Synopses & Reviews
Following The Rotters' Club
and its sequel, The Closed Circle
, Jonathan Coe now offers his first stand-alone novel in a decade, a story of three generations of women whose destinies reach from the English countryside in World War II to London, Toronto, and southern France at the turn of the new century.
Evacuated to Shropshire during the Blitz, eight-year-old Rosamond forged a bond with her cousin Beatrix that augured the most treasured and devastating moments of her life. She recorded these memories sixty years later, just before her death, on cassettes she bequeathed to a woman she hadn't seen in decades. When her beloved niece, Gill, plays the tapes in hopes of locating this unwitting heir, she instead hears a family saga swathed in promise and betrayal: the story of how Beatrix, starved of her mother's affection, conceived a fraught bloodline that culminated in heart-stopping tragedy its chief victim being her own granddaughter. And as Rosamond explores the ties that bound these generations together and shaped her experience all along, Gill grows increasingly haunted by how profoundly her own recollections not to mention the love she feels for her grown daughters, listening alongside her are linked to generations of women she never knew.
A stirring, masterful portrait of motherhood and family secrets, The Rain Before It Falls is also a meditation on the tapestries we weave out of the past, whether transcendent or horrific. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times for his "sustained, intricate brilliance," Jonathan Coe once again proves himself "an artist of character and of his characters' stories," here more astutely than ever before.
"In the latest from acclaimed London novelist Coe (The Rotter's Club), the story of two cousins' friendship is keyed to a hatred that is handed down from mother to daughter across generations, as in a Greek tragedy. Evacuated from London to her aunt and uncle's Shropshire farm, Rosamond bonds with her older cousin, Beatrix, who is emotionally abused by her mother. Beatrix grows up to abuse her daughter, Thea (in one unforgettable scene, Beatrix takes a knife and flies after Thea after Thea has ruined a blouse), with repercussions that reach the next generation. All of this is narrated in retrospect by an elderly Rosamond into a tape recorder: she is recording the family's history for Imogene, Beatrix's granddaughter, who is blind, and whom Rosamond hasn't seen in 20 years. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Rosamond's fundamental flaw and limit is her decency, a quality Coe weaves beautifully into the Shropshire and London settings along with violence. Through relatively narrow lives on a narrow isle, Coe articulates a fierce, emotional current whose sweep catches the reader and doesn't let go until the very end." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Like all of the author's previous seven novels, The Rain Before It Falls presents the reader with characters whose impassioned selfishness is as disturbing as it is bleak....The result is his tensest and most affecting work." The Boston Globe
"Coe is masterful at women's voices, and mining the richness of a marginal life. His single misstep is a chapter, in italics, inside the head of Imogene's mother a breach in his lovely structure and satisfying tale, suited perfectly to a late afternoon in winter." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A triumph...from its cryptically beautiful title to its subtly riveting narrative, from its amazing narrative voice to its satisfying and moving conclusion." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Dignified and sure....Skillfully layered and plotted." The Atlantic Monthly
"[A] peculiar book, to put it kindly; it is itself a failure, in more brutal terms. It's peculiar because it's hard to understand why Coe, an accomplished novelist, did (it seems) everything in his power to distance his readers from the characters and situations he wishes to portray." Erica Wagner, The New York Times Book Review
"The novel's frame...is neither far-fetched nor especially new...but here it lends itself to an efflorescence of description and explanation that overwhelms Coe's spare, precise prose." Los Angeles Times
Following The Rotters' Club and its sequel, The Closed Circle, Coe now offers his first stand-alone novel in a decade, a story of three generations of women whose destinies reach from the English countryside in World War II to London, Toronto, and France at the turn of the new century.
A comic spy caper and international love story, set in Europe in the middle of the last century, Expo 58
is the latest sublime creation by Jonathan Coe, hailed by Nick Hornby as “probably the best English novelist of his generation.”
Handsome, unassuming Thomas Foley is an employee at the Central Office of Information whose particular biography (Belgian mother, pub-owning father) makes him just the man to oversee the “authentic British pub” that will be erected at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair. Its the first major expo after World War II, meant to signify unity, but theres inevitable intrigue involving the U.S. and Soviet delegations. In the shadow of an immense, imposingly modern structure called the Atomium, the married Foley becomes both agent and pawn—when hes not falling head over heels for Anneke, his Belgian hostess.
