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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Loving Graham Greene

Gloria Emerson

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To purchase Loving Graham Greene

Title: Loving Graham Greene
Author: Gloria Emerson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 176 pages
Availability: Loving Graham Greene - US
Loving Graham Greene - UK
Loving Graham Greene - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B- : sincere and well-intentioned, but artless

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune A 12/11/2000 Sandra Scofield
The LA Times A 15/10/2000 Edward W. Said
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/10/2000 William Boyd
Salon . 23/10/2000 Maria Russo
San Francisco Chronicle A 11/2/2001 Martin Rubin
St. Louis Post-Dispatch A- 22/10/2000 Suzanne Rhodenbaugh
The Washington Post A- 28/9/2000 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

Great enthusiasm.

  From the Reviews:
  • "What happens to Molly in Algiers is wacky and frightening. Emerson tells a lot about the civil war, too, and it does make you wonder why we heard so little about it at the time. But Emerson is not polemical. Her liberal conscience has been transformed by her gift for eccentric narrative into a deeply moving tribute to American decency and goodwill, with all its frustrations and tragic consequences." - Sandra Scofield, Chicago Tribune

  • "(I)n its underlying enthusiasm for the Greene-ian spirit of exploration and daring, Loving Graham Greene is neither cynical nor wide-eyed: a witty, finely written tour de force that is a joy to read, despite the grieving loneliness of the uniquely American predicament out of which it arises and impels the finally disconsolate heroine." - Edward W. Said, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Much of the book's genuine charm resides in its narrative meanderings and eccentricities (.....) Among its deeper themes, Loving Graham Greene is a meditation on the powerlessness of those who simply want to do good in the world. (...) Emerson has produced a funny, moving and strangely profound novel. I think Graham Greene would have been pleased." - William Boyd, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel's warmhearted, forgiving quality softens the harsh light it shines on the dangerous naiveté of the self-serving Molly and her cohorts." - Maria Russo, Salon

  • "(A) small gem of a book (.....) In her first novel, she shows a sureness in narrative skill and a compelling style unusual in a neophyte. Molly is appealing and believable, and Emerson gently mocks her naivete, both her attitude and actions, without undercutting her protagonist's integrity and credibility." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The minor characters as well are brilliantly painted. In fact, Emerson is virtually Dickenslike at characterization and scene-painting, and is economical at doing it. She has a wickedly good eye for detail." - Suzanne Rhodenbaugh, St.Louis Post-Dispatch

  • "Loving Graham Greene, it must be said, has its derivative side, though Emerson owes a stylistic and thematic debt less to Greene than to Joan Didion, who long ago patented the terse, cool, elliptical, ironic style that Emerson adopts. But it is an impressive novel all the same, largely because Emerson grants her foolish protagonist a generous measure of sympathy and understanding along with the derision she so obviously has earned. This is a short book, almost a novella, but it is subtle and nuanced and mature." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gloria Emerson's homage to the great master, Graham Greene, is a curious effort. The central character, Molly Benson, once met Graham Greene, and kept up a correspondence with him until his death in 1991. She had always been a great admirer of his work, even "changing" her name to Coral when she was fourteen, after reading The Power and the Glory (Coral being the "indomitable" young Mexican girl that helps the priest). Then, as later, no one really understands her fascination with all things Greene: only one friend ever calls her by this adopted name, and even she reverts to using Molly's real name soon enough (though the name is appropriately dredged up in the course of the novel).
       Nevertheless, Emerson's novel is not only about Molly's love of Graham Greene. It is a double-homage to Greene, because Emerson makes a Greene-like story out of the story, sending her character to Algeria as the confrontation between the FIS (the Islamic faction) and the government begins to turn truly ugly in the early 1990s.
       It's all there, the pieces from which to cobble together a Greene novel. Innocents abroad. Mindless rich Americans. A fat English semi-academic. French religious workers, dutifully carrying on in Algeria. Journalists and writers in danger. The shadows of international politics. A country in decay. Outsiders meddling. Bursts of violence, and an uneasy peace. Tragedy. The innocents go home.
       You get the picture. But in case you don't:
       Molly is fairly wealthy. She invested some money in a Princeton bookstore and helps out there one day a week (foisting Greene on customers), but basically she does not work. She is, incidentally, also married, her husband Paul conveniently stuck in Japan making a film until the bitter end, since Emerson doesn't have much place for him. Molly does try to spend her money on worthy social causes. She also likes the exotic (Greeneland !) and so she tries to put her money to use abroad.

