The Mysteries of Udolpho (Penguin Classics) Cover

If there’s one problem with book reviews, it’s the prohibition against spoilers.  It’s hard to write anything substantive without discussing the actual contents of a book.  So, if you’re planning to read Udolpho and don’t want to know about the plot or the ending, you should wait to read the rest of this post until after you’ve read Udolpho.  Which I highly recommend you do because it’s a suspenseful novel with lots of fun plot twists!!

For those of you who’ve read Udolpho, you know it’s impossible to talk about everything that’s important about this book.  That’s what Wikipedia or grad school is for.  So I’m going to focus on the role of women in eighteenth-century society.  Or as we like to say today, feminism!

My favorite (and also the most disturbing) thing about Udolpho is how perfectly it captures the horrible feeling a woman has when she realizes that her fate is largely controlled by others.  Montoni’s attempts to force Emily into marriage with Count Morono were infuriating.  Emily despises Count Morono because he considers Montoni’s approval to be more important than whether Emily consents to the marriage.  Here’s what Emily has to say on the matter:

At this moment, Emily’s dislike of Count Morano rose to abhorrence. That he should, with undaunted assurance, thus pursue her, notwithstanding all she had expressed on the subject of his addresses, and think, as it was evident he did, that her opinion of him was of no consequence, so long as his pretensions were sanctioned by Montoni, added indignation to the disgust which she had felt towards him. (189)

Even though it’s been 219 years since Udolpho was published, I can identify with how Emily feels.  A lot of the men in charge of things today still think they can control women’s minds and bodies.  Maybe women today aren’t imprisoned in a castle in the mountains with haunted pictures and mysterious lute playing, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch.

Granted, Emily is hilariously passive at times, but that seems to be because she’s acting as society’s version of the ideal woman (delicate, moral etc.) and is subject to some pretty strict conventions.  It’s interesting how some men who’ve read the novel don’t pick up on how confined Emily was by this male-dominated society and instead view her as needing to be rescued (also by men). The most popular review of this novel on Amazon was written by a man who “felt compelled to jump up and defend her against injustice…” blah “she’s a pure angel” blah “admired her sacrifice for true love” blah blah blah.

It seems to me that Radcliffe was pretty critical of the ways in which men, society, and its institutions (including marriage), control and confine women.  Obviously, we have the numero uno villain, Montoni, who imprisons Emily and Madame Cheron.  Then, we have the less succesful villain, Count Morano, who twice attempts to kidnap and marry Emily against her will, but fails only because he loses a sword fight! with the other guy who’s already imprisoned her.

But what about the good guys?

Emily’s dad, who is so sweet and loving and enjoys her poems about fairies, is really the one who got her into the whole trapped in a castle mess in the first place.  Before dying he appointed Madame Cheron as her guardian, lost all his money and told her to burn really important papers without reading them.  He taught her his values about how to be an ideal woman, but left her fairly unprepared for defending herself against the evils of the real world.  Hence, all the fainting.

Even Ludovico, who is definitely one of the good guys, locks Annette in a closet every time he fears for her safety (like that time there were prostitutes in the castle).  While Ludocivo and Annette are definitely played for comic relief, there is an even funnier moment, when Emily asks Annette where she’s been all night and Annette tells her:  ‘That rogue Luodvico locked me up again.’  ‘Locked you up!’ said Emily with displeasure, ‘Why do you permit Ludovico to lock you up?’ (367)  This coming from the girl who’s being held prisoner in a gothic castle. Pot calling the kettle black much? I think the point might be that even love and marriage with the good guys isn’t all that free and happy all the time.

Then, there’s Valencourt who parties it up in France while Emily’s trapped in Montoni’s castle.  I loved the fact that Radcliffe was pretty vicious in dispelling Emily’s romantic fantasies. I know she was probably making the point that society (eek Paris!) and its values are corrupting (the elevation of the pastoral was a big theme at the time), but she also seemed to be making the point that the reality of love doesn’t live up to the fantasy of love. Don’t sacrifice it all for love ladies because men sure as hell aren’t making the same sacrifice for you.  While Emily was risking her life to save her inheritance (so that she could marry Valencourt), he was having a grand old time gambling his away.

Same thing with Count de Villefort.  Even though he’s super nice to Emily after she washes up on the shore of his (also) possibly haunted château, he tells her unreliable gossip about Valencourt  (that in addition to gambling he was also whoring around) and advises Emily to break it off with her true love after they’re finally reunited.  Which she does even though Villefort has the story wrong and Valencourt wasn’t tramping around.  Luckily, this is cleared up at the end so that they can live happily ever after (or not depending on how you view marriage).

Finally, I think the castle might have represented marriage and/or love.  It’s a terrible place if you marry badly or are stuck there without love.  Madame Cheron actually dies in the castle because her husband hates her.  Not because he kills her, just because he hates her.  And Emily is miserable until she starts to believe that Valencourt is there too.  Suddenly her view changes when she leaves and thinks he’s still there:  “being confirmed in the supposition that it was his voice she heard there, she looked back to that gloomy abode with emotions of grief and momentary regret.” (392)

There’s definitely a contrast being made between marriage with a man like Montoni and marriage with a man like Valencourt.  As she describes the castle, she describes it differently according to who its inhabitants are:

Its massy and gloomy walls gave her terrible ideas of imprisonments and suffering: yet, as she advanced some degree of hope mingled with her terror; for, though this was certainly the residence of Montoni, it was possibly also, that of Valencourt, and she could not approach a place, where he might be, without experiencing somewhat of the joy of hope. (400)

I also think it’s interesting how the convent stood in opposition to the castle.  It’s the one place Emily wants to go to get away when she has no where else to go and she just happens to wash up on shore right next door to the nuns after escaping from the castle.  So there is an alternative to marriage presented, but it’s no less confining as Lady Blanche seems to illustrate.   Never was a girl so happy to get out of the convent and get married as Miss Blanche.

Ultimately, I don’t think that Radcliffe was totally critical of marriage because Emily does get her happily ever after with Valencourt at the end.  This is a famous romance after all.   In a way though, Emily had a lot of power in that marriage since she’s the one who forgives him for Paris and has enough money/property from Madame Cheron that they don’t need his money (also interesting that she got her inheritance from a woman against the typical scheme of things at the time because it should have gone automatically to Montoni).

Valencourt doesn’t rescue Emily, she rescues him.  And she did have a rescuer in Monsieur du Pont who she could have married, but she still chooses Valencourt.  So in a way, this seems to turn the tables on the traditional story of man rescues and then marries girl.  I could be imposing too much of a modern framework on the whole analysis, but as Radcliffe was a successful female author, I’d like to believe that she was challenging the more restricting views of women and their role in society and its institutions.


The Mysteries of Udolpho (Penguin Classics) Cover

So I’m kicking off the eighteenth-century throwback lunch with Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Published in 1794, The Mysteries of Udolpho was wildly popular at the time and is credited with influencing later gothic novels from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  I’m pretty curious about women who were writing really popular, really influential novels in the eighteenth-century considering how difficult it is for female authors to get proper recognition in the twenty-first century.

The other thing that made me take the 600 page plunge was the fact that Udolpho was famously parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  I love Jane Austen’s other novels, but I’ve never read Northanger Abbey because I figured I wouldn’t get the joke since I hadn’t read Udolpho.

In brief, Udolpho is a novel about a woman who’s held prisoner by her villainous Italian uncle in a possibly haunted gothic castle during the 1500s.   Udolpho has it all: haunted castles, murderous nuns, shipwrecks, sword fights, and much more.  Horrifying painting hidden behind a black veil?  Check.  Mysterious lute playing?  Check.  Romantic poetry about fairies and mermaids?  Check.

