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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Who's Sorry Now ?

Howard Jacobson

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To purchase Who's Sorry Now ?

Title: Who's Sorry Now ?
Author: Howard Jacobson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 326 pages
Availability: Who's Sorry Now ? - US
Who's Sorry Now ? - UK
Who's Sorry Now ? - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : intense, remarkably well written, often unpleasant

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 20/4/2002 James Walton
The Economist . 18/7/2002 Michael Fishwick
The Guardian A 20/4/2002 Alex Clark
The Observer A 14/4/2002 Hephzibah Anderson
The Spectator C- 11/5/2002 John de Falbe
Sunday Telegraph A- 21/4/2002 David Robson
The Times . 20/4/2002 Russell Celyn Jones
TLS . 26/4/2002 Bryan Cheyette

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, many impressed by a lot of what he does

  From the Reviews:
  • "Who's Sorry Now ? always wavers uneasily between a fairy-story and a piece of sexual realism. Jacobson applies all his considerable artistry to blending the two, but even he fails. (...) In the end, the whole thing brings to mind one of those endless guitar solos much favoured by heavy-rock bands of the 1970s. You can see the skill involved. You can enjoy some of the riffs. Yet the overall result is both overblown and strangely unengaging." - James Walton, Daily Telegraph

  • "He is underrated at home; in France he might be as celebrated as Michel Houellebecq, his writing recognised as of a stature to compare with Philip Roth's: dense, crafted and mature. There are few writers who match sophistication and provocation in such a way" - Michael Fishwick, The Economist

  • "Who's Sorry Now ? is, in its simplest form, an extended examination of unhappiness and misery. (...) He is, at the very least, a writer who talks about sex as if it isn't all about putting that in there, nor as if its potency can be neutralised by a proper discussion about gender relations and power structures. In other words, sex for grown-ups, and writing for grown-ups. That's why you can see in Jacobson the comic intelligence of David Lodge or Martin Amis, but why you also get the expansiveness of John Updike and Philip Roth. What you don't get is comfort, or good grace." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "Despite its title, Who's Sorry Now ? is a rich, unrepentantly funny novel, full of vim and vigour and bolshie cleverness. Its prose pulsates with fresh images, from the Spanish whore whose voice is 'a bicycle chain lubricated with aniseed', to the kind of jealousy that explodes in the stomach like a bagful of sherbet lemons, while a whiff of melodrama adds an extra element of farce." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "It must be said that Jacobson is often acute -- which demonstrates, at least, that if you keep grinding away long and hard enough at clichés, then some substance will get squeezed out. But emotional nuances tend to be obliterated by crude psychological positivism of the I-did-this-now-because-my-mother-smacked-me-once-40-years-ago school, where every event and thought has a finite, locatable cause in the subject's childhood. The central problem, however, is that the book is just not painful enough. (...) Even the trumpeted comedy of this novel is spoiled by clumsy irony and a taste for dribbling, sub-Ben Elton hyperbole." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "It is all great fun, but it is not quite the ideological contest -- between a life of fidelity and a life of womanising -- which Jacobson has promised his readers. (...) If Who's Sorry Now ? lacks the clean narrative lines of Jacobson's very best work, page for page and sentence for sentence, it confirms him as, by some distance, the cleverest, funniest, sharpest writer we have. The phrase-making is delicious throughout." - David Robson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "From whichever perspective he is writing, male or female, Jacobson maintains a carnivorous authorial position. His constant carolling about the sex wars is braggadocio, funny, brilliant, loud. Every minute change in emotional climate is given the 12-sentence treatment when two might have done the job. And for a novel about the sexual battlefield, there is very little actual sex going on. But it is very persuasive and muscular foreplay, and you might just like it that way." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "At its best, Who's Sorry Now ? achieves the bitter-sweet tone of comic pathos or melancholy laughter, and these conflicting emotions, especially around the figures of Kreitman and Hazel, are contained superbly in Jacobson's swirling prose." - Bryan Cheyette, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Who's Sorry Now ? again features a typical Howard Jacobson protagonist, Marvin Kreitman. He's a successful businessman, "the luggage baron of south London", married, with two nearly grown up (and already quite independent and successful) daughters. Beside his wife Hazel and his daughters he juggles quite a few other women: he gets a lot of sex, but little satisfaction.
       Kreitman is an odd and troubled fellow: "an incorrigible sentimentalist of anguish", "a puritan who loved art for its strenuousness and history for the stories it told of struggle". A defining moment comes in his teens when he discovers:

that he never is and never will be happy unless he is suffering the pain of hope gone begging, of thwarted desire and of unbearable loss.
       Boy, did he get that right. But it does make for a weird book, in which the main character seeks not to realise his desire but to relish seeing it thwarted.
       Kreitman does have one close male friend, Charlie Merriweather, half of a husband-and-wife children's books writing team. Charlie has led a much more unambitious romantic life, sleeping only with his wife (also named Charlie). As the novel begins, Charlie thinks the time has come for him to be a bit more adventurous (or he's simply become more desperate): the embrace of monogamy has become too tight for him. But he has a simple solution for both their problems, as he tells Kreitman:
If it's the women who are stopping us from what we'd like to do -- in my case from fucking someone else; in your case from finding out what it's like to be fucking only one -- then we change the women. Exchange the women.
       Charlie is willing to exchange his wife for any of Kreitman's bed-mates, but Kreitman is less than enthusiastic about the proposal. But when he gets knocked over by the bicycling Nyman on the street just a short while later, and winds up in hospital, the wife-swap (that's what it turns out to be) is set in motion. And that's what it boils down to: these two sets of husband and wife finding what it means to turn their intimate lives and their long-held convictions on their heads.
       They're a talkative, analytic bunch, too, trying to explain themselves and their situations. The bizarre Nyman -- a man who says he has no ambition, and who they can't (or don't want to) get out of their lives -- also continues to play a role, messing with their lives right down to his very ugly last act.
       Jacobson does these character studies very well: the writing is incredibly sharp, the sentences exact and hard and powerful, the depth of the characters' confusion (and occasional depravity) well-related. But it can be hard to take. The books focusses on Kreitman, and Kreitman is not a pleasant fellow. The finale, his last resort, isn't entirely unexpected -- and as well-done as all the rest -- but it's far from uplifting. Like much else in the book, it leaves a powerful bitter aftertaste.
       Who's Sorry Now ? is an ambiguous pleasure. On the one hand, much of it is masterfully done. Jacobson is an amazing talent, and there are piles of details and descriptions that are as clever, cutting, deep, and resonant as anyone now writing manages. But his characters' suffering isn't easy to empathise with, and almost none of the characters are truly sympathetic.
       It all makes for an impressive, often compelling (indeed perversely fascinating) read, but not really a pleasant experience.

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Who's Sorry Now ?: Reviews: Howard Jacobson: Other books by Howard Jacobson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Howard Jacobson was born in 1942.

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© 2004-2011 the complete review

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