Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann
Picador: hardback published 2012:389 pages
Nick and her cousin, Helena, have grown up sharing sultry summers at Tiger House, the glorious old family estate on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. As World War II ends they are on the cusp of adulthood, the world seeming to offer itself up to them. Helena is leaving for Hollywood and a new marriage, while Nick is to be reunited with her young husband Hughes, due to return from London and the war. Everything is about to change.
Neither quite finds the life she had imagined, and as the years pass, the trips to Tiger House take on a new complexity. Then, on the brink of the 1960s, Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed make a sinister discovery. It plunges the island’s bright heat into private shadow and sends a depth-charge to the heart of the family.
Here’s the thing with the Pick a Book game. You either find a little treasure, or you find a slightly disappointing slog through something that will be very shortly gathering dust on a bookshelf. Then there are others you simply won’t remember reading a week afterwards, and you wouldn’t be able to explain what the story was about. That’s the nature of reading, I guess.
Tigers in Red Weather was my Pick a Book choice. I liked the title of it – what could go wrong with tigers – and so picked it up shortly before Christmas. However, this was a book, not about tigers or weather, but about the lives of several members of one family as they interact under one roof.
I wanted to love this book. The characters – brimming with potential – live in a world of vivid clarity. Imagine the most glamorous image you can of 1950s America, and you’ve about got it. And Klaussmann writes her scenes well. You can practically taste the fresh shrimp and crisp white wine, smell the hot, dry earth and hear the soporific pocks of tennis.
Where it lets itself down – and I mean, really lets itself down – is ultimately its dialogue. Out of all the characters, there was only really one I wanted to know about, one I felt was authentic and another I had a vested interest in. But not a single character had good dialogue. As a writer, I know how tricky it is to get good dialogue – how do you get your characters to say what you need them to say, in a realistic way? Even if you haven’t spotted it before, you will now. Bad dialogue makes a bad character, and essentially a bad book – particularly if that book depends on the strength of its inhabitants.
Character-wise, there were three that needed attention. Ed was by far the most fascinating of the characters – his story left as more of an epilogue at the end; Helena seemed to be the only one with genuine conflict, which added dimension to an otherwise flat story, but elsewise unexplored; and Daisy was perhaps the most authentic as a young girl (though the foot-stamping and the brief flashes of more-mature-for-her-age insights drove me nuts). Nick, who seemed to be the lynchpin of the story, by pure fact that she kept appearing, was actually the least interesting of the lot.
The high drama that I expected simply slipped away. It felt like waiting for fireworks and getting a single Catherine Wheel. I was grabbing for that sudden OMIGOD moment when it makes all those hours reading worthwhile, when you realise what you were waiting for and there was NO WAY you could put this book down anymore. But it never came. It fizzled out from a relatively fizzle-less origin.
Next book: This is something I grabbed on a Waterstones offer ages ago, and have since had friends tell me how much I’m going to love it. John Dies at the End is a speedy, black-comedy-horror. Amazing!