cover image THE ROTTERS' CLUB


Jonathan Coe, . . Knopf, $24.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41383-4

This witty, sprawling and ambitious novel relates the coming-of-age stories of a group of adolescents in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s, with the era itself becoming a kind of character, encompassing trivialities like music as well as more serious issues: labor struggles, racism, terrorism. Of course, the teenagers—Benjamin Trotter (a play on his name accounts for the novel's title) and three of his male classmates, along with two female peers, are struggling with their own timeless issues: Why are my parents so weird? Will I ever have sex? Is Eric Clapton God? Coe amusingly and sympathetically articulates the desperate nature of teenage life, demonstrating a sure command of his protagonists' vernacular. He juxtaposes "crises" of adolescence with much more compelling events: a pub bombing by Irish nationalists and drawn-out strikes, for example, and the very real toll they take on people, including some of his characters. But this interweaving also reveals the novel's biggest problem: the combination of these two narrative strands isn't as seamless as it ought to be, nor as illuminating as Coe intends. The book is Dickensian in scope, with multiple plot lines and perspectives as well as miniature portraits of virtually everyone connected with the teens. Unfortunately, the narrative is sometimes hard to follow, and individual characters often remain opaque. The difficulty is compounded by rapidly shifting perspectives and an awkward framing narrative set in the early 2000s. As he demonstrated in his well-received novel about the Thatcher years, The Winshaw Legacy, Coe is immensely clever, but that cleverness is almost misplaced here: universal as it may be, adolescent angst doesn't really compare to the problems of massive social change. (Feb. 26)

FYI:This novel is intended as the first of a two-book series, the second of which will revisit the characters' lives in the 1990s.