I’d recommend Udolpho to anyone who enjoys a good gothic novel (even if your not interested in 18th century lady writers) with the caveat that it gets off to a slow start.  The first 100 pages are full of lovely descriptions of scenery and travelling in the Pyrenees and are important for setting up the major themes and later plot developments, but aren’t all that gripping.  For the first 100 pages I was really wondering how our heroine was going to get from “tra la la, I wrote a poem about fairies, tra la la” to “mama mia I’ve been locked in a haunted castle by my villainous Italian uncle.”

After about 100 pages we finally meet our villains.   Thanks to the terrible Madame Cheron and her new Italian husband, Montoni,  Emily is separated from her true love, forced to move to Venice (poor girl, how awful!), and forced to endure the increasingly desperate marriage proposals of Count Morano.  Then, of course, she ends up trapped in a possibly haunted castle with an army (literally) of Italian degenerates.

Here’s the thing:  Udolpho is both sort of brilliant and sort of hilarious at the same time.  Which explains why it could be both influential to an author like Charlotte Bronte and parodied by an author like Jane Austen.

I’m still sorting out what I thought about the more serious themes of the novel, but here are some of the things I thought were hilarious:

1.  The fainting!  One thought I had about the fainting was that it was Radcliffe’s way of criticizing society’s version of the ideal woman.  Emily embodies all of the traits that women of that time were supposed to have (moral, delicate, etc.), but she faints every time she sees something scary.  Every damn time.

When Emily lifted the veil covering the hidden painting she was so horrified she “dropped senseless on the floor.  When she recovered her recollection, the remembrance of what she had seen had nearly deprived her of it a second time.”  (236)  Emily faints so much she has to faint twice when things are really scary.

Emily’s propensity for passing out could be a commentary on the fact that the ideal woman isn’t quite working with a full toolbox since her mind and body shut down every time she sees something she can’t process within her limited and delicate mental framework.

Since Radcliffe was a woman writing in the 1790s it’s possible she was subtly challenging gender norms with her narcoleptic heroine.  This is more interesting to me than the “women wore tight corsets” theory often advanced to explain all the fainting that ladies used to do.  I hope Northanger Abbey makes fun of the fainting.

2.  The Italian villains!  As a first generation Italian-American, I love the fact that some of the best villains in British literature are Italian.  After what the Jersey Shore did to our reputation, there’s no point in getting offended by literary stereotypes.  I loved Count Fosco and his creepy little mice in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and was not disappointed by Udolpho’s sinister Montoni who’s positively Machiavellian in his villany.  He is aptly described as such:

He had of course, many and bitter enemies; but the rancour of their hatred proved the degree of his power; and, as power was his chief aim, he gloried more in such hatred, than it was possible he could in being esteemed. (175)

I’m sure there’s some good stuff out there on the historical significance of the Italian villain and what that meant about political relations and cultural stereotypes, but it’s also just fun to read about these clever, vicious, falsely charming men.

3.  The sword fights.  They break out suddenly and without warning.  It was awesome every single time.  What happens after Count Morano professes his love? Sword fight!  What happens when the characters are just standing around in the hallway?  Sword fight!  And they’re so dramatic!

‘Draw!’ cried Montoni to the Count, who did not pause for a second bidding, but, giving Emily into the hands of the people, that appeared from the stair-case, turned fiercely round. ‘This in thine heart, villain!’ said he, as he made a thrust at Montoni with his sword…

4.  Most of the poems.  Especially the poems about the fairies and the mermaids.

5.  The commas.  Oh, there, were, a, lot, of, commas.  A reviewer on goodreads gave it one star because of the commas.

So given all of that, I think I’ll be in on the joke when I read Northanger Abbey, but I also think there’s a lot more to Udolpho than the easily parodied melodrama.  I think it has a lot to say about society and its institutions and constructs as well as the role of women in relation to all of those things.  So that’ll be my next post.

The more I read about the end of literature, the more interested I am in learning about its origins. The history of the novel and the development of different genres is pretty fascinating stuff. Because it’s winter in Wisconsin and we still don’t have a TV, I’ve decided to attempt a study in 18th century British literature.

