Tag Archives: classic

Review: Rebecca

Reading Jane Eyre at about this time last year brought my interest in Gothic literature back to the surface. I bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic Gothic tale from the 1930’s, but sadly I kept putting it off. This year I made sure to add Rebecca toward the top of my classics list for 2018 because I knew I would love it, and sure enough…

rebeccaAbout the book: Our unnamed narrator is living a bland but tolerable life as the paid companion of a snobby woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Everything changes when the two women meet the infamous Mr. de Winter at their hotel just before the narrator’s employer falls ill. As she convalesces, the narrator forms a friendship with the odd but endearing Mr. de Winter; though he does not mention love, he does offer marriage when the sudden end of the vacation threatens to separate him from the young woman he’s been entertaining. Without knowing much about Mr. de Winter beyond popular rumor and the memory of a pretty postcard of his estate (called Manderley), the narrator agrees to the match and leaves Monte Carlo abruptly to become the new Mrs. de Winter. She learns quickly upon arriving at Manderley that there’s an intense but secretive history surrounding the fate of the first Mrs. de Winter, and the end of that marriage might also mean the doom of her own.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us.”

There is some romance in this book, but I would not call Rebecca a romance novel. Despite its ties to Jane Eyre, I would not classify Rebecca in the same category as Bronte’s classic. Ultimately, I would say it’s a tragedy. It’s psychological and character-driven, mysterious and macabre. There are underlying messages about female power, especially in a marriage (particularly in a marriage of the 1930’s. Things have changed a bit, though I think the lessons still apply). Rebecca is a lot of things, but foremost it’s a masterpiece.

My favorite aspect of Rebecca is the way the late and present Mrs. de Winters are reflected against each other. On the surface, Rebecca and our narrator are opposite in every way, though under their differences there is an unmistakable similarity between them. Even as the narrator ruminates over her predecessor’s personality, noting all the things that were perfect about Rebecca that are not about the new Mrs. de Winter, she’s emulating Rebecca. She’s becoming her, in some ways. The two are at once so far apart, and yet they present like different sides of the same person.

“She’s the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”

The characterization/perspective is wonderful. Mrs. de Winter is so full of daydreams and assumptions that the reader has a clear sense of Manderley and all of its characters, while remembering that these are only Mrs. de Winter’s ideas of them, rather than facts. These pictures she spins of the various characters and locations are as much a reflection of our narrator as of the characters themselves, which leaves plenty of room for surprise as secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book.

But perhaps the most interesting detail is that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are presented as the “heroes” of the book, though we know from the very first chapter that neither of them are winners in this tale. The irony of Rebecca is that there is no escaping the horrors of the past without losing the potential of a pleasant future. The events of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s star-crossed marriage have been in motion since Mr. de Winter first married Rebecca, and there is little any of them can do to come out ahead. The marriage they salvage is a farce at best, an empty display. That future is laid out in the first chapters of the novel, before the narrator goes back to explain how the de Winters fell into that fate. It’s pieced together beautifully, and in the end it reads more as a commentary on marriage and female agency than love.

“As I sipped my cold tea I thought with a tired biter feeling of despair that I would be content to live in one corner of Manderley and Maxim in the other so long as the outside world should never know. If he had no more tenderness for me, never kissed me again, did not speak to me except on matters of necessity, I believed I could bear it if I were certain that nobody knew of this but our two selves. If we could bribe servants not to tell, play our part before relations, before Beatrice, and then when we were alone sit apart in our separate rooms, leading our separate lives.”

The edition that I read also includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, who wrote a sequel to Rebecca in 2000 (I think). I don’t think I’m interested in reading a sequel by anyone other than du Maurier at this point, but I did enjoy Beauman’s afterword. I agreed with a lot of her points, and even when I didn’t they were certainly thought-provoking and engaged the text in an interesting way. I would recommend reading that afterword if you like Rebecca.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book, from chapter 2 onward. I wasn’t sold on chapter one (I don’t like plot-less descriptions of scenery, no matter how beautiful, or conveniently true-to-life dreams; both of these techniques appear in chapter 1), but in the end I saw that it had its place in the narrative and I appreciated the whole book. It all fits together so perfectly. I’m planning to pick up Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel sometime in the not-too-distant future because I think it will deliver more of the elements I loved from Rebecca.

