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Paulette Jiles’ previous book, “News of the World” is one of my favorites. I thought it might be her last so I was pleasantly surprised to read a (very favorable) Washington Post review recently of Jiles’ latest, “Simon the Fiddler”. I ordered it straight away and began reading it minutes later. It turned out to be a huge disappointment. Slow, no tension, no romance, it just dragged on and on. I read only small chunks at a time, and occasionally there were three to four day periods where I didn’t pick it up at all. None of the characters are the least bit interesting, nor is a major theme of the book, music and music instruments of the 1860s. ZZZZZZZZ. This is probably a one star effort – I just don’t get the 5 star reviews from some other readers – but out of respect for Jiles’ other work….2 stars.
I bought this novel because I really liked her earlier book, News of the World. That novel is a beautifully written road saga about the friendship between an old man and a half-feral girl, with plenty of emotion and adventure to keep one interested. This newer book does not come close to measuring up to its predecessor. There is almost no narrative energy in this story of a young fiddle player who falls in love with an Irish girl early on. They are separated, and the rest of the novel is the story of their ultimate reunion. Unfortunately, everything between their early meeting and the grand finale feels like endless fictive padding. You know immediately how it will all turn out. There are other issues with this book that make the story feel inauthentic. For one, the Irish girl is named "Doris." I am close to 100% confident that no Irish girl born in county Kerry in the 1840s would be named Doris. In fact, it may be the case that no Irish girl anywhere has ever been named Doris. Jiles also repeats one of the common tropes that Southern writers and apologists have been using since the end of the Civil War to prop up their "war of Northern aggression" b.s.---the brave, gallant, handsome Confederate veteran (Simon, the fiddle player of the book's title) vs. the evil, predatory, one-dimensional Union officer (Simon's adversary). We have all had enough of that twisted spin on American history, one which is certainly unwelcome at this moment in America. As for the music angle, Jiles tries to make her musician characters believable, but they are not. She knows a little, but not enough, about Irish and traditional music to pull that off. It is unlikely that the bodhran (an Irish frame drum), for example, was being played in Texas in the mid 1860s. The book just feels fake, and I really wanted to like it.
I had read News of the World and enjoyed it although it had its flaws. This book feels amateurish and clichéd. The constant references to foods and physical locations felt like the author saying "look at all the research I've done." The plot is implausible and filled with inconsistencies. Post civil war travel with a black man would have been fraught with danger and his presence would have not been accepted as easily as the narrative would suggest. It may seem a small point but several times she refers to the temperature saying it was " " degrees. This completely ignores the fact that thermometers would have been extremely rare and that people would not have worried about what temperature it was...simply it was hot. I was also confused by the ending. They were discussing what peril they were in and looking for solutions and then the book abruptly ends. If there's a sequel and that was a cliffhanger, I'll never know.
I'm having difficulty grasping the story as I have to turn the page continuously. It's written in large print. I'm far sighted and no matter what I can't get this book far enough away to be comfortable to read. It's hampering my interest.