2009 Orange Prize

The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton


Long listed for Orange Prize 2010, Short listed for Guardian First book Award, Winner of the Betty Trask Award

I had heard The Rehearsal mentioned a few times in 2009, but when it was included on the Orange long list this year everyone started talking about it. The Rehearsal seems to divide opinion, with a roughly equal split between those who love the book and those who hate it. I must admit that the premise didn’t appeal to me, but I don’t like being unable to join a heated book discussion and so I reserved a copy from my library.

The book centres on a sex scandal involving a teacher and his pupil. The narrative travels forwards and backwards in time, following a group of pupils who gossip about the event and members of a drama school who decide to put on a play about the sex scandal.

The book is quite confusing to read, as you are never really sure which scenes are part of the play and which are ‘real’. I’d read about 50 pages of the book when I re-read Claire’s review in which she pointed out that chapters starting with a day of the week were about the school pupils and ones titled with a month were set in the drama school, but although this information helped a lot I was still confused about many things.

The book realistically portrays teenagers, managing to capture that uncertainty and awkwardness. I was particularly impressed by the insecurites of a younger sibling:

No, Isolde says, ‘I will make the same mistakes, but by the time I do they won’t seem interesting because you’ll already have done it, and I’ll only be a copy.’

The teenage banter was witty and insightful, but the plot was almost non-existent. I was particularly disappointed by the ending, as the book just stopped without reaching any real conclusion.

I am still trying to decide if I liked The Rehearsal or not.  I can’t work out whether this book is genius, or just trying too hard to be clever. If The Rehearsal  had been written in chronological order I suspect it might have been a fairly average read. Does confusing your readers make a book incredibly good, or does it just hide any flaws in a cloak of confusion?  Despite my uncertainty The Rehearsal is the most impressive book I’ve found on the Orange long list so far and I’d be happy to see it win. 

Overall I enjoyed reading this book for the individual passages, but it was too clever to work as a novel for me.

Did you enjoy The Rehearsal?

Can a book be too clever?

42 replies on “The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton”

Verity, I would be surprised if The Rehearsal didn’t make the Orange short list. I think it has tough competition (especially from Wolf Hall) for the winning position, but I think it will easily make the short list.

It took me a while but ultimately I did enjoy The Rehearsal. Its cleverness though was definitely a factor for me as I found it to be its saving grace. I like a book every so often where you have to be an active reader, constantly being aware of what is going on. It is interesting to compare this -and its inclusion on the Orange longlist-with The Help, which is very much a novel you can lose yourself in without having to think much (although it is a though-provoking subject). The Rehearsal definitely has its literary merits and some will find it too clever; I think for its sheer ambition, it has a good chance of winning.

Claire, I enjoyed The Rehearsal a lot more than I expected to. I do like being an active reader, but books like this need a stunning ending to get away with it. I felt that the ending didn’t justify the complex layout, so although I enjoyed reading most of the book I was left feeling a bit disappointed.

Comparison to The Help is interesting. They are two very different books. Everyone loves the Help – it is a fantastic story, easy to read, but doesn’t have the literary depth. I will be interested to see if it makes the short list.

Nadia, I don’t think it mattered that it was confusing, as I still enjoyed each scene – perhaps the whole point of the book was that you didn’t know which parts were real and which part of a play?

Seeing the cover on your site as it moved up to your current list I was a little intrigued but the cover made me think “chick-lit” and while I like them, I’m picky on authors. Your review has surprised me, and I like the sound of the structure for it’s difference. The fact that there’s a big difference in opinion interests me too but I’m undecided whether I’d like to read it.

Charlie, There is no way this book could be described as ‘chick-lit’ I hope that too many people aren’t disappointed when they pick it up. I don’t think it has enough pink lettering for me to identify it as chick lit, but it is interesting to see how other people judge covers differently.

How fortuitous – I’ll be reading this book very soon myself, as I’m covering it for the July issue of BookPage. I read the first 25 pages or so of it before committing to it, and I really enjoyed Catton’s voice, so we’ll see how the rest of it goes for me.

I do think it’s possible for books to be too self-conscious or to try to hard to be clever, and I generally find those books rather frustrating and disingenuous.

Steph, I will be interested to see what you make of this one – I think you might find it a bit too self-concious. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the majority of the book though.

I haven’t read this (yet), but I’m always interested in nonlinear storytelling. The film Memento, for instance, is one of my favorites, and like this, it’s an averageish sort of thriller if you take away the way it screws around with time. In that case, though, there’s a clear compelling reason for structuring it that way (the character’s memory problems). I think if you’re going to confuse your readers, there should be a reason to do it that way, and (of course!) it should be done well. Between your review and Claire’s I’m very curious to read this book.

