The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier
Penguin UK, 1997
Category: Contemporary Fiction
I really enjoyed this book. I was hooked by the back cover copy’s claim "part detective story, part historical fiction" but beyond that, I didn’t have any expectations, so it was nice that it turned out to be very good. The "detective story" thing is misleading; it’s more like a mystery in two parts, so don’t read it expecting a traditional detective novel. The two parts are narrated by two women, one in the past and one in the present, who are members of the same family. In the past, Isabelle du Moulin is one of the French peasants converted to Calvinism, "The Truth," in the 1500s, whose affection for the Virgin Mary must be hidden from her co-religionists. This is made difficult by her having the red hair and consequent nickname La Rousse that is associated with the Virgin. In the present, Ella Turner has moved from America to a small town in France with her husband, hoping to improve her French, qualify to practice midwifery, and discover her family’s French roots. As Isabelle’s story unfolds, Ella’s story begins to mirror it in unexpected and mysterious ways, ending in the revelation of a secret that has been hidden for over 400 years.
I’m not generally a fan of stories featuring adultery, particularly if the adultery is supposed to be the woman’s salvation from abuse/neglect/boredom. Such stories often gloss over the very real consequences of unfaithfulness that exist even if one or both of those involved really have found their true loves. In House of Sand and Fog, for example, the fact that Lester Burdon was willing to devastate his family simply to meet his own emotional needs really bothered me. By his own admission, he’d spent 7 of his 9 years of married life out of love with his wife, but hadn’t done anything to change that, so trying to justify his adultery with the whole "but now I’m really in love, shouldn’t I be happy?" was a load of crap. In The Virgin Blue, it’s a completely different story. Ella’s gradual beginning of an affair with the librarian Jean-Paul is a wonderfully accurate depiction of how easy it is to fall for someone when you shouldn’t, and how no matter how much joy that person brings you, there’s also the sadness, or shame, or heartbreak of being pulled in two directions at once. Ella’s husband Rick is a perfectly nice guy whose only fault is that he isn’t the right match for Ella, or more specifically, that he doesn’t realize he isn’t the right match for her. For a long time, Ella doesn’t realize it either, and when she flees to her cousin’s house in Geneva to escape the mess she’s in, she’s fleeing from Rick and Jean-Paul both. This part of the plot seems less a glorification of cheating on your spouse and more a microcosm of one woman’s path through life.
The interweaving of past and present involves a kind of sympathetic magic that is closer to being fantasy than magical realism. It isn’t really one or the other, and I think that makes this novel more accessible than if it were strictly either fantasy or literary/magical-realist fiction. Why does Ella experience the same physical symptoms Isabelle does, centuries before? How much of her life is playing out simply to resolve Isabelle’s experiences? And is the ending of Isabelle’s story a key to why her female descendants are so closely tied to her? I find I’m equally satisfied whether I answer those questions (and the answers are there) or leave them ambiguous.
This was my first Tracy Chevalier book (it narrowly edged out Girl with a Pearl Earring for a spot on the list) and I will definitely be reading more.
Posted on: February 28th, 2011
Dogland by Will Shetterly
Category: Young Adult
I’m sometimes more critical of good books with big flaws than I am of really bad ones. With a good book, there’s always the sense that the flaws could have been avoided; that they’re more obvious when put in such close contrast with the good elements of the book. Dogland was one I knew would be worth reading and that I was prepared to really like, but from the very beginning there were too many problems to let me be truly happy with the book.
Dogland does have a lot of stellar qualities. Will Shetterly understands human nature and is good at showing it. He’s also good at dialect, something too many writers could stand to improve on. His descriptions are perfect, whether he’s talking about places, people, or events. I thought he captured Florida in the early ’60s very well. I also liked the narrator’s family, whose personalities and interactions felt very believable.
Shetterly also did a good job of introducing fantasy elements and characters into the story–a sort of gods in the modern world thing. I don’t have any complaints with those characters’ modern personae. But it drew attention to the first big problem with this novel, which is that there’s way too much meaning, too much symbolism, too much story for the book. There are plenty of hints at stories that never go anywhere, and most of those hints will go far, far over the head of the average young adult reader. So I really have to wonder what the point was? Was it a failed attempt at saying something about the nature of stories? Was he just showing off? If three major gods of the Norse pantheon drop by, I want to know why they’re in the story at all. Or Lucifer, who as Nick Lumiere doesn’t seem to do anything but slither around…never mind, that’s pretty accurate. It’s suggested that the garden of Eden is in Florida, and that’s why the Fountain of Youth is there as well, but Shetterly doesn’t actually do anything with it. These characters simply float around, living their own lives, and given how many hints Shetterly drops about their real identities, I call this a red herring. At the very least, it’s an inexplicable waste of robust mythological meaning.
