Mid-way through reading Dan Rhodes’ latest novel This is Life I’d decided that the opening line of the review had to be: ‘Only Dan Rhodes could open a novel with a beautiful young woman throwing a stone in a baby’s face.’ This act propels our young heroine, Aurélie Renard, a pretty French art student, into – well, in all senses into the full-bodied life of the book. She is given the baby to look after for a week (an act that will have most parents scratching their heads and wondering how such a thing could come to pass but it gets explained satisfactorily towards the conclusion of things) and – as she threw the stone with the intention of hitting someone who would then be the focus of her art project – the baby becomes her art project (as well as serving to test her to her limit, babies being somewhat demanding). I didn’t open the review as I expected because my feelings on the book changed as the narrative drew to a close.
Alongside Aurélie, we also have: her friend Sylvie, even more beautiful than Aurélie, a girl so cursed with good looks that men have killed themselves over her (although she takes no responsibility for that), busy looking for the right man, but only the right man, a man she will know as soon as she sees him; a rather fickle young man called Lucien, a young translator with a penchant for Japanese women who is busy showing an elderly married couple called the Akiyamas about Paris; a Professor called Papavoine; and a young man who is an international celebrity thanks to his art installation Life, which sees him standing naked before an audience for 12 weeks, weeing and pooping and what-have-you into various jars and inspiring people to realise that the human body is a wonderful thing. There are also precocious and pretentious art students, art critics with ideas above their station and the kinds of peripheral characters you see popping up momentarily in the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Now, provided you’re not bothered by all of the beautiful people (you’ll remember Rhodes’ last novel, Little Hands Clapping, also featured two characters of staggering beauty), there is much to like in This is Life, from the jaunty postcard Paris he conjures up to the immensely skilful way in which Rhodes marries up the charming and the scatological. There are also some nice gags, such as the fact that Sylvie is almost seduced by a young man who buys a copy of Timoléon, chien fidèle, the two of them falling into ‘a conversation about the brilliance of the author, and how underappreciated he was’. There is another subtle admission (by the artist responsible for Life) about his art that may also be applied to Rhodes as well:
‘If the critics were ever to find out why he did what he did, they would do everything they could to tear him down. He knew exactly what they would say too: they would say it was sentimental schlock, and they would be half right. It wasn’t schlock, he was sure of that, but it was sentimental. Only he knew this though, and he was well aware that if the truth ever got out it would all be over, because there is nothing that angers the custodians of the art world more than simple feelings expressed in a straightforward manner. And it was simple feelings expressed in a straightforward manner that were at the heart of Life.’
Simple feelings expressed in a straightforward manner. This is the heart of This is Life which amounts, in the end, to a nice collection of competing love stories. What more could you possibly want from a book? Well, funnily enough – a little more. As with Rhodes’ last foray into Paris (The Little White Car, when Rhodes was posing as Danuta de Rhodes), the novel may well be a little too sweet for some tastes. The characters herein fall in love at the drop of a heart and, if the love is not reciprocated, that’s it – off to a monkish retreat we go. There is an admittedly artful simplicity to proceedings but the characters come to feel like the sorts of people you may have cut out of card as a child, a small flap beneath the feet holding them up, as you danced them about and dressed them in different outfits. This impacts on the narrative, as well, which ends up feeling like it’s basically getting characters A, B & C to points D, E & F. There was also a mistake (two characters start off as neighbours and end up with the same mother) which is more than likely a drafting error but bespeaks a lack of care that is surprising.
This reviewer left the book feeling that it was all perfectly pleasant – but perfectly pleasant doesn’t really feel like enough. If a book sets out to be perfectly pleasant and achieves a level of perfect pleasantness, all well and good. But we know you can do better Dan Rhodes.
Any Cop?: A confection, a distraction, a pleasant way to while away a couple of afternoons, a beach read, an entertainment, a frivolous, lighthearted, frothy romp, and yet for all that, not quite as zesty as you would hope from a book that promises to be LIFE!