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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Closed Circle

Jonathan Coe

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To purchase The Closed Circle

Title: The Closed Circle
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 367 pages
Availability: The Closed Circle - US
The Closed Circle - UK
The Closed Circle - Canada
The Closed Circle - India
Le Cercle fermé - France
Klassentreffen - Deutschland
Circolo chiuso - Italia
El Círculo Cerrado - España
  • The Closed Circle is a sequel, of sorts, to The Rotters' Club (the same characters, decades later)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining, and does close the circle, but not entirely satisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 6/2005 Elizabeth Judd
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2004 Jane Shilling
Le Figaro . 2/2/2006 Manuel Carcassonne
The Guardian B 4/9/2004 Steven Poole
The Independent . 8/10/2004 Robert Hanks
Independent on Sunday . 5/9/2004 Richard Mason
Libération . 2/2/2006 Philippe Lançon
London Rev. of Books . 21/10/2004 Christopher Tayler
The LA Times . 19/6/2005 Richard Eder
Le Monde . 27/1/2006 Florence Noiville
New Statesman . 4/10/2004 Mark Lawson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/6/2005 Jenny Turner
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 12/6/2005 Timothy Peters
The Spectator A 4/9/2004 Olivia Glazebrook
Sunday Telegraph . 29/8/2004 Tom Payne
TLS . 10/9/2004 David Horspool
The Village Voice . 24/5/2005 Joy Press
The Washington Post . 5/6/2005 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Enjoy it, but most find some weaknesses

  From the Reviews:
  • "Messy and brimming. The Closed Circle owes nothing to minimalism's sleekly competent aesthetic. With a nineteenthcentury novelist's discursiveness and reach, Coe gives us a meditation on the consequences of terrorism, an examination of the post-9/11 political zeitgeist (...), a satire of everything from book reviewers to modern parenting, and a contemporary version of Anthony Powell's sprawling masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he has acknowledged as a model." - Elizabeth Judd, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Coe and his publishers have included a handy synopsis of The Rotter's Club at the back of the latest volume, but this reads rather like the pitch for a telly series about the mildly worried middle classes and is probably best avoided. A better plan is simply to dive straight into The Closed Circle and start swimming. One of the glories of Coe's writing is a magically buoyant narrative technique that makes you feel as though you have been fostering a comfortable intimacy with all his characters since they, and you, were young." - Jane Shilling, Daily Telegraph

  • "Du chaos, il a sculpté peu à peu une forme reconnaissable. Avec tous ses défauts. Humaine." - Manuel Carcassonne, Le Figaro

  • "The story is certainly well populated, and one thing just keeps happening after another. (...) It is all extremely readable and often entertaining. There is a consistent level of narrative facility and prose comfort that keeps the pages turning. But the major problem is that the novel feels rushed. (...) Too much of The Closed Circle reads as though it were one of those epilogues where the rest of the lives of a novel's characters are summed up in a few paragraphs." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "But even those who loved The Rotters' Club may feel a twinge of disappointment. This is partly because disappointment is intrinsic to the story. (...) Here you can get some sense of the novel's central problem: it is too predictable, in its target and in its plotting." - Robert Hanks, The Independent

  • "In a novel this richly drawn, it's easy to forgive the odd instance of automatic phrasing (...) and the occasional clunky piece of character development. (...) It's easy, because Coe has succeeded in accomplishing that rare feat: a pair of novels that combine the addictive quality of the best soap operas with a basic cultural integrity." - Richard Mason, Independent on Sunday

  • "Les personnages donnent le sentiment de dévorer sans fin la madeleine: il suffit d'un hasard (ou d'un romancier) pour qu'ils replongent dans une adolescence qui ne les a jamais quittés." - Philippe Lançon, Libération

  • "(T)he writing is frequently absent-minded. Nevertheless, The Closed Circle is -- as always with Coe -- a strangely likeable performance. Even at its corniest it has a direct and unpretentious narrative drive." - Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books

  • "Not hard to put down -- hard not to. We need to draw breath for the next episode, to allow the complex connections to settle, to realize on page 240, say, what was suggested 100 pages before, and to let each additional colored piece slot itself in to work its transformation. And we need to make it all last." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Une articulation subtile entre le public et le privé, des allers-retours incessants entre le grave et l'insolite, et bien sûr de l'humour, jamais trop d'humour: telle était la méthode Coe, que l'on retrouve intacte dans Le Cercle fermé." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde

  • "The Closed Circle feels like a return to more conventional territory. My guess is that it will read much better when the events it describes have receded; when, as Doug the columnist might put it, the 2000s have become the new 1970s." - Mark Lawson, New Statesman

  • "The symmetries developed between this novel and its predecessor appear more intricate and abstract the longer you reflect on them, and yet, around these axes, much of the novel has a free-form, improvised quality. The effect is odd but also charming: sometimes bathetic, sometimes sublime." - Jenny Turner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Closed Circle is satire of a high order -- and often laugh-out-loud funny -- but Coe has also fashioned a movingly human novel with a cast of fully realized characters and an immense narrative tapestry of events beginning with the last month of 1999 and ending in late 2003. It's by far the best novel to date for this talented author," - Timothy Peters, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Closed Circle is terrific. (...) It is very satisfying to find this book concluding where the first book began -- even to read a few of the same sentences, tucked away in the final pages. But while the action of the book is neatly completed, the reader is not encouraged to relax: this is no ‘happily ever after’." - Olivia Glazebrook, The Spectator