Jenny, I don’t think I’ve seen Memento – I’ll have to see if I can get hold of a copy.

I think you are right about there being a need for the time slip – I think that my main problem was that the ending didn’t justify it. I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.

Oh, it’s very cool. The idea is that the main character suffers from short-term memory loss. The film unfolds in scenes going backwards in time, so the first scene of the film is the last chronologically, and the last is the first. You know the ending from the start, and as the film goes on you are constantly having to reassess the events you’ve already seen. As an inveterate end-reader, it was great for me!

I abandoned it at p 44. That was enough for me to recognise the inventiveness of the piece. At the same time as its crassness. Saxophones and sex scandals – please!

Even if it’s shortlisted, I won’t be returning to it.

First, that cover looks like the cover of a YA novel, so I was surprised to see it long-listed for the Orange prize. Second, four stars? I admit that I read the whole review, and I was surprised to see that at the end! But then you do say it’s the most impressive so far…

Priscilla, I did enjoy reading the book, but was just a bit let down by the ending. I think it is an impressive book, with lots of fantastic, inventive scenes. I think it will interest intelligent teenagers, as it does cover a lot of their insecurities. The author is only in her mid-twenties, so I can see it having a slight cross over into the YA market.

haven’t read this but love the cover. i work in a high school and have seen enough headlines in the world to know that this kind of thing happens every day.

as for being too clever, i think that books can push me as a reader too far. ‘the house of leaves’ comes readily to mind. it has crazy fonts and page layouts and about a million footnotes. aggravating, really.

Nat, I haven’t read The House of Leaves, but do find footnotes very distracting. They are fine for non-fiction, but I don’t like fiction that includes them. I’m not a fan of crazy fonts either!

I’m with LizzySiddal on this although I’m not sure I got as far as page 44 before I realised that I had a huge pile of books that I wanted to read rather than this. Self-consciously clever just about sums it up for me.

The ‘authentic’ teenage voice doesn’t sound much like my bright 16 year old daughter or her friends – but there again they are at a state school, albeit a very successful one.

I think you are right about it getting shortlisted though.

Liz, Perhaps you’re right and I’m just out of touch with the voices of real teenagers. I don’t have much contact with teenagers and haven’t since I was one!

I have a copy waiting to be read. From your review it sounds a bit like a novel I read last year: The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits, except its about a grown woman who may have been kidnapped for a short while when she was sixteen. Also non-linear, a bit clever, too.

I enjoyed it. I wonder how it’ll compare, but I shouldn’t have that in mind when I read it!

David, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time! I haven’t heard of The Uses of Enchantment, but I’m not sure the premise appeals. I would be interested in a comparision once you’ve finished reading The Rehearsal – I hope you enjoy it!

I think The Rehearsal is a book that’s definitely more about theme than plot. Everything in it, from the writing style upwards, comes back to that idea of rehearsing (‘putting on a show’, literally and metaphorically) — and it’s because everything fits together so completely that I love the book so much.

The ending is interesting. I would say the last scene is the one that you can be most confident is ‘real’, that the dialogue is what’s actually being spoken, etc. I think the final sentences are significant.

David, It is definitely a very literary novel, with lots of themes/symbols running through it. I can see that it is well thought out, but it felt a little forced to me.

I’m still not sure about the ending. I had hoped for something a bit more special, but I suppose I can’t always have it my way!

Jackie – one of my plans this year was to read more NZ authors – so far I don’t think I have read one! I’m not sure if I will like this book but am going to give it a try. Thanks for your review. I’ll pop back and let you know how I found it.

I’d starred your review awhile ago because I knew it would take me some time to get to reading The Rehearsal myself. I do think that part of the author’s intention (as you suggested in one of your comments) was to get readers involved by asking questions about “what is real”. She puts a modern spin on the traditional “play within a play” motif, and I think I spent too much time trying to answer this question as I read instead of just enjoying the myriad of possibilities the story offered, but I was fascinated by the book all the same. I noted the same quote that you did whilst reading; I love the way that double-ness infiltrates every aspect of the story. For me, it was just the right amount of “cleverness”: any more and she might have lost me as a reader.

BuriedInPrint, I’m really pleased that you enjoyed this book. I think it overstepped that ‘cleverness’ line for me on a few occasions, but I loved the way that it made me think more than the average book. I’m off to read your review.

Jackie, I’m a little more than half way through THE REHEARSAL, and overall, I think I really like it a lot! I’m confused about the scenes that appear to actually be scenes from a play rehearsal even though they are days of the week. I love the comments above about being an “active reader”–I think that’s why I like it so much in spite of some confusion.

I remembered that you had previously reviewed this book, and as it is just now coming out in the US I went back to find your review. As always, your post is inciteful and well written.

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