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Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Title: The Painted Girls

Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan

16138688What it’s about: Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantly watched lest she squander the little money she makes as a laundress on absinthe. Eldest sister Antoinette is sporadically employed as a walker-on at the opera, but the family’s best hope lies with the youngest two daughters, Marie and Charlotte, who have begun their training as petit rats, the youngest ballet girls. Both hope to be promoted first to the quadrille and then up the ranks of the ballet corps. It’s not only a way to make a decent living, but a chance to rise above their birth and become something beautiful and admired.

Painter Edgar Degas sits in on each class, sketching the dancers in a novel way: as they are in the practice room—small, tired and thin—rather than as they are on the stage. He chooses Marie as one of his models, creating portraits of her that ultimately result in a sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie is grateful for the extra money and finds that she is a quick study, becoming one of the more promising students in the class though she began her training later than the other girls. She dares to hope that she may be promoted to the quadrille, but is haunted by the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with her. Marie is a student of the most recent theories on human physiology, which link physical features like a broad forehead or large jaw with criminal behavior and moral degradation. When Marie looks in the mirror, she can’t help but see these features…and wonder when her baser nature will make itself known.

She also sees these features in Antoinette’s lover, Emile Abadie, a roguish youth without a home who spends his money on rounds of drinks at the cafes. Antoinette is enamored with the way he adores her, the pretty words he showers on her, and the two become more deeply involved as they work together as permanent extras in a sensational new play depicting the bleak lives of the working class—a plot all too close to home. Blinded by her devotion to Emile, Antoinette refuses to admit that she is drifting away from her sisters and compromising her chance at a good and honest life.

The Painted Girls was everything I look for in historical fiction. All of the main characters are real figures, but their stories have been massaged in some cases to intersect. Marie really was the model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Antoinette really did act in the adaptation of Zola’s naturalist novel on the stage, but the insertion of Abadie (another historical figure) into her life is a liberty—but one I didn’t mind. Since Buchanan has chosen to chronicle the lives of such peripheral figures—not kings and queens, but average people—there’s little chance of jarring us with a bit of historical play. The Painted Girls concentrates on the story of sisterhood and finds its strength therein. It’s an absorbing novel, balancing the emotional weight of poverty and class strife with the grace of the ballet and the hope of childhood.

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In which voiceless characters keep me from fully connecting with an intriguing premise

Title: The Dovekeepers

Author: Alice Hoffman

What it’s about: When the Romans invade Israel, no place is safe for the Jewish people. Not Jerusalem, where their Temple is toppled to the ground, and not any town or village along the way, where the people are burned out of their houses, forced to flee or be killed or enslaved. There is only one place left to flee, a Zealot fortress in the desert that was once Herod’s palace, his last retreat and defense, a complex built to last a siege and protect its residents. The survivors now place their hope in this stronghold and their small army of boys and men who roam the desert in search of supplies and Roman raiders. But a feeling of dread hangs over the fortress. Its inhabitants know they are only waiting for the Romans to arrive, for the final test of their strength and their faith.

To this place come four women and each is called to work in the dovecotes. Yael crossed the desert with two assassins—her father and the man who became the love of her life. Unfortunately, this man also traveled with his wife and children. Always treated like a dog by her father, she finds a lion within herself when she meets her love and despite her guilt she cannot give up her newfound joy. Revka’s journey is one of loss, as both her husband and daughter are killed before reaching safety. Her son-in-law becomes a different man, leaving her scarred grandchildren in her care. Both boys have lost the power to speak after the horrors they’ve seen. Revka lives to care for them and to restore their voices if possible. Shirah is the only one to cross the desert with purpose, not fleeing the Romans, but seeking her long-lost love. Now she shares her gift of magic and wisdom  with the troubled and bereft in the fortress. She brings her daughter Aziza, a girl drawn to men not for their love, but for their freedom and abilities. Together, these four women must find a way to survive.

Though the premise of this book sounds great, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The historical context is rich and the characters are unique and interesting, but this book had one major flaw that kept me from getting immersed. It wasn’t in the plot—it was in the writing. Hoffman uses extremely minimal dialogue. Whole chapters seem to go by without any sign of quotation marks and often conversations are summarized rather than shown. As a result, I found the characters understandably rather voiceless. I realized that dialogue is incredibly important to my enjoyment of a book.

Would I recommend? Some people might not feel as strongly about dialogue as I do, and if so, you might enjoy this book. But if you need to hear the voices of the characters to get caught up in their struggle, this isn’t for you.

