The American Heiress

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

I love Austen and period romances, so I had fun reading this book. I listened to it in audiobook, so I got to enjoy the accents and the descriptions of architechure, clothing, and parties. I love the little verbal duels and one-upmanship you find in this genre, especially between the Cora, the title character, a wealthy girl from New York who becomes an English duchess through marriage, and her mother-in-law, “the double duchess,” an imperious aristocrat.

I did enjoy the book, but I also got frustrated with the characters. I guess that just comes from getting emotionally involved, which is a good thing. I like getting caught up and invested in a book like that. My biggest emotional reaction throughout the book was about how cruelly the duke treated his wife and how horrible their communication was as a couple.  I got so angry at the duke for being carelessly late to important things (like the rehearsal dinner and the birth of his son), not telling Cora important things, brushing off her questions. He was so high-handed and arrogant, giving off a vibe of “How dare you question me?” and “Aren’t you cute to think you know better than I do?” I know that the author was drawing on the often misogynistic traditions of romance novels to give him those traits and make him handsomely Byronic and Darcy-esque; maybe the book helped me to realize that I don’t find those traits as attractive as I used to. Poor communication or lack of communication drive so many romance plots, and create so much drama, while in real life marriage I’ve found so far that poor communication is really not an option. You must talk. Period. You must push the other person to tell you what you need to know, and if they refuse, it’s an unacceptable refusal of intimacy. I’ve only been married a year and a half, but I’ve figured that much out. Clearly, 1890s English aristocracy had different expectations for marital communication and emotional intimacy than we do here and now. However, Cora’s expectations seem similar to our current paradigm, and, given that she chose a love marriage, entirely reasonable.

It was clear that the emotional maintenance of the marriage is solely Cora’s job. When she surprises the duke with something that she doesn’t know he’d find inappropriate, it’s her job to understand why his ungrateful reaction is justified, not his job to act happy with something he doesn’t like as much as she expected him to. It is entirely typical, even now, but especially for the time period, to put that burden on the female partner, but it’s still bullshit. Women can’t be the only ones who self-censor to spare a partner’s feelings. Men can’t be allowed to do whatever they want without first considering their partner’s feelings. This is one of the final frontiers of gender equality.

The ending was mostly satisfying, with the home-wrecking villainess miserable and properly humbled, a dramatic declaration of love from the hero, and the marriage safe (for now). Probably because I was still so upset on Cora’s behalf, I wanted her to demand  more from the deceitful duke: concrete proof of fidelity, promises to share everything first with his wife and to stand up for her in all situations, public rejection of his former lover. It’s hard to tell whether she doesn’t ask more from him because she has a forgiving heart or low standards. On the final page, Cora muses about how much stronger she has become and how she’s grown. Now, this is what we want for fictional characters: we want them to grow. But her growth came through suffering, and she would not have suffered so much if her husband had been more honest with her, if he’d told her his true feelings before he was on the verge of losing her, if he’d taken equal responsibility for creating a happy, intimate marriage. My problem is this: does the fact that women grow and learn mean that it’s ok for men to selfishly create conditions in which a woman must change herself in order to survive? We let men off the hook too easily. If we demanded more of them, they’d step up, because they’d have no choice, and women would not have to be the only ones suffering and growing.

I don’t think of the book as pernicious in the way it brings out these gender issues; I don’t think the Maltravers’ marriage was meant to be seen as very healthy. Rather it was a springboard for me to contemplate the meaning of a good and equal marriage.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes Downton Abbey, which I’ve really enjoyed this season, even as it becomes more and more of a soap opera. The American Heiress reads like a prequel to the PBS series. Cora and Ivo Maltravers are similar to Lord and Lady Grantham from the series: a rich American girl paired with a poor but titled Englishman with a deteriorating estate. The dates are such that the two fictional couples are clearly of the same generation. The women both have a snarky mother-in-law, upstairs/downstairs action, inheritance drama, a husband who’s been tempted to stray, and even share a first name.

Favorite blogs

I’ve added a favorite blogs feature on the sidebar. Let me introduce these blogs, which I try to read as often as I’m aware they’re updated.

A Practical Wedding

This site saved my sanity in 2010, when I was wedding planning. Since then, Meg Keene, leader of Team Practical, expanded her site and wrote a book, which I bought in early December when it first came out to help it reach the top of the Amazon bestseller list (It got to #29). I gave my two copies as Christmas presents to my engaged sister and another newly engaged friend before I had a chance to finish one for myself though! I need to get another and review it.

