Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks Update: Mar 29/13--I don't know why I did it, but the very fact that I did it (finished this book) was going to lead me to up it to three stars. But now that I've done it I'M TAKING THIS DOWN TO ONE STAR -- HOLY MOLY AND GOLLY GEE WILLIKERS BUT I AM P.O.'d AT THIS BOOK.

None of the last 50pp - new character development COMPLETELY in opposition and nonsensical to anything that went before, new sub-plots suggested and followed - were either necessary or sensible. ALL of it was entirely a contrivance to get Anna out of the country and end the damn thing. WOW. That is bad. That is like creative writing 101 what not to do. And the MELODRAMA! Like a 60s soap opera, it was! As the bodies piled up, all I could think of was this: Bring Out Yer Dead.

Everything about this is, as I said below: contrived, overwrought, OVERWRITTEN, clumsy, unconvincing.

I am done with YoW. DONE.


I’ve started and re-started this book twice, and am now putting it down a third and final time about half-way through. [ETA: for some ungodly reason, I picked it up again! I am still reading! The Plague: she has a hold on me! It's crazeeeeeee!!!]

I first picked it up coming off of 880 pages of the detail-rich, psychologically-nuanced density of [b:Middlemarch|19089|Middlemarch A Study of Provincial Life|George Eliot||1461747]. I thought perhaps it was not really a fair test – sort of like drinking an Italian pinot grigio after an Australian shiraz. And then I thought, ok – maybe I need something lighter than plague and pestilence right now.

It’s not you, Geraldine, it’s me. Or rather, it’s George Eliot – you can’t compete; don’t even try.

So I put it down and picked up Louise Erdrich (not literally, you silly thing). Consumed [b:The Beet Queen|91439|The Beet Queen|Louise Erdrich||159793], licked my fingers, dove back into Year of Wonders. Well, Erdrich can make humdrum domestic scenes leap off the page with eccentric characterizations, hysterically funny observations, and poetry in even the most mundane detail.

Sorry, Geraldine. It’s not you, it’s Louise Erdrich. Another totally unfair test. Angel food cake after a dark chocolate torte.

But c’mon. Can there be anything more inherently dramatic and gut-wrenching than the plague? With content like this, shouldn’t Geraldine have an easy time of pulling us into the story and keeping us there?

Well, no.

Contrived, overwrought, clumsy, unconvincing. It’s not that it was poorly researched – it was that the research showed through too transparently, but didn’t translate into compelling scenes or characters. List for me all the plants that a 17th C herbalist/healer would have in her garden – impressive, but irrelevant. Show me a scene where her fellow villagers try to drown her in a well to see if she’s a witch – great potential. But fell flat on the page because you didn’t make me care about her first.

One thing in particular that was annoying was the dialogue. Historical fiction writers: you can’t just have your characters use terms and refer to objects or events that mark them as ‘of a time and place’ – in this case, England 1662. I understand you're emerging from Puritanism and are therefore wearing colourful smocks instead of drab browns and greys. But I don't care.

You have to convey a way of thinking that is, in this case, 350 years out of date. Anna Firth spoke like a modest, 17th C uneducated country girl - but she didn't think like one. Her thinking was not just unusual for a woman of her time and place, it was positively anachronistic.

I don’t care if your dialogue is accurate down to the accent. If it sounds like it’s being play-acted by a local theatre troupe wearing homemade costumes, you’ve lost me at ‘good morrow.’

And so here’s where we come to the real comparison that sunk this book in my mind: Hilary Mantel. It’s all Hilary’s fault. Because every book of historical fiction I read is going to need to measure up to the standards she set in [b:Wolf Hall|6101138|Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)|Hilary Mantel||6278354] and [b:Bring Up The Bodies|13507212|Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)|Hilary Mantel||14512257]: the level of detail; the shaping of the character on the page from the inside out – never mind describing the clothes or using the words of a 17th C courtier, take me into his mind and thoughts so thoroughly that I inhabit that character with you. Lead me towards events with enough subtle build-up, enough interest in your characters, that I am both surprised by and invested in what happens to them when it happens. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion. Even if everyone dies, and I know everyone is going to die.

Actually: that’s another point, and here I’ll look to Edith Wharton who is a master of this (and for an even more apt comparison, Connie Willis did it well too in [b:Doomsday Book|24983|Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)|Connie Willis||2439628]). You can’t love your characters too much not to put them through the hell that they need to go through. It’s the plague. People die gruesome deaths – children die. Mothers grieve. We need you to take us through that. Also, some people have to be truly heartless – not soap opera-ey villainous. To stand as a contrast to others – who need to be selfless, humble and heroic, but not unbelievably so; they need to be humans who struggle and do the best they can, but are not perfect.

Geraldine couldn’t do it – it shows on the page. Maybe she gets to it later, but she lost me at the critical early point – she actually killed important people off too early and too quickly (this is what I mean by leading me to it – and by the need for greater detail, greater depth. This kind of historical fiction needs to be longer, more epic. Connie Willis knows. Hilary Mantel knows. Hell, even George Eliot knows!).

Great potential, unfulfilled.