Katie Ward: Girl Reading (2011)

Katie Ward’s Girl Reading is called a novel which is slightly misleading as what it really is, is a collection of seven episodes with a similar theme which are tied together by the last one. Each of the episodes or scenes is set in another time and place, 1333, 1668, 1775, 1864, 1916, 2008, 2060. The way it is tied together, with a final scene set in 2060, gives the whole book a futuristic finish. I knew all this before I started the book but what surprised me was the writing which is quite dense, elaborate and heavily influenced by other books and tales, and, of course, paintings as the linking idea are portraits of reading women or girls seen through the ages.

Most of these “stories” are mysterious, that’s why I chose to call them episodes. They are like small windows that open up on scenes set in the past. We hardly ever get all the background information and often don’t know what will happen to the characters later.

Each of the scenes describes the challenges of women in their respective time and the girl or woman chosen for the portrait is mostly not exactly in line with what is expected of a woman at the time. The fact that the challenges and problems women face stay so similar from the 14th to the 21st century is somewhat unsettling.

Of the 7 stories or episodes I really liked four a lot. The first one, set in Siena, and the second, set in the Netherlands, were not so much to my liking nor was the last set in the future. In the case of story 1 and 2 I had a feeling I have read the exact same stories before, especially the second which was very similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Too similar.

I thoroughly enjoyed story 3, set in 1775 in which a female painter comes to the estate of a noble woman to finish the portrait of her lover. The lover, a woman as well, has left and the abandoned one is depressed and morose.

Story 4, set in Victorian England, was another favourite despite the fact that it resembled Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s a tale of two psychic twins. One becomes a photographer, while the other tours the world as a famous medium. It’s a wonderful story and the decor, clothes, atmosphere, are lush and evocative.

Story 5 is another wonderful story. The girl in the center will be a painter in the future but at this point in time she is a slightly silly young girl, infatuated with a painter. What is wonderful is the intensity with which she experiences life. Everything she does – smoking, drinking, falling in love – she does for the first time and savours every minute. Even being heartbroken as it seems.

While I liked some of the stories, I think story 6, set in a Shoreditch bar in 2008, was the most original and rounded of the stories. We get to know much more about the character in this story than about any other of the characters. She is a young black Tory who wants to become member of the Parliament. At the same time she has to decide whether she should get married or not. I liked the way she was described and how descriptions of the most mundane struggles, like wearing shoes which were new but painful, were interwoven with heavy decisions.

I enjoyed some of the stories a lot but as a novel Girl Reading didn’t work for me at all. While the last story, set in the future, gave it an interesting twist, it didn’t manage to really tie them all together. As a whole I found the book a bit artificial which is certainly due to the elaborate and somewhat forced writing. On top of that a few of the stories were too similar to other books I’ve read to be entirely satisfactory.

I’ve read the book along with Rikki and am looking forward to hear what they thought.

Rikki (Rikki’s Teleidoscope) First impressions, Stories 3 and 4, Stories 5-7

If anyone else has read this I would like to know which of the stories you liked best and whether this worked as a novel for you or not. Looking back, I think that story 6 was my favourite because it was the only one that didn’t feel like a pastiche.

If you’d like to see the paintings the stories are based on here is the link to Katie Ward’s site where you find the links.

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33 thoughts on “Katie Ward: Girl Reading (2011)

  1. Do you think the ‘pastiche’ element was due to the historical nature of some of the stories? Since the modern one was better, in your opinion, was it also more real?

    • Absolutely, it felt more real but I think it wasn’t only due to the fact most of the stories were historical but because she seemed to quote other historical fiction. The similarities with other works were extremely striking.

      • I very rarely read historical fiction (pre WWII in my mind for some reason) as I have too frequently been disappointed or the ‘voice’ is too modern. A couple of exceptions to that, of course.

        • The voice is a problem in a lot of the historical fiction but not in this one, she got that remarkably right. Still, it felt artificial.
          I think I might read more historical fiction in the future as I recently read a few I liked, like Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die, the novel on Christopher Marlowe. that was really good.

  2. I have read the first two so far and quite liked them. But you are right, the second story also reminded me very much of Girl with a pearl earring, especially the maid/wife relationship…Will post a “half term” post when I have read three stories,…:)

    • Ok, I’m very curious to see what you will think of the others. I thought that with the exception of the very last one they were getting better from story to story.

  3. Sorry to hear this one didn’t quite work for you. I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t mind so much that it was more interlinked short stories and that some of them were pastiches (I kind of like a well done pastiche–but if it wasn’t what you were expecting it might be a let down). I hadn’t read the Niffenegger, so didn’t catch the reference in the Victorian story. However, like you, som definitely appealed to me more than others. I think the last story worked for me the least strangely–even though in its way it tied the rest together.

    • I’m not so much into pastiche, that’s true. I think the similarity to Girl With a Pearl Earring and Her Fearful Symmetry was what made me like it far less overall but those I did like, I liked a lot. Niffenegger’s book is set in our era, so that’s different but there are many other similarities. The last one didn’t work at all but I really liked the sixth.

