Review: The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Metafiction.  That’s another challenge I should invent, if there isn’t one already, a metafiction challenge.  I always expect to love metafiction passionately, and when it lets me down, I feel hurt and betrayed.  Like the book of The Princess Bride.  Why did you be so lame, book of The Princess BrideAtonementWicked after they left school, but particularly after, um, a certain event?  That I don’t want to say because some of you maybe haven’t read the book yet?  Slaughterhouse FiveGiles Goat-Boy.

And then sometimes it is great, like The Unwritten, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Ella Minnow Pea, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, or Fire and Hemlock, it is exactly what metafiction should be, and I feel satisfied with myself for choosing to love metafiction with all my heart.

And sometimes it’s good enough, but I am tortured by the thought of how much better it could have been if only X, Y, and Z.  Like Baltimore, or The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (I know!  Everyone loved this book!  But I did not.).  Fables actually falls into this category too, because although I love it and it’s fun seeing the fairy tale characters do all sorts of decidedly un-fairy-tale-like things, I always wish the characters were more fully realized.  But Fables has the advantage of having pretty pictures, whereas The Eyre Affair, which suffers from a more serious version of this characters problem, does not.

All of this to say, The Eyre Affair is all cutesy meta references and very little heart.  Literary detective Thursday Next encounters supervillain Lex Luthor Acheron Hades when she becomes involved in a case to track down the stolen original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit.  Thereafter Hades gains access to a device that allows real people to get into books, and vice versa; he steals the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnaps Jane herself.  If his demands are not met, he threatens, he will take Jane out of the manuscript permanently, effectively destroying Jane Eyre for all future generations.

Don’t get me wrong.  The cutesy meta references can be charming, enough so that I checked out the second book in the series in the hopes of its improving.  Fforde has produced some delightful details about his book-obsessed alternate England.  Automated machines recite several lines of Shakespeare when you insert a coin.  Thursday and her ex-lover Landen attend a production of Richard III in which all the actors are drawn from the audience, and the audience participates in the play through call-backs.  But the characters, though duly supplied with backstory, are cardboard, and there are long stretches where not much is happening by way of plot.

If this seems uncharacteristically harsh, you can put it down to two things.  One, I don’t buy Fforde’s versions of Rochester and Jane, or in several cases his characterization of the plot of Jane Eyre, and I don’t appreciate people messing with Jane Eyre if they’re not going to do it right.  Two, as you may know, I love it that Shakespeare was some nobody from Stratford and yet wrote these most magnificent plays, and I am not at all interested in theories that suggest otherwise.  So.

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Eve’s Alexandria
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Miss Picky’s Column

Did I miss yours?

45 thoughts on “Review: The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

  1. Oh, you’ve expressed my sentiments exactly. I wanted so much to love this book, but “meh” was my reaction. It’s been several years since I read it, but I think I also had issues with his characterization of Jane Eyre. But I can’t recall if my feelings tended toward outrage at his getting it wrong or a niggling feeling that he wasn’t fully immersed in the original. I just remember finding the Jane Eyre bits unsatisfactory.

    I have heard the series improves after the first book, but I haven’t been motivated to read further. I’m more inclined to try his new series, which a couple of people have told me I’d probably like better.

    • I felt like Fforde didn’t quite get Mr. Rochester, and although we saw very little of Jane, I didn’t think he got her right either. Plus, his description of the plot kind of suggested that Mr. Rochester had some real interest in Blanche Ingram, when my recollection of it is that all along he was just using her to make Jane jealous.

    • Me too! Shades of Grey? I am very intrigued by it, especially because I had this series of dreams a few years ago that had a similar premise! I know that sounds really silly, but it’s true. They were exciting dreams. I was Red. I had all sorts of adventures trying to escape from the Whites.

  2. Oh no – I was hoping I’d love this, but your review makes me think that I won’t :\ I did love Kavalier and Clay, though, so hopefully we’ll disagree? 😛 But sigh – bad metafiction is extra disappointing. All that potential wasted. Anyway, yes, you SO should host that challenge!

