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Pop pundit Roiphe (The Morning After, 1993, etc.) switches genres for a fictional account of the Reverend Charles Dodgson's obsession with Alice Liddell—and it's not exactly Wonderland.

The shy Oxford don gets along much better with children, especially girls, than with adults. He's unmarried, unable to come to terms with adult sexuality, still disgusted by his memories of his ever-pregnant mother’s perpetually swollen belly, the visible evidence of his father's lust. Socially inept and cursed with an incurable stutter, Dodgson isn’t much of a teacher, but the languorous young aristocrats he instructs in the finer points of logic and mathematics don't really care. All in all, he seems harmless enough, and the socially ambitious wife of the new dean sees nothing wrong with his friendship with her three young daughters. But she's puzzled: Why is the unmarried, somewhat effeminate young man so drawn to Alice, the least conventionally pretty of her offspring? The answer is hinted at in letters and extracts from Dodgson's diaries: his attraction is powerfully sexual, worshipfully loving: Alice is his heart's desire. He represses such thoughts as best he can but is plagued by nightmares in which much of the surreal imagery of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass first appears. He begins to photograph Alice in typically Victorian poses as a beggar girl, a garden nymph, and so forth, and falls more deeply in love with her each passing day. The pivotal moment: Dodgson at last dares to photograph Alice naked and is nearly crazed with erotic excitement as he watches her prance around, glorying in the power of her nudity. He later presents Alice with the pictures in secret, but Mrs. Liddell finds them. From then on, Dodgson is forever banned from all contact with the Liddell family.

An odd hybrid of fiction and well-known facts, mixing several points of view, none too successfully. And frequent quotes from Dodgson’s tenderly passionate diary entries only underscore the deficiencies in Roiphe’s own style, which is noticeably contemporary in tone—and unconvincing.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 2001
ISBN: 0-385-33527-X
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Dial
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2001


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