Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Musing: When Characters Seem Too Old

old man holding a baby; jonathan gash; prey dancingNik’s post on Jonathan Gash’s Prey Dancing got me a-thinking: what makes a character read “old” (older than the author intended, presumably)? Words, actions, setting? All of the above?

Like Nik, I was completely surprised to find out that the main characters in Prey Dancing are only in their 20s:  Clare, the doctor, is 28, while Bonn, the mail prostitute, is 20. They read much older than this. I’d pegged Clare at mid-forties and Bonn at early-thirties.

To me, Clare reads older for three main reasons:

1. She has a servant. Well, a housekeeper. But the type that fixes the meals, including tea, and basically runs the household. The type who has the final word on all things house-related and with whom one darest not argue. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but for me, twenty-something yuppies (do people still say yuppy?) don’t have servants. They’re for people in their forties.

2. She’s amazingly well-established in her profession. I might have the timeline wrong for Britain, but in the States, one graduates from college with a degree in pre-med about 22 or 23, then possibly a year for the MCAT and applications, and then another 4 years of medical school. So upon entering a residency program, one would be about 26 to 28 years. Residency length varies by specialty, but is typically 3-7 years, sometimes followed by a 1-4 year fellowship for certain fields.

Assuming Clare was on the fastest possible track to a basic GP - no year off, minimal residency, no fellowship - she’d have been 25 when she started practicing. I suppose now that I’ve done the math I can see how she could be an established physician at age 28, but that’s definitely not the typical path.

3. She’s astonishingly confident, professionally. Given that she has at most 3 years of real doctoring under her belt, Clare stands up to the nursing staff like she’s run the place for decades. Which isn’t necessarily odd - she could be a supremely confident young woman - except she’s not. Her husband manipulates her to a criminal extent and she crumbles under Bonn (although, to be fair, perhaps that’s more him than her). 

Ah, Bonn. The ultimate female fantasy, able to deliver to a woman exactly what she needs and how she needs it. Able to read a woman, understand her, pleasure her. Pleasure so good that she’s willing to pay for it. Sorry Mr. Gash, but unless things were different in 1998 Britain (and if so, get me to a TARDIS stat), I’m just not buying a 20 year-old’s ability to perform to this degree. Call me ageist, but I just don’t find an almost-still-a-teenager uber-lover a believable character. Now, I’m willing to be proved wrong (wink wink), but in my mind, I’m keeping Bonn at 32.

So what do you think? Does a dichotomy between projected age and actual age bother you as a reader? Do you take it at face value and move on? Drop the book? Or simply rewrite their ages in your mind and get on with it?

Prey Dancing by Jonathan Gash
Amazon: Prey Dancing

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