  • "I should say immediately that The Closed Circle is a wonderful book; but sometimes it feels like a cruel one. (...) The Closed Circle is so appealing that the last cruel thing about it is the ending. Still, I suppose there has to be one." - Tom Payne, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Part of the appeal of The Closed Circle is that of the soap opera: the reader wants to know what happens to familiar characters. (...) The Closed Circle is a gratifying sequel. Coe's characters have developed, the ironies play out cleverly, change and continuity are shown in various manifestations. As a contribution to the author's oeuvre, however, it represents an exercise in treading water." - David Horspool, Times Literary Supplement

  • "What comes across most clearly is a sense of dampened hopes -- a disbelief that substantial change is even possible. (...) Although these characters are well drawn, they're really just a sideshow to the novel's real protagonist: the stagnant state of Tony Blair's Britain." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

  • "This is, in many ways, a book about the function of nostalgia, about what's remembered and misremembered, which makes it a particularly easy sequel to enter." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Closed Circle doesn't so much continue the story of The Rotters' Club as pick it up again, twenty years later; part of Coe's game is in how he reveals what has happened in the intervening two decades. Where The Rotters' Club was a swan-song of sorts for Old Labour, the dark shadow of the Thatcher years already looming, The Closed Circle, which takes place between late 1999 and 2003, is entirely set in a New Labour world (which almost none of the characters, insofar as they are at all political, seem at all enthusiastic about). Again, the threat of a car-plant closing plays a role, and while the book is Birmingham-centred, the characters are much more dispersed than in The Rotters' Club -- leaving the novel as a whole also literally all over the place.
       'The Closed Circle' was a group at the school many of the characters attended, King William's, and Paul Trotter -- grown up to become a Labour MP -- , eventually forms a new club with the same name. It's also a good description of the novel: more than anything, Coe ties up the loose ends -- or rather, brings everything full circle. All the mysteries from the original novel, from the swimming trunks Benjamin found to what became of Miriam, are resolved, allowing many of the characters to move on. (The Closed Circle includes a fairly detailed synopsis of The Rotters' Club for easy reference and reminder.)
       The Closed Circle is also how one of the characters describes the current situation in Britain:

     "I mean that the entire system nowadays is only geared to accommodating a tiny minority of political opinion. The left's moved way ovr to the right, the right's moved a tiny bit to the left, the circle's been closed and everybody else can go fuck themselves."
       Paul Trotter, as Labour MP, is representative for the new political power -- though even he is less than convinced. His main ambition seems to be to avoid taking a stand; the war in Iraq eventually forces him to (not surprisingly, even that doesn't prove to be a very firm stand for very long).
       Other characters are more obviously at loose ends: Benjamin Trotter works as an accountant and still hasn't published anything, despite working on his grand (musical) book -- Unrest -- all this time. He also hasn't gotten over his first love. Claire hasn't gotten over her sister's disappearance. Doug Anderton has married well and seems to be doing well as a journalist -- until he gets promoted to edit a particular section of the newspaper. Other characters from the old days also pop up, the story shifting back and forth all over the place.
       One significant new face is Malvina, a student who befriends Benjamin and to whom he finds himself strongly attracted. Benjamin introduces her to his brother Paul, and he is also immediately taken with her and hires her as his media adviser. Their mutual attraction cause political and personal problems, but she is someone Paul finds it hard to do without; not surprisingly, she plays a key role in the ultimate resolution of several of the storylines.
       Moving from character to character, most leading very different and barely intersecting lives, jumping often months ahead, The Closed Circle is a packed novel that at times seems uncertain in which direction to go. Several characters have a variety of crises (most of which lead them, for some reason, abroad, as if life were impossible to get a grip on in England proper). Not all are equally convincing: much as Benjamin finding religion (essentially in the form of the pair of swimming trunks more than twenty years earlier) didn't really seem very convincing, his losing his faith -- as he does here -- seems almost as implausible.
       The details and individual stories are nicely told and often quite fun, but the effort at a larger canvas of the times doesn't quite convince. Coe shows much of what is wrong in Blair's Britain, and especially how organised labour has been weakened, but the book packs so much else in that that gets diluted. The personal issues and fates are more interesting and compelling, but again, the novel is so overcrowded (and far-flung) that it's hard to get a handle on everybody, and the approach winds up diminishing some of the stories.
       Coe always holds the reader's attention, and he's written an entertaining novel that is a pleasure to read. Certainly, one wants to know what happens to these characters and enjoys following their stories, but ultimately it's not an entirely satisfying whole. The circle may be closed, but it's a bit misshapen, and parts too faint.

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The Closed Circle: Reviews: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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© 2005-2023 the complete review

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