Winslow, Emily - 'The Whole World'
This debut is an unusual book, in that the story is unveiled through the perspective of the various main characters, all of whom interact with each other in some way, one by one, in a series of grouped chapters. The plot of the novel slowly advances, as we move from one character's story to the next. The novel begins with Polly's story. Polly is an American student studying Natural Sciences in Cambridge, who has made friends with Nick, a graduate student studying Paleobiology. Nick takes her up to his office after a night out, and start to make to love her before Polly is violently sick and runs away. Of course, we then find out that Polly has a disturbing history, in which she was discovered having sex with her boyfriend as a teenager by her father, who then gave her boyfriend Jeremy a lift in his car, and deliberately drove into a tree, killing Jeremy. So disturbing, that in fact her mother seems to be worried enough about Polly, to turn up in Cambridge to try to see her, something which Polly finds difficult, and tries to avoid.
Polly is also a friend of Liv, another American, who is studying art history at Cambridge. Liv's family was very rich back in California, but then lost their money, and her parents divorced, and she has money worries. In her spare time, and for a bit of extra money, Liv is helping one of the academics, Gretchen Paul, a professor of literature, to sort out her family history. Gretchen is blind, and one of Liv's tasks is to go through boxes of photographs and sort them into some sort of order. Through this, we start to gain some sort of insight into Gretchen's early life.
Gretchen's mother was a well-known novelist, Linda Paul, who wrote five books about a character called Susan Maud Maddison in the 1950s, but then suddenly stopped. Now her mother is dead, Gretchen wants to find out more about her early life, which she has some memory of, why they abruptly stopped travelling (and her mother stopped writing), and what happened to her mother's friend, who played a large role in their early life, but then disappeared. Liv ropes Polly, and then Nick in, to help her in this task. Gretchen is married to Harry, who doesn't seem to have a job, and spends his time looking after a large collection of birds, and provides some amusing anecdotes while Liv and her friends are in the house, engaged in their research.
After Polly runs away from Nick, he disappears, and no-one seems to know where he is. The police get involved, and they suspect that he may have been murdered. One of the policemen heading up the search for Nick is called Morris, who just happens to be related to Richard Keene, Nick's PhD supervisor. But then we turn to Nick's story, and discover what really happened to him. And then a dead body turns up.
The rest of the book then moves through Morris's, Gretchen's, and then finally Liv's story until we find out who was the murderer and why.
Overall, this is a promising first novel though I did have a few issues. The characters, as written, are interesting ones, but the setting in rarefied Cambridge has fairly little connection to real life. The use of separate stories from each of the main players worked reasonably well at providing a different perspective on the story, but also suffered from the problem that as soon as we start to become interested in that character, everything switches as we move on to the next. But those minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed the novel, and look forward to the next one.
Michelle Peckham, England
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