Book: Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

Parts of it were excellent

Anna Quindlen
Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City
National Geographic, 2006
ISBN: 0-7922-4207-6
162 pages

It's clear enough from the title of Imagined London what Anna Quindlen wants to do in this short book, but she makes it clearer still in the second chapter: London figures so importantly in so much literature in English that it's interesting to look at what London has meant to the writers who have set their stories there. That's a potentially pretty interesting premise for a book.

Despite having known London through books since she was a girl growing up outside of Philly, Ms Quindlen didn't actually go there until she was in her forties and writing this book. That's nifty for the reader because we get to see London through her eyes as she's seeing it for the first time.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite live up to its potential. What we mostly get is a semi-random walking tour of London that has an emphasis on literary locations. That sometimes doesn't work very well. For example, Ms Quindlen goes to Montpelier Square because part of The Forsyte Saga is set in a house at 62 Montpelier Square. Walking around the square several times, she finds that there is no house number 62. She then speculates about why the author might have picked a nonexistent house number. Was it chance or design? That's not really very fascinating.

To be fair, Ms Quindlen ends her speculation about house number 62 with the accurate but unoriginal observation that in fiction there's a difference between accuracy and truth. True as that is, it's not a ringing insight with which to end a chapter.

If the book is pretty much missing an organizing principle and therefore somewhat disjointed, it's just about saved from being uninteresting by some entertaining insights and Ms Quindlen's writing, which is always good. For example:

    If he were writing today, Dickens would doubtless
    have Mr. Micawber introducing humiliating snippets
    from home videos with a laugh track playing madly.
    (p. 53)

And, after describing lunchtime at the rather traditional London restaurant Simpsons, Ms Quindlen observes:

    Very little on the menu would be available, or even
    desirable, in any New York City restaurant I know.
    "It's a pity, really," said one of my London book
    editors. "At lunch in New York no one eats, no one
    smokes, and no one drinks." (pp. 80-81)

If there had been more passages like those, I wouldn't have minded the disjointedness or the predictable criticism of globalization that comes at the end.

Ms Quindlen seems rather badly informed, or maybe just incurious, about things that aren't literary: A plug adaptor doesn't convert current (p. 3). Park Lane is not, even metaphorically, a "major autobahn" (p. 39). Finding the meaning of "QC" (p. 58) requires nothing more than a couple of clicks over at Wikipedia. (It's for "Queen's Council", a sort of highly-respected senior lawyer.) She expresses surprise that "the City" (p. 59) refers only to the financial district, also sometimes called the "square mile". Much of the reason that she doesn't encounter much of a fog in London (p. 66) is that the city is no longer heated with coal. Clotted cream is available in grocery stores here in Minneapolis. I'm sure that it's available in New York where Ms Quindlen lives, and so it really needn't be "mysterious" (p. 79). And it seems that she demonstrates a certain provincialism when her one-word description of the southern American dish chicken-fried steak is "Yuck" (p. 145).

Posted: Wed - March 1, 2006 at 08:07   Main   Category: