Book of the Month: The Girls

My third Book of the Month selection, for July, is my second favorite of all those I have received so far and the one that made me decide to renew my subscription when the promotion period ended.

The Girls by Emma ClineTHE GIRLS_final jacket (1).jpg

The story of Evie Boyd’s summer with a Manson-Family-style cult, told in retrospect by a middle-aged Evie nigh on invisible, is anything but what you’d expect. Rather than a sordid tale of blood and guts, “gore porn” finding titillation in the macabre, it provides an immediate look at what it means to be female in America. Through the eyes of Evie at two points in her life, the reader experiences the draw of charisma and the weight of expectation on women finding their way in the world.  Evie’s journey is anything but linear, ranging from teenage suburban bedrooms littered with mascara and magazines to remote sheds full of mouse shit and moldy clothes. A folk singer’s palace to the shadows of a beach house borrowed in the off-season. The men are tertiary. This story is, as promised, about the girls.

The Girls is not a morality tale, more of a beautifully rendered impressionist painting posing dozens of unanswered questions. The prose and themes reminded me of one of my favorite novels: White Oleander by Janet Fitch. I passed it on to a female friend as soon as I finished reading.

The Girls is a worthy read for anyone who has ever been mystified by womanhood. Which is to say, everyone.

 

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Random Review: The Wild Girl

Though Bitter Greens had three heroines suffering, The Wild Girl is three times more brutal to read.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth download

Most people (of European descent) know of the folktale collection compiled by the Brothers Grimm, but few know about the women who told them the tales. One of these storytellers was Dortchen Wild. Second youngest of the Wild family, neighbors to the Grimms, Dortchen was an empathetic girl will a skill for herbalism and a long-running crush on Wilhelm Grimm. Against the backdrop of the Napoléonic Wars their collaboration and eventual romance unfolds, the darkness all around matched only by the darkness in Dortchen’s own home.

One of the things I loved about Bitter Greens, apart from the fairy-tale and deeply-researched historical fiction aspects, was how complex the writing was. Three stories intertwined like the strands that form a braid, echoing each other and moving the narrative forward. The writing in The Wild Girl is no less rich but, because the scope of the novel is so much smaller, at times it feels as though there is not enough story to justify the novel’s nearly five-hundred pages. The A-plot is ostensibly the romance between Wilhelm and Dortchen, but it is often swamped by the brutal realities of Dortchen’s day-to-day life. Where the arcs of Bitter Greens‘ three heroines called back to each other, in The Wild Girl it is the stories told by Dortchen that call back to her own life. Many fairy-tale themes crop up in the two-decade-long tale of her romance with Wilhelm: sisters going to a ball while one stays home to do chores, magic rhymes, and the transformative power of a really awesome dress.

Some of the themes of The Wild Girl struck so close to home that I have to admit they tempered my enjoyment of the story.  Dortchen’s experience as a civilian during a war that seems like it will never end, with her country first being invaded and then used to supply soldiers for the conquerors to invade other countries, hit a little too close to home for this American. While many would argue that America is the Napoléonic France of our situation, from a civilian standpoint my country was violently attacked when I was in high school and we’ve been at war with multiple countries ever since. I am married to a Marine who began his service right after 9/11, I have taught preschool and cared for infants on military bases, half of my friends enlisted straight after high school, and I have been groped in airports in the name of “safety” more times than I can bear to think about. My youngest brother currently has plans to enlist. In 2008 we were promised an end to this war and it hasn’t materialized yet, so I related to the climate of worry though my struggle has not yet grown so dire as Dortchen’s.

The other major plot of the novel is Dortchen’s relationship with her extremely strict father. As the war worsens and he becomes more stressed and worried, he devolves into outright abuse of his daughters. I will only say that the descriptions of this abuse are realistic to the point of triggering, if you have a past in any way similar. In her author’s note Forsyth mentions the plotting of these passages giving her nightmares. I do appreciate her commitment to leaning in when writing about the uglier aspects of life. I have always loved fairy tales because they are just as dark as life can be. Sometimes darker.

There is much to love about The Wild Girl, even if my personal experience prevented me from embracing it as fully as I did Bitter Greens. Germany (specifically Hesse-Kassel, here) is a beautiful, sweet country done justice by Forsyth’s realistic tale of romance between a dreamy writer and an apothecary’s daughter.  It may be a bit long-winded, but it’s an easy trap to fall into for lovers of history and literature alike (and an author sticking to a historical timeline.) People who enjoy Austen or Little Women will like the early passages with Dortchen and her siblings, fairy-tale lovers will be rewarded throughout.

Chair Rating:

overgrown_chair

A little overgrown and hard to settle into, but no less beautiful.

Random Review: The Swan Gondola

Moulin Rouge, if the Duke had proved a more compelling option. swan gondola

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Orphaned ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt is set to make a few bucks and have a fine summer plying his trade at the 1898 World’s Fair. As entertainers pour into the midway on opening day, Ferret spots a woman whose underthings he once helped secure backstage at his regular theater gig and his plans for romance are set.  Ferret’s pursuit of Cecily unfolds amid the illusory grandeur and outlandish spectacle of The World’s Fair, as he relates the memory of that bygone summer to a pair of elderly twin sisters upon whose home he has crash landed. Big personalities, elaborate descriptions, mystery, magic, and illusion fill every page of The Swan Gondola.

I was beyond excited to read this novel, not only did I receive it as a free ARC from the publisher (my first), it is packed with things I adore. Going to a World’s Fair is on my bucket list, and I am a sucker for fairs and carnivals in general. Historical fiction, the American West, and unreliable narrators are a few of my favorite literary things. The Swan Gondola really delivers on all of these fronts. However, it falls short at perhaps the most crucial point for a story like this: the romance.

