Review: A Woman Entangled, Cecilia Grant

Okay okay okay. Greed for Cecilia Grant’s new book compels me to admit that this has been the year I’ve started reading romance novels. I have read enough of them now to have a pretty clear idea of what I like in a romance novel. I like historical romance novels in which the characters are constrained in interesting, specific ways by the time they live in. I like it when the primary characters each have other stuff going on, and I especially like it when the reason they like each other is that they’re impressed with some skill set the other one possesses. In Cecilia Grant’s second novel, the two main characters bonded over mutual admiration of the lady’s gift for calculating probabilities very fast in order to win like crazy at blackjack. That is a real thing. Everyone likes people who admire about them the same things they admire about themselves. Oh and also I like it when the characters talk about privilege. Who has it in what brands and whether they’re making good use of it. Those are all things I enjoy in a romance novel.

(I still feel slightly embarrassed about enjoying romance novels, which is why you will find defiant parenthetical acknowledgements of cliches sprinkled throughout this post.)

A Woman Entangled is the third of Cecilia Grant’s novels, all of which have followed a different sibling (yep) in the Blackshear (yep) family. In this one, Nick Blackshear, the barrister brother with important career plans, is trying to get past the shame of his brother having recently married a prostitute (they keep saying Cyprian, but that seems unfair to Cyprus just for having liked Aphrodite a lot in the old days). In a town across town, Kate Westbrook is trying to gain acceptance in polite society, a goal that will provide her sisters with better prospects, but one that eludes her as a result of her slightly dubious parentage (her father married an actress! horrors!). Nick’s kind of her father’s protogee, and she’s preternaturally beautiful (ugh) so the father asks him to keep an eye on her when she goes to polite society parties. You can imagine how matters go on from there.

I will tell you why I like Cecilia Grant. I like Cecilia Grant because she gives all the characters a bunch of different stuff to do. Nobody is just one thing. A Woman Entangled opens with Kate in a bookshop with her sister Viola as Viola — to Kate’s intense embarrassment — goes on to the bookseller at some length about her radical views on the Rights of Women; after which Kate goes to deliver a courteous letter to one of her father’s relations who has never acknowledged their family, and Viola refuses to go with her, but sits proudly on a bench opposite. This is already interesting because it would usually be the heroine going on about women’s rights, and being shushed by her more conventional supporting-character sister. But what’s even more interesting — to me anyway — is Kate’s awareness that dogmaticism like Viola’s doesn’t tell the whole story. There is more to the members of Kate’s extended family than this one action of declining to acknowledge her. (A point driven home, of course, by the fact that Nick, Our Hero, won’t acknowledge his brother and his ex-Cyprian sister-in-law.) Here again, Cecilia Grant could have left it alone, with Viola cloaked in adolescent righteousness and a general embarrassment to her sister. Instead, later in the book we see Viola offering Kate awesome non-judgmental support that’s completely in line with what we’ve seen of Viola so far (and itself calls into question the rule-following that Kate’s been doing all along).

That ended up being quite a long thing about a secondary character. My point is, I like it that the characters aren’t consistently right or wrong by virtue of serving as protagonists or antagonists. There isn’t even a consistent right or wrong to be had, really — Kate adores her parents, and they’re happy together but her father’s decision to marry an actress in the first place makes his children’s prospects, and especially his daughters’ prospects, dubious. Kate’s years of quiet attentiveness to her aunt and uncle, which Viola scorns and her parents don’t particularly care for either, finally do give her the opportunity to attend some events in Society, but not in exactly the capacity she had hoped.

The characters frequently have to choose one among a collection of shitty possibilities, and even the best outcomes are far from perfect. That makes me happy. Actual life is like that. Plus, consequences: Actions have them! Lydia and Will got married at the end of A Gentleman Undone, which hooray?, except that they’re shunned by most of Will’s family and have to go into trade and their children and Will’s siblings’ children are going to face some serious societal consequences. We see some of those in A Woman Entangled, and others we can infer from the difficulties Kate faces because of her parents’ unconventional marriage.

