I don't read much fiction. I am highly intolerant of middlebrow cardboard realism. That is not a technical term in literary criticism, but it is what I call novels that are plot / theme driven, with weak writing and characterization, and hundreds of pages of it to slog through. So I read 17% of a longish novel by Almudena Grandes, La madre de Frankenstein. I got a negative recommendation about it from a blogger in my own field, known as Clarissa, so I thought I would see if it was as bad as promised. I'm reading it on a kindle device, which I rarely do. Forcing yourself to suffer through something really bad is useful, because you have to examine your own prejudices once in a while.
Of course, you could think of this as picking on low-hanging fruit, but Grandes publishes novel after novel with respected publishers.
AG is married to Luis GM, a Spanish poet whose work I think is mediocre. He is not fond of me either. I've never met her, but I am prejudiced against her simply because of this connection. She dedicates the novel to him. She has a Galdosian reference, in the form of a poem by Cernuda about Galdós, as the epigraph. The device of the young intellectual up against forces of reaction is stolen from Galdos's Doña Perfecta. There is a scene where the young intellectual, a psychiatrist named Velázquez, puts his foot in his mouth in an encounter with a priest, that makes you think of Pepe Rey. But Almudena is no Galdós.
I've read every single novel by Galdós, except a few of the episodes nacionales in the fourth and fifth series. This is thousands of pages of reading. Some of them I've read several times; I've taught him in classes too and was even married to a Galdosista, so I know of what I speak.
The writing is repetitious and banal (in Grandes). The effort to achieve poetic effects is ludicrous. The narrator returns to Spain and sees his sister for the first time in many years. He is struck by her beauty and describes her as not merely pretty, but beautiful in the way reserved for truly happy people. Her beauty radiates in her teeth and hair from the deepest interior to the furthest extremities of her body. She is both skinnier and fatter than he expected, with the new fat in all the right places. They embrace... Then the sister disappears for hundreds of pages. It's not that I wanted an incest plot, but this is just weird as narrative technique.
The earnest moralizing is not to be believed. It is a novela de tesis in the Galdosian sense. One target of critique seems to be eugenics. We are told numerous times in the first hundred pages that "the ends don't justify the means." The other target is Franco's Spain. We get a nice parody of Francoist ideology, but it's not something we don't already know if we've read Delibes novels like La sombra del ciprés es alargada or Cinco horas con Mario. The worst part is that my kindle (iPad) underlines passages that other readers have highlighted, and these tend to be the set pieces of ideological preaching. At one point, it is pointed out that the insane asylum where the novel takes place is a microcosm of the Francoist society. Well duh!!!
The characters are poorly drawn. The novel is constantly telling and not showing. We get those "this was the most decisive moment of my life" statements that savvier narrators might present more subtly.
Nothing rings true to me. It is pure cardboard sky. The narrative premise has enormous potential, as Clarissa points out, but the novel is going nowhere (so far). I haven't even gotten to the anti-Semitic parts she refers to...
... to be continued.