So I finally finished “Stone’s Fall” by Iain Pears, he of the very hard to spell first name, he of the very entertaining and complicated historical novels, forward slash mysteries. You may remember Pears for “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” which was a smash hit some time ago, and “The Dream of Scipio” from 2002.
When I say “finally finished” I mean it... “Stone’s Fall” is almost 600 pages, weighs a ton, covers a century of time and dozens of characters, not all of whom make it through to the surprising end. Several times along the way I asked myself, “Self, why are you spending your valuable time on this brick?”
I’m still asking myself that. Two weeks of intense concentration on one complicated novel is almost too much for this pea-brain. Next up: “War & Peace” or “Ulysses.”
“Stone’s Fall” opens in Paris, 1953: “The Church of St.-Germain des Pres, at the start of what was supposed to be spring, was a miserable place, made worse by the drabness of a city still in a state of shock, worse still by the little coffin in front of the altar which was my reason for being there, worse again by the aches and pains of my body as I kneeled.”
From Paris we swiftly move to London, 1909, remaining there for about 200 pages; then Paris, 1890, Venice, 1867, and finally back to London.
I am glad I persevered. The book is rich in so many ways: setting, atmosphere, characters, pretty much overstuffed with detail. Then there’s the twisting, surprising finish. Suddenly, in the final pages, the entire novel lights up and appears in a new light, retrospectively. I put down the book and tried to recall aspects of the convoluted plot and complicated characters, thinking “Aha! so THAT’S what happened... I get it now, probably.”
Were there a couple of characters left over? Whatever became of Xanthos, John Stone’s lifelong and ruthless accomplice? Did we finish with Mary, the harlot-turned spiritualist assistant? A few loose ends remain in a book stuffed with minor but intriguing characters.
The main characters will be remembered: First, the astonishing Elizabeth Stone, aka Lady Ravenscliff, aka the Countess Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala, aka Madame Robillard. She is someone to admire and to fear.
Then Mr. John Stone himself, central to the story, creator of an armaments empire, marionette-master behind intricate financial and political arrangements.
“Stone’s Fall” is a great achievement, but I’m not certain it’s an altogether satisfying work. Still, you cannot write a book this large and all-encompassing without getting off some interesting observations along the way. These two among many others caught my attention:
On money: “Money is merely another term for people, a representation of their desires and personalities. If you do not understand one, you cannot hope to understand the other.”
On travel: “I wished to meet a man who knew about (Venice) – knew how it worked, that is, rather than knew about its buildings, which is always the easiest thing to discover... I have always found it strange that people are willing to travel to a place, and devote some considerable energy to doing so, yet leave with not the slightest knowledge or interest in the lives of the inhabitants.”
“Stone’s Fall” is an absorbing read, but this may be one of those books to borrow from a friend or library or wait for the cheaper paperback.
“Stone’s Fall” by Iain Pears. Spiegel & Grau (Random House) hard cover $27.95 ISBN 9780385522847.
“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears.Riverhead Books (Penguin) paperback $15. ISBN 1573229865.
“An Instance of the Fingerpost” by Iain Pears. Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin) mass market paperback $7.99. ISBN 0425167720.
NY Times review of “Stone’s Fall”
An excellent blogged review of Stone's Fall.