Frame (The Lantern Bearers, 2001, etc.) writes the story of Catherine Havisham, recluse of Satis House, in this prelude to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
Despite her mother’s death in childbirth, the Great Expectations of Miss Havisham come naturally. Her father, owner of a prosperous brewery, spoils her beyond measure. Then, as Catherine matures, he dispatches her to Durley Chase, home of Lady Chadwyck and her children Isabella, William, Marianna and cousin Frederick. The Chadwycks are to add the social polish necessary for Catherine to marry well. There, Catherine has eyes for William but soon learns that titled folk do not marry merchants' daughters. She then meets Charles Compeyson, charming, enigmatic, vaguely roguish. Class prejudices aside, the Chadwycks attempt to dissuade Catherine from Compeyson, but she is enthralled, even ignoring Chadwyck cousin Frederick, thinking him overly religious, awkward and unambitious despite his shy admiration for her. Then her father dies. Catherine allows Compeyson to run the brewery. He soon proposes then leaves her at the altar. Frame’s chapters are short, written from Catherine’s point of view, and laced with elements of classical poetry and song. Aeneas, Tom O’Bedlam and Henry Purcell deepen a narrative appealing to the modern ear yet suitably Dickensian. Subplots follow Sally, a village girl who becomes Catherine’s childhood companion, and Arthur, Catherine’s wastrel half brother. The book ripples with social commentary, an example being Catherine’s attempt to manage the brewery only to be stymied by gender prejudice and her own obstinacy. Finally, she closes the brewery. Catherine then adopts Estella, intending revenge on the masculine world—"all of the genus who conceitedly, smugly supposed that they were indispensable to a woman’s personal completeness, her felicity." Minor characters, Pip included, strengthen the story, and Frame’s presentation of the era is substantial but not overdone. Young Catherine’s character earns little empathy, and any sympathy for the recluse of Satis House certain that "true life is too awesome and terrifying to bear" can only be conjured up as her death looms.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gets a reboot in this novel set in a present-day London Jewish enclave.
The plot structures of Wharton’s 1920 classic and this novel are extremely similar: Adam, an ambitious young man, is set to marry Rachel, a stunning woman from a well-to-do family (Adam works in Rachel’s father’s law firm). Adam and Rachel have been a couple since they were teens, but their just-so existence is upended with the arrival of Rachel’s cousin Ellie from New York. Ellie has scandalized many in her family with her acting and modeling career, which included nude scenes in an art film, while rumors of her consorting with married men abound. But Adam is drawn to her in spite of all this, and in part because of it—her free-spirited, straight-talking attitude hits him like a thunderbolt, making him aware of just how sheltered his life has been. Segal isn’t the ornate stylist Wharton is, but she writes elegantly and thoughtfully about Adam’s growing sense of entrapment, and she excels at showing how a family’s admirable supportiveness can suddenly feel like smothering. (She can write with humor, too; in one scene Adam’s family reads names from the Jewish newspaper’s births-deaths-weddings announcements and guesses if they were “hatched,” “dispatched” or “matched.") Segal’s effort to work a Madoff-ian financial scandal into the closing chapters feels like an ungainly attempt to add some drama, and Ellie and Adam’s flirtatious bantering isn’t always convincing. But overall this is a well-tuned portrait of a couple whose connection proves to be much more tenuous than expected, and of religious rituals that prove more meaningful than they seem. Segal thoughtfully ties in family Holocaust lore and high-holiday gatherings to show that those long-standing bonds are tough to break.
Even if the plot and themes are second-hand, this is an emotionally and intellectually astute debut.
H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, as seen through the eyes of the doctor’s daughter.
