BOOK REVIEWS

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

What a pity. I was expecting The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter to be a sort of gender-bender take on famous Gothic and Crime classics. Sadly, Goss doesn’t handle well intertextuality so well. She includes too much and the sheer amount of things she tries to drag into her story makes the existence of this novel seem like an excuse to show off all of her favourite classics.
The beginning wasn’t so bad. Mary Jekyll has just lost her mother and is experiencing financial troubles. Some information regarding her now deceased father’s connection to Mr. Hyde brings her into the path of Sherlock Holmes and his associate Dr. Watson. Through both luck and chance Mary ends up meeting Diana, Beatrice, Justine and Catherine. They are all connected through the work of scientists such as Mary’s fathers.
Now…one of my main issue with the story is that it all feels so incredibly easy. Mary manages to accompany Holmes and Watson in their investigations…are we to believe that they would have really let her come along? Especially since she really isn’t as sharp or bright as we are initially lead to believe…?
Mary’s adventures are incredibly repetitive: here she finds Diana, then she meets Beatrice, and then Justine and Catherine…and guess what? They are all connected! And they are all fine working together just a few minutes after having met one another.
The biggest…biggest problem was the writing style. Goss decided to make one of her heroines the writer of this ‘novel’. So throughout we have a constant commentary from the characters, talking about the way Catherine is writing, what she is including etc.
I thought that it slowed the story’s pace and it came across as terribly conceited. A description could be followed by comments such as:

JUSTINE: That’s a lovely description, Catherine.
CATHERINE: Thank you! I’m glad someone notices when I write particularly well.

And Catherine keeps emphasising how ‘new and different’ her writing technique is

JUSTINE: Is the story supposed to be jumping around like that, from Mary’s head, to Diana’s, to Beatrice’s?
CATHERINE: I told you, this is a new way of writing.

Catherine often explains the addition of certain scenes or dialogues:

We’re trying to recount how we all came together, describe who we are. That’s not just the story of how we solved the Whitechapel Murders. It’s the story of us.

Comments of that type made it hard to ‘get into’ the actual narration. Each time I tried to get immersed into the storyline, the commentary pulled me away. The girls bicker about ‘you shouldn’t have added that’ and ‘I didn’t say/think that’. It wasn’t amusing, it was just annoying. It didn’t make the girls more real…it simply made them insufferable. And funnily enough, they all sounded more or less like each other. Their main differences were in their ‘special’ attributes…and their ‘fathers’.

She had only known them for a few days, but already they felt like family, as though they belonged together.
BEATRICE: As we do.
MARY: Despite our differences.
BEATRICE: Or because of them.

In short:
➜The characters were all flat: the characterisation relayed on the ‘names’ rather than actual character.
➜Everyone and everything that happens seemed a mere excuse as to be able to include all sorts of classic ‘monsters’.
➜The story was a sequence of similarly forgettable ‘adventures’. Lots of ‘coincidences’ helped the investigation…
➜The characters go from place to place, without paying attention to their surroundings.
➜The novel is orientated on the ‘investigation’ which didn’t offer any interesting scenes or anecdotes. It wasn’t surprising nor intriguing…Holmes and Watson are more or less caricatures…
➜Certain terms made the historical setting rather implausible. The funny commentary was not funny.

Mary’s blood ran cold in her veins.
CATHERINE: Now am I being melodramatic?
MARY: No […] but as a metaphor, it accurately describes how I felt at the time.

Goss’ seems to be ignoring her story and characters, favouring instead the opportunity to include as many different ‘cult’ monsters and characters into her novel, which is far too self-congratulatory.

My rating: 2.5 stars

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Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer

This novel has quite a lot of potential. The summary is made to intrigue, and I soon found myself buying a copy of it. Overall, I did ‘sort of’ like it, however, there were quite a lot of things that kept me from really enjoying the story. My main ‘issue’ is that Creatures of Will and Temper is very superficial. The characters are flimsy, the story is shallow and the execution is far too tentative.
First of all, I believe this is a pastiche of certain Victorian novels.I knew that the tone of the novel would be rather light so I was hoping for an amusing parody. The ‘connection’ that this novel claims to have to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray isn’t really apparent. Mentioning one beautiful painting isn’t the same as reinterpreting Wilde’s story.
Onto the novel itself…There is too much focus on small petty arguments between the two sisters; a good 70% of the story is the two fighting with each other and feeling ‘angsty’ about their lives. I know that the author is making fun of their dramatics, but, the length spent on these stupid quarrels makes them harder to laugh at.
A lot of the dialogues and the characters’ inner monologues came across as frivolous. Trivial talk that didn’t really bring the plot forward slowed the storyline’s pace. The story itself isn’t really fleshed out: I was expecting so much more from the supernatural element, which to my mind, played a very minor role in this novel.
There were moments in which I was amused by the over the top characters but they just didn’t last long. The story is rather inclusive and the finale is just laughable.
I think this would have worked much better if Tanzer had kept to a light-hearted tone without stressing the conflict between the sisters, and by better incorporating the supernatural element into her story.

