The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

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The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: If you can get over the envy of a privileged sex-filled summer of the middle class youth and the author who wears his intelligence strongly in his writing style, then there are moments of brilliance and a return to form in this very male analysis of the sexual revolution of the 1970s.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099488736

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The bulk of The Pregnant Widow is set in the summer of 1970 in a beautiful Italian castle where the almost 21 year old Keith Nearing, an English Literature student, has come to spend the summer with his on/off girlfriend Lily and her more physically attractive best friend Scheherazade. Amongst the other attendees are a gay couple, a short Italian suitor to the ample chested Scheherezade who is waiting for the arrival of her boyfriend and, critically for the story the ample bottomed Gloria and eventually her rich boyfriend. If this all sounds like one of those enviously indulgent, middle class, sex filled summer of love stories, then partly it is, but this being Martin Amis, there's a lot more depth and sadness attached to the story. It's an investigation into the changing roles of females and particularly their attitudes to sex, and for Keith in particular, the long term implications of this idyllic vacation are not going to be happy and Amis provides a 'what happened next' to bring each of his characters up to present day.

Martin Amis' novels are always stylish and original. In his early career he could be quite brilliant but for me at least, his recent novels have not quite sustained this promise and have been more 'interesting' than brilliant. With The Pregnant Widow there is something of a return to form, not least because he is returning to his best subject areas; namely sex, humour and the self-pitying, British male who is filled with guilt. As often with Amis, the humour is frequently cruel and here in particular is often derived from physical appearances. Keith is filled with guilt about his younger sister, Violet, who makes only a fleeting, but tragic appearance in this book. One suspects that there are elements of Amis' own experience here with his own sister's death, but this is a novel and not an autobiography, so for me the book has to stand on its own merits. For me, Violet isn't really explored enough to become more than a caricature which is a shame.

There's plenty of Amis' stylish tics here too. Some work better for me than others. His constant use of repeated phrases works well, while his tendency to give the Latin and Greek derivations of words comes across more as a demonstration of his learning than contributing much to the story. And that's sometimes a problem with Amis - I have no doubt that he is far more intelligent than me, but I don't always want it rammed down my throat. Far more forgivable is the frequently stunning unusual metaphors that litter his writing that are a complete joy. Lily for example is said to 'sub-edit' her packing. In a stroke, you know what he means and you have an insight to her character.

Again as is common with Amis, it's not all about plot. It's his style that is so attractive and interesting. His ideas are also well thought out. The main thrust of the narrative is the changing role of females in their approach to sex - they behave like boys (although he puts it in slightly cruder terms). Thus it's a stroke of brilliance to have one of his characters, Gloria, reading a book on Joan of Arc and making the point that the crime for which she was burnt was for dressing as a boy. Throughout, Keith is reading classic English novels and musing on the protagonists' sexual adventures, particularly Jane Austin's female characters. Comparing their methods of sexual conquest with Keith's awakening into the post 1960s free love world is thoughtful and works well.

At times, Amis provides acute (male) insight into the sexual revolution, but at others there is a sense of male self-pity. The title itself is a metaphor for bereavement of the old and hope for the new. Few of his characters have much in the way of traits that make them appealing - and those that do, like Lily, tend to fare less well. I found the first half slow moving at times and, with more than usual amounts of dialogue for Amis here, which often jumps around in terms of subject matter, it can be disorientating. The solution is to make sure you read it in sizable chunks. Dipping into it can make for a disjointed read. However, with Gloria's arrival on the scene, things pick up considerably for the reader, if not for all of the characters.

For me, it's not in the same league as works such as Money, Time's Arrow or Yellow Dog, and if you are new to this writer, then I'd suggest starting with those. However, for long time Amis followers, it is something of a return to form. It's a book I'm glad to have read, but not one that I think that I will pluck of the shelf in a few years with fond recollections. There's a certain coldness about it but when he soars, Amis writes as well as any British writer today.

The Bookbag would like to thank the kind folk at Vintage for inviting us to review this book.

For more from Martin Amis' early years, try Time's Arrow, or if the protagonist's exploration of English literature classics has inspired you to seek out more on these works, then Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks offers much intelligent insight.

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