Suzanne by Michael Betcherman

Suzanne by Michael Betcherman
Suzanne by Michael Betcherman

When I was offered a review preview of Suzanne, I was quite excited because I’ve always felt that modern storytelling has so far underutilised the power of multimedia. Suzanne is an epistolary story told via e-mail (as in actual e-mail sent to the reader) over three weeks. It’s an interesting experiment–one which had mixed results for me.

The heroine

Suzanne Braun is a not terribly successful single mother struggling to recover from the debts left behind by her late husband. She’s shunned by society and considered a gold-digger after refusing to marry an older businessman who insisted that she sign a prenup.

The hero

Mark Rogers is recovering from the break up of his 14-year relationship. A successful businessman, he’s coming back home to start afresh.

The setup

Suzanne has been invited by her in-laws to a spend the summer at their cottage in the swanky community of Lake Joseph, and she’s planning to use the opportunity to check out potential husbands with the means to help her out of her bind. Horrified, Suzanne’s sister-in-law, Catherine, fears that her brother, Mark, will fall under Suzanne’s clutches and, in an attempt to distract him from Suzanne’s obvious charms, tries to set him up with a perfectly nice woman . But when, as Suzanne puts it, “a man in a Speedo and a woman in a bikini spend several hours a day in each other’s company,” sparks are bound to fly, and Suzanne’s resolve to land herself an appropriately kind, sufficiently wealthy husband is put to the test. (Click here for the blurb–it’s so much better than my paltry attempt.)

And other stuff

YouTube videos, related online articles, conniving in-laws, the teenage daughter from hell

Things that made me go, Mmm…

New messages in my Inbox everyday! The e-mails don’t arrive in any set pattern–sometimes they come in quick succession on the same day, and sometimes there’s a lag. I’m a don’t-stop-even-if-you-see-daylight kind of reader, so the waiting could’ve been excruciating. Lucky for me, I got a review copy with an option to read ahead. Heh. But I did reread the story over e-mail, and I have to admit that relinquishing control of how far into the story I can go kept me wanting more.

I loved the way the characters are introduced and the conflicts set up in the first few sets of e-mails. I thought this was done very well. I particularly liked the revelations about Suzanne’s husband, who for some reason I assumed would just be a bit of background, but who in fact is crucial to her tense relationships with her daughter, Jennifer, and sister-in-law, Catherine.

I enjoyed the fact that Suzanne isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. She’s a bit of a mess, actually, and while I don’t usually go out of my way to read about heroines like her, the epistolary form provides a very good way to show her off from different points of view, some positive and some negative. Her sense of humour is often quite subtle, and the way she spins a suitor’s qualities to make him seem less tedious made me chuckle.

Ah, the bitchiness. What fun to take a peek at other people’s private correspondence. In real life, this would present me with a moral dilemma, but thankfully, fiction allows me to savour the cattiness without a smidgen of guilt.

The she-devil arrived Saturday afternoon, laden with six Louis Vuitton suitcases and the touching confession that her “fondest desire” was that we put the past behind us. She’s been on her best behaviour; gracious towards me, deferential towards Douglas, and doting towards the children. That sound you hear is me retching.

Some of the jibes are amusingly subtle. I particularly enjoyed the exchanges between Catherine and her friend Maggie, both of whom like to talk about how wonderful their children are. Their sly digs and oneupmanship when it comes to their children’s achievements are so typically soccer mum-ish.

And to make it even more fun, we get to read about essentially the same events through both Suzanne’s and Catherine’s wildly diverging points of view. As a Scrabble addict myself, it cracked me up that Catherine gloats about winning at Scrabble while Suzanne whinges that Catherine must have memorised every 2-letter word in the dictionary. Heh.

The e-mails between Mark and his friend Patrick are great. Very male. Very funny. Made funnier by some interjections by Patrick’s wife, calling them out for their silliness.

Deborah again. Blinded by pity as I am, I have obviously given Patrick too much credit. If he only had the sensitivity of a dimwitted gnat, he would have a better understanding of what you’re going through. As to why I married him, I thought it would stop the whimpering. I was wrong.

Things that made me go, Huh?