Abandoned by her father and mourning the death of her mother, tough yet prissy Juliet Moreau lives in near-poverty working as a medical school scullery maid in Victorian-era London. When she learns that her father inhabits an island far, far away, where he performs horrific experiments on animals via vivisection, Juliet makes her way there along with Montgomery, her father’s assistant, and Edward Prince, a castaway they meet along the way. Naturally, sparks fly among Juliet and the gents, but danger lurks on the island in the form of humanlike creatures—some more ridiculously rendered than others—built from the body parts of animals, the results of Dr. Moreau’s experiments. Shepherd takes several liberties in her interpretation of Wells’ work, including the insertion of Juliet and the naming of Moreau’s creations using Shakespearean characters. The plot moves quickly; in some instances it goes too fast, especially during the voyage from London to the island, when accelerated action forces readers into mental gymnastics. Shepherd excels at worldbuilding in the historical London setting but has trouble fully realizing the landscape of the island. While the chemistry between Juliet and Montgomery spikes instantaneously and believably, the attraction between Prince and Juliet feels more contrived.
An unessential but entertaining interpretation.
(Science fiction. 13 & up)
An ex-convict is the wandering knight-errant who traverses the wasteland of Middle America, in this ambitious, gloriously funny, and oddly heartwarming latest from the popular fantasist (Stardust, 1999, etc.).
Released from prison after serving a three-year term, Shadow is immediately rocked by the news that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in an automobile accident. While en route to Indiana for her funeral, Shadow meets an eccentric businessman who calls himself Wednesday (a dead giveaway if you’re up to speed on your Norse mythology), and passively accepts the latter’s offer of an imprecisely defined job. The story skillfully glides onto and off the plane of reality, as a series of mysterious encounters suggest to Shadow that he may not be in Indiana anymore—or indeed anywhere on Earth he recognizes. In dreams, he’s visited by a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo and the voice of a prophet—as well as by Laura’s rather alarmingly corporeal ghost. Gaiman layers in a horde of other stories whose relationships to Shadow’s adventures are only gradually made clear, while putting his sturdy protagonist through a succession of tests that echo those of Arthurian hero Sir Gawain bound by honor to surrender his life to the malevolent Green Knight, Orpheus braving the terrors of Hades to find and rescue the woman he loves, and numerous other archetypal figures out of folklore and legend. Only an ogre would reveal much more about this big novel’s agreeably intricate plot. Suffice it to say that this is the book that answers the question: When people emigrate to America, what happens to the gods they leave behind?
A magical mystery tour through the mythologies of all cultures, a unique and moving love story—and another winner for the phenomenally gifted, consummately reader-friendly Gaiman.
The Australian poet of absences and silences reimagines the terror and exhilaration of the Trojan War.
Malouf (The Complete Stories, 2007, etc.) opens on a characteristically quiet note as he looks back more than 3,000 years to the plains of Scamander. A man stands on the shore, his ear cocked, listening for what we might imagine to be the whispering spirit of his mother. “The man is a fighter,” writes Malouf, “but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element.” It is the job of Achilles to put other men into the earth, many of them, as he takes his part in the ugly curse of the House of the Atreus. There before Mount Ida, he and his Myrmidons, “for nine years…have been cooped up here on the beach, all the vast hordes of them, Greeks of every clan and kingdom.” Malouf’s principal source, of course, is the greatest story any human has ever told, the majestic songs of the Iliad and Odyssey. He adds to it, as he writes in the afterword, with his store of experiences in Australia during wartime and readings from other ancient writers such as Apollodorus, as well as with liberal helpings of imagination that allow him to insert characters of his own invention into the proceedings. Given the possibilities already present in the tale of Achilles’ rage, Hector’s enmity and Patroclus’ suffering, some readers may find these inventions to be lily-gilding, but no matter. Malouf’s book works, illuminating the epics with language that comes from our own time while retaining its otherworldly poetry: “He is surprised, too, by the tallness of these Trojans. And their voices, which are thin and high-pitched, unlike his own and those of the folk he lives among.” Savor this poem in prose alongside Christopher Logue’s verse recastings of the Iliad in his War Music series.
A splendid, creative précis of ancient events that still reverberate.