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In which you have been wondering where I am and I return triumphant having read a literary classic

So…did you miss me? Thanks for sending out the search parties, I really appreciate it. Astonishingly, I have a good reason (or two) for my absence. I swear you haven’t been missing out on reviews, because I actually only read one book since my last post—the epic Anna Karenina. My other excuse? Well, I started a new project. Check it out at UltimateBridesmaid.com. I’ve been blogging bridesmaid advice, party-planning tips for bridal showers and bachelorette parties, invites, dresses, DIY and much more!

But now, back to business. And yes, I know I have some mad catching up to do to keep up a decent total this year. I am aware and will read accordingly.

Title: Anna Karenina

Author: Leo Tolstoy

What it’s about: First, we need to blame this on the boyfriend. He’s responsible for some other pretty long books I’ve read (see J.R.). This time we decided it would be fun to have a book club of two and pick a book that was strikingly absent from our English-major repertoires. We landed on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Russian epic on love, class, commerce, Communism, religion, et al. But, even though it took me a couple months, the time was worth it.

I first have to recommend the translation I read: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The boyfriend read an older edition and occasionally we would directly compare passages to see how the translations differed. I almost always preferred my version, finding it clearer, more nuanced and lyrical and, in my opinion, truer to the spirit of the characters and the work. The book often reminded me of Dickens in its scope and attention to character. It’s almost impossible to explain what happens, because Karenina is really a work about life, in particular the lives a group of interrelated nobles in nineteenth-century Russia.

The nominal center of the book, Anna, leaves her husband for the dashing officer Vronsky and spends the next 800 pages or so dealing with what this means for her as a woman (loss of social status), a mother (loss of her child), and a Catholic (loss of eternal life). Unable or unwilling to obtain a divorce, Anna becomes a sort of social pariah, a kind of nonentity who can’t be accepted into the circles she once frequented but is nonetheless still alive and in need of a place in the world. In contrast to Anna is Levin, whom I personally could make a case for being as important a character as Anna. It certainly seemed to me that he received almost equal page time. A gentleman with a farm in the country, Levin is a classic case of head versus heart. He is preoccupied with solving the Russian problem of profitable farming and dealing with the peasant class, but also feels he’ll never find true happiness without a wife and children. His ambitions to improve society are directly at odds with his romantic quest, and he finds himself asking that eternal question: What is the meaning of it all?

My favorite parts of the book focus on human interaction: love, betrayal, hate and just how we muddle through this thing called life. Nineteenth-century Russia is a place at a turning point. For the upper class, it is still all about etiquette and “rightness,” but the old ways have begun to disappear. While there is a general loosening of decorum and tradition, there’s no accepted path forward. So, for example, while it’s known that arranged marriages are out of style, it’s not quite known how things “should be done” now. This makes for an interesting exploration as different generations deal with the fallout of society rethinking its organization. We see this not only in the sphere of marriage, but in class, politics and religion as well. Unfortunately, Tolstoy does tend to go on about these subjects in intimate detail. There are long passages on farming, Russian local government, and religion, which were at times a struggle to get through. But I was always able to pick up on the other side and occasionally found a buried gem—a beautiful passage or interesting maxim to take away. Like Dickens’ work, it’s the kind of book that takes a long time, that you struggle with at times, but you’re ultimately happy you made the commitment when you finish.

Would I recommend? Certainly. Anna Karenina is an ambitious read, but it’s fulfilling, fascinating in its density and brilliant in its scope. A must for literature buffs and those who like to peek behind the curtains into the lives of others.

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In which an author who previously wowed me leaves me wanting

Title: The Distant Hours

Author: Kate Morton

What it’s about: When Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in the mail during World War II, and only now have the letters been delivered through a quirk in the postal service. But Edie is surprised to see her mother’s strong reaction when she opens the letter, and even more surprised to learn who Juniper is. Edie discovers that her mother spent part of the war in the countryside, taken into Milderhurst Castle by the three Sisters Blythe. Glimpsing this hidden chapter of her mother’s life, Edie becomes obsessed with learning more about the castle and the sisters, especially when she discovers who their father is—Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s classic The Mud Man, the story that first got Edie interested in writing and set her on the path to becoming an editor. As Edie meets the sisters, she begins to discover secrets long buried, about her mother, the sisters, the castle, and the origins of The Mud Man.

About a year ago I picked up Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and found myself lost in a gothic mystery that was both delightful and surprising. I say surprising because I hadn’t expected much from the book—I picked it up at an airport bookstore in an hour of need—so the payoff was all the sweeter. I noticed two books of equal girth that also carried Ms. Morton’s name and mentally filed them away (or added them to my Goodreads queue) for a future read.