(I)t was the traveling she loved, the purposeful journey, the mission at hand. The trips eased a peculiar sense of placelessness.
       So she sets out for places like China, Nigeria, El Salvador, and, eventually, Algeria.
       The great tragedy of Molly's life was her journalist brother Harry's death in El Salvador in 1981. There is no clear explanation as to how he died, and a variety of theories are offered up. Fact and invention mesh and meld: no one knows what is true or right. Nothing is black or white, only various shadings of grey. Oh yeah, it's an ambiguous world out there.
       After Greene's death, when their correspondence is finished, Molly is moved again to do something good. It is an homage to both Greene, and to her brother, murdered a decade earlier. It is the Algerian cause she takes up ("Algeria was an impulse she chose not to beat down"). She speaks French, and she figures that by donating some money for bodyguards or dogs she would be able to help protect vulnerable local writers and journalists. (It is the early 1990s, when the clash between fundamentalists and the government is just beginning to turn very, very ugly.)
       Molly's childhood friend Bertie Einhorn is recruited to go along, as is Toby Plunkett, a chatty and always hungry English historian whose qualifications are that he "likes Tintin and speaks some French." They have also arranged to lodge with a pair of French members of a religious order in Algiers, Lucien and Eugène, who very reluctantly agree to put them up.
       Loving Graham Greene is divided into two parts, the first an introduction to these characters, the second telling of their adventures in Algiers (and then beyond). The two American women and the Brit are naifs, protected only by their innocence. Molly almost immediately interferes when she sees two people who have been arrested being led to a police station, a situation that can still be defused by Ahmed, the quick-thinking driver the foreigners had hired. Later conflicts between the locals and the outsiders are not as easily resolved.
       Molly and Bertie and Toby go around trying to foist money on a variety of influential figures, trying to buy safety for writers and journalists. The Algerians they deal with are baffled by the crazy Americans (though generally willing to accept the cash). Pretty much everyone tells them, directly and indirectly, that they are way out of their league here. Molly seems oblivious to the danger.
       Algeria, one of Africa's largest countries (both in population and size), is a country of great but unfulfilled promise. Despite a wrenching war for independence from France and political upheaval afterwards, Algeria had a well-educated population and a great deal of potential. Oil-rich (per capita income is among the highest in Africa), it has languished like many post-colonial states. The clash between fundamentalist forces (especially the FIS, which emerged victorious in the 1991 elections but were not allowed to assume power) and the government has resulted in brutal terrorist campaigns by both sides, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. The murder of many prominent intellectuals has attracted widespread notice abroad, but the real tragedy is, of course, the enormous death toll among the ordinary citizens.
       Emerson is, perhaps, to be commended for focussing attention on this too-often ignored part of the world. She has, apparently, actually been to Algiers, and her description of the conditions, though not particularly evocative, seem realistic. One of the writers Molly sets out to help is Tahar Djaout, a leading figure of intellectual opposition to the fundamentalists who was eventually assassinated in 1993. (See links for more information about Djaout).
       Molly is not very successful in her efforts, and things begin fall to apart more rapidly. Molly, Bertie, Toby, and Lucien are assaulted in the Casbah, and after that there is not much more they can do but go home.
       Before they leave they run into one of the youths that attacked them. Molly recognizes him but does not turn him in. Toby recognizes him and writes a letter to the police identifying the perpetrator, completely oblivious to the ramifications of this deed.
       The last pages of the novel tell what happens in Algeria after their departure, as the country spirals towards self-destruction. Here, too, Molly is often in the dark. Information is hard to come by from Algeria, and even when she receives letters from those she knew there they kindly (?) do not tell her the truth.