One thing I really wish he’d done more with is Chris’s sister, Little Bit, who has the Sight. It’s never stated outright, and recognizing that she has it requires some experience with fantasy tropes, but her use of it is very well done. She’s a child, and she says what she sees, and everyone thinks she’s being imaginative or just wrong. Shetterly handled this very well, except for, again, not doing anything with it.
The main plot, as far as I can tell, is the effect the Civil Rights Movement has on the residents of this backwater Florida county. The narrator, Chris Nix, was born in the South, but his parents are Yankees and have the sort of liberal (in the classical sense) attitudes about slavery you would expect. They hire black workers and pay them the same as the white workers, they won’t let their kids treat blacks badly, etc. Over the course of the novel, tensions arise between the Nixes, the redneck racists, and the people who are somewhere in between. This main plot is so well handled that it’s yet another strike against including all those fantasy elements. There’s just no point to overburdening the story that much. The climactic scene actually combines the fantasy "plot" and the main plot, but because the story is so unwieldy, the climax lacks the kind of power it needs to have. I got to the end of the book with no idea what I was supposed to have thought of it, and since I usually don’t care about "supposed to," that’s saying a lot.
The rest of the gripes I have are smaller but extremely distracting. First of all, I can tell that Shetterly has no children of his own. The premise is that Chris is retelling these childhood events as an adult, but doing so by recounting what he knew and felt at the time (unless he explicitly says "I think this is what happened" or "I didn’t see this, but it probably went this way"). But it’s stated that Chris is four years old when he retells his earliest memories, and I guarantee you no four-year-old thinks that linearly or has that good a memory. What’s more, he supposedly remembers his youngest brother’s birth–and since his baby brother is two when Chris is four, that means Chris can remember *clearly* his two-year-old observations, and his sister, who is three when the story starts, is SPEAKING IN COMPLETE SENTENCES at one year of age. Hah. Not to mention that their poor mother has been pumping the sprogs out once a year for three years straight. Double hah. Chris’s age was dictated more by Shetterly’s need for him not to be in school at the beginning of the novel, but otherwise, if you assign the kids the more reasonable ages of 8, 6, and 2, you get behaviors that are consonant with their development. I would have been happier if I’d been able to ignore it, but the ages keep getting mentioned.
And Dogland. It’s a sort of theme park/living museum/petting zoo in which dogs of every conceivable breed are displayed, so people can be educated and entertained. Except–is it really likely that owners of pedigree dogs are going to loan out or rent out their dogs to a stranger, send them clear across the country and away from their homes? Really? This was easier to overlook, but still…really?
Ultimately, the greatest weakness of the novel is that Shetterly tried to do too much with it. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird without Harper Lee’s exquisite grasp of story, or it’s an American Gods without…well, whatever it is Neil Gaiman does in anything he writes, or it’s your standard ’60s-era anti-racism novel–but when it’s all three at once, it’s a mess. Shetterly’s personal philosophy as expressed by Chris’s father Luke leaves me cold, but the writing is excellent and it was a very interesting book. For once I think that being *less* aware of the subtext will be a plus for any reader giving this book a try. Let your teens read it, and don’t explain who Johnny Tepes is.
Posted on: February 26th, 2011
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Fawcett Crest, 1949
Category: Science Fiction
I used to really love postapocalyptic fiction. Other kids got their chills and thrills from Stephen King, V.C. Andrews, Dean Koontz; I used to scare myself silly with Z for Zachariah; Alas, Babylon; On the Beach; Mind-Call and its sequels. The idea of trying to survive in a world where humanity had been destroyed gave me the kind of excited chill I couldn’t get anywhere else. Since I grew up in the ’80s, saturated with fears of nuclear war, there was plenty of postapocalyptic fiction around (and movies, and TV shows). Later my interest waned, probably because the terrors of rearing children were far more real than the possibility of having to scratch a living from the ruins of civilization. But I still love a good story about the ultimate kind of survival. It’s been interesting to watch the genre evolve over time. For example, Richard Matheson’s story I Am Legend, written in 1954, achieved its widest popularity with the recent film version starring Will Smith–at a time when the trend in postapocalyptica was viruses transforming humans into monsters with only a few survivors (and vampire fiction enjoyed an unprecedented popularity). Before that it was nuclear war, of course, or overpopulation, or accidental nuclear detonation. Before that, the genre owed a great deal to a new understanding of genetics, viral transmission, and the population explosion of the late 1940s.
