02/10/2016

You say Tomato (by Adrian Plass and Paul McCusker)

As a great fan of Adrian Plass’s, ever since first reading his brilliant ‘Sacred Diary….’ and sequels, I have collected everything he has written, over the years. Mostly I have enjoyed his books, even if some are less amusing or thought-provoking than others, but my memory of this particular one, co-written with Paul McCusker, is of finding it rather average, not living up to expectations at all. It must be about twenty years since I read it, shortly after publication.

However, in my re-reading of many of my favourite authors’ works, I decided it was time to have another go at ‘You say tomato.’, subtitled ‘The transatlantic correspondence of George and Brad’. And this time, I liked it a great deal more. I suspect that my initial disappointment was due to false expectations: the title had suggested that this might be a sequence of misunderstandings based on US/UK language differences. In Plass’s hands, it could have been hilarious.

Instead this is a thoughtful discussion of cultural differences within Christian circles on both sides of the Atlantic. George and Brad are two fictional young men who met at a conference shortly before the book begins, and decided, after a convivial evening at a pub, to write to each other. Neither is currently married, but George has a six-year-old daughter called Cherry, and Brad is caring for his very ill mother.

It’s a cleverly written book, with George in particular starting out quite prickly and easily offended; cultural differences are touched upon several times, but we soon learn that George has been badly hurt and is not really on speaking terms with God. Brad, meanwhile, is trying to find a place for himself in the American Christian church and finding it difficult, as he keeps finding people who are either loud and judgemental, or shallow non-thinkers, albeit well-meaning.

There are caricatures, of course; both correspondents use humour and satire to cover embarrassment or hurt, and I felt that was perhaps the one problem with the book: the styles and characters came across, sometimes, as too similar. While they discuss different expectations, and correctly use UK or US words and phrases as appropriate, it wasn’t obvious from the style of letters which person was writing; more than once, if I were briefly distracted, I had to turn back to the letter’s greeting to see who was writing to whom.

In today’s instant communication world it must seem odd to think of the idea of airmail letters being sent in this way as recently as the mid-1990s. There’s no real plot to this book; it’s character-based entirely, charting a journey, over a year, of Brad coming to terms with losing his mother, and George with having lost his faith. There were a few places where I smiled, one where I chuckled slightly, and one where I was moved almost to tears.

All in all, I enjoyed it and am very glad I decided to re-read.

Not currently in print, but fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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