15th Sep 2011
Conversations with Mr. Prain by Joan Taylor
Conversations with Mr. Prain is the first novel by historian and non-fiction writer, Joan Taylor, and her academic mind is a substantial presence from the first paragraph. It is quite ironic that I am here grappling for words to try and describe the appeal of her broad and varied use of vocabulary.
Her grasp of the English language is evident, and a couple of sentences near the beginning (“Camden had yet succumbed yet again to vernal rejuvenation,” “despite there being only a few paltry notes in my till, I did not feel dejected”) had me rummaging for a dictionary.
I am in awe of people who can access a kind of virtual thesaurus in their mind, and this held my interest for at least the prologue. Unfortunately, after this the pace slows dramatically. The next 150 pages present no more than six slow-paced scenes, giving the impression of a play rather than a novel.
When I read the back cover of this novel and was promised conversation that ‘whips and snaps’ between a ‘beautiful, vivacious aspiring writer’ and a ‘refined connoisseur of rare books’, I set my expectations to align with the fierce, intellectual banter of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita.
However, at times the conversation between our narrator, Stella, and Mr. Prain is more Bridget Jones and Daniel Cleaver. Stella argues points she doesn’t even believe for no apparent reason, and the conversations fade in to those frustrating, circular debates you have with friends’ while drunk.
So Stella is a little annoying, but Mr. Prain is just plain awful. The premise of the story is that Stella strikes up a friendship with the rich, mysterious Edward Prain while working on her second-hand book stall.
He notices her scribbling a little poetry and finds out that she has a whole selection of unpublished works, including a finished novel. Mr. Prain reveals that he owns a large publishing house, and invites Stella to his large, country manor to give feedback on her work, and perhaps even to discuss a publishing deal.
But Mr. Prain is shrewd and extremely manipulative, and for hours holds her captive in what is playfully called on the cover a ‘cat-and-mouse game’, refusing to talk about her writing.
She plays along all day, circular conversation after circular conversation, a grand tour of the house and a couple of unexpected, strange and creepy interactions, too. My main issue with this book, and I couldn’t help thinking it all the way through, is why doesn’t she just leave?
She knows he is being manipulative (although she doesn’t realise until later quite how much) and begins to doubt his intentions, so why does she stay? Well, for some unknown reason she is attracted to the man, so I suppose that’s enough for her. But I’d have been out of there before the first cup of Earl Grey had gone cold.
The story does reach a complex ending, although how it gets there is quite surreal. Stella is prone to going off on wild tangents of the imagination, and on a particularly mad ramble about Mr. Prain’s house being like a game of Cluedo, she ‘instinctively’ comes across a twist of colossal corruption and manipulation.
It’s quite weird, and I can’t give anything else away without massive spoilers, so if you want to be only slightly less confused you’ll have to read it.
The story does raise some interesting ideas about gender roles. Mr. Prain expresses a desire to take ownership of women, and despite Stella’s best efforts he indicates that he would rather have her body immortalised in art than have her in real life.
Knowing that Joan Taylor is a successful non-fiction writer and academic definitely influenced my reading of this novel. For example, how this book represents the publishing world and ‘creative’ writers is extremely idealised.
Stella in particular borders cliché, with her eco-warrior lifestyle, second-hand book stall and grimy flat in Camden. She talks about her writing being prophetic, and one of the particularly arduous conversations between her and Mr. Prain revolves around ‘good’ fiction vs. commercial fiction.
Excuse my assumptions, but with Stella’s ‘hippy’ ideals, creative flair, sexual chemistry with this rich, handsome stranger and not to mention the beautiful blonde curls, it felt like the author was living vicariously through her protagonist.
That’s just my opinion and I may be well off the mark, but the narrator’s presentation of Stella is just too romanticised for me. Personally, I wasn’t taken with her. She actually uses the label ‘culture vulture’ to describe herself, for goodness’ sake.
Recommended for: People who liked a slow-paced novel with a thread of mystery and an even finer thread of sexual chemistry.
Other recommended reading: This book makes the occasional reference- literally, and in style- to Jane Austen, and I think if you’re looking for a fierce relationship with a fine line between love and hate, it would be better to look to Pride and Prejudice.