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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Expo 58

Jonathan Coe

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Expo 58

Title: Expo 58
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 274 pages
Availability: Expo 58 - US
Expo 58 - UK
Expo 58 - Canada
Expo 58 - India
Expo 58 - France
Liebesgrüße aus Brüssel - Deutschland
Expo 58 - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : has its charms and poignancy, but the humor falls rather flat

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 30/8/2013 Lucy Kellaway
The Independent . 23/8/2013 John Walsh
Independent on Sunday A- 8/9/2013 Peter Carty
Literary Review A 9/2013 Sarah A. Smith
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/11/2014 Brock Clarke
The Observer A 7/9/2013 Robert McCrum
The Spectator A- 21/9/2013 Cressida Connolly
The Telegraph B 27/9/2013 Toby Lichtig
TLS . 6/9/2013 Sam Leith

  Review Consensus:

  Good fun -- and some very impressed indeed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Expo 58 is Coe at his funny-serious best, offering his idiosyncratic mixture of slapstick and profundity in a love-and-spies story set at the height of the cold war. (...) If Expo 58 works as a historically faithful, global comedy of manners, it works even better as a stand-off between duty and desire." - Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

  • "Coe's Expo is a place of resplendent fakery. (...) It's a rich and splendidly comic confection." - John Walsh, The Independent

  • "Coe's tenth novel is characterised by his customary lightness of touch. (///) Coe mines some of the period material for irony (.....) This unusual ability to counterpoint the comic and the poignant is what sets Coe's writing apart, and he excels at it here once more." - Peter Carty, Independent on Sunday

  • "An intensely visual novel, Expo 58 relies on the reader's knowledge of British and European cinema of the period to create a world of slapstick and surrealism. (...) Expo 58 is a multi-layered novel, both a straightforward, rollicking comedy and a rather more thoughtful, meticulously researched examination of European and British identity." - Sarah A Smith, Literary Review

  • "The novel may seem thin at the beginning, but it gets deeper, funnier and sadder as it becomes less concerned with what itís like for an ordinary man to be trapped in an extraordinary situation and more concerned with what itís like for that man to leave his extraordinary situation and return to an ordinary unhappy marriage in an ordinary unhappy country." - Brock Clarke, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Coe is too keen a student of British popular culture to pass up the opportunity for many delightful allusions both to the films of Alfred Hitchcock as well as the mazy frolics of Ealing comedy. Part of the devilish cunning of Coe's delicious imbroglio derives from the simple historical fact that the Belgians, in the spirit of schadenfreude, have placed the Soviet and American pavilions adjacent to each other, not far from the Britannia. (...) This is entertainment of a very high order, and all the more delightful for being grounded in the more bizarre dimensions of reality, the inspiration of all the best fiction." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "In other hands it would be only mildly ridiculous: in his, it is delightfully funny and utterly absurd. (...) Itís all tremendously good fun. (...) The one flaw is Coeís occasional cloth ear." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "Expo 58 is an amiable, undemanding book, cartoonish in its brushstrokes, elemental in its themes. It is rather more intelligent than it first appears, starting slightly and becoming gradually more absorbing. The reader bumbles along at a cosy pace, one step ahead of its protagonist, one step behind its author. This doesnít, however, leave much room for nuance. (...) Coeís lightness is both intoxicating and frustrating." - Toby Lichtig, The Telegraph

  • "Coe has never been a linguistic show-off and his prose does its work quietly. He plots slickly and wittily, and populates his scenes with neat, two-and-a-half-dimensional characters. (...) The final couple of chapters, though, do something unexpected and rather heartbreaking." - Sam Leith, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Expo 58 centers on Thomas Foley, in his early thirties in 1958, when most of the action takes place. He's toiled at the government Central Office for Information for some fourteen years, working his way up from his humble beginnings, and in the year of the Brussels World's Fair his background -- a mother born in Belgium, a father who ran a pub -- makes him the ideal candidate to be their man in Brussels, keeping an eye on the centerpiece of the British pavilion, a pub called the Britannia.
       Thomas is married, and they've just had a little girl, Gill (who, adult, features in Coe's The Rain before it Falls). It isn't a passionate marriage, and the baby has left Thomas feeling even less the object of his wife's devotion. He's worried about spending six months away, but realizes it's an opportunity he can't pass up.
       Even before he leaves for the continent, Thomas attracts the attention of a pair of dubious intelligence agents, Mr. Radford and Mr. Wayne, who clearly think he might be useful to them without ever spelling out exactly what they want to use him for. They pop up regularly, and clearly keep close tabs on Thomas (and everything around Thomas, both in Brussels and back home), guiding him to serve their purposes. If not entirely their patsy, Thomas rarely know exactly where he stands with them -- or what exactly is going on; as they unhelpfully only tell him rather late in the day: "Oh, you don't want to take everything we say at face value".
       On Thomas' first trip to Brussels he makes the acquaintance of one of the locals hired to be a hostess for the fair, the delightful and attractive Anneke. Thomas is interested -- and, for example, fails to inform her that he is married -- but treads carefully, sending mixed signals for the duration of his stay and their relationship. Among the other acquaintances he makes is his roommate, involved with one of the scientific discoveries that's put on prominent display, a Soviet journalist whose circumstances suggest that he's a much more important (and questionable) figure than he claims, and an attractive American woman who seems to be falling into the Soviet's orbit.
       There's quite the backdrop of potential and actual East-West espionage at the fair -- but most of it goes rather over Thomas' head until it's spelled out for him (and the reader). He is, however, called into action by Mr. Radford and Mr. Wayne -- cramping his style with Anneke, in whom his interest grows, especially when the evidence mounts that his neighbor back home has been getting entirely too friendly with his wife.
       Coe offers a nice picture of a post-war world that has begun to recover from the Second World War and looks forward to the great technological promise of the future -- embodied in the fair-defining Atomium, but also the British technological "jewel in the crown" on display at the fair, the ZETA machine (a much-hyped prototype fusion reactor that was an infamous dud). Fundamental questions such as: "that maddening, elusive topic of 'Britishness'. What did it mean to be British, in 1958 ?" also figure prominently throughout -- as, with Thomas' quest for the place his mother came from, do questions of larger European identity: his mother fled in 1914, hours before the Germans overran the place, and that area continues to straddle that uneasy German-Belgian divide even as Europe now moves towards greater unity.
       In the final chapter, Coe fast-forwards through the years after the close of the fair, revealing what became of most of the actors, before slowing down again in 2009, when he stages a reunion between Thomas and one of his acquaintances from half a century earlier, learning one last secret about that time and the paths not taken.
       Expo 58 is a fine character study of a cautious man who faces several crossroads and ultimately takes the safest way out -- leaving him trapped, several times over. The espionage backdrop doesn't fit ideally with that, in part because Coe presents it so cartoonishly; 'spycraft' -- especially of that era -- is, admittedly, hard to take seriously, especially given how it's been treated in film, books, and on TV since (and, yes, Ian Fleming does get a nod here), but Coe doesn't help himself with his Mr. Radford and Mr. Wayne-duo. Even as the set pieces are very well done -- Coe handles the various encounters, get-togethers, and domestic scenes expertly -- the novel as a whole feels underdeveloped, not quite adding up to enough -- as suggested also by the hurried chronology of what became of everyone in the book's final chapter.
       It's fine reading, and reasonably enjoyable, but it does all fall a bit flat.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2014

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Expo 58: Reviews: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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© 2014-2023 the complete review

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