Further recommendations:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is worth the read for fans of Gothic literature. Though there is a heavier romantic plot line, the book also focuses on a doomed marriage and its secret aftermath, which unravel in a psychological and creepy sort of way.
  • If you read Gothic books for the atmosphere and horror, try Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which a spooky old mansion slowly drives the narrator down an irreversible path toward tragedy.
  • And if the psychology and the superbly written structure of Rebecca is what you’re interested in, try Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a close look at the life of a woman who is increasingly disturbed even as she her life seems to be steadily improving from outward appearances.

Do you have a favorite Gothic novel? This is exactly my brand of creepy literature, so I’m open to all suggestions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma was supposed to be my January classic of the month, but I ended up reading this classic romance around Valentine’s Day instead. It’s the fourth Austen novel I’ve read now, but even after experiencing three others I was unprepared for the unique masterpiece that is Emma.

emmaAbout the book: Emma Woodhouse is the highest-standing woman in Highbury’s society. She’s twenty years old, the mistress of her ailing father’s grand house, and the whole town dotes on her. She’s got reasonable talent and insight, but not enough worldly understanding yet as her governess moves out to be married and leaves Emma to her own devices. Confident that the marriage of her governess and close friend was partially her own doing, Emma sets out to make matches for others– first and foremost, a young lady of unknown parentage that Emma longs to befriend and raise in society. Unfortunately, after pulling Harriet from a promising marriage that Emma deems beneath her, Emma learns through a series of unfortunate events that she may not be as wise and helpful as she thought. Along the way, she also discovers the truths of her own heart just in time to worry that she’s lost the man she didn’t realize she’s been in love with from the start.

“Dear Papa, you cannot think that I will leave off match-making!”

While I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen novel I’ve read thus far, it’s always been the content that impressed me most.  Although Austen’s style of writing and the charming details of bygone days are lovely to read, it’s generally the plots that stay with me in the end.

Not so with Emma. Although amusingly plotted, it’s the master crafting of this novel that stands out. Indeed, most of the plot will not surprise the reader at all because Austen allows the reader to know these characters better and sooner than they know themselves. Much of the novel consists of dialogue that reveals the characters’ secrets, motives, and duplicity. The reader is shown the disparity between thoughts and actions, between words spoken to one party and words spoken to another. The pleasure of the novel exists not in the matches being made, but in observing the various characters as they fall into their own blunders and attempt to grow out of them. Before they find their proper relationships, they must first discover themselves.

“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”

The power of the writing is such that the characters’ growth remains interesting to the reader even when the characters themselves are unpleasant. The novel opens on Emma as a spoiled girl with unreasonably high opinions of herself as she first enters society as an adult. Her errors in judgment are almost immediately obvious, between crediting herself with a marriage that she no more than guessed at, and pulling Harriet out of what would obviously have been a happy life befitting her station. Mr. Knightley just as blatantly refuses to accept that any opinions but his own may be valid. Mr. Elton is selfish and petulant, Frank Churchill careless and rash, Jane Fairfax suspiciously secretive, Harriet shockingly suggestible, and so on. The reader sees the characters’ faults, knows when their choices will backfire, predicts who will be to blame for the various scenarios, and yet can’t help reading onward to watch it all play out.

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”

That said, this novel may not appeal to all of Austen’s fans. With the plot more transparent, the commentary on personality and perfecting oneself makes this book a heavier read than some of Austen’s other works. The reader must be interested in the multi-faceted conversations and nuances of perspective more than on which gentlemen will end up with which lady. Emma is, invariably, a romance, but it is so much more than that. Personally, I found the dialogue and the little ironies completely engrossing, but a reader who lives for plot will probably not be as entertained.