       Emerson's programmatic novel tries too hard to imitate the master. The story is a weak imitation of Greene's novels, literally feeling like a sapped Greene novel. The story flows rapidly, with little depth. It feels like the sketch of a novel, waiting for the meat to be added. At twice the length it might have made a decent read. Emerson's literary talents are adequate but in no way exceptional, and she tries too hard to create a literary work here, rather than just tell a good story.
       Too many of the picturesque details seem entirely artificial, such as the "loathsome blond Frenchwoman" that lives near them in Algiers, a former prostitute who did not leave the country in 1962. The characters also rarely rise above being journalistic sketches. Bertie keeps a journal, and she is frustrated that she "was unable to conjure a single descriptive detail" of the city; Emerson does slightly better, but not much.

       Molly's murdered brother said about her:
Loving Graham Greene makes her want to see a world different from the one she knows, and find out new things about people. (...) That isn't such a bad thing, is it ?
       Theoretically not. In practice -- and in fiction ! -- it proves more problematic.
       This odd class of Americans at the center of the book -- idly rich, socially vaguely concerned, remarkably unworldly -- might seem to be ideal fodder for a novel. Greene might have pulled it off, but Emerson doesn't. She shows a great deal of compassion for Molly, without ever convincing the reader that her character deserves it. Like her character, Emerson seems to mean well. Bringing Algeria to public attention is a worthy ambition, but neither Molly nor Emerson's choice of that terrible situation convinces. It comes across as merely a pale imitation of Greene's interest in foreign conflicts and social causes. Emerson's novel fails exactly as Molly's efforts do, and for almost the same reasons. That may be the intended effect -- a bravo to Emerson if that is what she meant to pull of -- but, intended or not, it does not make for a great read.

       Greene overshadows the book -- from the title to the cover (half his face peering out) to his writing, referred to and quoted at length. Excerpts from Greene's letters to Molly are used in the text; these -- so the Author's Note -- "come from those he wrote to an American friend". We're always glad to read the master's thoughts, but we feel decidedly ambivalent in this case.
       Ultimately, unfortunately, this effort -- though it seems obviously meant as an homage -- strikes us as disrespectful. It is a curious reaction -- we're not much for respect, in case you hadn't noticed, and authors tend not to be accorded (or deserving of) much of it anyway. Perhaps it is that characters of Molly's ilk -- the idle rich that pretend to care (and do, sincerely but uselessly, on some level) -- annoy us so that put us off of the book. More likely it is Emerson's insistence that Molly is the only one that can understand and love Greene -- the only one that has that special bond -- that maddens us.
       Emerson, through Molly, lays claim to Greene: Emerson/Molly's interpretation, the book seems to say on almost every page, is the correct and only one. She does not allow for other views, or for readers to hold him and his work in a different regard. And so, instead of paying homage to Greene and sharing him with the world Emerson diminishes him, reducing him to this warped and very limited vision. It is fair enough for any reader to do that -- we all shape our authors and books to our own mind-sets -- but it is problematic when another author imposes such a vision on us. Emerson makes Greene far less than he was, and she pretends that she has a right to do that because of that sliver of a personal bond. Naif readers (like Molly herself -- or you ?) may believe her. That seems unforgivable.

       Note: the complete review's reaction to this novel was more personal than to most books under review, and so the opinion given here must be looked at with even more suspicion than most of the other reviews (though we hope you are always properly suspicious of our (and all) book reviews). Loving Graham Greene is not a bad book, but we found it an off-putting book. Emerson writes quite well (though we don't think the style she chose works well here), and readers may like this novel. We'd still recommend that you find another way of loving Graham Greene -- like reading one of his books. (Of course, we're not even sure he is still in print any longer .....)

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Loving Graham Greene: Reviews: Graham Greene: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American journalist Gloria Emerson won the 1978 National Book Award for her non-fiction work, Winners and Losers.

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