Sunday, January 28, 2007

I haven't talked to any English majors who have graduated in the past ten years, so I don't know if things are still the same. But back in the dark ages when I was an English major, the works that most of us loved the very best were the Victorian novels. A few might profess that it was really Romantic poetry that they loved, or post-modernist fiction, but secretly, we all adored Jane Eyre. taking a class in the Victorian novel was like getting a three-month free pass to a candy shop: the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins. Even Jane Austen-- she's a little early to consider Victorian, but every class on the Victorian novel starts with Jane Austen, so we'll throw her in, too. I still look back on the days when I was first reading Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Barchester Towers and the rest, and sigh with envy of that younger self.

So when a novel comes out that makes you feel like you are back in college reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, it is a treat indeed. And that is exactly how The Thirteenth Tale (by Diane Setterfield) made me feel. At first, anyway. It was as if someone had taken all the best plot devices out of all those classics (false identities and plot twists from Dickens; madness, obsessive love, and the narrative frame of Wuthering Heights; too much to mention from Jane Eyre, and so on) put them in a jar, shook them up, and pulled them back out again to insert in a contemporary novel. The effect is mesmerizing. I could go on and on but I'll spare you. For about the first 200 pages, I thought it was the best book I'd read in the last five years. I was immersed, driving my family crazy.

But unfortunately it sort of falls apart toward the end. It must be enormously hard to end a novel well, because it often seems that a novel that could be great either has a bad ending, or just fizzles out at the end. Memoirs of a Geisha, for example, or Smilla's Sense of Snow. This one is in the same vein. It's not that the ending is awful, it just disappoints. As if you had the bases loaded and the score tied at the bottom of the ninth, and what you want as a reader is the grand slam-- but instead you get a base on balls, and the runner on third walks in to win the game. It's OK, and it's still the best book I've read in a long time, but it's pretty disappointing. She sets herself up to make some pretty sharp observations on the nature of human evil, but then she ducks out and leaves it undone. Almost as if she didn't realize exactly what she had done in the first two-thirds of the book.

But it's still highly recommended. It's a great read and will keep you absorbed for a couple of days. The gist of it is: the most popular novelist in Britain, about whom nothing is known outside of her published works, decides on her death bed that she wants to tell her own story. So she invites a bookish, introverted young woman, practically unpublished, to her home to write it down. The story turns out to be a thriller on its own-- and you have the double narrative frame-- the story you read is being controlled both by the dying author who is speaking it, and the young woman who is writing it down. (and of course both of those are the creation of the writer.) It's a fabulous setup.

OK, that's all for now. It's so rich with detail I may end up having to go back and read it again. Maybe I'd find the ending less disappointing the 2nd time through.

Aunt BeaN

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