So now you know. I am quite fond of a limited number of romance authors, and Cecilia Grant is one of them.

(Oh, a small complaint: I really hate characters — in all genres — who are universally acknowledged to be breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t think that’s a thing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Different people find different things attractive. Kate can be pretty but I’m not down with her turning all the heads.)

Disclosure: I received this e-book for review from the publisher, via NetGalley.

Jenny and Mumsy go on about the Brownings (Part 1)

Welcome one and all to the Browning Letters Readalong! We are kicking off this readalong by chatting about the letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett from January to May 1845 (the first five months of their acquaintance). I am your humble host Jenny, and I have roped my lovely Mumsy into talking about these Browning letters with me. We talk about them all the time anyway so it’s not that difficult for us. I hope you are enjoying them as much as Mumsy and I are in this first round!

Jenny: Obviously Robert is the sweetest dear in all the land in these early letters. That is undeniable. He is always rushing in to assure Elizabeth of his regard, and I think he’s ready to be in love with her by the time they meet. If I had to put a date on it, I’d say he’s ready to marry her as of her letter of 3 February, which is long and expansive and asks for no ceremony and no constraint. Here’s what he says in response:

People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning, for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has, for instance, used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could, even if by the devil’s help he would, reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over—and so, if ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.

Mumsy: Oh, I agree that Robert is in love long before they meet, and I would put the date perhaps even earlier than you do – I think he is already half in love when he writes to her. “I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence [in your poetry], the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and rue new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you – your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.” He says in that very first letter, and I don’t think he was just being cute. He mentions several times how she uses her own voice in her poetry (“You speak out YOU”) and hints over and over at the fact that he has fallen in love with that voice. When he admires her poetry, he admires it for the one thing she cannot deny – that she uses her very own voice.

Jenny: I think that’s why she ends up falling in love with him, don’t you? Because he admires about her the things she secretly admires about herself?

Mumsy: They also have so much in common! With the bugs and spiders and toads, and the books they like, and the sense of humor. And sadly, so much contrast, too. It makes me feel sad when he talks about his family so fondly, and they love and appreciate him so much; and poor her, living on bits and shreds of love.

Jenny: It’s touching when she says, “Remember that as you owe your unscathed joy to God, you should pay it back to His world. And I thank you for some of it already.” It was a melancholy response to what he said about “If ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.” Which by the way? I ran that through Google Translate’s Subtext-to-English function? And it came out “When I said I love you I meant I really love you.”

Mumsy: That is what I took away from it too.

Jenny: I love how attentive Elizabeth is to him in these early letters (and throughout! of course!). Even though they’re basically strangers, she’s very quick to pick up on small things Robert says, and to try and move that on. When I was reading Elizabeth’s first letter to Robert, I kept thinking of the rule in group improv comedy that you’re never supposed to say no to an improv partner; you’re always supposed to say yes and. Elizabeth’s wonderful at yes and — she picks up something that Robert said in his letter about having wished to be of critical use to her (before discovering that her poems are ALL PERFECT ALL THE TIME), and says, in the most gracious manner possible, that she’d love to hear any criticisms he might have of her. She also takes up his regret over not having met her that one time, and says how much she’d like to meet him later in the year.

Mumsy: Don’t you love how he keeps escalating the closing of his letters? Yeah, first he is primly “ever faithfully yours”, then it’s “Ever most faithfully yours,” then he”s all “know me for ever your most faithful,” and pretty soon it’s “Yours everywhere, and at all times yours, R. Browning” (31 March). And she notices, too – that last letter she never responded to at all, until after he wrote a second letter two weeks later (on 16 April), and then she writes a letter that is clearly trying to pull him back to a less intense correspondence – asking him if he has read the “Improvisatore”, blah blah blah.

Robert catches that, too. His letter of the 18th is confusing and weird (I wonder if Google could translate that bit about Vivien Grey!), but you can see he is hinting away at the fact that he wants to Say Something Important and he knows she is pulling him up with trivia. But he’s no fool, and he signs that letter, very properly, “Yours ever faithfully.”

You know what else I noticed this time around? I always supposed that Bro’s death, and the tragic circumstances as they pertained to Elizabeth, were a big secret; that no one outside of the family knew about it. She hints at the tragedy several times, but clearly supposes that Robert doesn’t know about it.This time I was intrigued by how Robert, who notices everything, is careful not to ask her about it, but very quick to respond to the “tragic chord,” as he calls it, in her letters. Do you think Mr. Kenyon was a big gossip? Or do you think everyone in London knew?

Jenny: I don’t know! I don’t know what to believe. On one hand, I’m sure I’d gossip if I were Mr. Kenyon. On the other hand, isn’t it the case that Robert writes That One Letter because he doesn’t fully understand Elizabeth’s health situation? And wouldn’t he understand it if Mr. Kenyon were singing like a canary about the Barrett family history? Or do you think Mr. Kenyon also thought the wrong thing about what was wrong with Elizabeth?

And okay, That One Letter: The immediate aftermath of it makes me really sad on both sides. I feel so sad for Elizabeth when she’s being firm with Robert while also obviously hating the idea of losing him as a friend. I know you are mad at Robert for getting all “Oh great poets are always saying things in the grand style and how silly of you to take it in any serious way!” — and I am too! of course! It’s not very nice — but I also sympathize with him. When I’ve done something embarrassing I have to fight very hard against the impulse to shift the embarrassment elsewhere in the most ruthless manner.

Mumsy: I think maybe when I die and go to heaven and get to ask any questions I want (which, obviously, will happen), I will ask to see a copy of That One Letter.  What on earth could he have said?  ”Marry me, my precious Erato, and allow me to gaze longingly at your melting brown eyes even though we can never have sex”?  But yes, I AM mad at Robert for his response when Elizabeth calls him out on it.- it’s the one moment in the correspondence when I just do not like him.  He deliberately embarrasses her!  On the other hand, it is also the moment when I recognize how young he really is, for all his genius and his self-confidence.  He just can’t bear to look like an idiot in her eyes.

Remember later in the correspondence, when That Letter comes up, and he says, “I would have said or done anything to get back into your good graces”? I think of that every time I read his response to her smackdown.

I just can’t end this without talking a little bit about how contemporary Robert and Elizabeth sound. They seem like people you might know, people you might even be (minus the poetic genius).  I love when they talk about how they hate it when people admire their work for all the wrong things; and then Elizabeth says, “Pippa Passes is the one work I envy you the authorship of,” and Robert responds, “Pippa is my best thing of everything I have written.”  They love all the right things about each other!  They are completely irresistible.

Jenny: They are irresistible. I can’t wait to read the next batch of their letters.

The rest of you Browning Readalongers, please leave a comment if you’ve also written a post for today, and I’ll put together a link roundup this evening.

Did everyone feel good about this segment of the readalong? Does five months of letters work for you all? I propose the following schedule for the remainder of the readalong, if so:

  • 8 July: June 1845 through October 1845
  • 22 July: November 1845 through March 1846
  • 5 August: April 1846 to the end (September 1846ish)

Does that work for people? If it seems too ambitious, I will happily revise it, but I’d like to know your thoughts before I make anything final.


The new site is live!

This is not a proper post, just a quick update to let you know that the new site,, is now live! I’ll be duplicating posts for a little while on the old site, but I’d like to stop that fairly soon. So please update your feed readers and bookmarks with the new web address. The new feed is here, and the podcast feed will be here. Our first podcast, in which my friend Jenny and I discuss Claire Messud and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (among other things) drops this Wednesday. We will be insanely excited if you download it.

Other than that, nothing much is changing! I will still be posting the same sorts of things on the same sort of schedule, and I will still be coming round to your blog to chat to you.

The first post in the Browning letters readalong occurs tomorrow — my Mumsy and I had a conversation about the first five months of letters and I will be posting that here for your edification and delight.