Apple Scout

Jessie Clark, a friend from Centre College, writes this blog. She’s cute, fun and quirky. She’s also a journalist for LouisvilleKY.com.

Gruntled Center

This blog is by Dr. Weston from Centre. He’s a sociology professor who focuses on family life and what makes people, families, communities and societies happy. He’s also a coffee-shop patron, a newborn novelist, and a great mentor and teacher.

Julianna Baggott

Juliana Baggott’s new book Pure just came out and she’s done a slew of interviews and guest posts all over the internet this week. It’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to getting my hands on this year. Her blog has a lot of great ideas and encouragement for writers, as well as her thoughts on the writing business and bits of her lively family life.

Post Secret

I wrote about Post Secret on Sunday. It still rocks.

Return of the Girl

Jillian is a friend from my days at UC. I always loved her sentences in workshop and now I get to read them on her blog. She posts personal tidbits and memories and always leaves a reader wanting more. She also just announce some big news!

Taste of Ginger

Ginger Pennington, another friend from Centre, writes this blog. She lives in LA and is working to make it as an actress, but she’s also a writer and thinker and yogi, someone who never stops learning.

The Lit Pub

A classmate from UC, Molly Gaudry, founded this small press. Doesn’t that just blow you away and make you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in your life? The site is not just about selling books but about building a community around the books. I can’t wait to see what comes out of this venture!

It’s a small list, but I’m not including megasites, just ones I honestly check frequently where I have personally met the writer. APW is an exception to that rule, but I did meet 2 ladies who were featured as “wedding graduates,” and Meg feels like the cool, wise older sister I never had. The other exception is Post Secret, but maybe I’ve written in a featured secret. You’ll never know.

I’d love to add to the list! What other blogs should I know about?

The Woman in White

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I read this book as part of my efforts to read all 100 books from this list. This is #58 for me. I’ve been downloading them for free for my Kindle.

The Woman in White is a Victorian mystery story with mistaken identity, a love story, madness, spies, and lots of money involved. It’s told in fragments of narratives, diaries, and letters written by the characters. There are lots of coincidences and swooning.

A summary: The hero, Walter Hartwright, a painting teacher, meets a woman in white on the road and helps her escape some men he later finds out were sent from the insane asylum where she’s been for the past several years. Then he goes to an English country house to teach two young ladies, Marian and Laura, who looks just like Ms. Escapee. He falls in love with Laura, but she’s engaged to Sir Percival. He leaves and she marries Sir Percival, who promptly begins shaking her down for money. She and Marian both fall ill, and Sir Percival and his friend Count Fosso, the main villain, plot to switch identities between Laura and the crazy lady. Walter Hartwright returns to fix this big mess.

It’s a very legalistic book. Laura agrees to marry Sir Percival even after she falls in love with Walter Hartwright because she had previously agreed to it and would not go back on her word, and because her dead father had liked the idea. The lawyer’s narrative tells plot-relevant details about the pre-nup negotiations. There’s a tense scene where Sir Percival tries to get Laura to sign a contract without letting her read it. Sir Percival’s big secret turns out to be his illegitimacy, which was covered up with a forgery in a parish register. The flaw in the villains’ plot is a day’s discrepancy between the death certificate for the fake Laura and the real Laura’s arrival in London. The climax consists of an agreement with multiple conditions between Hartwright and the villain. Everything hinges on technicalities. This focus on details can be annoying, or satisfying, or both, depending on the reader’s perspective and patience.

One thing that catches my attention is the way Marian keeps saying things about how she’s “just a woman” or “only a woman.” I can’t really tell what is meant by this. The best possible interpretation is that Marian is an exceptionally capable person, and her self-deprecating misogyny is meant ironically, because there’s nothing that her gender keeps her from doing. Both the hero and villain have nothing but respect for Marian and describe her in phrases like “eminently capable.” Why the lack of confidence? Is it because she’s internalized the day’s conventional wisdom about women’s abilities? Is the author trying to prove through Marian that those sentiments are false? I would love to believe that she knowingly says these things with bitter sarcasm, aware that she proves the sentiments false. But that feels unlikely because she never displays bitterness or knowingness in any other part of the book; instead she’s brisk, honest, and straightforward.