A side note: the beautiful vintage classics edition that I read (pictured above), which looks so nice on the shelf and is such a pleasant shape and size to admire while the covers are closed, was surprisingly hard to actually read. The spine is so stiff (and I didn’t want to crack it, obviously) and the book is thick enough that it’s a two-hand read all the way through; even then it was uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manage at times. I was disappointed that this copy wasn’t as functional as it was decorative, so if you’re looking for a good copy to read, be aware that this edition is better to look at, though reading it wasn’t completely impossible.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wish Austen had found a way to keep the powerful writing techniques she utilizes in Emma without pairing it with transparent plotting. I never considered DNF-ing this book, but there were times when I was growing a bit bored of knowing what was coming. That’s the only thing that holds me back from giving this book 5 stars, because in all other regards the writing of this book provided me with a new level of respect for Austen’s works. While none of the novels I’ve read from her so far have seemed frivolous, this one definitely seemed more serious and mature. It’s the last book Austen saw published in her lifetime, and the experience with writing and understading her world shows more clearly in this novel than in the others that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading the two novels of Austen’s that I haven’t yet (Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), though I’m not in too big a hurry because I already know how sad I’m going to be when my first experience with each of Austen’s books is behind me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like a classic romance that also turns an eye to personal growth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an obvious but rewarding choice. Jane’s strength of character is steadfast and inspiring, and the love between two wise but unfortunate people is delightfully dramatic.
  2. My current favorite Austen novel is Persuasion,  a lovely reminder that matters of the heart must be decided upon first and foremost by the couple who will be most affected by them. It’s a beautiful book about making one’s own choices.

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Another Year of Classics

In my 2017 Wrap-Up I mentioned meeting my goal of reading at least 12 classics throughout that year. (Check out A Year of Classics for last year’s titles.) I want to do the same for 2018.

In 2017, I read 15 of 12 classics, although I only read 10.3 of the classics I originally designated. Nevertheless, having a classic planned for each month did help me reach that goal of 12, even if I did make some changes to it as the year progressed. So I’m here to designate another 12 classics for the months of 2018.

Here are the titles I’m hoping to read this year:

January- Emma by Jane Austen. (I read two of Austen’s books last year and loved them. Now I’m on a quest to read the rest of Austen’s novels– not too fast, because I want to savor them, but Austen is the only author with two books on this list.)

February- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (My enjoyment of Jane Eyre last year sent me in the direction of this mysterious Gothic romance. It sounds like exactly the sort of intrigue I like to read to get me through the long tail-end of winter.)

March- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson.
(I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and it wasn’t my favorite, but I did enjoy the plot enough that I wanted to try another of his books. I’m hoping that I’ll like this one better.)

April- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol was the first and only Dickens novel I’ve ever read, but even though I knew the plot going in, the writing and the characters drew me in and made it such a fun experience– especially during the holiday season. I have no excuse to put off trying another Dickens title this year.)

May- The Odyssey by Homer. (I haven’t finished The Iliad yet, so putting The Odyssey in the top half of this list is meant to encourage me to keep working at it in a timely manner. I always intended to read the two of these close enough together that The Iliad is still fresh in my mind when I read The Odyssey, so I’m aiming to wrap up the whole endeavor in 2018.)

June- The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (There are several Woolf titles on my long-term TBR, and while I’ve read lots of excerpts and shorter pieces of Woolf’s, I’ve never read any of her full-length books. If this one goes well, I’ll probably pick up more of them in the future.)

July- The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It’s been years since I read The Great Gatsby, and I still haven’t picked up any of Fitzgerald’s other works. My opinion of The Great Gatsby has fluctuated over the years, so I’m not sure what to expect from picking up another of Fitzgerald’s novels, but I’m ready to find out.)

August- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. (I switched this one out of my classics list last year because I was starting A Game of Thrones again that month and didn’t want to read two really long books in a row. That’s a poor excuse and “epic revenge story” still sounds pretty fantastic, so I’m more determined to actually read this one this year.)

September- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (My knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is vague at best. I have yet to read any of Doyle’s stories, which means I also haven’t watched any corresponding films or TV shows or read any retellings. It’s time to change that, I think. From what I’ve heard, Sherlock sounds like someone I’d be very interested in reading about, so that’s what I’m going to do.)

