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The Breakstone family arrange themselves around their daughter Heather, and the world seems to follow: beautiful, compassionate, entrancing, she is the greatest blessing in their lives of Manhattan luxury. But as Heather grows - and her empathy sharpens to a point, and her radiance attracts more and more dark interest - their perfect existence starts to fracture. Meanwhile a very different life, one raised in poverty and in violence, is beginning its own malign orbit around Heather. Matthew Weiner - the creator of Mad Men - has crafted an extraordinary first novel of incredible pull and menace. Heather, The Totality demonstrates perfectly his forensic eye for the human qualities that hold modern society together, and pull it apart.
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It’s very hard not to judge a book by its cover when the front of a book boasts one word - ‘SUPERB’ - from none other than Philip Pullman. Turn to the back cover and Maggie O’Farrell says she ‘loved it’. These two are favourites of mine so I opened the book with optimism. Happily, Heather, The Totality did live up to these recommendations for me and manages to be page turning and easily digestible, but at the same time thought provoking and ultimately shocking.
The story structure is unsurprising coming from a screenwriter. Matthew Weiner created Mad Men and wrote for The Sopranos, so it makes sense that he has chosen his first novel to be assembled in short scenes, glimpses into the minutiae of lives. I suppose the title is fairly ironic in that sense: this story is a bit like a pulse of light shone on moments of character and action. There’s not really a point where the lens takes a long view on the scene and offers a picture of the ‘totality’. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.
In another way, Weiner’s use of the word ‘totality’ is very literal. Heather is the centre of her parents’ worlds, and not in a particularly healthy way. It would almost be a dystopian evolution of the helicopter parent if it weren’t likely that it’s descriptive of the reality of many privileged families. The contrast between The Breakstones and Bobby, the entitled and the broken, is stark and depressing but, despite his murderous intent I found Bobby’s narrative dryly amusing and strangely appealing.
Where Bobby is colourful and edgy from the start, the affluent characters seem at first glance to be sketched - the concise text leaves no room for superfluous description. They do build, however, and by the end I found Mark especially an absorbing figure. Heather herself appeared to me for the most part as more of a symbol than a real human. She exists as what she represents to her parents and, later, to Bobby. As she matures she seems to attempt her own voice; in that her narrative joins that of her parents and in rebelliously rejecting her family’s class values. However, the ending seems to suck her back into the fold. Perhaps I would have liked to have seen Heather fight through the ownership of her parents and truly find her voice in this book. But maybe that was the point.
I found Matthew Weiner’s writing built a very convincing, if not rather bleak, depiction of the increasing class divide and dysfunctional materialism that very pointed towards modern day America. The book feels very much a descendant of the American literary texts which tend to be studied as part of English or Drama degrees. I think back to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in their stark realism. Of course, these men are playwrights - and Heather, The Totality is conversely notable for its lack of dialogue. This didn’t bother me any more than it bothers me to read a text entirely in dialogue. However I can see why some readers may take issue with it. I’m not particularly into American culture, but this is the good part of it. The language pared down and targeted. The tone sardonic and cutting, evoking the class tensions which seem to have changed little since the time of Miller and Williams.
In the same way as I found this really readable and layered, I can see why it could turn others cold. If you’re expecting either Mad Men or a traditional psychological thriller you’ll be disappointed. I found this short book to be rather more though. In relatively few words it seemed to convey to me a whole state of humanity. A totality if you will.
