I’ve been Kate Atkinson’s lucky American editor since 1996, when BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM was published. Its first, Tristram Shandy-esque, line – “I exist!” – promised a novel filled with exuberance and surprise, and indeed that’s what Kate has continued to deliver across the span of three subsequent novels and a book of short stories. I love her facility with language, her narrative gusto and her eye for detail, and I love her devotion to and practice of the ancient, occasionally overlooked art of storytelling. As a reader and as an editor, I’m always happy to encounter a gorgeous sentence but I’m happier still to find a novel filled with them when they’re all in the service of that tricky taskmaster: Plot. I admit it: much as I admire “The Waves,” the book I’ll take on vacation or on the subway is more likely to be “The Great Gatsby.”
That’s why I love CASE HISTORIES: its combination of agile, sharp-witted prose and an equally intelligent, entertaining story. From its first sentences (Kate has a way with openings!) – “How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged.” – the book unfolds in a way that is, to me, irresistibly inviting. It’s no mean feat to weave together three separate stories, not all concurrent, but she’s done it so nimbly, and linked them all so cleverly to the entirely winning Jackson Brodie, that the pace and suspense of the book never flag.
But, as I said in an earlier post when the debate began about whether or not this was exactly the right choice for the first “Read This!” recommendation, I’m hardly an impartial judge of the book’s merits – even if I weren’t its editor, I’m just an unabashed fan of Kate’s writing. When CASE HISTORIES arrived on my desk, I knew it was a great book that could attract a lot of readers. Our challenge in-house was to get it read early and convince the sales reps and bookstore buyers that it was an entirely different kettle of fish, sales-wise, from Kate’s previous book, a wonderful and adventurous story collection whose sales matched those of most wonderful and adventurous story collections. Happily our marketing director fell in love early, and spread the word to her bookstore contacts, who began to respond similarly. Eventually reviewers weighed in, enthusiastically, and then, at last, readers, so for the first time in Kate’s American publishing life, her book went into six hardcover printings.
So, no, CASE HISTORIES was not lurking shyly in the corner, waiting for someone to notice it – but I can tell you that despite all that good news and good fortune, it has not hit the New York Times bestseller list, and its sales, while certainly respectable, are not so stratospheric that the “Read This!” recommendation is the blog equivalent of sending coals to Newcastle. I get the sense that some readers are disappointed enough in the book's success and its corporate publisher that they'll give it a miss on principle, and that old maternal stand-by comes to mind: don't cut off your nose to spite your face! Borrow it from a friend, or the library -- I'm not interested in boosting our sales figures, only, like the estimable folks behind the LitBlog Co-Op, in sharing the rare satisfaction to be found in reading a great book.