Marian contributes to solving the mystery, but the most important and exciting sleuthing is left to Walter Hartwright, and Marian’s greatest efforts involve exposing herself to the elements, which result in an illness that keeps her from using what she learned to prevent disaster. She spends her life in service to her younger, richer, more attractive sister, and even after that sister has her happy ending, Marian refuses to give up her subservient position and find some happiness of her own. Seeing this smart and capable woman refuse to dream a dream for herself and accept a second-tier caregiving role in someone else’s house was kind of depressing. I know we can’t really expect a Victorian novel to be all that progressive, but there are a few exceptions that make other moments worth looking for. I can’t help seeing gender stuff in almost everything I read anyway. 

If you like Victorian prose, you’ll probably like this book. It’s probably a third longer than it really needs to be, but some of the sentences had wit and interest. There’s something fun about the elaborate formality and the drama. Overdrawn characters like Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco are entertaining in a “what will he say next?” reality star kind of way.

The Illumination

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

In The Illumination, there is a strange, sudden phenomenon: everyone’s pain gives off light. The book consists of stories about several disparate characters, and what unifies them is the light phenomenon–which is never explained–and a handwritten notebook of love notes. Each character has a distinctive voice, which is impressive since they’re so different, ranging from a child to a missionary to an old homeless man.

There are countless scenes in the novel where characters interact with a stranger and notice various aches and diseases that would be hidden except for the light illuminating their pain. In these scenes, the book really makes you think about all the pain of one kind or another that everyone carries with them, and serves as a reminder to treat people kindly. Our world is not illuminated like Brockmeier’s, and this is a blessing of privacy, because we can hide our pain, unlike Brockmeier’s characters. But in our world, not knowing other peoples’ pain immediately upon seeing them keeps us from forming a quick empathetic connection, or offering help we don’t know is needed.

 In addition to enduring injuries and diseases, several of the main characters deal with grief and depression, leading them to question previous beliefs and conceptions of the world. The book really grapples with issues of faith as the characters struggle to make sense of an unjust, pain-filled world. Here’s just one example of a sentence that hit me pretty hard, a thought I’ve had but have never been able to verbalize so well (and isn’t that the feeling you want a book to give you?):

He did not believe–and who could?–in a God so hawkeyed and brutal, a God who bestowed a cancer here, a deformity there, for you a septic embolism, for you a compound fracture, selecting one person for grief and another for happiness like a painter experimenting with degrees of light and shadow (163).

That sentence in isolation might sound like it comes from a preachy book or a book that’s all about ideas and philosophy, but that’s not really how I’d describe The Illumination, unlike some books. All of the ideas come out of the characters and their experiences. Reading it doesn’t feel like reading philosophy, it feels like immersing oneself in another person’s life.

In addition to the shifting points of view, there are some unique micro-level style choices, like in the last section where the protagonist is able to kind of see inside other people’s minds for an instant, and tells their thoughts as if they were his own, the various strangers’ stories flowing into and out of his own. A writer character alternates between her story and a fairy tale that she wrote. The voice in the child character’s section was perfect–I have a soft spot for child characters, I think. It’s interesting to see how the disparate stories are actually connected, and how the notebook gets passed down. Each of the characters seem to understand how precious and strange it is, and make their own connection with it.

If there is a flaw in this book, it’s that everyone seems pitiable and sad in some way, and none of them really solve their problems. Indeed, some of them make their own lives considerably worse on purpose. There were moments that felt really bleak, but the  glimpses of beauty in the prose, the images and the vision of lost love from the book of love notes, made up for them.

Walden

Some days I feel like the reason I teach is so that I get to talk about books and ideas that I love. This is why getting to pick my own reading list means the world to me.

Today we read Walden, or selections from it. Mostly from the chapters called “Where I lived, and what I lived for,” and “Solitude.” Reviewing the writing to prepare to teach it, I just kind of swooned inside. It is so deeply hopeful. It expects so much of humanity. It makes me feel like a better person, empowered to rise to the challenge. Walden has meant a lot to me ever since I read it in Professor Reigelman’s American Literature class, and then again in Professor Manheim’s Reaching Toward Concord: American Romanticism class. We were lucky enough to get to travel as a class to Concord and Walden Pond in fall 2005, where we added stones to Thoreau’s cairn and read aloud in the morning chill.

The archaic language and the obscure metaphors frustrate my students to no end, but usually once I explain the ideas behind the writing they can get behind it. No teenager likes conformity. There is something very appealing about Thoreau’s idiosyncratic, boldly stated beliefs, and  the more the students understand them, the more they like him.

