Haggerston Reads on 4 3 2 1

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Six reading groups shadowed the Man Booker Prize this year. Each group read and reviewed one of the shortlisted titles. Here, we focus on 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

4 3 2 1

On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives.

Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.

Paul Auster is the best-selling author of Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Man in the Dark, The Brooklyn Follies, The Book of Illusions, and The New York Trilogy, among many other works. In 2006 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his other honours are the Independent Spirit Award for the screenplay of Smoke and the Prix Medicis Etranger for Leviathan. He has also been shortlisted for both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and his work has been translated into more than 30 languages. He was born in 1947 and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reading Group review

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“All had invested a great deal of time in reading this huge tome and we had a funny discussion about its size and weight – impossible to take on the Tube, weighing down aeroplane hand luggage and hard to read in bed! Nevertheless, all had persisted.

There was a sense of disappointment as we had expected better from Auster, who we remembered as a braver, spikier, less conventional writer of short sharply focused novels. All felt that this was an uneven book which would have benefitted from heavy editing. Several spoke about the endless lists – as if to prove that Auster/Archie had indeed seen every Hollywood film with British actors for example. Others thought that this reflected that it was “a boy’s book” with lots of sports too. Also the tedium of the juvenile writings of the younger Archies.

There was little feeling of empathy with the characters, the exception being Archie’s mother Rose, who made a strong impression as an independent-minded photographer. Other promising characters, like cousin Francine, inexplicably faded from the narrative.

There was agreement that there were examples of good writing, for example one of us particularly liked the Springtime in Paris/Foggy Day in London Town theme of Archie 3. The central premise of a life which could take different directions was not felt to be particularly novel – Sliding Doors and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life were cited – and we all got the philosophical references e.g. Camus and Descartes, which were rather heavy handed.

We discussed the broad sweep of historical events in 1960s America which form the backdrop, but did not all feel that these linked smoothly to the lives of the characters. One prominent black character is added quite late on, and no one but a distant cousin goes to Vietnam.

We have read many long books – The Goldfinch and Franzen’s Freedom were both mentioned as superior to this one. We were all surprised that Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End had not made the shortlist and we thought it was far superior to the Auster.

There were lots of strong opinions though, which is always good for a book club discussion and we also had a good ongoing WhatsApp dialogue, e.g. “I wanted to scream at him ‘I get it Paul. It’s the 1960s! You don’t have to list every actor/film of the era!’ ‘He is no Philip Roth’, ‘Spoiler – he writes a book and moves to Paris’, ‘the historical moments felt a bit Forrest Gump’, ‘I’d grown fond of Archie and Rose up to 2.1 or thereabouts’, ‘I loved Rose early on till she faded from view. Hard to distinguish Archie 1 and 4 as it goes on’.

Every single one of the seven members of the group who took part has posted an individual review on Reading Groups for Everyone and these reviews represent a considered and intelligent collective response to the novel. We graded it out of 10 on the evening and 6 was the top score."

Get involved

Read reviews of 4 3 2 1 and leave your own. Find out more about the book by downloading a free Readers’ Guide and a supporting booklist featuring similar titles.

Meet all of the shadow reading groups for this year.

If your reading group would like to apply for similar opportunities in the future, please visit our Noticeboard.

You can listen to the brilliant Man Booker Prize podcast audio series on Soundcloud with Joe Haddow from Radio 2.

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Share your thoughts about the Man Booker Prize on Twitter and Instagram using #FinestFiction and #ManBooker2017.

For more information, visit the Man Booker Prize website.

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