Earth Abides was written during the post-WWII baby boom, early enough that fears of overpopulation were not so great as the simpler fear that humanity’s great triumph over nature could not possibly continue–that when populations of any living organism reach a certain point, extinction is inevitable. Reading the book from the distant future of 2011, Stewart’s concerns on this topic seem absurd. His theory is based on scientific evidence, but he probably should have learned from Malthus’s example (and Paul Ehrlich should have learned from him) that population growth or size is only one of many factors that influence the survival or demise of a species. As far as the postapocalyptic premise goes, Stewart’s doesn’t hold up too well with time. I also think he’s a little too negative about the average intelligence level of a population more than decimated by disease. There’s a subtle intellectual arrogance that permeates some sections; it’s disguised by protagonist Isherwood Williams’s ("Ish") frequent references to his fellow survivors’ other stellar qualities, but Ish also refers far too often to how few brilliant people remain, and how much he despairs of being the only one who tries to hang on to reading and writing, to completely disguise it.
In most ways, though, Stewart’s book holds together very well. The prose is slow but very evocative; Stewart has clearly thought out how the infrastructure of civilization would persist after humans are gone; and the ultimate questions of how civilization is built are answered in a way that still makes sense to us. (Particularly those of us who read Guns, Germs, and Steel.) Stewart is also remarkably open-minded for a man of his age, if you remember to look beyond the use of the word Negro, which was common usage at the time. Ish’s mate Em is one of the most important characters to their growing "tribe," and her mother was black. I figured it out long before Ish did–that made me wonder if Stewart was counting on the blindness of a population opposed to mixed marriages to pull off the reveal, when Em confesses her heritage *after* they’ve slept together and conceived a child. This moment also provides some unintended hilarity, as Ish goes through the characteristics that should have told him Em was part black and, at the end of a list of physical characteristics, adds "accepting temperament." Because obviously that’s the sort of thing that’s inherent to skin color. Still, to readers of his age, this would have been a very big deal, and since I have also read Farnham’s Freehold, which is unabashedly sexist in some very obnoxious ways and was written fifteen years later than Earth Abides, I’m going to give George Stewart credit for transcending the idiocies of his era.
I mentioned that the prose is slow. This was harder to deal with because for the first 150 pages, I really had no idea what the point of the book was. Postapocalyptic fiction has survival as the setting and impetus for action, but the point is always to say something about humanity, civilization, or individualism. Ish wanders around for a long time, drives from California to New York City and back, without an apparent motive. I was impatient to get to the point, finally. My guess is that much of that idling was Stewart’s way of establishing the new environment, something that is less necessary now that the genre is so well established. It would have been nice to read it back in 1949, except that I’d have had to be a woman in 1949 and I don’t think anyone would be happy with that.
Overall, Earth Abides is a very good book. However, for a more accessible story based on the same premise of viral extinction, I’d suggest the young adult novel The Girl Who Owned A City by O.T. Nelson. For dystopian postapocalyptic novels (stories set in dystopian societies formed after long-ago disasters) try This Time of Darkness or that one series by Suzanne Collins, don’t remember the titles, but I hear it’s really popular.
(I’m kidding. I know it’s Gregor the Overlander).
(Still kidding. The Hunger Games now occupies the same cultural space as the Harry Potter series–you need to know about it even if you’re not going to read it.)
Posted on: February 23rd, 2011
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
Category: Contemporary Fiction
I’ve been in a bad mood since yesterday afternoon. Today I gave up on the diet and drank Coke and ate German chocolate fudge until I was sick. I know about self-destructive behaviors. What I don’t get are the kind of behaviors that end up truly destroying you. It’s not lack of empathy, or self-righteousness, that makes me look at some people and wonder what exactly led them to that point of no return; I simply can’t understand it. I read House of Sand and Fog in much the same attitude. The three main characters behave very reasonably at first, but eventually descend into WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY WERE YOU THINKING?!?!
I said before that it’s like a Greek tragedy, and it really is, though it’s not so much hubris as simple pride that destroys these people. The key element of tragedy, I think, is that the story turns on moments where a different decision would have led to a happy ending, even one made after so many bad decisions make the outcome look very bleak. Or even a different random event that the characters have no control over. I know a real tragedy by how many times I think "If only…."
The three main characters have no knowledge of each other at the beginning. Mahmoud Behrani, former colonel in the Shah of Iran’s Air Force, has been scrounging a living to support his family in America while his wife desperately tries to pretend to their upper-class Persian friends that they are just as well-off as before. Kathy Nicolo is a recovering addict who moved with her husband to California, far away from her family on the East Coast; when her husband leaves her because she wants children and he doesn’t, she spirals into depression, barely able to maintain her housecleaning business and lying to her family that everything is all right. Lester Burdon is a deputy sheriff, married with two children, who hasn’t been in love with his wife for years. Their three lives begin to intersect thanks to a series of errors: the county has mistakenly billed Kathy for taxes she doesn’t owe; she’s ignored the letters from the county until the day Lester and some other deputies show up to evict her; Behrani, seeing his financial reserves dwindle and eager to make a better way of life for his family, buys Kathy’s house at auction for a fraction of its value.