Continuation of The Scarlet Letter follows Hester Prynne and her wild daughter to Oliver Cromwell’s England.
A year after Arthur Dimmesdale confessed that Pearl was his illegitimate child comes the death of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s vindictive estranged husband. Surprisingly, Roger’s will leaves all his substantial wealth to the girl who is not his daughter. Fearing that Pearl will never make a marriage in Puritan Boston, where she is called a witch-baby, Hester takes the eight-year-old to England. But the merry old land of her youth is gone, replaced by a dour nation under the rule of Cromwell. Dancing, theater and Christmas have been banished, and everyone wears somber gray clothes. Hester reunites with her childhood friend Mary Wright, moving with Pearl into the Wrights’ grand London house. After years of loneliness and shame, Hester and Pearl enjoy a cozy intimacy with Mary and her children. It’s when Robert Wright returns from battle in Ireland that Hester’s troubles begin. Mary’s husband is a member of Cromwell’s inner circle, and he has told the Protector of Hester’s rare gift. Since leaving Boston, she has been able to read the sin of anyone she looks at. Adulterers and hypocrites squirm in her presence, and she’s avoided at parties, but pious Cromwell uses her to root out traitors; Hester’s second sight sends many men to the Tower, to her dismay. As Cromwell becomes more paranoid and dangerous, Hester falls in with a band of Royalists (including a dashing libertine lord with whom she enjoys a casual affair) attempting to restore the monarchy. Her confidant, the newly enthroned King Charles II, helps Hester achieve her greatest wish, a good match for Pearl.
Reed’s confident debut amiably reimagines Hawthorne’s tragic heroine as a brave lady in tumultuous times, making this sequel to his literary classic a standard-issue historical novel.
Lear in Iowa. In a seaming, 20th-century version of Shakespeare's tragedy, Smiley—clawing open the "ingratitude" of a monarch's elder daughters to reveal a rage that could out-tempest Lear's—once again examines the buried secret hurts within families and the deadly results when damaged egos are unleashed: "The one thing...maybe no family could tolerate was things coming out into the open." Living under the iron order of that tyrannical, successful farmer Larry Cook, owner of 640 Iowa acres, are: daughter Rose, 34- year-old recovering cancer patient, mother of two and wife of ex-musician Pete, the perennial outsider, object of Larry's contempt; and childless Ginny, married to Tyler, an easygoing man who can betray with silence. Youngest daughter Caroline, whom motherless Rose and Ginny had raised and unfettered from Daddy, is a lawyer in Des Moines. It's at a well-liquored neighborhood social that Daddy announces he's giving up his farm to his three daughters. "I don't know," says cool lawyer Caroline, and Daddy slams off in a fury. As Rose and Ginny and their pleased husbands prepare for a release from Daddy's overlordship, something else is released when Rose—scenting out weakness in the terrible old man—hungers for revenge at last. Nothing but Daddy's repentance will do for deeds in the past so foul that Ginny has blotted out the memory and Rose has kept her silence. Circling around Rose's sizzling path toward impossible satisfaction, with Ginny in tow, are their husbands—one blunted, one death-bound—and a self-exiled native son who will drive a wedge between the two sisters, mingling a hate and lust/love that brings one to murder. As for Daddy's angel Caroline—come back to flight for Daddy (senile? maybe), never battered by home maelstroms—he's been simply a father "no more, no less." With the Bard's peak moments—the storm, a blinding, etc.—a potent tragedy immaculate in characters, stately pace, and lowering ambiance.
An irresistible retake on Pride and Prejudice alters the familiar perspective by foregrounding a different version of events—the servants’.
