Destinations: Istanbul, Berlin
Barbara Taylor Bradford has written 26 international best sellers over the past 31 years. There is no reason to believe that Letter from a Stranger will not become the 27th, no matter what I think of it. Her website claims she has sold in excess of 82 million books (30 million of her first, A Woman of Substance , 1979). She is one of the 50 richest women in Britain.
Obviously she has hundreds of thousands of loyal fans.
I’m not one of them.
Listening to this book on an audio tape was a bit difficult, because I kept wanting to just flip through the pages and look for the next marginally interesting part. It was also difficult because the reader gives everything an equally breathless emphasis– whether granite countertops or a mysterious letter about a missing relative. Ken wandered through one day as I was listening without headphones and wanted to know if it was a children’s book, because the reader sounded like a kindergarten teacher talking to five-year-olds. These factors certainly didn’t help my reaction to the book, but don’t account for my overall dislike.
Concerned that my reaction might be idosyncratic, and therefore not very useful to the readers of A Traveler’s Library, I decided to check my reactions against reviews in Goodreads of Bradford’s books. There I found an almost even split between people who adore everything she writes, and those who care about writing style and can’t stand to read bad writing. This reviewer pretty much summed up my views,“This is a very long, verbose book that has a good story buried among its endless descriptions of, well, just about everything.”
Although that review was written about Woman of Substance, it applies equally to Letter From a Stranger.
Bradford has a fascination with architecture and decor and with minute descriptions of makeup and clothing. On the other hand, I never got a clear picture of what people looked like, except that I was told a dozen times that Justine, the heroine, had the same blue eyes and fair coloring as her grandmother. And I gave this book a try because I was interested in seeing the lives of people in Istanbul, but other than lists of tourist sites, a detailed description of a luxury hotel on the Bosporus and mentioning the Bosporus frequently, the book could have been most anywhere.
And then there is the tell rather than show that marks Bradford’s writing. We are told endlessly that Justine and her twin brother are very simpatico.
Yeah, we get it. They know each other’s thoughts. But it does make one wonder why she has to say, “Remember, I was a journalist before I started making documentaries” ? Hmmm, he didn’t notice?
Justine is going to Turkey and she’s not going to contact her mother first, and she’s going to tell everyone she is going to film a documentary. Yeah, we get it. We don’t need to be told every few minutes.
And while I’m talking about Justine, a documentary film-maker who runs her own production company in New York…why is she so uninformed? Her new boyfriend the ex-CIA agent has to explain Nazi Germany to her. Her grandmother has to explain the 15th century Tulip Mania to her. And on and on. Obviously this is excuse for exposition, but Bradford doesn’t seem to trust her readers to know ANYTHING.
The one almost saving grace comes about half way through when the story rather suddenly switches to a second, related, but very different story set in Berlin during World War II. That story, with some judicious editing, could have been the better half and in fact was far more interesting than the manufactured intrigues of the wealthy folks living along the Bosporus with all their (GASP!) family secrets that are meant to be oh-so shocking. Not only that, but the descriptions of pre and post Berlin far outshine the descriptions of Turkey, if you are looking for travel inspiration.
Believe it or not, I really don’t like to write negative reviews. I want to like books. I want them to engage me. But I also feel the need to warn you about what you are getting. Now if you are in the fold of the loyal Bradford fans, by all means use one of my Amazon links and order the book. (You’ll be helping support this venture). I can’t blame you for wanting to check it out for yourself. You could, of course, get on that long list at the local library of people waiting with bated breath for the latest Bradford novel.
Disclaimer: MacMillan Audio provided a free copy of this audio book for review. They may be regretting that action, because rather obviously, I say what I think. All photos here are from Flickr, complements of Creative Common licenses. Please click on each picture to learn more about the photographers who so generously share their work.
So let’s have it. Are you a Bradford fan? Or do you expect more out of a best-seller?