Review: The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Verdict: Here is a book that deserves all of its accolades and its foundational status.

I’ve hit a point with my TBR reading (seriously, y’all should see these piles, they are ridiculous) where I’ve picked off the low-hanging fruit (the quite-short nonfiction like Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis and Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small) and now there’s a lot of enormous books left, and particularly enormous nonfiction books. And since I have had a rough month, I decided to treat myself by reading the (presumed) loveliest of my nonfiction books first.

And indeed, I chose well! The Madwoman in the Attic is excellent for a nostalgic feminist English major like me. I love reading all about image clusters in Jane Austen (not sarcasm, I really love that). Definitely the book is a little dated, and definitely Gilbert and Gubar can be a little dogmatic about relating everything back to their Central Thesis, but overall, there is some damn good scholarship going on here. I thought I was so clever talking about how Shirley Jackson’s books all involve houses and their constrictions, but if I’d been really clever I would have pointed out that she belongs solidly in the literary tradition noted by Gilbert and Gubar.

Oh well. I will be that clever next time I have a conversation with someone about recurring imagery in Shirley Jackson novels. Because that’s a thing that’s likely to happen soon.

The first chapter discusses ideas of creativity throughout Western history and how the imagery of creativity comes up all dicks, and this I simply cannot understand. Like, obviously if you’re making the book/baby comparison, it’s going to be a little strained because you need to have one each of a man and a woman to make that happen. But I don’t understand how you could look at the contribution dudes make to creating babies (sperm) and the contribution women make (actually producing a whole entire new person from inside their bodies) and conclude that dudes are the ones with all the generative power. This seems totally crazy. That’s like saying John Watson is the crucial member of the partnership because he sometimes says something that plants the seed for a major Sherlock Holmes breakthrough.

(I don’t mean that I think dudes are John Watson and ladies are Sherlock Holmes in the baby-making endeavor. I just mean that a person living in the olden days, witnessing the things they were witnessing where [sex => lady grows large => entire brand new person comes out of her body], might reasonably see it that way, if they weren’t all messed up by societal investment in keeping women boxed in.)

The Jane Austen chapters are really solid. I both understand why Austen contemporaries criticized her — if you dreamed of freedom in a very unfree century, the way Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning both did, it is understandable that you would be less than thrilled about books that seemed to prop up a rotten system — and really love the feminist reading of her novels. Gilbert and Gubar keep on quoting this, my favorite bit of Persuasion:

“I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

[Anne said:] “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Woohoo. Go Jane Austen. Still not as cool as Jane Eyre‘s line about “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me,” but pretty cool.

The Bronte chapters were also fascinating and cool to read. I mentioned in my review of The Woman Upstairs (a book that acknowledges its debt to The Madwoman in the Attic so often it’s like a tic) that I love Jane Eyre’s anger and unflinchingness more than anything else about her, and that quality of Jane’s is taken up and explored in great detail. Gilbert and Gubar basically talk about everything I love about this book, from Jane’s unflinching morality, to her anger, to Mr. Rochester’s attraction to her being based on her unwillingness to act in a subservient way.

There was some stuff about George Eliot too that meh, I don’t care about George Eliot SORRY GEORGE ELIOT YOUR BOOKS BORE ME, and although I do truly love Emily Dickinson I do not love seeing her poems explicated. The talk of “Goblin Market” was again excellent because that poem is damn creepy, and Gilbert and Gubar have this to say about Aurora Leigh:

It certainly deserves some comment, not only because (as Virginia Woolf reports having discovered to her delight) it is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century. [emphasis mine because that’s the part that is true facts]

True, true facts, my friends. If you have not read Aurora Leigh yet, I strongly recommend you get right on it. God damn it is good. It is just so extraordinarily well-observed. You know how very occasionally you come across a line of poetry that describes something perfectly and perfectly succinctly? That is a phenomenon that happens over and over again in Aurora Leigh. It should be required reading in school. I’d be willing to sacrifice Tennyson for Aurora Leigh.

