Go on, unleash the judgement. Brought to you by us at 4th Estate.
‘Is she really going out with him?
Cause if my eyes don’t deceive me,
There’s something going wrong around here’
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
‘Oh! He was spiteful, acrid, savage; and as a natural consequence, detestably ugly. “Little wicked venomous man!” thought I.’
So exclaims Lucy Snowe, the narrator and heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s undeservedly overlooked love story. She is talking about Monsieur Paul, the fiery schoolmaster, who with ‘his close-shorn, black head, his broad, sallow brow, his thin cheek, his wide and quivering nostril,’ is clearly no Brad Pitt, nor George Clooney. In Bronte’s incredibly moving novel, the detestably ugly M. Paul however establishes himself in the heart of Lucy, and of the reader, with a power as unforgettable and pervasive as the smoke of the cigars that he so infuriatingly – and yet attractively – enjoys.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
Martin Amis’s first novel gives us Charles Highway. The nineteen year old has pimples, bandy legs, asthma, an over-developed sense of just “how fucking clever” he is – name dropping literary great after literary great and reciting T.S. Eliot to delay orgasm – and his very own Binders Full of Women in the form of a folder marked “Conquests and Techniques: A Synthesis”. Highway’s careful planning enables this unlikely, and unlikable, candidate to ultimately bed the woman of his dreams: the exotic Older Woman, Rachel.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
And what to do if you are really going out with him? And if he is as bad as he seems – with every little thing about him making you want to scream with irritation? In Madame Bovary Flaubert masterfully records the intense irritation the beautiful Emma feels for her unremarkable and inept husband Charles, disgusted by everything from his dull mind to his stubby fingers. Famed for its depiction of adultery, Madame Bovary offers too one of the most powerful and realistic descriptions of an unhappy, mismatched marriage, in which ‘even [Charles’s] back, his tranquil back, was irritating to behold, and in the very look of his coat [Emma] found all the banality of the man’.
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
This question applies to most characters in Jennifer Close’s wry debut. The book comprises of vignettes from a chorus of 20-something girls, interning, budgeting and drinking their way through life in New York (what an unusual and original concept!). But this is actually a worthy player in the canon of post-adolescent angst, and hosts an abundance of unlikely, questionable men. There is Isabella’s boyfriend Ben, whose Deal or No Deal addiction stems from a masochistic desire to see contestants lose money and cry on TV. Or Mary, whose mother-in-law is in mourning now that she must share her son’s affections with his new wife. And there’s Lauren, who has sex with the ‘dirty-sexy’ barman in a walk-in fridge. Intelligent and dry, this never veers beyond belief. In fact, it absolutely nails the absurdity of this very special decade.
Thank you to Lettice Franklin for the first three contributions to this post.
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