October- Dracula by Bram Stoker. (This is the other title I switched out of last year’s classics list, and if I’m honest, I’ve been meaning to read it for several Octobers in a row now and always procrastinated until it’s too late. I don’t know why, but here’s to giving it another go.)

November- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. (As noted above, this is my second Austen title of the year, which will leave only one of her novels for me to read in 2019. I like the idea of spacing them out a bit, to keep the stories and characters from melding together in my mind and also because it’s so sad when there can’t be forthcoming novels by an author you appreciate– I don’t want my first experiences with Austen’s books to be over too soon.)

December- King Lear by Shakespeare. (I wanted a short classic for the end of the year, in case I’m busy trying to wrap up other reading endeavors. It should prevent me from shirking on my classics. I picked this one specifically because it was recommended to me multiple times after I posted my review for Macbeth last month. I’m still on the hunt for my favorite Shakespeare play, and I’m hoping this one will be a contender.)

classics 2018

(p.s I know it’s Macbeth in the picture instead of King Lear. I haven’t bought my copy of King Lear yet but I’m planning to do that later in the year.)

I love classics, but I know I don’t reach for them as readily as I do modern works. A challenge like this helps me to pick up books that might take a little longer to read but will (hopefully) be worth the time they take in the end. I tried to assemble a good mix of genres and authors for 2018 while also selecting books that I genuinely believe I will enjoy. I’m looking forward to reading these, and I hope I’ll have just as much success (or more) with this challenge as I did last year.

Do you read classics? Do you see any favorites on this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Review: A Christmas Carol

I have not read a Christmas story at Christmastime since childhood. For some reason, Christmas traditions have never really crossed into my reading life. But picking up Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year is really making me rethink what I should be reading around the end-of-year holidays, just as surely as it’s reminding me to embrace the Christmas spirit this season.

achristmascarolAbout the book: “Bah. Humbug!” is what Ebeneezer Scrooge thinks of Christmas. He has devoted his life to making money– and hoarding it. He is not interested in spending time with the remaining family he has left, and as for sharing his wealth with them, or with anyone– why shouldn’t they earn their own fortunes, as Scrooge has earned his? He frowns upon all those who take an entire day off of productive pursuits to celebrate Christmas. So he closes his office on Christmas Eve, determined to be unhappy all through the holiday. But that night, he is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, who laments his choices in life and offers Scrooge another chance. To avoid his partner’s gruesome fate, Scrooge must accept the visits of three Spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He must learn their lessons, before it is too late!

“Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.”

If I were to voice any complaint about this story, I would say only that it’s predictable. But I should also acknowledge in that case that time and the book’s status as a classic are probably the greatest contributors to its predictability. I knew going in which ghosts Ebeneezer Scrooge would see, and what effect they would have on him. But again, I think that comes down to the fact that this is such a well-known Christmas story. I remember seeing the Mickey Mouse version of it, with Donald Duck starring as Scrooge, several times in my younger years; and that wasn’t the only adaptation I encountered, though it stands strongest in my memory.

And then again, the predictability of the story also helps demonstrate what I believe to be the greatest strength of the book: that even for readers who know exactly what to expect from the plot, Dickens captivates readers with his prose and his characters’ heartfelt emotions so thoroughly that the story is still worth reading. It was not only Scrooge’s transformation that held my attention, but poor Tiny Tim’s plight, the fate of Scrooge’s wife, and the games at his nephew’s Christmas party (and the guest with a crush on the niece’s sister). A Christmas Carol is packed with smaller stories inside the main plot that run through quite a range of emotions.

Best of all is the narrative style with which Dickens presents his story. He writes easily and informally, as though telling a story to a close friend. He’s often addressing the reader directly, emphasizing the fact that the story is going on in some window that only the writer can see, and the writer is pulling the reader closer to let him/her in on the secret. It’s a great balance that gives the story a sort of raw, honest feel, though it’s also begging to be shared, or shouted from the rooftops. No film adaptation I’ve seen of this same story has interested me so thoroughly or promised to stick with me as well as the book will– and that is because no one tells it better than Dickens. If you’ve ever been intrigued about A Christmas Carol, let me tell you, reading the book is worth it (and it’s a short book, so really you have no excuse).