OH MY GOD and they also said this, which is possibly my favorite thing in the whole book:

Many critics have suggested that Dickinson’s reclusiveness was good for her because good for her poetry…Considering how brilliantly she wrote under extraordinarily constraining circumstances, we might more properly wonder what she would have done if she had had Whitman’s freedom and “masculine” self-assurance, just as we might reasonably wonder what kind of verse Rossetti would have written if she had not defined her own artistic pride as wicked “vanity.”

I want to give this passage a standing ovation. I get so tired of people suggesting that it was somehow “better” for artists to have suffered horribly because otherwise they wouldn’t have done art. I don’t buy it. I buy the above argument instead. I buy it in relation to advances in feminism and I buy it in relation to advances in mental health. So there.

Revisiting Harry Potter: “Kill the snake?” “Kill the snake.”

Here is my main complaint with this section of the book, which I otherwise love very much: How’s Harry going to use the Cruciatus curse on the Carrow sibling who spits in McGonagall’s face? (I find the Carrows boring and have not bothered to learn their names.) He was unable to do this curse on Bellatrix Lestrange two seconds after she killed Sirius Black, but somehow he can manage to do it just because some Death Eater insults one of his teachers? Number one, that is bullshit. Number two,

don’t torture people. Torture is wrong, and Harry could have accomplished the same effect of punishing the Carrow sibling by just Stunning him/her. I wish McGonagall had said something, like, “Hey, do not torture that Carrow sibling, you war criminal.” I guess we’ll just have to assume that Luna mentions this incident to Hermione later, and Hermione fusses at Harry for us.

Okay. Now that I have gotten that out of the way I shall proceed with talking about Percy, who redeems himself by returning at last! I always knew he would. I knew it because of that time he splashed out in the water to come get Ron. All along Percy really loved his family. I admit that I was hoping Percy would come back, redeem himself, and die nobly in battle. That would take care of Weasley family deaths without one of the twins having to die, something I was deeply concerned about before the seventh book appeared. Instead Fred Weasley dies, and it was heartwrenching, especially when, oh God, especially when Percy is lying across Fred’s body so nothing else can happen to it, and he won’t let go–

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is a pretty great set piece. Although it goes on for a long time, and there’s a lot of events occurring, it doesn’t feel long at all. It feels frantic and disorganized in a really wonderful way. One second Professor Trelawney is throwing crystal balls on Fenrir Greyback’s head (woot), and the next second Neville Longbottom’s grandmother has come to fight alongside him because she hates evil and is proud of her wonderful grandson. The last Horcrux gets destroyed in the Room of Requirement, and Harry’s almost too busy to notice.

This is not the time or place, but sometime later I’d like us all to think about how great a spell Glisseo is. Have we seen that one before Hermione uses it to escape from some Death Eaters? It is awesome. I love slides. If I were a wizard, I’d never ever walk down stairs. I would always make them into slides. That is a much more fun way to get from one floor to another. Does it only work on straight staircases? Or if you are up several floors and you have a staircase with landings, will they turn into one big curvy slide?

Did anyone feel like it was kind of a cheat to have Dumbledore show up and explain everything at the end? As I recall, I thought that it should feel like a cheat, but I was so happy to have Dumbledore back again that I didn’t care. I wanted that chapter to keep going on and on forever, because I do not tire of Dumbledore telling Harry how to understand the world. This chapter also felt very — momentous in the scheme of things, just like, it felt like a chapter that JK Rowling had been waiting twenty years for us to read.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

And then Harry comes back to life and we are treated to the spectacle of Mrs. Weasley getting Bellatrix because Bellatrix threatens Ginny! That part! How she is all,

and kills Bellatrix LIKE A BOSS. You always see Mrs. Weasley when she’s mothering and taking care of everyone, and she is amazing at that, but I liked to see this from her as well. You knew Mrs. Weasley had this in her. When she says that Bellatrix will never touch their children again, I cried three tears from my eyes. Writing about it is making me sniffly.

