Plot Junkie: Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time

These were both so good, that I’m having trouble being done with them. It is just possible that I’m going to go back and reread ’em both in a week or so. (I’ll let you know, and probably have more to say about them, if that happens.)

Now, I’m relatively familiar with the neo-Victorian genre. Possession is my favorite book, I’ve read it at least 15 times, likely more. I love The Crimson Petal and the White, and intend to reread it as soon as Mount TBR is a little less daunting. Sarah Waters will have space in my bookshelf as long as I have a bookshelf. I just finished Rustication and loved it. I’ve slogged through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell four or five times, (though I have to admit a preference for The Ladies of Grace Adieu). Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler books comprise one of the few series that have made it through the last 15 years of bookshelf purges. I’ve returned to and given up on Anne Perry’s series so frequently that it’s practically a routine.  And I’m familiar with the originals as well–most of what I do is in the 19th century. I know the big hitters, I know the minor works. So I have very. strong. opinions. about what works and what doesn’t in a Victorian novel. I know and am picky about all of the structures and tropes that Cox is using, and holy mother, is he doing it well.

 “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” So begins the “enthralling” (Booklist, starred review) and “ingenious” (Boston Globe) story of Edward Glyver, booklover, scholar, and murderer. A chance discovery convinces Glyver that greatness awaits him. His path to win back what is rightfully his leads him to Evenwood, one of England’s most enchanting country houses, and a woman who will become his obsession.” (review from the publisher’s website)

There’s something about a book with a first person narrator that is almost claustrophobic. The voice is just so insistent, constantly whispering in your ear, trying to convince you of a point of view and system of beliefs that may or may not be correct or accurate, but is all that this person can see. You, as the reader, are forced into another’s perspective. You can doubt their truth, you can doubt their sanity, but–if you want to know the story–you can’t get away. Edward Glyver, the protagonist and narrator of The Meaning of Night, is dreadful. He’s monomaniacal on the subject of his inheritance, he has no trouble using any and all–old friends, lovers, employers–to further his ends, he seems to have no limits at which he will stop to achieve his purpose.

And yet. Even as I was resisting his narrative voice (I disliked and distrusted him from the beginning, as was intended) I still couldn’t stop listening. The story is seriously captivating. Every time you think you have something figured out (or maybe just every time things are looking up) something happens and bam! everything you thought you knew, everything he thought he knew, turns out to have been just wrong enough to change everything.

This reminded me so much of The Count of Monte Cristo. If, you know, Dantes had been a little mad [edited to add: and who are we kidding? revenge is not really a life goal of the sane.] And now that I think about it, that might be on purpose– Glyver’s real name is Edward Dupont, sharing initials, as well as monomaniacal focus on revenge, with Edmond Dantes.


I tore through The Meaning of Night, loved it, but (contrary to how I generally feel about sequels) The Glass of Time was even better. You could  read it alone, and you’d be great for about 3/4 of the book, but then all of these allusions to things past start showing up and you’d be confused. So read them in order. While you might be able to predict a few things that otherwise would be a surprise, you need the first for the conclusion of this to have weight.

The author’s first novel, The Meaning of Night (2006), set in London in 1854, was told from the viewpoint of a scholar turned murderer, but this sequel, set some 20 years later, is narrated by an innocent, 19-year-old Esperanza Gorst. Orphaned as a child, she has been raised in relative luxury in Paris by her guardian and given an excellent education by her tutor. However, her world is upended when they inform her that she is to leave for England in two months, where she will be employed as a lady’s maid by the widowed Baroness Tansor on the vast estate of Evenwood. It is to be the first step in what they call the Great Task, but Esperanza’s ultimate goal will only be revealed to her in phases. Although she appears far too refined for her occupation, Esperanza is immediately embraced by the family, but Lady Tansor proves to be a difficult employer, given to hysterics due to her tragic past—the love of her life, the pretentious poet Phoebus Daunt, was murdered by an old friend. Great period atmosphere, a cunning plot, and an intelligent narrator make this one a special treat. (review from the publisher’s website) 

This book reminded me of so many of my favorites, but in a “doing the era well” way, not in a knock-off way.Anyway, it reminded me of Alcott’s Behind a Mask (probably primarily because I just finished reading it, but definite thematic similarities), so so much of  Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (as anyone slightly familiar with that book will be able to note from the above publisher’s review), reviewers on Amazon found similarities to Jane Eyre and several of Wilkie Collins’ novels.

