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Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys is part of my summer of re-visiting previous reads.

I first picked this up and read it in March 1997 (astonishingly) and this is my third time of reading. I absolutely love this novel with a passion and will be hard-pushed to explain why but am going to have a pretty good stab at it.

Firs a quick trot through the basic story. Alice is part of a group who moved to New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s following their friends Craig and Denny hoping to make it in the music business and although things hadn’t turned out as planned they have settled there. We are now in the early 1980s and Alice visits the apartment of her friend Susan (away on a trip) to water the plants and make sure all is OK, and finds the two musicians shot dead. The novel tells the story of the impact of the murder on the group and, of course, is all about finding who the killer is.

So much so traditional thriller, but this really clicked with me:

  • I absolutely fell in love with the cover (I can be funny that way)
  • I really, really like Alice – she is ordinary but actually rather brave in her own way (I’ve tried to think over the years who might best play her in a  movie version of this but can’t think of anyone) – she is one of my absolutely favourite female characters
  • the initial impact of the murder on Alice is seen at a slight distance – we aren’t with her when she finds the bodies of her two friends but pick the story up as she talks to the investigating detective, and I liked that detachment at the start
  • the novel says a lot about the mindset of a certain 60’s type – trusting people who seemed like themselves to the extent of giving out keys to their apartment – to the point that Susan has trouble telling the police who might have been able to get in

This works really well as a thriller but is also a fascinating study of friendship and how it changes over time. The 80’s setting seems slightly historical now but of course this was a contemporary thriller and I wished I’d read it when it came out (it was published in 1984, the year I got married the first time).

This really is one of my favourite books.

I always find it difficult to review a biography; I think if you are really going to do it justice you must have some understanding of the subject at hand, and by that I mean the substance of the person’s life. In this case we are talking about Duncan Grant, Bloomsbury figure and a major artist of the 20th century. And this is where I have to declare that although I know quite a lot about Bloomsbury (a mild obsession since picking up my first Virginia Woolf novel when I was a student) but not very much at all about the art world, which is what made this such a fascinating read.

So because of the reading I had done before I knew roughly where Grant fitted in terms of time and style, and his life does cover a period of significant change n the art world – as it says in the blurb, we are talking about a life that spanned Alma-Tadema to Gilbert & George. What I don’t know anything about are the technical aspects of painting, and although I’m sure I missed a great deal of the significance of the technical discussions I certainly didn’t feel horribly left behind, or indeed talked-down to.

Of course when it comes to a member of Bloomsbury then the private life is bound to be absolutely fascinating and that is very much the case here as you would expect. Again I knew a lot about Grant up to the point of Vanessa Bell’s death but afterwards was a bit murky, and the biography was very revealing about his family life and wider circle, his passions and friendships.

So, all in all a very worthwhile and absorbing read, with a great deal of information being passed on but never feeling that the reader is being talked at.

This was my first read for the Art History Reading Challenge.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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August 2010