Oh Neville

I know. This should have been a section all along. I’m sad that it wasn’t. I love Neville and he has wonderful moments in each of the books, because JK Rowling is a genius and she knew all along that Neville was going to save the motherfucking day. It says so much about Neville that Harry can hand over this task to Neville and trust that it’s going to get done.

“Just in case they’re — busy — and you get the chance–”

“Kill the snake?”

“Kill the snake,” Harry repeated…

But Neville seized his wrist as Harry made to move on.

“We’re all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?”

NEVILLE. To get an assignment like this and be all,

He not only kills the snake, he does it while he is also on fire. Neville you beautiful genius.

The Adulting of Harry Potter

I am on record as saying that I love it when Harry has a thoughtful moment and chooses what kind of person he’s going to be. He can be impulsive so it’s great to see him thinking matters over in a self-aware manner and making a choice. I love it that we get to see him deciding he doesn’t want to be Dumbledore and keep everything a secret from everyone. Although, I don’t really understand why everyone can’t just know about the Horcruxes by the time Harry gets to Hogwarts? There’s only two left, and since Voldemort is heading for Hogwarts right now, it seems like you’d want as many people on Horcrux duty as possible. Wouldn’t you?

For Harry’s final adulting trick, he names his kid after Severus Snape. That is — an amazing feat of grace and forgiveness. I hope that wherever Snape is right now, he appreciates the gesture.

On the other hand, won’t that be a really, really awkward conversation to have with the kid? “That’s right, son, when we ran out of your grandparents’ names, we went ahead and named you after the guy who was responsible for their deaths.” I would not want to be named after Severus Snape. That dude sucks. He did some helpful stuff, but he mostly was terrible and a bully. If I were Ginny I’d have put my foot down on that one. The world is full of names. Plus, if you’re going to name your child Albus (how cute is it that his nickname is Al?), you should give him a really super normal middle name. If he ever decides he’s tired of Albus as a name, he should have a backup plan.

Y’all! I am so sad the readalong is ending! I know we have a wrap-up post next week, but I will no longer have this forum in which to talk about the many, many feelings and thoughts I have about the Harry Potter books. What will I do with myself? What will happen next time I reread them and I have feelings to share? (I reread these books like once a year. Don’t judge.) Alice, thanks so much for hosting this readalong. It has been great.

Review: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Verdict: Good, but heavy-handed.

The exciting thing about The Woman Upstairs is the intensity of its protagonist’s anger. Nora is an elementary school teacher and artist manque, who bitterly regrets the opportunities she has given up in her life in the interest of being “a good girl”. Into her life comes the Shahid family: the young son, Reza, is in her class; the mother, Sirena, a video installation artist who befriends Nora; and the father, Skandar, with whom Nora comes to enjoy discussing philosophy and politics. Feeling that she has been brought to life by these new friendships, Nora throws herself into the Shahids’ lives, baby-sitting for Reza and sharing a studio space with Sirena, where they each work on their own art and then, increasingly, more and more just on Sirena’s.

There is, of course, a betrayal coming. The extent to which Nora’s relationships with the Shahids are based in fantasy is not clear. Certainly Nora is projecting an awful lot onto those relationships, and Messud lets the reader sit with that discomfort. Nora of the present day, who narrates the story and looks back on those years with the Shahids, constantly tells us that she knows what we’re thinking, how we’re viewing her.

In a way this makes the uncertainty worse, because we know that we’re probably never ever going to find out what the Shahids thought about all this. Did they truly like her the way she liked them, or were they being kind, or were they using her, or some combination of those things? The uncertainty of this, combined with the certainty that betrayal is heading Nora’s way, infuses the book with (some slightly milder version of) dread. Nora’s describing Pride while acknowledging that she’s in a position from which society demands Humility, so you know that she’s going to pay.

I’ve read some reviews of this book that called it slow-moving which — I guess it is? At least, not a ton of events occur throughout the course of the book, and I am typically the first to complain about not enough events (cf my favorite show on TV right now being The Vampire Diaries on which ONE THOUSAND EVENTS occur every episode). But it didn’t feel slow, I think because Messud does such a good job of creating a sense of dread. You know Nora’s going to pay for the joy she’s experiencing; you just don’t know exactly how.