Both of these are very highly recommended. They are absolutely the best books I’ve read in ages–these were walk-into-a-wall-while-reading books.


Plot Junkie: Glances at Missed Books (Part 1)

In looking over the list of the books I’ve completed this year, I realize I kind of stopped reviewing them somewhere in mid-June. I began again in August, but in the mean time, I didn’t talk about some really fantastic books. To rectify this shocking oversight, I’m condensing my usual ridiculously wordy critiques a bit, to, well, speed the plow. These all deserve extensive discussion, but alas, it is not to be.

And here, comprising the first installation of this catch-up project, for your illumination and elucidation…

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
 The Paris Wife is a fictional account of the life of Hadley Richardson, more commonly known as Mrs. Hemingway the first. (She was followed by a Mrs. H 2, 3 and 4.) They were married from 1921 to 1926, and spent most of that time living in Paris. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1925: The Paris Wife primarily tells of the time before his fame and the assurance of his greatness.

Hemingway’s increasing emotional unavailability to his first wife, who appears rather naïve and provincial surrounded by Parisian artistic community, makes her seem incredibly insecure. The portrayal of the expat community in Paris and Pamplona was fascinating, but it was all seen with longing from the outside, from the eyes of the girl who didn’t quite make it into the party. It seemed to me like McLain’s Hadley just wasn’t as witty or brilliant; she just didn’t though it was her story, it seemed more the story of her interaction with the “important” people–those who did great work and talked about great things–while the little women talked in the corner. Hadley articulates this, saying she and Alice Toklas were relegated to the “wife” role, while Ernest and Gertrude seemed to operate on a different plane. McLain doesn’t really present any renegotiation of the situation, instead she just presents it. And Hadley seemed so drab and insecure, by the end I was ready to have an affair to get rid of her, too. I don’t think that was precisely the author’s intention, but it was all rather excruciating. I really just wanted her to leave the sorry bastard, to strike out on her own and have a fabulous life. 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is a “fingersmith,” a thief in mid-nineteenth century London. She is contracted by Gentleman, a crook aiming to marry a fortune, to take a post as a lady’s maid and to forward his courtship of her soon-to-be mistress whenever possible. Once the lady is won and wealth achieved, the lady is to be deposited in the nearest madhouse, and Sue will be given all of her gowns and jewels, as well as three thousand pounds. The lady is Maud, she works as her uncle’s secretary in a remote country estate, and she seems strangely ambivalent regarding the attentions of Gentleman. As Maud and Sue become closer, and the date for the implementation of Gentleman’s plan begins looming, Sue begins to wonder if she’s capable of the grand betrayal that is required of her. Betrayals ensue, but not quite the ones foreseen.  

Mother-of-god this was a good book. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s divided into sections (Book 1, Book 2, etc.), I was reading at midnight and bound and determined to make it to the end of the first section before I put the book down like a good college student and get some sleep. Ahem. Didn’t happen. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, so I’m going to stop babbling. Instead, I’ll just restate the previous: You have to read this book. So so freaking well done. It’s kind of an homage to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which if you haven’t read yet, you’re in for quite at treat when you finally do), and several of the Victorian Gothic elements of that novel show up here: two women in a lonely house, a young art teacher, falsely aristocratic husband merely after the young wife’s money, the asylum as a repository for unwanted women, actual madness, decidedly odd caretakers and less than truthful mothers. But Sarah Waters does something with the story that Collins never did—Collins’ heroines fade away into a conventional and strained domesticity, both apparently content to serve the honorable hero, one as friend and confident and the other as love. Fingersmith’s heroines aren’t quite as ready to embrace conventional domesticity. (Can I say I loved this book one more time? Yep, it’s my blog. I loved this book.) 

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister
I enjoyed this book, but objectively I can see that it wasn’t really all that great. Honestly, it was one of those semi-forgettable collections of vignettes about a group of random people connected by one random thing, and then by the end we find out that we’re all just human underneath, even the ones that look like they’ve got it all together. Sigh. I’ve read that book. Several times. Think The Jane Austen Book Club, but with olive oil. 

That said, there was a short story about an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s that was extremely well done. Her memories are trickling away, but different smells and textures in the kitchen bring back flashes of the past. I thought Bauermeister did a great job of both showing an all-too-understandable terror of rootlessness and framing her character just in those little glimpses of memory.