Pandora by Jilly Cooper
20 June 2002


The men are bronzed and broad-shouldered. The women are pale and delicate. The bedrooms are finely furnished and well-used. Welcome to the art world according to Jilly Cooper. In her latest novel, Pandora, characters seem to survive entirely on sex. Take Jonathon Belvedon, for instance, a talented young artist "who blithely beds every beauty he paints".

It seems that art should be a number one priority in a novel based on a painting. The painting in question is Raphael's Pandora, which came into the Belvedons' possession by underhand means during World War II. The first half of the novel is spent introducing characters. The second half is taken up entirely with a court case over the painting, and the resulting turmoil within the Belvedon household.

Unfortunately the court case is dead boring, essentially because the painting is dead boring. During the first half of the novel it is occasionally mentioned in a post-coital sense (it hangs in Raymond Belvedon's bedroom). This does not prepare the reader in any way for the Belvedons' sudden rage and anguish when they lose the painting. In the time between the start and finish of the court case, the Raphael unexpectedly becomes absolutely central to all their lives, for a range of complex and utterly implausible reasons.

However, Ms Cooper knows, even at 65 years of age, how to sell a novel. Her public don't pay for dull court cases, beautiful paintings or inter-family power play. No! They pay for the smut which liberally dirties Cooper's pages. That, and the beautiful people strutting around in their beautiful houses, saying beautiful things. No words are spared in descriptive passages, even those that possibly should have been.

While she can string two words together, Ms Cooper's efforts at identifying with the younger generation sadly betray her age. Her use of the word "like" in conversation is almost completely misplaced and is not properly surrounded with commas. How could she have a character say "You are like so bloody talented" when everybody under the age of 20 knows it should correctly be "You are so, like, talented"?

In addition, text messaging is used with a high degree of inaccuracy in many places. Only once are vowels properly excluded from a text message. Every other time the technology is used, the so-called "text messages" are actually epistles of well over the limit of 160 characters, and still retain all their vowels. While reading these messages, the reader begins to feel pains in their thumb in sympathy with the characters who were forced to type them out.

The text messages are not the only place in the novel where language is used incorrectly. There are some real clunkers of sentences in there. A mother worries about "the despair and exhaustion to the point of collapse of her elder daughter". The subject-object confusion in most passages is enough to make an English teacher weep.

At least the characterisations are clear. So clear, in fact, that they are absolutely improbable. One character is always surrounded by the colour green. Another constantly uses the word "like". A third sympathises with all and sundry, including his worst enemies. After a very careful search, one real person can be discovered in the entire cast list at the beginning - Somerford Keynes, described as "a malevolent gay art critic, known as the 'Poisoned Pansy'." Somerford is a wonderful character, not least because he slags off the beautiful people for a living. Many of his comments made early in the book win him instant adoration from the fed-up reader. Unfortunately he is also sadly under-used and does not appear much after he gets old and fat.

Yes, I really enjoyed Pandora. I enjoyed laughing at the bad sentences, the improbable characters and the overly descriptive passages. I particularly enjoyed it when characters did things like "joyfully impaling herself" on her lover's "glorious" - er, bedpost.


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