(I mean, I did. I read the end so I knew exactly how. But I still felt the dread.)

And now for my complaint. The symbolism of this book was, shall we say, a trifle on the nose. Nora’s artist friend, the mother/wife of the Shahid family, whose presence in Nora’s life lures Nora into believing there’s more out there for her, is called Sirena. Nora, meanwhile, has the same name of the protagonist of Ibsen’s The Doll House, an homage that I do not believe needed to be underlined by Nora’s artistic output being — yes! — dollhouses. There was just a lot of stuff like that, stuff that made me feel like Claire Messud did not trust her book to get its message across without slamming you in the face with its resonances.

There were also times at which I could have done without some of the commas. I love commas. You have to put a lot of clauses in a lot of commas before I will complain. Some of Messud’s writing was really lovely and precise:

But as she led me into their apartment, the thought that came unbidden was: Here is someone that I used to love. Or even: Here is someone who resembles, to a large degree but imperfectly, someone that I used to love.

I have felt that feeling before, and it was interesting to have it put into words, but at other times there were too many commas.

HOWEVER: I cannot emphasize enough that I like reading about angry women, and I really really appreciate what Claire Messud was doing in The Woman Upstairs. This is the same reason why I love Jane Eyre and the poetry of June Jordan. Women have a lot to be angry about.

Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

Review: In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield

Here is the premise of In Great Waters. It’s a hell of a premise so be prepared. In an alternate version of our world, mermaids and humans live side by side, connected by alliances like regular nations and by the existence of hybrids (bastards) who are half-mermaid and half-human. Such creatures have bifurcated tails and human reproductive organs; they can walk on land and hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes. They are also, by tradition, the rulers of Europe. In the sixteenth (I think) century, a hybrid child called Henry, cast up on land by his mother, is raised in secret as a rebel claimant to the throne of England. The bloodline of the deepsmen (mermaids) has become corrupted after many centuries of inbreeding, and the presumptive heir to the English throne is severely inbred to the point that he isn’t able to understand much of what goes on around him. Plotting, you understand, is afoot.

If Emma Donoghue, working off a plot outline by Megan Whalen Turner, were to write an alternate-history book set in the sixteenth? I’m guessing? century, about a world where mermaids were a crucial part of the political and military landscape, I expect it would come out a lot like In Great Waters. Half of the book is from Henry’s point of view, as he struggles to adapt to human life and understand human ideas; and the other half is from the point of view of one of the (uselessly female!) princesses of England, Anne, who is caught up among the many intrigues of the English court. The reader gets to see what the English court is like from the inside — Anne’s intelligent, formidable mother working tirelessly to preserve the throne for her daughters — and from the outside — Henry’s keepers struggling to find a way to put him on the throne before some other nation’s prince takes over the English throne.

Henry is not a character designed to be lovable. He is coldly manipulative of the men who take him in (though they, of course, are manipulating him too) and contemptuous of many human ideas and values that you most likely think a lot of. But although his values are not mine, he does have values, and one of the joys of the book is Henry’s developing ideas about what he believes and where he is willing to compromise. Very sensibly, Kit Whitfield gives him a friend, John, the son of one of Henry’s co-conspirators, which gives the reader a chance to see another side of Henry besides just the alien.

Meanwhile, Anne gets all the court intrigue, which of course makes her interesting to me. Anne has cultivated a reputation as a pious idiot, a sensible idea if you want not to be noticed, but problematic should a time arise when you want to be noticed. Just as it was fun to see Henry — a character who manages to be all agency in spite of his circumstances — discover his values, it was fun to see Anne — a character whose values and faith have been important to her all along — develop her agency as a political force to be reckoned with. Clare, who recommended this book a while ago, was a little disappointed by the anticlimactic ending; and although I was too, I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have done, because it was so great to see Anne taking care of business.

So yeah! That is In Great Waters. Historical fiction. With mermaids.