I’m sorry to say that my second encounter with Ms. Morton left me more than a little disappointed. In fact, though The Distant Hours seemed like it would have many of the same characteristics as Morton’s earlier work, they were almost entirely absent from this book. The Distant Hours felt under-crafted and under-thought, with paper-thin characters and a heavy-handed delivery. It’s all the more surprising because I described The Forgotten Garden as finely crafted, with a light touch of symbolism. The Distant Hours is the opposite. Edie is a clunky narrator with no apparent personality and her voice often drew me out of the narrative with references to “what she’d learn later” or things she “wished she could have known then.” She has no personality of her own and her mother’s connection to the castle is never properly exploited.

Instead of developing the ostensible main character, the book focuses on the three sisters and Edie becomes just a set of eyes, an outsider stand-in for the reader who does a lot of telling instead of showing. Morton wants to deliver a mystery, to make us wonder about how these three women came to spend their entire lives in a decaying castle. But the “mystery” of it all is laid on so thick that we learn next to nothing about the characters until the final act. By then, I cared little for Saffy and Percy Blythe or the origins of the mysterious Mud Man. These people even edit their own thoughts to keep us from discovering their secrets (which, by the way, are not even that scandalous or surprising). The only one with any semblance of depth was Juniper Blythe, who had some vivacity in her early appearances in the novel as a young girl, but is rendered into a Jane Eyre Bertha-esque specter in Edie’s present-day interactions with her. As Morton keeps us from the secrets, whole chapters end up feeling like treading water. I kept telling myself there’d be some kind of shocking payoff, but there wasn’t. t can hardly believe the same person wrote both these books.

Would I recommend?  The Distant Hours was a real disappointment to me. I’d certainly recommend The Forgotten Garden (I even consulted some others who had read that book to be sure it was as good as I remembered. I started to doubt myself after reading this one. They assured me I had not lost my mind or taste in books.) But my advice is to skip The Distant Hours. It’s not a good reflection of Ms. Morton’s talent.

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In which a young girl finds a husband in an unusual way 

Title: A Young Wife

Author: Pam Lewis

What it’s about: When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to nurse his ailing wife, Elisabeth. Minke’s time with Elisabeth in the attic of her lavish home is short, but the two form a bond as Elisabeth relates her travels to Argentina through sporadic opium-induced dreams. Then, suddenly and almost without warning, Elisabth passes away and Sander DeVries—the man who came to fetch Minke—proposes to Minke, hoping to secure a new wife less than three days after his last has died. At first scandalized, but later charmed by Sander and his promises of adventure and beauty in Argentina, Minke accepts and the two are married in the old way, breaking a ring in the company of her family. Minke and Sander board a ship for Comodoro Rivadavia, along with Sander’s business partner, Cassian, an enigmatic doctor charged with looking after Minke while Sander sees to his business ventures onboard. Minke’s life settles into a series of peaks and valleys. She falls deeply in love with Sander, enjoying their nights together and his passion. But Sander often leaves her alone and in the dark, about himself and their future. The nature of his  business is murky, mixed up in oil, shipping, and morphine, and he shows streaks of jealousy and possessiveness as Minke befriends some of the men onboard. At her first sight of Argentina, Minke is disappointed by the barren, dirty town, its houses with walls of corrugated iron and dirt floors, but she soon embraces her new surroundings, befriending the wild gauchos who ride into town to trade, much to the dislike of her husband. Minke will soon find out that Sander is not the man she thought he was and will have to fight for a happy future for herself and her children.

A Young Wife is compelling, partially as it’s based on the true story of the author’s maternal grandmother. It’s the second book I’ve read this year that tells of women’s struggles to carve out better lives for themselves and their children in male-dominated societies. (More on the first here.) Minke’s voice is honest and clear and Lewis weaves a beautiful narrative. Some elements are a bit expected, but in general the story is fact-paced and engrossing. I could have done without Minke’s secondary love interest and found Cassian inconsistent, sometimes acting in sinister capacities for Sander and sometimes proving Minke’s ally. But these niggling points aside, it struck me that while Minke’s story is a coming-of-age tale, it’s also about a woman learning to understand a man and the progression of their relationship. We see Sander through Minke’s eyes and though there are clues that he’s duplicitous, we always have Minke’s understanding and also her love for him, especially in the first portion of the book. As their story unfolds, we see what Minke thought was a love story dissolve into a tragedy. But with this dissolution, Minke learns about herself and grows up. She is, after all, a very young wife.

Would I recommend? I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It has many elements that I am drawn to: a strong female narrator, a historical basis, and travel to exotic locales. Though a few plot points didn’t come together for me, A Young Wife is emotionally honest a worth a look for fans of historical fiction and romance.