Not knowing much about 18th century literature, I’ve decided to rely on the reading lists for PhD students’ oral exams.  Students are expected to craft their own lists so I’ll use these samples as guides, rather than a checklist.

The first novel I picked from the 18th century reading list is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. It’s insanely entertaining.  Haunted castles and Italian villains abound.  More about that next time!

For theory, I’m starting with Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction in which she basically makes the argument that the rise of the novel allowed for the rise of the middle class in England.  Like even more so than the industrial revolution.  So obviously a super ambitious theory and I’m a bit skeptical.  Still, Armstrong’s focus on the representation of the ideal woman in literature and the emergence of female authors is really interesting to me.

I’ll try to blog about my little project here so that I actually write down my thoughts on what I’ve read.  The plan right now is to alternate between my 18th Century novels and just reading whatever the hell I feel like reading.  It’ll be like when I needed a break from studying in college except popular fiction will take the place of boys and booze.

The Sense of an Ending Cover

The Booker Prize has taken a lot of heat lately.   The judges gaffes were the literary equivalent of Mitt Romney’s campaign speeches, the short list was guilty of some glaring omissions, and the rival Literature Prize was launched.  This makes me sad (not the Literature Prize, I’m kind of excited about that, but rest of it).  I love the Booker Prize because it’s how I’ve discovered some of my favorite books.

When the short list was announced this year I was disappointed.  There were only two books I wanted to read: The Sense of an Ending and Half Blood Blues.  These were my initial conclusions: The Sense of an Ending should win hands down, Half Blood Blues sounded like a good read, the Menagerie book seemed way too much like The Life of Pi (which I loved, but you can’t short-list its imitators), Snowdrops and Pigeon English seemed kinda like popular fiction thrillers, and the comic western The Sisters Brothers seemed too violent and also I don’t read the Booker books for Americana.

I was both relieved and disappointed when I started reading the critics’ take on the selections.  The judges wanted books that were readable, would be popular, and “zipped along.”  Disappointing criteria.  I won’t belabor the point that books can be insanely good and not exactly easy to read (See, e.g., James Joyce) or compulsively readable and great literatue (See, e.g. Wilkie Collins) because that’s been fairly well covered in the linked articles.  I was both relieved and disappointed because the critics’ reactions to the list seemed to be more an affirmation of my assessment than of my failure to appreciate great literature.

With that in mind, I bought The Sense of an Ending (which won the prize as I predicted) and figured it would be a good book, but probably not a great book.  The competition just wasn’t that tough this year.  I’m happy to report I was dead wrong about both the winner and the competition.  The Sense of and Ending is bloody fantastic literature (British swearing seems more appropriate here), an instant classic, and an infinitely worthy book for the Booker Prize.

This is a book deserving of a permanent place on any bookshelf.  It is the kind of novel we pick up more than once in our lives because it left a lasting impression, because the language is beautiful, because the questions it raises can be revisited, long after we know how the story ends.  The rest of the post doesn’t give much away, but don’t read any further if you like to read a book before you read the reviews.  Just go buy it and be happy you did.

A lot of reviewers have focused on this novel as a critique of memory, history, and the insight we may or may not have into our own lives and the lives of others.  All of this is true, but there’s another aspect to this thoughtful, beautifully written novel that stood out for me.  It’s also a meditation on literature.  What do we expect from it?  What is it?  Are our lives anything like it?  Does it reflect the essential truths?

The early pages of The Sense of an Ending brilliantly capture the intellectual excitement and arrogance of youth. This section also provides a sort of framework for considering the rest of the story.  Tony, the everyman narrator, introduces the subject of literature as he reflects on his youth:

This was another of our fears: That Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.  Look at our parents – were they the stuff of literature?  At best, they might aspire to the social conditions of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. (16)

I found myself returning to this passage as Tony’s adult life is revealed.  His story turns out to be more like his parents’ lives than the wild adventure he’d imagined in his youth.  There is life, death, love and remembering, but it’s all pretty run of the mill.  His role in the novel, despite being the main character, is largely that of a bystander.

