why it didn't work for you and the group!

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    1. I expected the same. :-( I suppose one could say there were lots of twists. Unfortunately, it wasn't all that unpredictable. Isserley is an interesting character--just not one I really took to.

      I know Lenore commented on another post that it is one of her favorite books. Maybe we can get her to weigh in and offer a different perspective.

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  4. I read The Crimson Petal and loved it. I've read the description for this one and it just doesn't intrigue me like his other one did which is why I haven't bothered reading it. I can see by your thoughts that I was right. It's too bad he didn't write another one like Crimson.

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    1. I'm with you! I really liked The Crimson Petal and the White. I had high hopes for Under the Skin as a result, even though I knew it was quite different in terms of subject matter. Have you read any of his other books?

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  5. It sounds like the book made for a good discussion even if it wasn't your favorite. I'm glad to see your book club went so well.

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    1. Yes, it definitely made for a good discussion and in that way the book was a good one. :-)

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  6. My book club read The Crimson Petal and The White a few years ago. Sounds like we'll skip reading another Faber, at least this time around.

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    1. Lisa - At least it made for a great discussion book. I have to give it that. :-)

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  7. I'll haved to look for the Crimson Petal. You have me curious now about the book!

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    1. I hope you like The Crimson Petal and the White if you do read it, Harvee!

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  8. What an interesting review! I'm not sure that this would be my type of book but it was fun reading your thoughts on it. I'm glad to hear that you have found an in person book club. How fun!

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    1. I am glad I found a group too. :-) I can't say I'd recommend this book to anyone unless he or she had a particular taste in books like it. It won awards so someone obviously enjoyed it. Just not me.

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