Pride and the theme of keeping up appearances turn this otherwise easily settled mistake into a war between Behrani and Kathy over the house, which is deeply symbolic to both of them for different reasons. When the county finally admits its mistake, Behrani refuses to part with the house for less than the profit he’s hung his hopes on. The colonel’s intransigence seems to Kathy to be pure greed and selfishness. Complicating the situation is Lester, who falls in love with Kathy, begins an affair with her, and actively takes her side against Behrani without bothering to investigate the situation. The end is inevitable, with death or prison being the fate of everyone involved.
I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but I appreciated Dubus’s talent for building suspense and emotion in the reader. There’s a moment at the end of the book’s first half where you almost think that everything will work out fine, but you know it can’t be true–and when everything falls apart, you’re almost flabbergasted at how not-true it turned out to be. I liked Behrani and Kathy and even respected them (when I wasn’t mentally beating them about the head and shoulders for their bull-headed stubborn idiocy) but despised Lester pretty much the whole way through. I have no use for a man who abandons his young children for such a stupid reason and then behaves like an ass trying to cover it up. Lester’s POV sections only happen in the second half of the book, and unlike Kathy and Behrani’s, they are in third person, almost as if Dubus is giving us permission to view Lester as the outsider, the instigating force that brings the whole thing crashing down. While Kathy and Behrani’s selfishnesses derive from the desire to make things right in a world that is against them both, Lester makes stupid choices and then does even stupider things to try to conceal them. He’s the one who ruins the possibility of a happy resolution, so I feel justified in hoping his wife takes him for everything they have in the divorce.
If your life is in tatters, if you think you’ve failed at everything you care about, read this book. It will make your life seem like hugs and puppies by comparison.
Posted on: February 22nd, 2011
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
Category: Books bought new but left unread
Time owned before reading it: 329 days
I put off reading this book because MWT’s novels have a tendency to leave me emotionally overwhelmed for days at a time. I get a little too caught up in the lives of her characters and end up replaying key scenes in my head, or rereading bits here and there, and I never seem to have two or three days in a row free to be an emotional basket case. It’s sappy but true. She has an extraordinary ability to make you feel the punch in the heart when her characters fall in love, hopelessly, with no reason to believe the feeling is reciprocated. It’s brilliant and hopelessly dramatic and I love it.
Having said that, it’s still hard to explain *why* Turner’s fiction does this to me. The four volumes of the Eugenides series, of which A Conspiracy of Kings is the fourth, are each very different, but Turner has a genius for creating characters whose behaviors and emotions are both realistic and sympathetic. The setting is also fairly unique in being based on ancient Greek civilization without being derivative of any given mythology. People live in megarons and cultivate olives and grapes, but there’s no Zeus or Apollo anywhere. It feels familiar without being cliched.
It’s difficult to review the fourth book in a series, even one as loose as this, without giving away the plots of books some of you may not have read. In the broadest terms, the series is about the political relationships between three "Greek" countries–Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia–who aside from being at war with one another are dealing with the encroachment of the Mede civilization across the sea. This is not as boring as it sounds. In fact, the first book, The Thief, is really about storytelling and different perspectives. By the time we get to A Conspiracy of Kings, the three countries have begun moving toward greater strength, alliances, and a way to keep the Mede out of their lands–very important given that the Mede Empire has a history of absorbing smaller countries in the name of "assistance."
Throughout the series, Sounis has been governed by a paranoid and violent man who rules his barons harshly enough that they’ve started planning revenge. His heir Sophos (his nephew), who we first met as a quiet and scholarly young man, gets caught in this rebellion, is sold as a slave, and when he is freed months later it turns out that he’s now the king thanks to his uncle having a heart attack. Sophos now needs to find a way to unite the rebellious barons, avoid taking money or military aid from the Mede ambassador, and enlist the help of the rulers of Eddis and Attolia, who as individuals are his friends, but as sovereigns are forced to put their own countries’ interests first.
Of the four books, this one is by far the most political, particularly since we’ve gotten to know the Queen of Eddis and the King and Queen of Attolia in the earlier books. This is the first time we see those people acting primarily as rulers of their respective countries as opposed to just people, and it’s a little disconcerting; you know they’re right in being so distant with Sophos, but you kinda want them to just all work together and be best friends and all that. A reader who tried to start the series here would probably hate it, but I think even readers who are not as interested in politically intricate fiction would enjoy this book as the culmination of a series. (I don’t know if Turner plans to write more of these; it feels like a satisfactory conclusion to the negotiations with the potential invaders, but there’s still plot material to be developed.)
Whether or not MWT continues the series, I’m definitely looking forward to her next book.
Posted on: February 19th, 2011