As Tony ages, he employs traditional literary devices to illustrate his belief that his life has fallen short of literary greatness.  When he visits his girlfriend’s parents for the weekend Tony explains “[h]ad we been in a novel, there might have been some sneaking between floors for a hot cuddle after the paterfamilias had locked up for the night.  But we weren’t; Veronica didn’t even kiss me good night that first evening…”  (30)  Later, the obvious symbolism he employs in telling a story is emphatically denied.  “Towards the end of my marriage, the solid suburban villa Margaret and I lived in suffered a little subsidence.  Cracks appeared here and there, bits of the porch and front wall began to crumble.  (And no, I didn’t think of it as symbolic.)” (91-92)

Throughout the novel, Tony’s portrait of his own life is contrasted with his belief that Adrian’s life is worthy of great literature.  We’re given a hint of this early in the novel when Tony tells us the only person “whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.” (16)  The duality of the two characters continues throughout the novel as Tony and Adrian’s lives parallel each other with dramatically different outcomes.

In Tony’s opinion, the young Adrian doesn’t act as a fictional hero should.  “In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him.  What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?  Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detetive; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth.  Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?” (17).

Ultimately, it’s Tony, and not Adrian, who goes on a quest for the truth.  Are we supposed to see this quest as childish or as a great literary journey?  Who is the hero of the novel: Adrian or Tony? If this were a traditional tale of brilliance, crazy love, tragedy and adventure wouldn’t Adrian have been the main character?  Tony seems to think so.

I remember a period in late adolecense when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness.  This is how it will be when I grow up.  I shall go there, do this, discover that love her and then her and her and her.  I shall live as people in novels live and have lived.  Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy would be in attendance.  However… who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’?

The reader, like Tony, desperately wants to find out what happened to Adrian.  As Tony doggedly attempts to recover the diary, don’t you also want to see what Adrian’s written?

The literary double can illuminate two sides of the same character and in this case it seems to illustrate two opposing views of literature.  Is great literature supposed to be dramatic and otherworldly? Or can great literature be a simple portrait of the ordinary, everday life?  Tony would choose the former, but as Veronica repeatedly reminds Tony, he just doesn’t get it.

As Tony tell us: “Real literature was about psychological , emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.” (16)

I think that is the point.  Tony would be better off trying to understand his own life rather than Adrian’s.  Maybe we can’t fully understand any life, even our own?  The only thing I really understand?  This is the best book I’ve read in years.  I don’t know what literature is supposed to be.  I know I loved this book.

I live in Wisconsin.  This is the land of the Friday night fish fry and fried cheese curds.  Too bad for me I hate fried food.  I get heartburn, nausea, and headaches.  I’m pretty sure this is a weird psychosomatic reaction due to a very bad evening in college involving an open bar and fried mushrooms stuffed with pepper jack cheese.  I try to choose carefully when I eat out because it sucks to order soup and find out you’re really getting fried soup balls.  I do not exaggerate.  We serve fried sticks of butter at the State Fair.

There’s one particular disappointment I remember vividly.  It was a year or two ago when Mr. Married With Books and I were cross county skiing for the weekend.  It was a long, cold, and difficult ski.  The temperature was zero, we got lost, and I fell down about 18 times.  The light at the end of the tunnel, the thing that made me fight against hypothermia and frostbite, was the dinner at the Steak Pit we’d planned to have after the ski.  The promise of a good dinner and a strong Brady Old Fashioned had given me the will to live.

What happened next is not the Steak Pit’s fault.  The Steak Pit is the happiest place on earth if you like meat, neon fountains, and Frank Sinatra.  What happened next is entirely my fault.  After warming up with a Brandy Old Fashioned or two I disregarded my better instincts and ordered the stuffed shrimp.  I ordered seafood at a steakhouse in the Midwest.  I was probably suffering from mild hypothermia.  I thought I was getting fresh shrimp and crab meat sautéed with maybe a little parsley and lemon.  When my dinner arrived I found myself staring down plate of deep-fried, battered shrimp stuffed with frozen crab-like meat and mushy breadcrumbs.  I’d ordered the Sisco truck special.  I was so hungry I had no choice but to eat my dinner, suffer the heartburn, and vow never to be fooled again.   