I taunt my after-lunch-sleepy students with this quote: “To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” Thoreau challenges us to be more fully aware, to engage actively with the world around us, to focus on an inspiring vision of the future.  My students aren’t the only ones who need to rise to this challenge; like Thoreau, I doubt I’ve met anyone who meets it completely, and am sure that I fall short myself. We talk about having high expectations for our students; it is even more important that everyone have high expectations of her- or himself and of life. After all, Thoreau says, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

I love to use a teenager’s favorite possession, a car, to explain this quote: “men have become the tools of their tools.” It usually goes like this:

“Who has a car?” Hands up. “Ok, what bills do you have with your car?”

“Auto loan.”

“Insurance.”

“Gas.”

“Changing oil and stuff. Maintenance.”

“All right, and how do you pay for those bills?”

“Get a job.”

“So you get a job to pay for the car. And the car drives you to the job and the job pays for the gas to fill the car. You work so that you can have the car so that you can drive to work. After you pay the bills for the car, how much is left?”

“Not much.”

“Less than half.”

“So you do more work for the car than it does for you. The car is not just a tool for you, it is your reason for working, maybe even your reason for being. So, really: do you own the car, or does the car own you?”

Profound silence. It sounds like the death of materialism. Their lives have been changed.

Post Secret

Post Secret is “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.” The creator, Frank Warren, has gathered these secrets together in books and a blog. The blog updates every Sunday and I always enjoy checking out the week’s new secrets.

I’ve always thought that Post Secret is a gold mine for writers looking for a story idea or a new topic to write about. Each secret has a deeply felt story, and the evocative images and designs only help to spur the imagination.

Frank Warren travels the country speaking at universities. I’ve seen videos of clips from the talks online and only wish I could go to one someday. He does a lot for suicide prevention charities and hotlines. In 2007, donations from Frank and his fans kept 1-800-SUICIDE from closing down.

There are now five Post Secret books, all of which are beautiful and raw. If I don’t get one of them for a present one of these years, I’ll just have to buy them myself. There’s a tradition of leaving secrets on postcards in the books while they’re still in the bookstore. Though I’m a library-loving cheapskate, these books would be worth the price, especially since it’s connected with such a good cause, and because of the chance of a bonus secret.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

This is a very philosophical book. The action is usually tied to a big idea, and these ideas are explained in long paragraphs in which nothing happens, paragraphs that I suspect are better in the original Czech. A lot of people would hate the book for this reason alone. That didn’t bother me too much, because I like ideas and philosophy, but I felt the style distanced me from the characters and their emotions. Some of these ideas were profound and unusual, or at least new to me. I learned about kitsch, Communism, and love beginning in a metaphor.

My favorite stylistic innovation in the book was the “dictionary of misunderstood words,” which told a series of anecdotes related to misunderstandings between two lovers, Sabina and Franz. It really struck me how much we assume we understand about each other, but really we can be so off base. And so many of these misunderstandings went unsaid under the surface too. They were a particularly ill-matched couple, but it still makes you think about the unbreachable space between even the closest lovers or friends.

There were some times where I had trouble connecting with the characters or empathizing with them. It seemed like they were either careless, selfish jerks (Tomas, Sabina) or pitiable, deluded doormats (Tereza, Franz). They had patterns that they recognized were destructive, but they were unable to change them or do anything about them. Life is like that too, for sure, but it got frustrating to want them to change and see them continue to hurt themselves and each other. I guess the sticking point for me was the promiscuity. It really bothered me because it seemed so joyless and even compulsive. Maybe that makes me a prude, to get weirded out by an overabundance of fictional sex. But really, Tomas, twice a day, perhaps with two different women (neither of which is your wife) for two years–700 women?!? That’s just gross. You’d think a surgeon would worry about STDs. I was deeply uncomfortable with the way Tomas compartmentalized his sex life–lots of anonymous women to copulate with and just one to sleep with, desire for knowledge and possession of many women versus Tereza’s domination of his “poetic memory.” It was objectifying and unhealthy.

My favorite sections were the parts dealing with the politics, and the story of Karenin the dog. The paranoia caused by surveillance,  the constant second-guessing, vacillating between rebellion and conformity, the way that situation destroyed people’s sense of personal integrity–that felt true and real and was incredibly compelling.

It is very unusual for me to like the political part of a book better than the sex part. Yet another proof of what a strange book this is.