Daring to reconfigure what many would regard as literary perfection, Baker (The Undertow, 2012,etc.) comes at Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel from below stairs, offering a working-class view of the Bennet family of Longbourn House. While the familiar drama of Lizzie and Jane, Bingley and Darcy goes on in other, finer rooms, Baker’s focus is the kitchen and the stable and the harsh cycle of labor that keeps the household functioning. Cook Mrs. Hill rules the roost, and maids Sarah and Polly do much of the hard work, their interminable roster of chores diminished a little by the hiring of a manservant, James Smith. Sarah is attracted to James, but he is mysterious and withdrawn, and soon, her eye is caught by another—Bingley’s black footman, Ptolemy. James, though trapped in his secrets, has noticed Sarah too and steps in when she is on the verge of making an impulsive mistake. And so, the romance begins. Baker is at her best when touching on the minutiae of work, of interaction, of rural life. James’ back story, though capably done, offers less magic. But a last episode, moving through grief and silence into understated romantic restoration, showcases a softly piercing insight.
Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.
Maguire, up to now a writer of kids' books, turns his considerable child-captivating skills to adults and adult children in this magical telling of the land of Oz before and up to the arrival of Dorothy and company.
While perhaps not quite as wonderful a land as Alice's, Maguire's Oz is magical and intriguing, and he adeptly fills in the "historical'' background of talking animals, tin woodsmen, flying monkeys, and rejoicing Munchkins without it ever seeming familiar or contrived. In Munchkinland, a green-skinned baby is born to an often absent missionary preacher and the often drunk heiress to the county seat, neither of them Munchkins themselves. Baby Elphaba's parents' habits being what they are, though, her true father long remains a mystery as it does for her sister, Nessarose, born two years later with pink skin but sans arms (magic red shoes will later enable her to walk without assistance). The girls grow up and attend the university, where Elphie, always the outsider in her verdant skin, is bright, sharp-tongued, and aloof. Nessie, unable to touch, has chosen an untouchable world and lives her life in religious sanctimoniousness. Elphie's roommate is perfectly Glinda, a dippy, well-intentioned debutante sort majoring in sorcery. Meanwhile, the school's frightening headmistress places a spell on the girls and assigns each of them a quadrant of the land, leaving one unattended. Elphie is conscientious and honest, hardly a witch and certainly not evil, but her life unfolds along a path that is well laid out, though not by her. Her journey along this road is a captivating, funny, and perceptive look at destiny, personal responsibility, and the not-always-clashing beliefs of faith and magic.
Save a place on the shelf between Alice and The Hobbit—that spot is well deserved.
Steeped in the work and life of Virginia Woolf, Cunningham (Flesh and Blood, 1995, etc.) offers up a sequel to the work of the great author, complete with her own pathos and brilliance.
Cunningham tells three tales, interweaving them in cunning ways and, after the model of Mrs. Dalloway itself, allowing each only a day in the life of its central character. First comes Woolf herself, in June of 1923 (after a prologue describing her 1941 suicide). In Woolf’s day (as in her writings), little “happens,” though the profundities are great: Virginia works (on Mrs. Dalloway); her sister Vanessa visits; Virginia holds her madness at bay (just barely); and, over dinner, she convinces husband Leonard to move back to London from suburban Richmond. In the “Mrs. Brown” sections, a young woman named Sally Brown reads the novel Mrs. Dalloway, this in suburban L.A. (in 1949), where Sally has a three-year-old son, is pregnant again, and, preparing her husband’s birthday celebration, fights off her own powerful despair. Finally, and at greatest length, is the present-time day in June of “Mrs. Dalloway,” this being one Clarissa Vaughan of West 10th Street, NYC, years ago nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her then-lover and now-AIDS-victim Richard Brown—who, on this day in June, is to receive a major prize for poetry. Like the original Mrs. Dalloway, this Clarissa is planning a party (for Richard), goes out for flowers, observes the day, sees someone famous, thinks about life, time, the past, and love (“Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other”). Much in fact does happen; much is lost, hoped for, feared, sometimes recovered (“It will serve as this afternoon’s manifestation of the central mystery itself”), all in gorgeous, Woolfian, shimmering, perfectly-observed prose.
Hardly a false note in an extraordinary carrying on of a true greatness that doubted itself.