(Semi)Weekly Reviews: The Course of True Love

A large review installment to make up for missing the last two weeks. I’ve been on the road and so didn’t have much time to sit down and read. But now I’ve had a chance to catch up, and for some reason all of these books made me loquacious. Perhaps because the theme of this batch (excepting Lord of Light) seems to be the ever-frustrating Disappointing Romance. Well-done romance reads effortlessly, but it’s incredibly hard to write. Brandon and Dianora in Tigana, Mating by Norman Rush, The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee…maybe I should create a big list of my favorites. And I’d adore any suggestions, of course.

Inside this issue:

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcombe
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

I happen to hold Juiet Marillier responsible for making spend an inordinate amount of money importing the second book in one of her trilogies from Australia, only to discover that it contained a romance plot so abysmal it makes Danielle Steel look like Franco Zefferelli. It was the most egregious variety of the “star-crossed lovers” plot, wherein neither party has the barest spark of originality or interest that would make a real person fall in love with them, though I suppose they’re beautiful to make up for it. I mention this because after I fiished that book, horrified, I was about as inclined to read another Marillier romance as I was to pluck out my fingernails with hot pincers.

But my friend recommended Wildwood Dancing to me, and when I heard that it was a retelling of my absolute favorite fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I knew that I had to give her a second chance. And actually, I’m pretty glad that I did. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but suffice it to say that the primary romance featured characters interesting and realistic enough to sustain the narrative. I also really enjoyed the specific setting of Romania (as opposed to generic fantasy-land)– it fit very well with the mythological elements of the story she created and rooted the characters in an actual culture that constrained (and compelled) their actions.

Unfortunately, this book also confirmed what was on more egregious display in that earlier trilogy: Marillier is far from a subtle stylist. In fact, her narratives have all the emotional (and plot-functional) subtlety of the ending of Titanic. In illustration: at one point the main character gets a minor injury from a bramble bush. Her romantic lead kisses the cut, and asks “Does that make the hurt all better?”

Entirely sans irony.

And the secondary romance is a lite version of the unbearable star-crossed lovers thing I so hated in the trilogy. But if you like simple fairy tale retellings, and especially if you like The Twelve Dancing Princesses, this is worth reading. It won’t take up too much of your time ,and it left a smile on my face.

To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel

I was incredibly excited to read this, because I loved the author’s first novel, Like the Red Panda. This has the same sort of feel– deeply cynical narrator in a situation like a dark, twisted mirror version of your normal chick lit “girl meets boy,” careening towards an ending you’re almost sure will have more bitter than sweet. In Like the Red Panda, the main character was a so-called “perfect” student about to graduate from high school and go to a great college. Over the summer, she has problem with her foster parents, her friends, and gets back together with her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend she’s still sort of in love with. The snag? Well, she’s planning to kill herself. And no, it’s not that kind of novel. It’s snarky, it’s funny and at its best it isn’t so much sad as painful. So, you know, To Feel Stuff had a pretty high standard to rise up to.

And it did, for the most part. The similarities between the two novels are in sensibility and feel, not in plot (which is good) and therefore retained a lot of what made me love Like the Red Panda. The darkly cynical main character in To Feel Stuff is Elodie, a chronically ill student at Brown, so sick that she’s had to start living in the campus infirmary just to finish the school year. She’s not sick with anything specific—just a dozen different diseases of varying seriousness that it’s statistically impossible she could have contracted at the same time. And she’s seeing ghosts. A doctor interested in the medical mystery of her serial illnesses narrates part of the story as well, and is gradually convinced that her ghost-sightings are connected to her illnesses. The third narrative strand is completed by Chester, a wealthy, a-cappella singing jock anyone who’s spent any length of time at an ivy league institution would recognize. His life is changed dramatically when a random attacker smashes his knees with a crowbar, and he has to live in the infirmary as well. The romance between the two of them is incredibly deft and nuanced. At its best, this novel evokes the profoud ways that illness and injury, by removing the physical capabilities most of us take for granted, changes one’s perspective. It’s clear that neither Elodie nor Chester could have fallen in love had they met as their previously healthy selves. It required the strange world-apart of illness and the infirmary to bring them together.

The ending was bizarrely pat for such a subtle, nuanced story, however. It kind of left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Like the Red Panda is better, but To Feel Stuff is still a great book.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

So, notwithstanding certain caveats about old-school gender politics detailed here, I thought this was a really excellent book. I liked it because it seemed to play around with the fantasy genre in a way completely different from the modern batch of New Weird writers, but with an equal amount of self-awareness and intelligence. I suppose you might chalk up some of my admiration to my general ignorance of the New Wave SF from the sixties, and I’m certainly going to find some more of it. In some ways, I think this is one of the most subtly subversive SF novels I’ve read, because of the way it plays around with the structure of its narrative. I’ve read critiques online that argue even though Zelazny took his mythos and pantheon from the East (Hinduism and Buddhism), his characters and story are essentially Western. I take the point. It’s disconcerting for characters who have decided to reincarnate themselves as Hindu gods make references to “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”. It was never really explained why these obviously white Westerners picked the Hindu pantheon for their planetary subjugation–just because they happened to be on a ship called “The Star of India” and it seemd like a good idea at the time? And incidentally, this lack of explanation makes the Christian-Hindu battle of the frame story seem like an utter non-sequitur.

BUT, all of this attention to the characters misses the fact that the structure of the story itself is extremely Eastern and subverts all sorts of subtle conventions of heroic fiction. For one, the frame story is strangely incidental to the plot, and yet reveals its resolution in the first thirty pages. The whole business with the reluctant, trickster hero is very Western, but he’s not much of a hero. His callousness in the face of mass death belies his protestations of ordinary humanity. He tramples on humans like a god, even when he professes that his entire object is to “accelerate” (read: uplift) them to his own status. And if I take a further step back, the Eastern influences are more obvious: there are hints of stories within stories never told (his mother weeping over his death is mentioned in a parenthetical). His first dramatic demise is told not as a heroic battle, but as an afterthought to a wedding party never explicitly described. The battle the reader is led to believe from the beginning will be the final, major confrontation is a deliberate anti-climax that barely matters in the juggernaut of history. Sam’s ultimate fate is cloudy– there are other, perhaps self-contradictory, epics waiting to be told, but don’t we already know them? Haven’t we heard the story of Mahatsamatman, Tagaratha, Siddartha, Kalkin, Sam a thousand times by our fires? And that of the cat that hunted him, and his mother who wept and the witches with whom she or he might or might not have shared another adventure? Lord of Light is vaguely science fictional in its technology, but its literary aims are mythological.

Which is to say: really great. Worth reading, without equivocation.

A Certain Slant of Light
by Laura Whitcomb

Another of my YA novel binge– this time a peculiar love story involving century-old ghosts posessing the bodies of teenagers at a suburban high school and helping each other deal with the griefs that have bound them to this world. I’m generally not a fan of the afterlife in fiction– not a priori, but because I find that authors frequently make them at once ponderous and facile and always totally unbelievable. Take Aice Seibold’s The Lovely Bones as a case in point. For most of A Certain Slant of Light, the author avoids these traps. Her afterlife is intangible, wistful, constrained and only faintly hopeful. Her ghosts have difficulty remembering their previous lives, though they know they are dead. Helen, the narrator, has evaded hell since the mid-19th century by attaching herself to various “hosts” who are all related in some strange way to her first host, Emily Dickinson. She has never seen another ghost. Her sole pleasures come from reading over shoulders and encouraging her hosts to literary creativity. Her current host is an English teacher at a high school, and Helen is struggling to suppress her growing jealousy over his loving relationship with his wife.

And then, suddenly, a boy in the class stares straight at her, and she knows that the barrier of her invisibility has somehow been broken. He is James, another ghost, who has managed to take possession of the body of a boy who almost died of a drug overdose. The boy’s own spirit has fled, and the body was therefore “hollow.” There is some vague talk of the danger of evil spirits infiltrating these vacant bodies, but the particulars of both types of possession are only hazily explained. The speculative fiction lover in me thought this was a bit of a cop-out (since if you’re going to introduce these elements into a story they should at least make internal sense), but it probably won’t detract too much from other’s reading experiences.

My main issues with this book comes from, strangely enough, the characterization of Helen and James’ romance. It’s strange because on a surface level the book is very beautifully written and it sucked me in completely. And yet I ended it feeling entirely unsatisfied. Part of this was the pat, Pollyanna resolution to the metaphysical dilemma. But I could have forgiven that if the author had ever truly grounded Helen and James’ relationship with more than her say-so. It’s one of those romance plots that is rarely done well: boy and girl meet, they fall in love immediately, circumstances entirely outside their own control keep them apart. But why do they fall in love? We get to know Helen because this is in her POV, but James’ attraction to her is immediate and always unjustifiably assumed. Around him, Helen behaves like a stupid, frightened, lovesick teenager. Her growth from this position at the end of the book does not go far enough, and anyway, he already loves her. And this is strange, because on so many levels Whitcomb demonstrates a masterful command of these characters. They are charmingly, resolutely anachronistic in the modern world, no matter how good they have to become at blending in their possessed teenage bodies. They are also obviously older in spirit than the nominal adults in their new lives. And yet, their relationship felt just as imposed as the clunkiest of Magic Maguffin plot devices in a by-the-numbers fantasy novel.

So I don’t know what to make of this. It’s worth it for the evocative, wistful narrative, but I can’t say it left me with the best impression.

The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick

A very strong medieval historical novel that follows actual historical figures—and to those who know my reading habits, I usually hate that sort of thing. My kind of historical fiction is much more in line with Judith Merkle Riley than Sharon Kay Penman, but this was pretty great. It has some romance novel leanings (including two, count-em, TWO Deflowering The Virgin love scenes) but makes up for it with meticulous period detail, interesting angles on historic events and really solid characterization. And for all its capital-R romance, this book is certainly not beholden to that genre’s mandatory Happily Ever After. In fact, this caught me running to the bathroom for tissues halfway through.

It follows the real-life story of Waltheof, a Saxon lord taken prisoner by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, who falls in love with Judith, William’s niece. Judith is strong-willed and has glimmerings of happiness with Waltheof, but she’s held back by emotional damage inflicted by her domineering mother. Instead of allowing herself unsettling happiness, she takes refuge in duty and convention and propriety, and comes to hate her big-hearted husband. Waltheof is none too bright (politically) but is a very likeable, good character. Their marriage falls to spectacular ruin, involving a betrayal Judith will always hold on her conscience. Fast forward a few years later, and it seems that the whole sorry tale is going to be played out again with her daughter, Matilda. But perhaps she and her husband, Simon de Senlis, can find a way through the minefield of their pride and sensitivities to truly love each other.

Judith is so cruel and closed off, she can be hard to take as a narrator, but Chadwick does such an excellent job with her story that I couldn’t put it down. My real problem was that beside her mother and grandmother, Matilda is a shade of a character. She weds Simon literally the same day she meets him, and though there are believable reasons given for this (the need to get from under her mothers thumb, ambition, liking the set of his breeches), the one that seems to matter the most is a thoroughly unlikely Love. Not that she wouldn’t think it love at the beginning, but you never see the real thing blossom between them in a meaningful way. Even though Waltheof and Judith’s courtship ended tragically, at least you saw it happen and could believe every step of it. I feel almost like Chadwick wanted Matilda to thematically expiate her mother’s mistakes, without realizing that first she had to feel her mother’s love.