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In which I don my red scarf and join the ranks of the rêveurs

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

What it’s about: The circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-and-white world of acrobats and jugglers, labyrinths and ice gardens, a bonfire burning white and the scent of caramel and popcorn in the air. It is Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams, and it delights patrons around the globe with tattooed contortionists, fortune tellers, and a lovely young illusionist by the name of Celia Bowen. What few people know if that Le Cirque des Rêves is merely a venue for a magical competition, two student magicians bound by rules that neither of them fully understand. Celia was bound by her father, the great illusionist Prospero, who endlessly drilled his child to shatter and fix teacups or pull birds from the air. The opponent in the game is chosen by Prospero’s longtime rival, the man in the gray suit. He selects an orphan boy, Marco, who studies ancient symbols and signs. While Celia’s education is visceral, Marco’s is cerebral. The final battle is to be a test of philosophy and much as it is skill. But to Celia and Marco, this test is so much more. It’s their entire existence. They’ve never known anything but the coming challenge, the mark burned into their fingers that signifies the bond. And after years of training and study it’s finally come in the form of something delightful. They each find themselves falling in love with the circus, challenging themselves to create more wonderful attractions and deepen its mystery, only to find that while they are supposed to be competing they are unquestionably also drawn to one another.

The Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I’ll add it to my list of all-time favorites. What appealed to me most was the absolutely mind-consuming beauty of the narrative. I left this book with a deep, deep longing to visit The Night Circus, as if Morgenstern had pulled a hidden place from my mind and breathed life into a dream I’d always carried. The circus is almost supernatural in its pull. The story is magic, mystery, intrigue, and romance all at once. It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in terms of language and atmosphere, but it doesn’t have the density of that book and it adds desire. The Night Circus is written in a series of vignettes or scenes, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldly or dreamlike feeling. Morgenstern is able to craft striking, almost haunting images that stay with you long after you close the book. I flew through it.

Would I recommend? Most certainly! What a stunning debut! I may find it hard to forgive Ms. Morgenstern for instilling such a burning hope that the Night Circus exists, but I’ll certainly pick up her next book (and read this one again!).

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In which I accidentally read a romance novel

Title: This Burns My Heart

Author: Samuel Park

What it’s about: Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a traditional path of marriage and family that will bring her comfort and stability. Soo-Ja devises a plan: she’ll marry a weak man, one who will let her make all the decisions and won’t stand in her way. When she meets Min, a young student swept up in a protest movement and a member of her own class, she thinks she’s found the perfect target. Min seems madly in love with her and promises to follow her to Seoul. Soo-Ja agrees to their marriage, only to be approached the next day by Yul, a handsome doctor who is also a part of the protest movement and who once saved Soo-Ja’s life. Yul asks for her hand as well, warning her not to marry Min, but Soo-Ja believes she’s made the right choice. Min will take her away from the confines of traditional Korean life. Or so she thinks.

Three years later, Soo-Ja knows differently. Trapped in a loveless marriage and forced to serve ungrateful in-laws, Soo-Ja’s only joy is her daughter, Hana. She will do anything to build a better life for her child, even if it means bowing to the very doctrines she tried to escape. And Yul is always in her mind and sometimes in her life, reappearing as if by providence when she needs him most. Soo-Ja knows she can never leave Min if she hopes to keep her daughter. Korean law will give custody to the father and leave her with nothing. Bound to Min, Soo-Ja must give up everything else—her ambitions, desires, and even her dignity—to hold on to her daughter. A troubled love story, This Burns My Heart explores the aftermath of choosing the wrong person, what it means to live with that decision, and how we go on with life, even as our hearts burn.

So, the plot of This Burns My Heart is by no means revolutionary. I’ve read my fair share of books about Asian women searching for love in a patriarchal oppressive society, variously set in China and Japan between 1850 and 1980.  This version takes us to Korea and is set a bit on the late side, post-Korean War and into the 1970s. The tropes of the genre are still there: the sacrifice of love for duty, the domineering mother-in-law, the repression of the female perspective. That said, I still enjoyed This Burns My Heart. It’s greatest redeeming factor is Soo-Ja’s voice, which is raw and intimate. This book is less about the particulars of Korean society, only touching on some of the details of cultural practices, but it’s not really meant to be a portrait of a place in the way that Memoirs of a Geisha or Empress Orchid were. This book is far more internal and, at its core, a romance novel.

Would I recommend? Sure! I think I’d wait for the paperback release, but as a light summer read I’d endorse This Burns My Heart. I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one was well done, with just the right balance of forbidden, repressed desire and hope and a compelling heroine to give the story depth.

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