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will charlesdickensdefinitely be reading more from Charles Dickens in 2018. I will be especially interested to see if the narrative voice I found in A Christmas Carol will be apparent in his other works, or if his style changes across novels. I think I’m less familiar with his other books, classics though they all are, so I’m excited to start fresh. I’m thinking either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations will be in my plans for 2018.

Coming up Next: I’m just starting Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I’ve been having a surprising amount of fun with the dregs of my 2017 reading challenge– all the books I put off all year are finally being read, and they’ve been great. I don’t know why I’ve been putting off the titles I have, because I’ve particularly enjoyed reading them this month. I hope the trend continues with Smiley’s novel, which is the first book in a family saga trilogy that takes place in Iowa. One of the blurbs on the cover states that her writing is very Dickensian, which makes me hopeful after my experience with A Christmas Carol.

What seasonal reads are you checking out this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Color Purple

I do love a good classic, but generally I go into them knowing they’ll probably be dense and a little slower to read. I picked up The Color Purple because I needed a book from the bottom of my TBR for my 2017 reading challenge. The fact that it was on the bottom and a classic besides had me wary about how long it would take (I’m still hurrying to wrap up some 2017 goals) and how much I would actually enjoy it. But by about the tenth page, I knew: I was going to finish it within 24 hours, and I was going to love it. Thank you, reading challenge.

thecolorpurpleAbout the book: narrated through letters addressed to Celia, her sister Nettie, and God, Celia tells the story of her life in 1930’s Georgia. She’s a colored woman in a place and time that’s still very prejudiced, but she’s also found very little love in her childhood family, and in the family she was forced to marry into as an adult. She does, however, make some interesting friends after a fashion and begins to see the wrongs that have been done to her, as well as the ways in which she can rise up against them and persevere.

The Color Purple is written in dialect, meant to sound in the reader’s mouth or mind the way Celia (or her companions) would actually speak. This means the grammar isn’t perfect, the spelling is intentionally wrong in places, and the reader has to find the rhythm of the narration to read it at a normal pace. But, unlike some attempts at dialect writing, I had no trouble following this story, and I doubt many readers will struggle with the unusual style. It’s not my own dialect, so I can’t vouch for how accurate/inoffensive it may seem to others, but personally I had no complaints with it. The hardest aspect of the writing style for me to accept was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, which occasionally made it difficult for me to differentiate between Celia’s running commentary and someone else speaking.

“My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh. My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood.”

Even though the reader can see from the very first page how hard Celia’s life has been, The Color Purple is not overly heavy or depressing. She’s not an intrinsically sad or angry person, so even when I should have been outraged about something bad that happens to her, I found that reaction somewhat stifled by a greater interest in what would happen next, what it would mean for Celia going forward, because she herself always seems to be looking forward rather than back. That isn’t to say that the reader can’t appreciate the horrifying nature of some of the sins committed against Celia, but Celia’s tendency not to dwell on them overmuch provides a necessary sort of pull through the story that keeps the reader from throwing down the book in inconsolable despair.

“Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

On the contrary, the best thing about this book is how encouraging I found it, despite some difficult subject matter. If you’re a reader who likes to know what they’re getting into, let me warn you that there’s rape, spousal abuse, misogyny, prejudice, mutilation, displacement of native peoples and more. And yet, this isn’t a book solely for women of color, or even just for women. It’s full of positive messages about treating other people with kindness and finding strength from within. It’s about appreciating oneself first of all. It’s about righting wrongs, starting in one’s own family, in one’s own heart. There is history and culture here, but the morals they provide are accessible for all audiences, in a myriad of situations. The world needs more books like this: stories that keep the past from being forgotten, with the purpose of improving the future.

“The world is changing, I said. It is no longer a world just for boys and men.”

“Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book has been on my TBR for so long I don’t even remember exactly why I put it there. I knew next to nothing about The Color Purple before I started, but in spite of my hesitation it constantly surprised and impressed me. I will definitely be recommending this one, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve really been thankful for my reading challenge pushing me to read.

