The Tenth Gift, Jane Johnson
Julia’s just been dumped–over an expensive lobster dinner and while wearing her favorite hand-embroidered shawl–by the man she’s been sleeping with for seven years, and who, for seven years, has been married to her best friend. As a parting shot, he gives her a gift: an antique book of embroidery patterns.
After days of crying herself nauseous, Julia reopens the book to find that the original owner—a maid named Catherine Tregenna who received the book in 1625–has used the margins of the book as a journal. As Julia deciphers the markings, she is drawn into the story of Turkish pirates in Cornwall, of dreams larger than circumstances, and most of all, of a life that isn’t quite what was expected.
Well, parts were interesting and well done, but the parts were better than the whole. I liked the idea of both halves of the story, I especially liked the Cornish setting (all of that research I’ve done on du Maurier’s Cornwall books) but all in all, I didn’t love the book. By the end, I kind of hated the book—but more on that in a bit. Catherine (the 17th century maid) gets kidnapped and nearly killed by pirates (Random Princess Bride moment: Murdered by pirates is good), and I kept expecting a reversal of that initial we-Christians-good/those-Muslims-bad divide. It never really happened. I think the author tried to move in that direction by showing that Islamic pirates were reacting to earlier Christian pirate raids (or something, the history is a little muddled) but it doesn’t quite work—the statement just isn’t strong enough. We are told about English cruelty—distanced from it by time and location– and shown, in vivid, first-person detail, the cruelty of the Moroccans; the effect is just not the same.
As to the framing narrative—Julia’s story in modern times: I just don’t get her. I’m kind of insanely uncomfortable with her long-standing affair with her college friend’s husband, and I’m not certain why I feel so absolutely and fundamentally appalled. Seriously, I was talking back at the CD (You mean you didn’t see this ending badly? Stupid cow. Jesus.) as the narrative was trying to draw me into some sort of sympathetic bond with this weeping woman. I kind of hated her. Clearly I’m far more personally invested in the cultural structures of monogamy than I’d known. Something about that we-women-stick-together (and don’t screw each other’s husbands, for-god’s-sake) mentality… or something. Aren’t our social mores fascinating? I wonder if the jealous woman/straying man trope would be so prevalent if women hadn’t so long been completely dependent on the little dears for economic stability. Perhaps the “crazy jealous woman” is actually a cultural leftover from the woman fearful of being left penniless. That’s probably a simplification of the issue on my part, but, as always, there’s always another angle of the she-so-crazy conversation. (I want that put on my tombstone. Local papers please copy.) Anyway—Julia is guilt-ridden about the betrayal of her friend throughout the entire novel, I got that, but I didn’t quite get why she had the affair in the first place. It is presented as kind of this moth/flame type thing, but left really unexamined.
I wasn’t completely satisfied with the character development for the first two-thirds of the book, but I was going with it, giving the author the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it was all going to come together: the idea behind the book, anyway, was interesting. And then the direction of the book became clear.
Fifty pages from the end, (after way too much investment to just throw the stupid thing against the wall and go back to Jane Austen) it turned into a bad mishmash of every harem Harlequin published in the 70’s. Seriously– cruel dark eyes, mysterious attraction and all. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against romance. In fact, I’m quite a fan of the real-life occurrence. Even as a genre, I’ll admit to an occasional indulgence. Ok, fine. Perhaps more than occasional. But this was published in 2008. There should be no place in modern dialogue for stereotypes like this. Seriously, the assumptions made about characters-met-while-abroad are about on par with turn-of-the-century empire and crown writings. Somebody send Ms. Johnson some Edward Said. Now, I’m not trying to make creative works subject to political correctness–had this actually been written at the turn of the century, then ok. We’d talk about how ideas of foreignness, of gender, of nation, of personal identity have changed over the last century, maybe give ourselves an unacknowledged pat on the back for our progress, and go on to examine what was going on in the era that it was written. But nope, published in 2008. This should have been informed by the last fifty years of progress, and wasn’t. Awful. Just freaking awful. Oh wait–and just in case you were bored with all of those cruel dark eyes, there’s a ghost. Who is introduced 15 pages from the end. Sheesh!
I’m not worried about spoiling the surprise, because you really don’t want to waste your time. I’m just glad I was listening to the audio book; at least my kitchen got cleaned.
And I still don’t know what the freaking tenth gift is. I think the ghost stole that part of the manuscript.
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
In case you’ve missed the recent conversation about this book, The Last Werewolf is the first person narrative of Jake Marlow, the last living werewolf. He is the target of several groups–humans who want to eliminate the supernatural, other supernatural groups who want to solidify their supremacy–all in all, he’s in for a rough time.
This book was published too recently for me to feel comfortable divulging much of the plot. Suffice to say: I enjoyed it. But it was graphic. I mean graphic. Lots of violence. And Jake is very aware, even after 200 some years as a werewolf, of the normative human values which he transgresses with every turning. (So lots of guilt, too.) Not only is there quite a lot of violence, but there is also quite a lot of sex. Sex is as much an imperative for Jake as his somewhat aberrant diet (you know, eating people), contrasting with the vampires who, in Duncan’s world, don’t have sex at all. The vampires are presented as these basically these cold and calculating cerebral beings, while Jake and the rest of the now deceased lycanthropic population represent a more embodied corporeality. If one were looking for a paper topic, I think it would be interesting to compare this split to the perceived dichotomy of the mind/body difference in western culture.
Final opinion: Definitely not for the squeamish. But such an intelligent book, you get past it. Mostly. Jake Marlowe is insidiously likable, and so self-aware and straight-out disillusioned with everything (but basically somewhat hopeful?) that he reads like the voice of the postmodern world.