The point of this little story?  That’s pretty much what happened yesterday when I read Sarah’s Key.  It had been a long, frustrating, busy, stressful day at work.  The only light at the end of the tunnel?  The promise of a relaxing evening with a good book and a glass of wine.  Sadly, this was not a good book.  Sarah’s Key serves up some seriously deep-fried chick lit with a side of anti-abortion proselytizing. 

Sarah’s Key was a book club book I’d actually been looking forward to reading.  It involved a subject I didn’t know much about – the Vel d’ Hiv in Paris in 1942.  The characters sounded interesting: a young girl who escapes after the Vel d’ Hiv roundup and an investigative journalist in Paris who discovers Sarah’s story.  The themes sounded compelling: how are our lives connected with the atrocities of history and how do we move forward and heal without forgetting or repeating the past? 

Also, it was an international bestseller.  I sometimes enjoy really popular books (see, e.g., Harry Potter).  Despite the fact that I hate fried food, I am not a book snob.  For the record, I’m not a food snob either.  I loved deep-fried cheese curds as much as any other good Wisconsinite until the unfortunate fried mushroom incident.  So anyways why did I end up hating this hugely popular book?

Sarah’s Key deals with some deeply disturbing subjects: the Holocaust, the suffering and death of innocent children, the role of French citizens in causing this suffering and death.  In the right hands this novel could offer insight into the damaged psyche of a nation.  In the wrong hands it could leave you feeling manipulated and empty. 

For the first half of the novel, I tried hard to convince myself that this was a good book.  A book deserving of praise, huge popularity, and a special new “gift edition.”  It was a book about the Holocaust.  It couldn’t be a trite exercise in poor writing, sappy clichés, and emotional manipulation.  So what if the prose was awkward and simplistic?  English isn’t the author’s first language (helpful information provided by the publisher on the book jacket).  So what if Sarah spoke and thought in a way no ten-year old child ever would. (See, e.g., p.2, How many of you ever thought about whether your parents looked their age when you were a kid?  You didn’t.  They were grown-ups and you were kid.)  I really gave the story and characters a chance to develop before I finally let myself hate this book. 

I will say that I was initially intrigued by the structure of the novel that alternated between chapters devoted to the story of Sarah, a ten-year old girl who escapes after being rounded up in the Vel d’ Hiv in 1942, and Julia, the journalist who discovers Sarah’s story while reporting on the anniversary of this horrific event.  The characters in the contemporary chapters of the narrative were so appalling shallow and one-dimensional that I thought the author was using the narrative structure to create this dichotomy as a way of critiquing modern society.  I just finished reading two Wilkie Collins novels in a row so I was in the kind of mindset to think that the author was presenting the reader with an unreliable and unlikable narrator in order to further the themes of the novel (think Miss Clack). 

The main character, Julia Jarmond, is an aging beauty queen turned ex-pat journalist working at a crappy tourist newspaper in France.  She’s bummed out she’s not as hot as she used to be.  After twenty-five years of living in France she still feels like an outsider.  She has a perfect, precocious eleven year-old daughter named Zoe.  She has a philandering French husband with no redeeming qualities except his sexual prowess.  Other clichéd characters:  The fashionable and frivolous gay best friends, the chilly in-laws, the brash feminist lawyer sister, the tough news room boss etc. I clung to the view of Julia’s narrative as a critique of modern society until I realized we were supposed to take these people seriously and care about what happened to them.

At the point when Sara’s story disappeared as a separate narrative I realized that Julia was supposed to be the heroine on the verge of self-discovery and redemption.  In short, here’s what happened to Julia.  She gets pregnant at 45 and her husband tells her to have an abortion or he’s out.  She can’t go through with the abortion which is (oh so cheesily) scheduled on the same day as the anniversary of the Vel d’ Hiv.  Rather than dump his sorry ass she quietly hopes he’ll come around to the idea of another kid.  She finds out her husband’s family lived in the apartment where Sarah’s brother died (super disturbing by the way) and tries to help her father-in-law come to terms with the past.  This involves a search for Sarah who turns out to have committed suicide as an adult, a search for Sarah’s grown son, a quick trip to the U.S., a quick trip to Italy, and a pregnancy emergency.  Then things wrap up in a chapter or two.  Resolution between the son of dead Sarah and Julia’s husband’s family.  Quickie divorce from philandering French husband.  Relocation back to the U.S. where she dates a string of boring men just for the company. (I hate this type of female Chit Lit must-have-man protagonist.) 

Oh, and then the ending.  Julia names the baby she didn’t abort after Sarah the girl who survived the Holocaust (no cheap anti-abortion message there people) and hooks up with suddenly single, kinda cute son of the same dead Sarah (who was happily married living with his Italian wife and kids a few chapters back).  I’m Sicilian so I felt particularly sorry for his nice Italian wife who never saw this blond bimbo coming.

When I finished reading Sarah’s Key I had heartburn, nausea, and a headache.  This might be due to the fact that I read it all in one sitting so that I wouldn’t have to force myself to finish it the next day.  I get angry when tragedy is appropriated to elicit an emotional response in the reader which is ultimately empty because it’s really been used to write a clichéd anti-feminist romance.   I would rather eat a fried stick of butter at the State Fair than read this kind of book.

This could have been a good book.  Sarah’s story was thought-provoking.   Her innocent attempt to save her brother led to his death.  Her decent into depression and despair after that discovery led to her suicide.  But her narrative was abandoned so we never got to understand her psychological struggle through adulthood.  That would have been a hard book to read, but it might have been meaningful.  What about the French citizens, like the police, who contributed to this atrocity?  Their story would have been worthwhile, but too complex to deal with in terms of black and white, and this wasn’t a book that dealt with moral ambiguity.  Any book that stridently compares abortion to the Holocaust isn’t capable of that kind of analysis or insight into human society or the individual psyche.   

Am I some sort of terrible book snob?  Is it too much to expect fully realized characters, decent writing, and a well-constructed plot?  Have I totally missed the point of the book? It’s been a long time since I’ve been this angry with a book.  Anyone else read a book lately that gave you the same feeling?  What should I read next to erase the smell of deep-fried grease that is oozing from my pores?  Why are there only seven Harry Potter books?  All I know is I haven’t eaten a deep-fried mushroom in a decade and I hope it doesn’t take me that long before I venture back into the realm of popular fiction.

The Moonstone Cover

I just finished Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone so it has the honor of being the very first book reviewed here on Married With Books.  I could write a review and talk about the plot (mystery!) and the characters (oh my Miss Clack!) and its significance (first detective novel!), but I’d rather drag The Moonstone right into the muck of U.S. politics.  Let me offer a little explanation for those of you who didn’t stop reading after you saw the word politics.

I get riled up whenever I encounter the argument that classic literature isn’t relevant to the modern reader.  There was a lively discussion on this topic over at Book Riot this week and I’m on team Dead White Guys.  What does this have to do with politics?  During the same week that I read The Moonstone, I watched the State of the Union Address and the Republican debate. I wondered how Rick Santorum caught such a bad case of religious fervor?  I wondered how the hell Mitt Romney’s tax rate is less than mine?

I don’t have a television so I can’t turn to CNN for political analysis.  Heeding the good example of Mr. Betteredge and his trusty copy of Robinson Crusoe, I had no choice but to consult The Moonstone and hope it could help me make sense of it all.