Further recommendations:

  1. Toni Morrison’s Sula is another short classic novel that focuses on prejudice toward African American citizens, and especially on the strife that prejudice creates within a smaller community. It’s a phenomenal tale of friendship and betrayal, with a hint of the fantastic.
  2. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater-known classic that’s also very easy to read and highlights the history of prejudice in America and the need for equality. This one is narrated by a young girl who learns some hard lessons about the state of her southern community when her father goes to trial to represent an African American man accused of raping a white girl.

What’s next: It’s starting to look definitely possible that I could finish my 2017 reading challenge list before the end of the month. I’m forging ahead with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I also know next to nothing about (maybe there are witches?) but am picking up for my challenge. I’ll have another mini-review up for this play shortly.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Lover

It’s crunch time for my 2017 reading challenge, so I’m trying to pick up as many books as I can to complete the challenge in the next two(ish) months. My latest challenge book has been Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a book I started for school and never finished.

theloverAbout the book: A fifteen year-old French girl from a poor and hateful family meets a wealthy Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong River in the early 1940’s. He claims to have fallen immediately in love with her, and she is in want of his money; so begins a year-and-a-half-long affair. The girl is narrating this time from a future point in her life, and mixed up in the telling of her first confusing love is the fate of her family and personal aspects of her transition to adulthood.

About the format: The girl becomes a writer after her affair, and is narrating her own story. She does so disjointedly, in block paragraphs separated by white space. Each paragraph is its own little story, sometimes reflecting on one character and jumping to another, often jumping in time, occasionally switching perspective between what it was like for the fifteen year-old girl in her present and what she thinks about herself and her lover when she looks back at that time.

This is not a book for the lazy reader– it is emotional and character-driven, with little plot and a lot of beautiful reflections on love and life, poverty and death and girlhood. There are gems here, for readers willing to mine for them. Great lines are not difficult to find, but putting the story together that connects the paragraphs, finding the common threads and noting juxtapositions between the paragraphs is more of an effort.

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.”

One of my favorite things about this book is the way the tone of things change as the novel progresses. We see at first a poor but close family, but as the narrator’s “disgrace” grows as a result of her transparent affair, we learn that her mother is irresponsible and depressed, her elder brother cruel and selfish, the younger brother admired but insubstantial, and soon gone. At first we see the narrator accepting love as a means for money, but before she will even admit to herself that she can’t keep her fifteen year-old heart separate from the affair the reader sees that there’s more to her relationship with the Chinese man, as well.

“Very early in my life it was too late.”

My other favorite aspect of this book is that the beauty lies not in the plot or surprises of the novel, but in the telling of it. The narration is blunt and makes no effort to hide truths about what has happened to her, what will happen to her, and what she feels about it all. The beauty comes in the way she connects the affair to the ruin of her face, the loss of immortality, the severing of ties among her family that will begin soon after she leaves the lover. We see her learning and growing from the very first page, and the way Duras manages to convey both an understanding of the growth and a willingness to let the reader create his/her own morals from the hard lessons is magnificently done. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, the emphasis of The Lover is not on the morality of an affair between a young girl and an older man, but on its effect, both immediate and eventual. It’s sympathetic in its emotion.

“It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal.”

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I was absolutely drawn in by the rich and insightful prose, and marked many lines and perspectives that I’ll certainly revisit, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me. Generally plotless books seem to me to have little point; I would not say that The Lover has no point (it has many), but it was easier for me to read in snippets than altogether at once, despite its brevity. At barely over 100 pages, I didn’t need much actual reading time to finish this one, but I did need breaks to digest it between sittings. I wish my class in school had read the entire novel and discussed it more, because even though I absolutely enjoyed reading this book I feel that I could still learn more from it.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading two books, one a reading challenge book (Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a book I’m rereading from my childhood) and one not (Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter, a library book). The former is YA contemporary, a mild romance that deals more with grief and self-acceptance than love, and the latter is a mystery-thriller about a traumatized family learning the truth of an attack that left someone dead, when another attack occurs nearly thirty years later.

What are you reading as the year winds down?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.

About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is thesilenceofthelambshunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…

“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.

The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.

On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.

“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.

Further recommendations:

  1. Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
  2. If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant