The Barnes & Noble Review
If you take a nonlinear approach to the history of the 20th century, the 1970s can be seen as an era of confused adolescence. Self-conscious, hormonal, pimply faced, it was a decade as ill at ease with itself as a pubescent boy in a powder-blue suit at a school dance. Jonathan Coe, author of the sly, complex, and farcical The Winshaw Legacy, sets his witty and nostalgic The Rotters' Club during that graceless period in Great Britain's history -- a time beset by labor disputes, racism, terrorism, and some really lame Eric Clapton songs.
The first installment in a two-book narrative (the second of which, The Closed Circle, will follow the same characters into the 1990s), The Rotters' Club opens in 1973 and centers on three Birmingham school chums -- Benjamin Trotter, Doug Anderton, and Phillip Chase -- whose lives focus primarily on homework, music, and girls. But their innocence -- and that of their families -- is shattered when the boyfriend of Ben's older sister is decapitated in an IRA bombing at a local pub. In a matter of seconds, a family and a nation is shaken from complacent slumber by the realization that terrorism -- something that once seemed so distant and foreign -- has slithered its malefic body right onto their doorstep. However, like John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, Coe's novel focuses on an act of terrorism but encompasses a great deal more. Though pivotal to the story, the bombing serves only as a catalyst for the characters' heightened awareness of how the political and social, and the racial and moral, mesh together in intricate patterns. In Coe's world there are no coincidences -- a passing glance will lead years later to a proposal of marriage, an answered personal add will result in death and insanity, a borrowed album will lead to a musical revolution. Every thing is connected.
Episodic, engaging, and very funny, The Rotters' Club is a sharp, postmodern epic -- a novel about friends and family, life and death, love and infidelity, symphonic rock and punk. In crafting both a satire and a love letter to a misunderstood era, Coe has created a sympathetic portrait of a group of young people who are coming of age along with their world. (Stephen Bloom)
This witty, sprawling and ambitious novel relates the coming-of-age stories of a group of adolescents in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s, with the era itself becoming a kind of character, encompassing trivialities like music as well as more serious issues: labor struggles, racism, terrorism. Of course, the teenagers Benjamin Trotter (a play on his name accounts for the novel's title) and three of his male classmates, along with two female peers, are struggling with their own timeless issues: Why are my parents so weird? Will I ever have sex? Is Eric Clapton God? Coe amusingly and sympathetically articulates the desperate nature of teenage life, demonstrating a sure command of his protagonists' vernacular. He juxtaposes "crises" of adolescence with much more compelling events: a pub bombing by Irish nationalists and drawn-out strikes, for example, and the very real toll they take on people, including some of his characters. But this interweaving also reveals the novel's biggest problem: the combination of these two narrative strands isn't as seamless as it ought to be, nor as illuminating as Coe intends. The book is Dickensian in scope, with multiple plot lines and perspectives as well as miniature portraits of virtually everyone connected with the teens. Unfortunately, the narrative is sometimes hard to follow, and individual characters often remain opaque. The difficulty is compounded by rapidly shifting perspectives and an awkward framing narrative set in the early 2000s. As he demonstrated in his well-received novel about the Thatcher years, The Winshaw Legacy, Coe is immensely clever, but that cleverness is almost misplaced here: universal as it may be, adolescent angst doesn't really compare to the problems of massive social change. (Feb. 26) FYI: This novel is intended as the first of a two-book series, the second of which will revisit the characters' lives in the 1990s. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This should be rated R for realistic. It captures with visceral detail Birmingham, England, in 1973 by following the lives of two families: the Trotters (Sheila, Colin and their three children, Lois, Benjamin, and Paul) and the Andertons (Bill, Irene, and their son Doug). The wives have affairs, the husbands have affairs, Ben and Doug (who attend the same public school) dream of naked girls and try to form a rock band, workers go out on strike, the IRA blows up a pub. Rollicking sex, teenage angst, midlife crises, radical politics, and homophobia all come in for a satiric jab by Coe, whose novel has been compared to Look Homeward, Angel. Obscenities, racial slurs, and one of the hottest sex scenes ever make this prize-winning novel appropriate for the mature teen only. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2001, Random House, Vintage, 411p.,
Coe sheds the Gothic trappings of his last two novels, The Winshaw Legacy and House of Sleep, in this mostly humorous coming-of-age tale, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for most original comic writing. The setting is 1970s England, and the main characters are schoolmates at an exclusive private school in Birmingham. The novel focuses on Ben Trotter, his older sister Lois (the siblings' school nickname is the titular "rotters," British slang for worthless people), and his friend Doug Anderton, whose father is shop steward at the local auto plant. Ben is a romantic musician who has fallen for Cicely, the most beautiful student at the adjoining girls' school. Lois's life is tragically altered by an IRA pub bombing, and Doug is an aspiring journalist. Coe covers a lot of ground here, both personal and political, and not all of the plot's loose ends get tied up. Still, this is an affectionately satiric and thoroughly winning portrait of growing up on the brink of the Thatcher era. Recommended. Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-It is Birmingham, England, in the '70s, and amidst IRA pub bombings, labor strikes, and immigration-related racism, Benjamin, Philip, and Doug are going about the business of adolescence. This means, among other things, changing their theoretical band's name from "Gandalf's Pikestaff" to "The Maws of Doom" and sneaking as much satire into the school paper as possible. Coe is hilarious and empathetic in capturing the moment when political awareness begins to bump insistently around the edges of one's consciousness, and when failing with girls and being forced to swim in the nude after forgetting one's trunks in gym class are the most earth-shattering things that can happen to a man. The entire novel is funny, and it is serious. The narrative switches occasionally from third person to first (Benjamin), and includes diary excerpts, the boys' ridiculously pretentious attempts at music and theatre reviews, and other formatting diversions. Followed, too, are the lives of the main characters' families and friends: Philip's mom, to his extreme discomfort, is being wooed by his dilettante art teacher; Benjamin's smug, obnoxiously smart younger brother seems determined to humiliate him in public. More importantly, Richards-the only black student-is cast as Othello in the school play, and others insinuate that it's only because of his color. The school's top athlete and a brilliant student, he faces more jealousy and racism in the course of the novel. For all it takes on, and despite its length, The Rotters' Club is a galloping read. Teens will find it irresistible.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The first of a two-volume portrait of 1970s England, focused here by the prizewinning Coe (The House of Sleep, 1998, etc.) on a circle of four Birmingham schoolmates. Perhaps it is a delusion to suppose that we write our own histories. The author seems to suggest so by unfolding his narrative from the perspective of the children of two of the protagonists, who meet in Berlin, in 2003, and reminisce about their parents, who were young so long ago, in "a world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes." The friends-Phillip, Benjamin, Harding, and Douglas-met at King William's, a "fucking toff's academy" in Birmingham, during the dreary decade that brought bad clothes, racial guilt, and good stereo systems to the farthest corners of the Queen's realm. The early 1970s were dominated by labor strife, the unions taking a final bow and bringing down governments and paralyzing life for everyone with their strikes. Not all of the boys at King William's are preppie brats, however-Douglas's father Bill Anderton works at the troubled British Leyland factory-and even their fustiest schoolmasters support the Labour Party. The most reactionary elements in Birmingham, in fact, are to be found farther down the social scale, in those like shop steward Roy Slater (Bill Anderton's nemesis) and his racist friends from the National Front. Much of the historical background-the wedding of Princess Anne, for example, or the political fall of Enoch Powell-may be unfamiliar to Americans, but the story's basic outlines (young people discovering the world and following the course of their lives) are amiable and clear. Eventually, the focus becomes the shy Benjamin and his hopeless love for Cicely.There's a happy ending of sorts, but plenty of questions wait for Part II. Tasty but filling: a rich (too rich, perhaps) portrait of a time and a place that have received less than their fair share of literary attention.
From the Publisher
“Reflective and compelling, satirical and tender, wildly imaginative and painstakingly realistic.” –Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World
“The gritty, cross-pond equivalent to Look Homeward, Angel. . . . The pangs of embarrassment, the anguish of uncertainty, the awkwardness of success [are] vividly present here.” – Mike Francis, The Oregonian
“Funny and astute . . . The strength of The Rotters’ Club lies in its comic humanity.” – Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly
“Please, God . . . if there’s a next life, let me write as well as Jonathan Coe. The Rotters’ Club offers a thick slice of seventies Birmingham–sharp, acerbic, and menacingly true; a sad, funny, thoroughly engaging look at compromise, complicity, and change in a decade many of us would choose to forget.” –Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour
“Its tinder-dry combustion of comic, indignant and elegiac suggests an Evelyn Waugh of the left.” –Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
“A thrillingly traitorous work. It hums along for a hundred pages of wise comedy about teenage love’s mortifications, then cold cocks us with an honest surprise as cruel as it is earned.” –David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
“Jonathan Coe is a mesmerizing writer. . . . The Rotters’ Club is a wonderfully gripping novel, by turns funny, heartbreaking and terrifying.” –The Seattle Times
“The novel’s many intricate parts manage to mesh and turn with the startling harmony you find in Robert Altman’s movies.” –Todd Pruzan, The Village Voice
“If there’s a contemporary novelist who combines sharp and sometimes savage social commentary with the classic, full-blooded pleasures novels are supposed to give readers as well as Jonathan Coe does, I must have missed him.” –Charles Taylor, Salon.com
and from the UK . . .