Passion

Passion by Lauren Kate

Passion is the third book in a YA series about a girl, Luce, who falls in love with a fallen angel, Daniel. And this isn’t the first time she’s fallen in love with him either. She’s been reincarnated countless times, and in each life, she loves Daniel and spontaneously combusts. The first book is about her first meeting with Daniel (in this lifetime) and falling in love with him, then finding out about the fallen angel stuff. Much of the second book is about Daniel trying to protect Luce from crazy cosmic angel stuff that’s going on, and her getting frustrated with him not telling her every single thing about their past lives. Finally she gets so fed up with that situation that she leaves and goes back in time to find out for herself. I had been kind of lukewarm on the first two books, but I liked that decision enough to pick up Passion.

I don’t know how anyone ever writes about angels and heaven and hell and all that. Conventional, sentimental portrayals don’t interest me, not since I was about four and my favorite book was The Littlest Angel. I don’t know how you could ever write these topics well without totally reinventing them, and that involves having an entirely original metaphysics and cosmology. The one good example I can think of is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which rewrites the story of Adam and Eve, shows God dying, and ends with the establishment of “The Republic of Heaven.” So I guess in one way I have to salute Lauren Kate for having the guts to take on the topic. But the result was pretty conventional, if not sentimental.  Reading the scene in Passion where the Fall happens and the angels pick sides between God and Lucifer was so weird for me. “Is that really what you think God is like?” I kept wanting to ask Kate. “How can you possibly know?” 

Beyond the portrayal of matters beyond human comprehension, there is much that is bad and worthy of mocking in this series. Lauren Kate has written a definite successor to Twilight in that the romance is over-the-top and at times poorly written. Some examples:

  • Luce envied the water, envied the sand. Envied everything that got to touch Daniel when she was stuck up in this tree (167).
  • Daniel’s love for her was one long, uninterrupted stream. It was the purest form of love there was, purer even than the love Luce returned (256).
  • “No mortal man, no slab of stone can obstruct a love as true as ours. I will always find you” (377).

Another annoying thing was this Jiminy Cricket type character, a gargoyle named Bill, who guides Luce through the past. As soon as he turned up I groaned. It was obvious that he was there purely as a vehicle for exposition and a conversation partner for Lucy. And that he was going to betray her, because why would a good guy appear in the form of a gargoyle? Of course, he turns out to be Satan, encouraging her to cleave open her soul to end the curse.

When I put on my grad student and feminist glasses and look too closely at the books, I am uncomfortable with the way they connect love and death. Luce keeps dying in the midst of a first passionate kiss. Spontaneous combustion is great as a metaphor for how a really amazing kiss feels. But when it actually happens to a character again and again, it’s not just a metaphor. Luce annihilates herself through loving Daniel. In her search for the truth about her past, she seeks that moment of annihilation out. After merging with a past self and having a near death experience, she describes it this way: “she was happy when she died. I was happy. Ecstatic. The whole thing was just so beautiful” (227).

My issue is this: when you take these ideas into the real world, as teenage readers will long to do (I know, I was one), they get kind of scary. I don’t like the idea of young girls reading these books and wanting to “lose themselves” in a kiss, and then in a relationship, until they don’t know who they are without a man. I’m not sure whether or not love is really worth dying for, but I know a lot of teen suicides sure thought so.

I had many of these same qualms about Twilight. (Someday I’ll have to write extensively about Twilight here.) Despite all these philosophical issues and my annoyance with Meyer’s verbal tics and graceless sentences, I enjoyed Twilight because there was something viscerally compelling and appealing about it. I find this series less compelling than Twilight, but still worth reading in a guilty pleasure way.

I will read the next books in the series because I want to see if Luce and Daniel eventually establish some kind of relationship of equals. There seemed to be potential for it, given the way the second book ended. I think there’s room for Kate to do something interesting and even progressive if she has it in her. Perhaps the next book will reveal that of course the whole annihilating-yourself-for-a-guy thing was a bad idea because look, Satan was encouraging it.

A much better book about a couple who meets again and again in different reincarnations is My Name Is Memory, by Ann Brashares (author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). Although again, the guy (also named Daniel) remembers everything about the past lives and the girl (named Lucy, no joke) doesn’t, they are more equal in that they’re both human, and there are no angels or phenomenal cosmic powers. Brashares also does a better job with the various historical settings than Kate does.