Let’s begin with Rick Santorum.  He recently shared his opinion that women who become pregnant as the result of rape should make the best out of a bad situation and accept God’s gift.  Let’s hear what The Moonstone’s Miss Clack has to say about Rick Santorum’s religious convictions:

Once self-supported by conscience, once embarked on a career of manifest usefulness, the true Christian never yields.  Neither public nor private influences produce the slightest effect on us, when we have once got our mission.  Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission:  we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration which moves the world outside ours  We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody’s eyes, we hear with nobody’s ears, we feel with nobody’s hearts, but our own.  Glorious, glorious privilege!  And how is it earned?  Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry!  We are the only people who can earn it – for we are the only people who are always right. (272-73)

I wasn’t too fond of Miss Clack. She gets an A for effort for all of her hard work handing out religious tracts, but I didn’t trust her as a narrator.  She was flawed by the fact that her own religious fanaticism took precedence over any actual compassion for and understanding of the other characters’ struggles.  She was comically absurd, but I was laughing at her, not with her.  The same thing that bothers the reader about Miss Clack seems equally applicable to the religious right these days.  So what’s Wilkie’s vote on Santorum?  Nay.

What about good old Newt Gingrich?  He’s been plagued by some pretty interesting revelations about his past marriages.  He resigned as Speaker of the House after being disciplined for ethical wrongdoing.  Would it be fair to say he can’t erase the stain on his reputation?  The Moonstone’s Rosanna Spearman, reformed thief, would agree with that: “The stain is take off, she said.  But the place shows, Mr. Betteredge – the place shows!” (57) So what’s Wilke’s vote on Gingrich?  The open marriage thing probably wouldn’t have bothered Wilke – he had a similar arrangement going on back in the day.  But ethical and financial corruption?  The stain still shows.  Wilke’s vote?  Nay.

Finally, there’s the issue of economic equality.  Let’s consider the matchup between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

I’m pretty sure that U.S. economy is starting to look a lot like the The Moonstone’s Shivering Sands.  As Rosanna Spearman reflects on her life she describes the Shivering Sands to Mr. Betteredge: “It looks as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!” (58)  What could be the purpose of having two servants discuss this particularly distressing phenomenon?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is a metaphor for class struggles in society.

Mr. Franklin Blake, The Moonstone’s pretty rich boy, views the Shivering Sands quite differently than poor Rosanna:

The sunlight poured its unclouded beauty on every object that I could see.  The exquisite freshness of the air made the mere act of living and breathing a luxury.  Even the lonely little bay welcomed the morning with a show of cheerfulness: and the bared wet surface of the quicksand itself, glittering with a golden brightness, hid the horror of its false brown face under a passing smile.  It was the finest day I had seen since my return to Engand. (356)

Mr. Blake sees the sands as beautiful.  On the surface it looks good and he doesn’t much care so long as it hides the horror underneath.

Which makes me think about Mitt Romney.  Millionaire.  Doesn’t seem to care too much about middle class workers.  Doesn’t see the need to change a tax code that benefits the wealthiest at the expense of just about everyone else.  Like Mr. Blake, he’d rather not see the human struggles underneath the shiny corporations.  (Blake has some serious difficulty seeing Rosanna throughout the novel.  He closes his eyes, he looks away from her, he fails to notice her, he intentionally ignores her etc.)

Now consider the language President Obama used in his State of Union Address when he warned that the “decades-old promise of a secure and rising middle class is under threat because of growing disparities between the rich and everyone else in America.”  It’s strikingly similar to the language used by Rosanna Spearman when she described the Shivering Sands.

Will the middle-class sink into the Shivering Sands or will it rise again?  Mitt Romney enjoys firing his employees and has profited from a tax code that favors the wealthiest citizens.  President Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich.  He’s worried about the upward mobility of the middle-class.  Based on my trusty guide, The Moonstone, I’ve been able to figure a few things out.  Wilkie Collins wants me to vote for President Obama.

My point is not that Wilkie Collins is a card-carrying Democrat (he’s dead and British after all).  My point is that the themes of The Moonstone and the struggles of the characters are still relevant in the modern world.  One of the joys of classic literature is discovering the universal themes of humanity that transcend time and place.  Religious extremism and economic equality, two of the major themes of The Moonstone, are as relevant today as they were in 19th century Britain.