Heather, The Totality is superb. It gripped me at once. There was no question of turning away at any point. Weiner conveys the sense that beyond the brilliantly chosen details there was a wealth of similarly truthful social and psychological perception unstated. Then there was the ice-cold mercilessness, of a kind that reminded me (oddly, I suppose, but there it was) of Evelyn Waugh. This novel is something special -- PHILIP PULLMAN Beautifully written . . . Curious and unexpected -- JOHN BURNSIDE * * Guardian * * A lean, sharp meta-thriller. The writing is laconic and assured . . . . Superb * * Spectator * * Holds you in a way novels seldom do . . . It should be consumed at one sitting * * Financial Times * * This short novel of upper-crust anomie and class-divide obsession is a scorcher! It's the classic noir construction: the short walk off the long ledge and the plummet to an indifferent Hell. Matthew Weiner demonically delivers the goods! Read this book in one gasping breath -- JAMES ELLROY Obsession, wealth, anomie, parenting and sociopathic fantasy; about what happens when a young girl comes into contact with an evil man . . . Engaging and brilliant * * Sunday Times * * Chilling and poised, I loved it -- MAGGIE O'FARRELL A bleakly elegant tale of ennui and class envy . . . Weiner has a knack for writing sentences that grab and grip . . . addictive, even thrilling * * Observer * * An exciting debut novel with a fast-paced plot and plenty of suspense * * Vogue * * Short and rapier-sharp, Matthew Weiner's Heather, The Totality compels and unnerves in equal measure. Like the great Patricia Highsmith, Weiner renders the disturbing not just plausible but exquisitely, agonisingly inevitable. A tour de force -- CLAIRE MESSUD Heather, The Totality is a tour de force of control, tone and razor-slash insight. In its clear-eyed anatomist's gaze and its remarkable combination of empathy and pitilessness I hear echoes of Flaubert and Richard Yates, with a deeply twisted twist of Muriel Spark at her darkest. I could not put it down -- MICHAEL CHABON Brief but with a big punch . . . Weiner paints a detailed, achingly insightful picture * * ELLE * * A miraculous and fearless novel, Heather is unprecedented. As well as being smart, sharp and readable, it proves there are still fresh and exciting ways to write fiction -- M.J. HYLAND Compelling . . . skilfully structured * * Daily Mail * * Beautifully nuanced * * GQ, The Book to Read * * Told in a filmic tone you'd expect from an esteemed script-writer . . . it's an insightful little dip into a foreign world, filled with forensic details * * Grazia * * Strange and unsettling . . . A quality piece of fiction, one that will leave readers both uncomfortable and impressed * * Irish Times * * A lean slice of noir * * Mail on Sunday, The Best New Fiction * * Full of tension and pace, this is a thought-provoking examination of how parenthood can undermine a marriage * * Daily Express * * Weiner is a suspense artist . . . [His] book shares Mad Men's stylish brutality, but this chilly, tense novella about control and social standing is infinitely more subtle * * Times Literary Supplement * * Weiner keeps the prose sharp, controlled and cutting as he describes a marriage in crisis * * Sunday Express * * His screenwriter's taste for clinical, descriptive prose works thrillingly . . . as paragraphs that begin in innocuous fashion build to unexpectedly visceral crescendos . . . [A] dark, compelling picture of American society * * Literary Review * * There are real pleasures here . . . Weiner's writing comes to life **** * * Daily Telegraph * * I cringed and shuddered my way through this short, daring novel to its terrible inevitable end. Each neat, measured paragraph carpaccios its characters to get to the book's heart - one of Boschian self-cannibalising isolation. A stunning novel. Heather, The Totality blew me away -- NICK CAVE Weiner displays an impressive turn of phrase, and deftly crafts tension in this brief, thought-provoking novel, which skewers class assumptions and questions how well anyone really knows those closest to them * * Scotsman * * Short and chilling . . . What ensues is at times almost unbearably menacing . . . the climax also pulls off the trick of being both completely unexpected and somehow inevitable - at which point the reader can finally breathe out * * Reader's Digest * * It is a slip of a thing, but it grips like a box set nonetheless . . . Weiner's prose is spare - almost to the point of deadening - as it jump-cuts between perspectives and times, keeping the reader guessing on who will crack first * * iNews * * A short, sharp journey, but, Carver-like, it will leave you gasping * * The Pool * *