“A must-read for anyone who cares about contemporary literature.” –Katie Owen, The Telegraph
“Filled with characters whose destinies we care about, whose welfare moves us. This is the simplest but highest calling of literature.” –William Sutcliffe, The Independent on Sunday
“As always with Jonathan Coe, the sheer intelligent good nature that suffuses his work makes it a pleasure to read.” –Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“As a study of adolescence, it is hard to beat. The aching naivety and intensity of the main characters made me think of Salinger.” –John de Falbe, The Spectator
“Coe handles his complex approach to a complex era effortlessly, and the end product is a compulsive and gripping read.” –Paul Connolly, The Times
“At once uproariously entertaining and deadly serious–a comedy of manners and mores, but also a conscientious and politically charged reminder of an age quite easily forgotten, yet not far removed from our own.” –Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement
“Like all of Coe’s novels, The Rotters’ Club is brilliant, funny, apposite, informed and unflaggingly truth-seeking.” –Rachel Cusk, The Evening Standard
“Superior entertainment. The pages seem to turn themselves.” –Hugo Barnacle, The New Statesman
Read an Excerpt
November the 15th, 1973. A Thursday evening, drizzle whispering against the window-panes, and the family gathered in the living room. All except Colin, who is out on business, and has told his wife and children not to wait up. Weak light from a pair of wrought-iron standard lamps. The coal-effect fire hisses.
Sheila Trotter is reading the Daily Mail: "'˜To have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health–"these are the promises which do in fact sustain most married couples through the bad patches."
Lois is reading Sounds: "Guy, 18, cat lover, seeks London chick, into Sabbath. Only Freaks please."
Paul, precociously, is reading Watership Down: "Simple African villagers, who have never left their remote homes, may not be particularly surprised by their first sight of an aeroplane: it is outside their comprehension."
As for Benjamin . . . I suppose he is doing his homework at the dining table. The frown of concentration, the slightly protruding tongue (a family trait, of course: I've seen my mother look the same way, crouched over her laptop). History, probably. Or maybe physics. Something which doesn't come easily, at any rate. He looks across at the clock on the mantelpiece. The organized type, he has set himself a deadline. He has ten minutes to go. Ten more minutes in which to write up the experiment.
I'm doing my best, Patrick. Really I am. But it's not an easy one to tell, the story of my family. Uncle Benjamin's story, if you like.
I'm not even sure this is the right place to start. But perhaps one place is as good as any other. And this is the one I've chosen. Mid-November, the dark promise of an English winter, almost thirty years ago.
November the 15th, 1973.
Long periods of silence were common. They were a family who had never learned the art of talking to one another. All of them inscrutable, even to themselves: all except Lois, of course. Her needs were simple, defined, and in the end she was punished for it. That's how I see things, anyway.
I don't think she wanted much, at this stage of her life. I think she only wanted companionship, and the occasional babble of voices around her. She would have had a craving for chatter, coming from that family; but she was not the sort to lose herself in a giggling circus of friends. She knew what she was looking for, I'm sure of that; already knew, even then, even at the age of sixteen. And she knew where to look for it, too. Ever since her brother had started buying Sounds every Thursday, on the way home from school, it had become her furtive weekly ritual to feign interest in the back-page adverts for posters and clothes ("Cotton drill shirts in black, navy, flame-red, cranberry–great to team with loons") when her real focus of attention was the personal column. She was looking for a man.
She had read nearly all of the personals by now. She was beginning to despair.
"Freaky Guy (20) wants crazy chick (16+) for love. Into Quo and Zep."
Once again, not exactly ideal. Did she want her guy to be freaky? Could she honestly describe herself as crazy? Who were Quo and Zep, anyway?
"Great guy wishes groovy chick to write, into Tull, Pink Floyd, 17–28."
"Two freaky guys seek heavy chicks. 16+, love and affection."
"Guy (20), back in Kidderminster area, seeks attractive chick(s)."
Kidderminster was only a few miles away, so this last one might have been promising, if it weren't for the giveaway plural in parentheses. He'd definitely blown his cover, there. Out for a good time, and little else. Though perhaps that was preferable, in a way, to the whiff of desperation that came off some of the other messages.
"Disenchanted, lonely guy (21), long dark hair, would like communication with aware, thoughtful girl, appreciate anything creative like: progressive, folk, fine art."
"Lonely, unattractive guy (22), needs female companionship, looks unimportant. Into Moodies, BJH, Camel etc."
"Lonely Hairy, Who and Floyd freak, needs a chick for friendship, love and peace. Stockport area."