The story is driven by the Christian-and-Satine-esque courtship of Ferret and Cecily. He is young, naive, and romantic (though he thinks himself quite the worldly playboy, a fact both amusing and heartbreaking as he uncovers his own nature.) She is one of those scandalous theater women who throws social mores like underwear conventions to the wind and does what she wants whenever she wants. By underwear conventions I mean that most women of the time wore corsets and other garments as a matter of course, not that large groups of people were gathering to discuss underpinnings. His pursuit of her is dogged, and she allows him to lavish her with attention. A wealthy man, Billy Wakefield, who can provide her with opportunities on the stage strategically insinuates himself into their lives and the reader is witness to the slow destruction of the guileless Ferret.

Writing about this, I still think it all sounds pretty great. A lot of it was, but the problem was really Cecily. She’s almost unlikable, and Ferret’s interest in her never seems to progress beyond pure lust. Magic and illusion are major themes of the novel, and love often dances around the line between the two, so perhaps this was intentional. Ferret’s mistaking the illusion that is lust for the magic of love. However, he is so terribly lovable as an almost artless paramour that it’s hard to invest in any love story where you wish the object of his affections would fall off a cliff. Even if she did, you’d still feel awful because he would.

It might seem like I’m giving away the whole novel but really this takes us to about halfway through the high page count, and the back half is just brutal. Still a good read, but it’s going to beat up your feelings.

Where The Swan Gondola really sings are the secondary characters, like the Native American medicine man of fluid gender August Sweetbriar or Cecily’s elderly half-blind witch of a bodyguard, and descriptions of the setting. The Fair, Billy Wakefield’s home and amusements, and the underworld Ferret occupies are each spectacular in their own way and make for some very fun reading. The scaffolding of the novel is beautifully crafted, all of the subplots and scenery. It’s a shame that the main plot lets the rest of it down. Ferret and Cecily’s romance seems over before it began, the titular gondola barely plays a role, and the reader is put through a house of horrors playing on their feelings about a barely-developed romance that spanned less than half the page-count. Ferret’s heartsickness carries it, but just barely.

What does it all mean? Should you read this book? If any of this sounded at all interesting to you, then I’d say yes. It’s really a very good story, and will give you a lot to mull over. It’s a book club book if there ever was one, because it can be interpreted so many ways. Just don’t go in expecting a romance for the ages unless you want your heart pulped and/or to feel ragey.

Chair Rating:

Carousel-horse

Random Review: The Tin Princess

Exactly what I wanted to read.

tinprincess

A rather sad cover illustration, but this is the copy I picked up and I prefer this version to the ones that re-imagined the titular character as a blonde with straight hair or worse, left her off in favor of a man.

The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman

Becky Winter is a capable polyglot with a romantic streak, who finds herself swept up in political intrigue after witnessing an explosion. Suddenly the sixteen-year-old Winter is tutor and interpreter to a secret cockney princess, headed from London to a tiny nation sandwiched between Austria and Germany accompanied by a dreamy prince, gruff ambassador and his icy wife, and a dashing detective. The novel’s plot twists and turns through Razkavia’s 19th-century-Bavarian-influenced countryside. Danger, secret identities, and nefarious schemes fill its pages right up to a genuinely thrilling conclusion.

Philip Pullman can always be relied upon to deliver richly detailed, wryly funny, smart historical fiction. I picked this up at the library because I was dying to read something I’d like, and feeling slightly melancholy that The Subtle Knife will never be a movie. I didn’t realize it was a continuation of a previous series, and I got good and thoroughly spoiled on the events of that series while devouring The Tin Princess. It’s a great book: several strong female characters with distinct personalities, men worth crushing on, a richly imagined fictional country, political strategy, and plenty of derring-do. What more could a reader ask for? There are even a couple of nice, not too-soppy romances (one sweet, the other rather steamy.) The only drawbacks were that Razkavia made me miss Germany terribly, and the blurb described Adelaide as “heartbreakingly beautiful” while the book described her as “not altogether pretty.” Really, publishing industry? Men can love women who aren’t supermodels. Promise.

Chair Rating:

A tremendous adventure.

A tremendous adventure.

Random Review: Bitter Greens

A Rapunzel far more Grimm than Tangled.

Bitter Greens by Kate ForsythBitter-Greens

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is the braided tale of three women’s lives, wound around the structure of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Three different women locked in three different versions of a tower, finding themselves there because of others’ actions. Imprisonment, violation, escape, and salvation play out again and again against a backdrop of Renaissance Italy and Rococo-era France.

This novel offers three (or more, depending on your interpretation) strong female characters at its core. Their stories are masterfully intertwined with Forsyth’s intimate knowledge of the culture, history, and languages of France and Italy. Each of the characters suffers every horror unique to the lives of women at the time and in general, without the whole affair turning into some kind of penny-dreadful. The narrative winds between all three women in a way that is never confusing, in fact it seems to make perfect sense. Famous historical figures appear, but Forsyth never overdoes it. The Sun King is a character is Charlotte’s tale, not an encyclopedia entry. The same goes for the painter Titian and La Bella Strega.  The author has woven a magnificent tapestry with the delicate handling of too many plot threads to count. It’s astonishing to behold.

All of the elements of the core fairy tale are here: a witch with rampion in the garden, a prince blinded by thorns, hair tumbling from a high tower window that it might be scaled…but the pieces have been joined in ways that seems perfectly natural. Only slightly removed from reality.

If you like France or Italy, sumptuous food or the idea of life at court, music or art or fairy tales…even black magic…this book is for you!

Chair Rating:

chair

Regal, powerful, and unabashedly feminine.