Details: (c) 1996 Amanda Craig; Pub 1997 Fourth Estate; ISBN 1-85702-685-3
Verdict: A vicious circle is highly readable in spite of its flaws.
Reasons for reading it: I read it a long time ago and enjoyed it a lot, so I felt like rereading.
How it came into my hands: One of those funny remainder bookshops, I think probably in Oxford given the dates.
A vicious circle reminds me quite a lot of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, though it isn't quite in that league. It feels more like journalism than a novel in many ways, and has a large cast of characters who are interrelated in various complicated ways and who are a vehicle for a portrait of society. It's rather more unsubtly preachy than White Teeth, so it comes across as almost an excessively long feature article about why a stratified class system is bad, with forays into racism, sexism and similar social evils.
It's actually quite hard to put my finger on why it's so compelling; the heroine Mary Quinn is a complete Mary Sue, and making her Irish is really no substitute for actual characterization. The moralizing is a bit much, particularly when Craig has the tragic AIDS victim giving a long deathbed speech about how it's really important to live your life morally and care for your friends and not let cynicism drag you down, having conveniently forgotten that a few pages before he was too ill to speak more than a couple of desperate words at a time. There isn't much in the way of plot, just a sequence of shifts in relationships in the various characters' lives while the sympathetic ones do a bit of growing up and the nasty ones get their comeuppances. But in spite of all those problems, and in spite of the fact that I've read it before, I just couldn't put it down. I read the whole thing almost at a gulp.
The characters are shallow in some ways, but they're sympathetic enough that I really did care what happened to them. And it does help that I happen to like novels about relationship permutations and character development. Craig also has a good journalist's eye for evocative and memorable detail, and a good journalist's ear for a nice turn of phrase. I think I can see why this was a bestseller when it was published; the sentimentality and the edge of intellectualism without harming accessibility are extremely commercial. Also, even with all the technical flaws, aVC is just a good story.