Her mother put the newspaper aside and said: "Cup of tea, anyone? Lemonade?"
When she had gone to the kitchen, Paul laid down his rabbit saga and picked up the Daily Mail. He began reading it with a tired, sceptical smile on his face.
"Any chick want to go to India. Split end of Dec, no Straights."
"Any chick who wants to see the world, please write."
Yes, she did want to see the world, now that she thought of it. The slow awareness had been growing inside her, fuelled by holiday programmes on the television and colour photos in the Sunday Times magazine, that a universe existed beyond the confines of Longbridge, beyond the terminus of the 62 bus route, beyond Birmingham, beyond England, even. What's more, she wanted to see it, and she wanted to share it with someone. She wanted someone to hold her hand as she watched the moon rise over the Taj Mahal. She wanted to be kissed, softly but at great length, against the magnificent backdrop of the Canadian Rockies. She wanted to climb Ayers Rock at dawn. She wanted someone to propose marriage to her as the setting sun draped its blood-red fingers over the rose-tinted minarets of the Alhambra.
"Leeds boy with scooter, looks OK, seeks girlfriend 17–21 for discos, concerts. Photo appreciated."
"Wanted girl friend, any age, but 4 ft. 10 in. or under, all letters answered."
Benjamin slammed his exercise book shut and made a big show of packing his pens and books away in the little briefcase he always took to school. His physics text book had started to come apart, so he had re-covered it with a remnant of the anaglypta his father had used to wallpaper the living room two years ago. On the front of his English book he had drawn a big cartoon foot, like the one at the end of the Monty Python signature tune.
"That's me done for the night." He stood over his sister, who was sprawled across both halves of the settee. "Gimme that."
It always annoyed him when Lois got to read Sounds before he did. He seemed to think this gave her privileged access to top-secret information. But in truth she cared nothing for the news pages over which he was ready to pore so avidly. Most of the headlines she didn't even understand. "Beefheart here in May." "New Heep album due." "Another split in Fanny."
"What's a Freak?" she asked, handing him the magazine.
Benjamin laughed tartly and pointed at their nine-year-old brother, whose face was aglow with amused contempt as he perused the Daily Mail. "You're looking at one."
"I know that. But a Freak with a capital 'F.' I mean, it's obviously some sort of technical term."
Benjamin did not reply; and he somehow managed to leave Lois with the impression that he knew the answer well enough, but had chosen to withhold it, for reasons of his own. People always tended to regard him as knowledgeable, well-informed, even though the evidence was plainly to the contrary. There must have been some air about him, some indefinable sense of confidence, which it was easy to mistake for youthful wisdom.
"Mother," said Paul, when she came in with his fizzy drink, "why do we take this newspaper?"
Sheila glared at him, obscurely resentful. She had told him many times before to call her "Mum," not "Mother."
"No reason," she said. "Why shouldn't we?"
"Because it's full," said Paul, flicking through the pages, "of platitudinous codswallop."
Ben and Lois giggled helplessly. "I thought 'platitudinous' was an animal they had in Australia," she said.
"The lesser-spotted platitudinous," said Benjamin, honking and squawking in imitation of this mythical beast.
"Take this leading article, for instance," Paul continued, undeterred. "'That precise pageantry which Britain manages so well keeps its hold on our hearts. There's nothing like a Royal Wedding for lifting our spirits.'"
"What about it?" said Sheila, stirring sugar into her tea. "I don't agree with everything I read in there."
"'As Princess Anne and Mark Phillips walked out of the Abbey, their faces broke into that slow, spreading smile of people who are really happy.'" Pass the sick bag, please! "'The Prayer Book may be three hundred years old, but its promises are as clear as yesterday's sunlight.'" Pukerocious! "'To have and to hold, for better for worse–'"
"That's quite enough from you, Mr. Know-All." The quiver in Sheila's voice was enough to expose, just for a second, the sudden panic her youngest son was learning to inspire in her. "Drink that up and put your pyjamas on."
More squabbling ensued, with Benjamin making his own shrill interventions, but Lois did not listen to any of it. These were not the voices with which she longed to surround herself. She left them to it and withdrew to her bedroom, where she was able to re-enter her world of romantic daydreams, a kingdom of infinite colour and possibility. As for Benjamin's copy of Sounds, she had found what she was looking for there, and had no further use for it. She would not even need to sneak down later and take another look, for the box number was easy to remember (it was 247, the same as the Radio One waveband), and the message she had seized upon was one of perfect, magical simplicity. Perhaps that was how she knew that it was meant for her, and her alone.
"Hairy Guy seeks Chick. Birmingham area."
From the Hardcover edition.