Thursday, March 12, 2020

Matt Haig - How To Stop Time

"The first rule is that you don't fall in love, ' he said... 'There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.'"
A love story across the ages - and for the ages - about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. Tom has lived history--performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life.
So Tom moves back to London, his old home, to become a high school history teacher--the perfect job for someone who has witnessed the city's history first hand. Better yet, a captivating French teacher at his school seems fascinated by him. But the Albatross Society, the secretive group which protects people like Tom, has one rule: never fall in love. As painful memories of his past and the erratic behavior of the Society's watchful leader threaten to derail his new life and romance, the one thing he can't have just happens to be the one thing that might save him. Tom will have to decide once and for all whether to remain stuck in the past, or finally begin living in the present.
Comment: This was the choice for the buddy read with my friend H.
What got me interested in this novel was the sentence included in the blurb which says "A love story across the ages - and for the ages - about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live". I admit I started creating an idea about what this book would be about and I also convinced my friend to try it.

In this book we meet Tom Hazard, an apparent 41 year old who has actually lived through centuries because of a condition which makes his cells to not develop or to do so at a very slow pace which means he doesn't look as old, he doesn't get sick as often and he can manage to keep his looks for a longer period of time. One could say it's the opposite of the condition progeria.
This has meant Tom lives a very isolated life, especially since his mother and other people he met on his early life were subjected to terrible fates because of the fact he didn't seem to get older.
Tom was found by members of a secret society made out of people "suffering" the same condition and their leader has iron rules on how the secret must be kept. Therefore, the members should not fall in love or create lasting relationships. 
Tom has had bitter experiences that make him agree but now he meets Camille, another teacher at the school he was placed at and now things start to be different...

What a misleading blurb! I keep having issues with blurbs because they are the main reason why a story gets to be something we want to read or not. Yes, we can just add a book for many other reasons, but the blurb gives an idea of what the story is going to be about which means it's a huge part of the decision for me. 
Therefore, I think this one, as many others I read, was just not a good/suitable blurb.

The idea is that this will be a romance about the experience of a man who lives longer than other people, who has had terrible experiences because of how that condition affected his life and of those around him and how, after the lesson learned, he punishes himself by isolation even if he got into a club where others know about him. Thus, the idea that all his years and all the emotional and ethical issues can be put aside or cannot really go against true love, is truly something to look for. I did.
However, now that I read this book I'd say this is not a romance.
This book is a fictional tale and the main character happens to find someone at the end. Are his problems solved? Is love a "cure" for his feelings of loss and other things? Does he find a magical HEA?

I don't think it would be a spoiler to say "no". You know why? Because at some point, more or less half way for me, it sort of gets to be obvious the purpose of this story is not to reach a happy ending, even if some see that. I think the point of writing this book like the author did was to present a possibility, was to allow readers to think of a certain impossibility and how someone might be affected by it. Still, I don't think this should be categorized as a romance because it's not romantic and nothing in it says so, except a few sentences at the end that definitely did not satisfy.

I suppose part of why this book didn't fully work for me was the narrative style. We follow Tom through his life in alternate chapters with his life now and several moments in the past. I would have preferred for him to be in the now and use past memories to highlight something; the way things are told I never connected with him because the past scenes are done, don't add anything to he life now. Can you guess why? Simple: he didn't change with his years. Tom never changed, never evolved, never did something outside of his "self". He suffered, he lost people, he lost innocence and he got stuck with the club but he never lived, he just went through the motions.
This means that, for me, the book did. not. have. a. plot! 
We are just told about how things are, about how the club helped Tom but in fact controlled him, and that is it.

Now, I could have overlooked this as I did often with other books in the past that failed to convince me but some had amazing characters and reflections they went though, that captivated me. The characters made the novels. Not so much in this case since, like I said, Tom the main character remains static.
Did I choose an average book by this author or is his style always like this? I'm not that eager to find out but I get the feeling the story aimed to be more introspective and perhaps not literary but somewhat serious and it failed completely to me.
The result is a very average story which had so much potential but that I'll likely forget and which didn't leave me glad I read it.

I think the author wanted to turn this into an epic novel, which included a very weak execution and didn't have enough romance to support the missed expectations. There are interesting things, though, and the idea of it just shines but...
I know others have loved it, so taste is obviously personal but I feel sad this wasn't a better story and the end was...well, "ridiculous" is a strong word but I think it kind of fits.
Grade: 5/10

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