St. Ebury serves not just the elite of Ottawa but also the offspring of many of the diplomats assigned to Canada’s capital. One of those students is Julius, son of the U.S. ambassador (a former Vermont governor), whom Noel is lucky enough to have as a roommate in his final high school year. If Noel is angry, Julius is abstactly distant — certainly not engaged with his studies, good at sports but not really caring about them. Even acquiring Noel as a roommate (when as the “star” of the school he would have had his choice) came more by default than anything else.
And then there is Fallon (the “Fall” of the title). While she is a boarder at the school, she is an Ottawa child, daughter of a divorced mother who lives in luxury in an Ottawa “high tech” suburb (for those who don’t know the city, the tech explosion has created a whole new set of up-scale neighborhoods, described by McAdam as the High Tech Hills). Males outnumber females by about a five-to-one ratio at St. Ebury’s and most of the males are entranced with Fall — it is no surprise therefore that she is Julius’ girlfriend. Noel — surprise, surprise — is obsessed with her. The closest he can come to developing a relationship of any kind is to serve as a go-between when Julius is confined to the dorm as the result of a prank.
That’s pretty much the story of Fall. Colin McAdam’s first novel, Some Great Thing (2004), attracted a lot of attention and won a number of prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The story of a developer and his struggles, both legal and not-so-legal, to create an Ottawa suburb, that novel looked into the business world in a way that few novelists have dared attempt. I quite liked it and was looking forward to this book — McAdam is a diplomat’s son, raised in cities around the world, so he promised to know whereof he speaks. Alas, for this reader, he has taken a long step backward with Fall, despite its selection to the 2009 Giller longlist.
Here’s a sample of “dialogue” that is a frequent style the author uses in the book — this is actually the first appearance, but the technique keeps popping up to the very end of the book:
When I arrived at St. Ebury everyone said:
“Her father’s an Italian count.”
“They wear gloves when they eat dinner.”
“Her real name is Fallon.”
“Fallon Fitzgerald DeStaad.”
“She’s a bitch.”
“She’s not a real blonde.”
“She’s the smartest in the school.”
“Her father’s high tech.”
“Was IncoTel, he ditched and made a stinkload.”
“Mother took it all.”
That’s only half of the exchange in question, but there is a limit to how much I can ask visitors here to tolerate. McAdam shows no such compassion — while the device actually half works the first few times it shows up, by about page 50 I was dreading the prospect of turning the page and seeing him head off into the tactic yet again. The book alternates between Noel and Julius as the narrator (with occasional sections also from William, the U.S. ambassador’s chauffeur, used to fill in background gaps that the author can’t figure out how else to introduce) — all of Julius’ sections are in this “style”. It may be the first time I ever found myself hoping for a run-on sentence.
Next to the prose problems, the biggest weakness of the book is probably the near-total vapidness of the three central characters. While they have friends, none of those get developed — unusually for a “school” novel no teacher or master features in the book. Noel is confused and angry and comes closest to being fully realized, but even that isn’t much. Julius is just chilling along, not much concerned about what he might become. As for Fall, when Noel reads her notes to Julius in his role as go-between, even the enthralled would-be lover finds her amazingly shallow, although he assumes she will be a far fuller person when she falls in love with him.
So the book has to be about plot (or perhaps teenage sex). There is an event that occurs about halfway through the book that does make the latter half somewhat better than the first. To say anymore at all in the review is a true spoiler. I’ll be happy to discuss it in comments if anyone is interested.
I’ve said on this blog before that I am a sucker for “school” novels. Richard Yates’ The Good School and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace are two outstanding examples of the genre. A few months ago, I reviewed Christine Schutt’s All Souls and E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (usually categorized as a Young Adult book) with much enthusiasm. I admit now that I read the first few chapters of Fall then, thinking about a triple review — and put it down because it was simply not up to snuff compared to the other two. Having now read the entire book, that judgment is confirmed. If you like “school” novels, any of those four (and numerous others) is a better choice than Fall.
I don’t know what this year’s Giller jury saw in this book to include it in the longlist — it is not that it is a bad book, it is just that it certainly is not a good one. As I indicated above, McAdam showed significant promise with his first novel. I do hope this one is just a temporary retreat from that.