I expected a lot more multimedia, and while the external links are interesting and engaging, I would have liked to have seen things like IM conversations, phone conversations in MP3, and maybe just more links in general. Props for the YouTube clips, even though the actor isn’t my type. That’s always a bit of a risk.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been rereading Crusie and Mayer, but there are some extraneous characters and subplots that I hoped would add more twists or connect to the main plot, but don’t really go anywhere–e.g. Catherine’s kids, Suzanne’s sister and her husband’s business, etc. The secondary characters are underutilised, in my opinion.

The pace gets a little sluggish towards the middle–mostly, I think, due to *telling* and tone (see below). The ending could also have been a lot tighter, perhaps played out over a much shorter span of time.

At times, the characters seem too introspective and self-aware, and there’s too much telling rather than showing. I would have preferred to see shorter e-mail exchanges to reveal the back story or plot rather than a long e-mail filled with explanations. For example, rather than Suzanne sending a long e-mail about what’s happening with a potential suitor, she could have sent a shorter e-mail, her sister could have replied with questions that Suzanne would’ve answered, etc. For the most part, I kind of let this go because what was being told was interesting and relevant to the story, but it’s during these parts that the weakness of the epistolary form really shows.

Things that made me go, Argh!

I didn’t feel as though I understood the romance properly. Towards the end, I don’t really know what triggers some of the characters’ actions. I wanted Suzanne to be more forthcoming with Mark, and I felt that the resolution to one of the conflicts shortchanged the romance because it was hidden rather than dealt with properly. Maybe if the “I love you” had come a little later, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much because Mark does indicate that he understands and accepts Suzanne’s weaknesses: “She’s very giving but she’s also kind of self-absorbed”.

The romance jumps quite suddenly. I was a little disoriented–one minute I thought the characters were in conflict, and the next they were getting it on. I had to double-check that I didn’t miss any e-mails. This transition could have been smoother, and I was disappointed that it was first revealed by a secondary character. (I would have preferred an “I’m going to seduce him” e-mail from Suzanne to her sister, followed shortly thereafter by a smug update. Or something like that.) There’s sexual tension, but because we never really see the characters together, it’s usually one-sided, and I felt that the story danced around the sexual attraction rather than addressing it head-on. In short, it wasn’t as steamy as I was expecting. All sex is off-page.

The tone of the e-mails seems too formal, which undermines the strength of the epistolary form. Rather than feeling like I was in each character’s head, I often felt distant from them. It also served to remind me that I was reading a novel, rather than immersing me into the story. I can see that getting the tone right would have been difficult. On one hand, real e-mails are rife with colloquialisms, personal jokes, shorthand spelling and, well, general waffle–which may be misconstrued as sloppy writing by readers. On the other hand, I felt that some of the phrasing could have been more relaxed without sacrificing the integrity of the writing. At times, I felt that the main characters’ e-mails were unnecessarily subtle. I mean, if I’m e-mailing my best friend about someone I loathe, I’m just going to call a bitch a bitch rather than dancing around it with sly jibes. I love the exchanges between Mark and his friend, Patrick, precisely because they’re quirky and funny and, to me, more realistic.

The Verdict

This is an engaging story made more delicious by the voyeuristic feel of having it told through a series of e-mails over a period of time, even if it doesn’t fully succeed in overcoming the limitations of the epistolary form. The inability to fully get into the characters’ heads can be frustrating, and the retrospective nature of telling a story via e-mail dulls some of the plot twists. It’s an ambitious way to write a romance; sometimes I felt it was working, and at other times not. The parts that work best aren’t so much about the romance, but the way in which the relationships–friendships, rivalries, and family tensions–are played out. Click here for an excerpt.

All that said, I do see a lot of promise in telling stories this way, and I hope Betcherman keeps experimenting with form and different genres. For example, I can see a mystery in which we see e-mails from the victim, the victim’s friends, the perpetrator, the investigators, etc. Or a chick-lit novel rife with humour and bitchery. Or a story about what can happen when a private e-mail detailing very personal information is distributed to all and sundry. High jinks and shenanigans, I’m sure.

I know that many readers prefer the *feel* of holding a book in their hands–and I’m one of them–but I think that this kind of innovation in the e-book format can actually overcome that barrier because the story isn’t told as though it should be in a conventional book. And because it’s delivered via e-mail, you can read it at work and no one will know…

Note: This post was originally published on December 3, 2007.

Where you can buy this book

This novel is available direct from the website at http://emailmystery.com/suzanne/.

What do you think?