  4. This sounds like such a great concept, it is too bad that the execution did not seem to work that well. I can imagine getting through the stories and really anticipating that the last one would really tie it all together.

    I remember a few movies that may have had similar structures. The Red Violin as well as some Jim Jarmusch films like Night on Earth and Mystery Train come to mind. As films, I really think that they handled the concept well.

    • Now that you mention Night and Earth and similar episodic films, I realize how much I like movies like that. But a book could have worked well too. It’s a great concept but something just didn’t work completely. I read this based on the assumption the stories were all historical, which they were, so I didn’t expect the futuristic ending and that just felt odd.

    • It’s worth trying if you find it at the libraray. I think there are quite a few of the stories that you would like a lot as you like historical fiction.

  5. This work sounds like an ambitious project that fell short for you. It would be difficult to write pieces from different centuries and to make them all sound authentic. I do find the entire premise fascinating. It reminds me somewhat of I, Robot. Asimov’s stories, while different all tied into the difficulties of robots and that was the loose thread that pulled the novel together. However, since his novel was all futuristic I think it came together more and didn’t have to rely on forced writing to seem authentic. I marvel over those who can write historical fiction and make the writing and conversations sounds normal for the time period they are writing about. I don’t think I could do that. I would accidentally throw in a dude here and there and drive my editor crazy.

    • I just imagined the type of historical dialogue you’d write “Hey dude…” She pulled that part of really well. I see how the whole cylce being set in the future would work better. The idea behind it isn’t bad… Can’t say more as it would still spoil the book.
      I think the individual stories really have the charm.

    • As a few people have really liked this book, it might be a case of wrong reader and might just be the thing for you. Maybe I shouldn’t have read them like a novel, in almost one go but over the course of a month or so, like I do with many short story collections.
      The format is original, that’s for sure.

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  7. Sorry it didn’t work for you, it’s always disappointing when a book isn’t as good as expected.
    I’d better skip this one, I’m not tempted by the concept (even if I’m sure one can do something fantastic with it) and dear, after my experience with Remarkable Creatures, I’m not sure I want to read a girl-with-pearl-earring pastiche. :-)

    • Emma, I wouldnt suggest you read it but Katie Ward’s book is highly literary, the style is very different from Tracy Chevalier, you’d like her style.
      The Nifenegger pastiche bothered me perosnally more as I loved Her Fearful Symmetry (not a book for you. There are ghosts!)

  8. Interesting book, Caroline! In some ways it makes me remember the movie ‘The Fountain’ which is a collection of different stories happening at different times with a central theme linking them. It looks like the central premise of ‘Girl Reading’ is wonderful, though from your review it looks like Katie Ward hasn’t been able to pull it off.

    • Vishy, that’s exactly how I felt. She missed the target. It’s a book that should be read in small doses, seen as a collection of short stories with very dense writing, that’s all. And only if you don’t mind pastiche. I liked the idea.
      I’ve got The Fountain here. I need to watch it, I think it must be quite beautiful.

      • It is sad that she missed the target. Hope you enjoy watching ‘The Fountain’. It is a beautiful movie and one of my favourites. Darren Aronofsky rocks :) Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it whenever you get to watch it.

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  10. The idea of the book is intererting, even though as you it didn’t work well.
    It reminds me of King’s Hearts in Atlantis, all 5 stories are somehow connected.

    The advantage of book with many stories is the fact that you can always like some of the stories

    • Yes, that’s true. I really liked some of them. Overall I would have preferred it if there last one had been left out and they would have just been called stories.

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  12. I have this to read and am intrigued to know how it will strike me. I think it is a highly ambitious concept and bound to be a bit incoherent and mixed in value. But what interests me most is whether there will be enough echoes and reverberations across the stories for me. I won’t know until I try, so I should clear a space for it!

    • I’d be very interested to read your thoughts. Maybe another review would open up some more parts for me. For different reasons it didn’t work for me and my two readalong partners haven’t even finished. One has given up for good and the other reads it very slowly.

  13. Pingback: Readalong: Girl Reading by Katie Ward #2 : Rikki's Teleidoscope

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  15. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention back in May. I had intended to read it sooner, but I was on the wait list at the library.

    While I found the book an interesting idea, it felt like a not-fully formed book. I enjoyed the first episode, the third (with a lady painter at a noblewoman’s estate) and the tale of the psychic twins (because the atmosphere of the time felt very detailed). However, the lack of standard punctuation kept throwing me off.

    All in all, an interesting experience, but not a winner.

    • Thanks for telling me you’ve read it as well. I agree with you, interesting but no winner. The idea was quite good but the execution wasn’t satisfactory. I liked a few of the stories but they were all a bit artificial. I liked the story with the twins as well and if I hadn’t read Her Fearful Symmery before that would have been my favourite. I’m glad you didn’t mind reading it despite its flaws.

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