A Day at the Races (by Frances Paige)

I’ve never heard of Frances Paige, although I gather she’s quite a prolific novelist. This book has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for some years now; a friend, who shares some of my taste in books, thought I might like it and passed it on to me. But while the cover is attractive in its way, it struck me as a mid-20th century book of the kind that I probably wouldn’t find all that interesting.

I know I shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but in the case of this one, I should have trusted my judgement. ‘A Day at the Races’ is about a young woman called Nora. She’s recently lost her father (whom she refers to as Paddy) who was an enthusiastic horse trainer in Ireland, and we meet her when she’s on her way to France to watch a horse race; something which her father had asked her to do before he died.

The journey there is a bit disjointed, with Nora’s thoughts and reflections interspersed with descriptions of the scenery; I found it a bit hard to follow at times, but it gives quite a good idea of her background and where she’s going, although I wasn’t quite sure what the point of the horsey parts were.

Nora briefly chats with some of the people on her coach, and then becomes better acquainted with a young man called Richard, who is interested in history, as she is, but whose eyes she doesn’t like…

I kept wondering when the story would start, and when the characters would get interesting. Unfortunately Nora is eminently forgettable; despite most of it being told from her perspective, we never really get to know her. Conversations are stilted and dull, and her thoughts are convoluted and reveal very little about her. Perhaps realistic, but not relevant to the novel, as far as I could see.

Nora has a potentially very unpleasant experience in France, from which she is rescued; but then, bizarrely, refuses to report it to the police. She keeps changing her mind about what she likes to do and where she wants to live, and while I think the novel was meant to be a kind of coming-of-age story, it didn’t work for me at all. There are no surprises, no believable relationships, and the predictable ending was rather a long time in coming.

I read the book in a day, not because I was enjoying it but because I wanted to finish it and get it out of the way. It’s only just over a couple of hundred pages in fairly large type, so it’s a quick read in any case. Sometimes the first couple of chapters in a novel are hard going, but by the end I can hardly put it down… in this one, the first couple of chapters were hard going, and then it deteriorated.

It felt as if it were written in the 1970s, which I knew was impossible as the main part of the story takes place in 1989; it turns out that it was written as recently as 2002.

I hate to be so negative about a book; evidently the publisher approved of it, and no doubt it appeals to many. The author has won prizes for historical fiction, so is evidently highly regarded. Nevertheless, this is not a novel that I enjoyed, nor would I recommend it.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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