Sometimes the best thing one can say about a book is that it has potential. Sometimes that’s also the worst thing one can say, because what it really means is that the author has somehow failed to produce what could have been an exciting book. I’ve been going back and forth between these two notions for the last week, in regards to William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms. I’ve not read anything else by Boyd, so while I had no expectations one way or the other, I also had no rules: we all know that with some authors, you have to “get” what they’re doing. They have a specific style, a manner for revealing information, a way of pacing that’s like a literary fingerprint.
Ordinary Thunderstorms is, I suppose, a literary thriller. I say “suppose” because it’s not paced like a thriller. When the book opens, Adam Kindred, a professor of climatology, has just completed an interview at a London university where he hopes to land a research position. He has a cab let him off at the Chelsea Bridge, where he sets off on foot to explore the neighborhood. Deciding he is hungry, he stops at an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood to have some dinner. At the restaurant he is seated near another solitary diner, and the two men strike up a conversation. The man, a Dr. Philip Wang, is a chemist and research pharmacologist for a large pharmaceutical company. They chat a bit, and Dr. Wang takes his leave, handing Adam his business card. When Dr. Wang has gone, Adam notices a file folder on the Wang’s table. He calls Dr. Wang and they agree that Adam should bring the folder and come for a drink. When Adam arrives at the doctor’s flat, he finds the place in disarray and the doctor near death from a stab wound. He asks Adam to pull out the knife, and Adam obliges. The doctor dies, and Adam is pacing around and deciding what to do when he hears a noise–the killer is still in the apartment. Panicked, Adam flees, but once he’s run, he realizes that all the likely evidence points to him as the killer.
With a beginning like that, you might assume that you are in for a bit of a thrill ride, and for the next few pages, it seems to be so, for it turns out the real killer knows who Adam is and where he is staying in London…and, somehow, the following day, the media has got hold of the story, and has announced that Adam is the primary suspect. Adam decides that because he is wanted both by the killer and the police, the best course of action is to go into hiding until he can figure things out. He decides to camp out beneath the Chelsea Bridge.
The problem is, after this fast-paced, exciting opening, the book starts to drag, and from the beginning, the reader has questions: first, why hide? Sure, okay, panic is an explanation, but at the start of the book, Adam cannot know what he is up against. Second, he still has Dr. Wang’s file–why not take it to the police and explain the situation? The people at the restaurant from the night before saw both men, knew that Dr. Wang had left the file behind and that Adam was planning to deliver it…surely they could be some sort of witnesses? Third, he has all kinds of character witnesses to prove he was only in town for the job interview. It makes no sense that a professor of climatology should come to London to murder a research scientist in a pharmaceutical company. So from the beginning when Adam goes into hiding, the course of action doesn’t seem quite credible.
The second problem is the pace. The story is told in third person from multiple points of view: Adam; a female police officer who is called to the scene and later develops a romantic relationship with Adam; the CEO of the pharmaceutical company; the assassin hired to kill Dr. Wang (and later, Adam Kindred); a prostitute who robs and then befriends Adam as he tries to hide from the police and the killer. Moving back and forth between the characters slows the pace of the book considerably, especially as small subplots probably meant to deepen the characters distract from the narrative. The most interesting characters besides Adam are the assassin, Jonjo Case, who reads like someone out of a Guy Ritchie film, and Ingram Fryzer, the CEO. The cop simply seems to amount to nothing more than a love interest, and the prostitute seems to be a plot device to help move things forward in the way Boyd wants them to go.
In fact, that was another issue I had with the book: Adam essentially drops off the grid (to be all Bourne about it) so he can figure out what to do to prove his innocence, but it takes him until the final chapters of the book to take any real action to do so. He spends much of the middle part of the book moping not only about his current circumstances but also his failed marriage back in the States, all of which really has no bearing to the story at hand except to explain why he was in London on the interview–it’s unexceptional back story and distraction at best. And while I realize, from experience, that academics and highly intelligent people can be incredibly myopic and not very good at solving problems outside their areas of expertise, for Adam and for this book, that sort of personality doesn’t really work. I suppose that Boyd wanted us to see a sort of metamorphosis taking place in Adam, but it just doesn’t jibe. For one thing, a lot of lucky things happen to Adam in just such a way to help him figure out how to try and prove his innocence, so these events seem like devices. It’s a bit like seeing the strings or the head of the puppeteer…
I could go on about things that bothered me, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll say a few good things. One aspect of this book I enjoyed was the exploration of the nature of identity. If Boyd could have found another incident, another reason for Adam Kindred to go off the grid, this actually would have been a really interesting story. In fact, that was part of the reason I kept reading. The question of anonymity or fluidity in terms of personality was an interesting one, and in some ways better handled here than in Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply (with which it has some thematic similarities), which is a far better book overall. I also enjoyed the sub-plots of the CEO struggling to keep control of his company (although it was confusing that it takes him a while to really suspect foul play in the case of Dr. Wang’s murder) and the assassin struggling to keep his job.
In truth, for all of things that bothered me about this book, I kept reading. I didn’t skim to the end, either–I read the whole thing. I kept waiting for some kind of payoff, all the way to the last page, but it never came, and ultimately, that was okay. A few other niggling points: the time line is wacky, and the climatology metaphor (the title, some references through the first section of the book) never pans out. In fact, it almost seems to dissolve entirely. But maybe that is Boyd’s point, after all: clouds can build and loom threateningly on the horizon, but in the end produce nothing much at all.
Full disclosure: This book was an ARC from HarperCollins.