My rating: 3.25 stars

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Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Goblin Market features female characters who are subjects to desire. It has been said that in this poem, Rossetti attempts to capture the complexity of human sexuality and desire through a sensual language. I, however, do not share this opinion.
From the very first lines it was quite clear that Rossetti responded to the aesthetic movement. Sadly, while I do enjoy certain aspect of this movement, I found the beauty imposed by Rossetti’s many vibrant descriptions to be lacking feeling. There was an underlying simplicity behind Rossetti’s colorful words which rendered the whole poem rather frivolous.
Despite my personal opinion, critics read many different things in Goblin Market: it is a cautionary tale for women and children, a critique of consumerism, a tale of sisterhood, or even a poem that both encourages and critiques female sexual pleasure. In my opinion, it is just a flashy collection of pretty images that doesn’t truly dwell on anything deep or meaningful.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

“If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman – and I loved his wife so dearly!”

A thoroughly entertaining novel that is intriguing from the very start. One of the most famous works of what is now called ‘sensation fiction’, it combines gothic elements with romantic ones voicing anxieties of the Victorian era in an almost inconspicuous manner.Serious issues are shadowed by highly dramatic moments charged with an almost surreal quality. This novel is a brilliant example of melodrama that is brimming with Collins’ sharp sense of humor. His characters are vivid and interesting. Marian, well, I loved her. On the surface she confirms the idea of a resolute strong woman is either ‘manly or unattractive’, yet, if you look beyond that, you see that she is a much more encompassing portrayal of a resilient woman living in a society that seeks to diminish her sense of self: she believes Victorian gendered ideals for she is a Victorian woman. Still, Marian remains aware of wanting to behave in a way that wasn’t deemed appropriate; she scorns most members of her own sex because they are made to fit notions of femininity that she abhors. Her sister Laura embodies conventional ideas of a woman, an ethereal fragile beauty, yet, when the situation demands it, she showcases a wilful mind. The bond between these two sisters is one of the strengths of this novel.

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

Then we have Count Fosco…well, he is an engaging ‘villain’. I sort of loved-to-hate-him. His appreciation for Marian was priceless.
Walter Hartright wasn’t as interesting as the other characters, however, I did enjoy reading about his deep friendship and loyalty to Marian, who he had initially judged based on her appearance. His love for Laura is somewhat ‘instant’, but, I believe that it fits with the overall story.

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared.”

The story slowly unravels the mystery of this ‘woman white’, with Marian and Walter acting as sleuths. I did find the last part a tad drawn out. Marian seems to fade into the background which seemed odd given her pivotal role in a major section of the novel.

“The only mystery that remains, is the mystery of his motive

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a third reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not to highlight, or make a note of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that beautifully convey the many nuanced feelings and thoughts of her protagonist as well as the different landscapes she navigates. She offers her readers intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides and complex character studies that struck me for their realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator’s interior struggle. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her shifting sense of self. Yet, even upon a third reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with her readers (speaking of, there is an almost meta aspect to her narrative as she directly address readers and refers to scenes occurred in previous ‘chapters’).
Her self-division

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed and quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of who she is.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment, reason and feeling, is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood
which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
The cast of characters is not necessarily likeable but I grew fond of them nonetheless, Lucy’s banter with a certain professor and a rather spoiled pupil made for some truly entraining scenes. I appreciated how imperfect and sometimes idiosyncratic these characters were as these things made them all the more believable.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s shifting individuality.

DISCLAIMER: this novel is decidedly of its time so expect a lot of phrenological references (or viewing someone’s physiognomy as indicative of their character), the majority of Catholics in this novel are definitely a wee bit fanatical, many annoying remarks—usually by men, but sometimes by women as well—regarding women (the weaker sex etc…), a major character owns a plantation in Guadeloupe and no one bats an eye about it (I definitely recommend Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy for those interested in postcolonial sort of retelling of Villette, it is a short but truly captivating read), people from France and Spain are often portrayed as ‘other’, even ‘alien’, and a little girl with learning disabilities is referred to as a ‘cretin’ and some other unpleasant terms.

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The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

The Painted Bridge gives a harrowing glimpse into the lives of women admitted in asylums during the late nineteenth century. The story follows newly married Anna Palmer who –tricked by her husband – becomes a ‘resident’ of Lake House, a private asylum. Her initial incredulity over her situations soon give way to a strong sense of injustice over her forced stay in the asylum and the conditions patients endure there.
The initial premise was really intriguing, and Wendy Wallace does accurately portray the cruelty and unfairness that the women at Lake House face. Anna’s firm belief of not being unwell like the other patients does create a divided between her and the other women. Through the story however, after enduring barbaric treatments, she soon grows to understand them. I think Anna was a very believable character who is likeable for her strength and determination. Despite desperately wanting to leave Lake House she finds herself putting her friend’s needs in front of her own ones. For this reason she was very admirable.
However, the other characters, did not make the same impact. I found that the other point of views were not a strong. Instead of adding more depth to the story they served as a distraction. Characters like Lucas simply lacked Anna’s complexity.
The story itself accurately portrayed the injustice that women were made to endure. Wallace writes of Anna’s denial of freedom. While being interesting the story did lack something, an ‘oomph’ of sorts. Perhaps it is because, besides Anna, other characters were a bit bland, that I was never truly engrossed by some of the events. I felt that it was missing something. While I was reading it, I was expecting that certain ‘something’ to happen, and it never did.
So, while The Painted Bridge does not offer the most original story, it does provide readers with a main character they can admire and care for.

My rating: 3 stars

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