Funny, fast-paced, and genuinely moving, Expo 58 is both a perfect evocation of a moment in history and the welcome return of one of todays finest novelists.
About the Author
Jonathan Coe's awards include the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, the Prix Médicis Étranger, and, for The Rotters' Club, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. He lives in London with his wife and their two daughters.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group’s discussion of The Rain Before It Falls,
Jonathan Coe’s extraordinary novel about the unveiling of one’s family secret history in postwar England.
1. How does the narrative structure of The Rain Before It Falls affect the way readers respond to it? What is the significance of Gill and her daughters being the primary–though not the intended–audience for Rosamond’s spoken narration? In what ways is the “reality” of the novel filtered in its telling?
2. As she is discussing the second photograph, Rosamond offers this aside to Imogen: “There is a reason for everything, in case you haven’t learned it yet, in your short life. In fact, the story I am trying to tell you will demonstrate as much–if I tell it properly” [p. 45]. Does Rosamond’s story succeed in making clear that there is “a reason for everything”?
3. Gill sees Rosamond’s story as the “gradual unveiling of their family’s occult, unsuspected history” [p. 129]. Why does she choose the word “occult”?
4. Rosamond complains: “What a deceitful thing a photograph is. They say memory plays tricks on one. Not nearly as much as a photography does, in my view” [p. 168]. In what ways do the photographs she describes have the power both to reveal and to conceal? What other comments does she make about the nature of photographs throughout the novel?
5. Rosamond tries to help Thea forgive her mother. “Perhaps if words–phrases–gestures–were not enough,” she thinks, “then narrative was what Thea needed” [p. 180—81]. Why does Rosamond think that narrative would have the power to make Thea forgive her mother? What is the power of the narrative of The Rain Before It Falls?
6. Beatrix is unloved by her mother and proves to be an abusive mother herself to Thea, who in turn shakes her own daughter, Imogen, so violently that she blinds her. What does the novel imply about how familial suffering is handed down from one generation to another?
7. Rosamond says, “[T]he important thing, as I must always remember, is that I describe the picture to you, that I help you to see” [p. 156]. Why is this so important to Rosamond? How is its importance altered in light of the end of the novel, when we learn that Imogen has died and that Rosamond’s words will never reach her, at least in this world? Is Rosamond really speaking to herself–helping herself to see–in her narrations of these photographs? If so, for what purpose?
8. After Imogen is given to a foster family, Ruth tells Rosamond to “wipe the slate clean. Forget them. Forget all of them” [p. 218]. Clearly she has not been able to forget them. Should she have? Of what value are her memories of Beatrix and Thea and Imogen?
9. What role does Rosamond’s own childlessness–and her periods of intense loneliness–play in her relations with Thea and Imogen?
10. Late in the novel, Rosamond says that “life only starts to make sense when you realize that sometimes–often–all the time–two completely contradictory ideas can be true” [p. 215]. What experiences have brought her to this truth? How does it help explain the major characters and their behaviors in the novel?
11. Why does Gill feel, looking back at the extraordinary coincidences that have been revealed to her, that “Nothing was random, after all. There was a pattern: a pattern to be found somewhere…” [p. 238].? Does the novel seem to suggest that there is a grand design governing the apparent randomness of life? What events in the novel would support such a view?
12. At the very end of the novel, Gill seems to be on the threshold of a revelation of the profoundest importance. “Surely she was being offered something precious beyond belief, some supreme revelation. There was meaning in all this…” [p. 240]. What is the significance of her daughter’s distressed phone call’s keeping Gill from receiving this revelation? Is Coe perhaps suggesting that attending to her daughter’s pain is more important than whatever insight Gill might have had?
13. How are readers to understand the novel’s final sentence: “What she had been hoping for was a figment, a dream, an impossible thing: like the rain before it falls”? [p. 240]. Is the narrator suggesting that meaning, in the largest sense, is an illusion?
14. An elderly woman describing and reminiscing about old photographs might not seem like the most promising premise for a novel. How does Coe make The Rain Before It Falls such a fascinating read?
15. Many novels in the past several decades have explored the hidden complexities of family life. What does The Rain Before It Falls add to this exploration? In what ways is it unconventional and unique?