    • You might enjoy it more than I did if you go into it not expecting much in the way of characterization. The fun is in the world Fforde’s created. I may try reading the sequels and see if this attitude helps me like them better than the first. 🙂

  3. Ironically, I thought his use of Jane and Rochester were spot-on. I really enjoyed this book, though the second one is much, much better. Haven’t read the rest, yet. I’m spreading them out.

    I’m going to sound stupid here, but what exactly is meta-fiction??

    • The second one’s better? Good! Goody. I have it out of the library and have been trying to decide whether I’d like it. Metafiction – you don’t sound stupid! I only learned what it was recently! – is what I always call writing about writing. So it might be something like The Unwritten, which explores the boundaries between fiction and reality; or it might be something like The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which tells alternate versions of the Homer epics. Or it might be a story about writing a story, or maybe a story that interacts in some way with the real world (like Sophie’s World). This is a muddle of a definition!

      Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.”

    • I had the opposite response to the following books. By me, the meta just got farcical, the characters more cardboardy, and Thursday more Humphrey Bogarty. But if the absurdist and detective novel elements were what one enjoyed…

      I really loved the Eyre Affair, though. I was just so overwhelmed at the idea being able to GO INTO Jane Eyre, my probably-favorite book, that I wasn’t too concerned about the subtleties. Also I was a theater nerd, so I loved the Richard the III thing. Pure enchantment. I think it must have been the first metafiction I’d read (if I don’t count Fire and Hemlock)

      • I think the Richard III thing was my very favorite thing in the book. As for “going into” books, I had this book when I was a kid with the premise that you could go into books. It was by Charles Lindbergh’s daughter, Travel Far, Pay No Fare, and I thought it was absolute magic. They visited Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, The Yearling…I loved it. It’s lost some of the sparkle now that I am older (alas).

    • Hahahaha, especially if I’m the reader. I am so protective of Jane Eyre it’s ridiculous! But I read it when I was eight, and I was so proud of myself for reading such a grown-up book, and I don’t know. I just have a special place in my heart for that book.

  4. I read this and really enjoyed it YEARS ago, and yet never went further in the series. I want to because I just think the whole idea is so clever that I want it to succeed.

    I feel the same way about Deliverance Dane. Though I didn’t really think it was “good enough.” I thought it was pretty lame.

    I now want to read The Lost Books of the Odyssey!

    • Oh, please read The Lost Books of the Odyssey. It is quite amazing. There are some story snippets that didn’t impress me, and others that just blew me away. The author’s apparently working on doing the same sort of thing with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is so exciting I ALMOST CANNOT TAKE IT.

    • I am going to forge ahead though, and read (at least some of) the sequels! I don’t want to give up straight away, because when I start a series, I really want to finish it. I got through most of Anne Rice’s vampire books even after I started to completely dislike them after The Vampire Lestat: I am a completist.

  5. Aw, I’m sorry you didn’t like it much 😦

    I think I love his world-building more than his characterisation – maybe that’s why I can get past his (sometimes wildly off-key) versions of classic characters. Cheese is a luxury good due to the high tax rate set on it; Wales is a military republic; croquet is the national sport (the match in book 4 is pretty exciting stuff!).

    Also, he sets it in Swindon. I mean, Swindon – who sets a book in Swindon?

    If you read the next one, I wonder what you’ll think of Miss Havisham.

    • I probably won’t think anything of Miss Havisham. I am apparently the only person in the world who never read Great Expectations in school. Which, actually, might make me less critical of how Fforde portrays her. What’s the second one about?

      • Well, I also hadn’t read Great Expectations when I read Lost In A Good Book, and it made me want to go and read it, and eventually I did, and I was very glad I had.

        You’re probably right about that making the reader less critical – it had been a long time since I read Jane Eyre and I had mostly forgotten it when I read the Eyre Affair, so I didn’t at all have the original in my head.

        #2 is one of the books I have in storage 😦 but I think she spends a lot more time in the fictional world – she trains with Jurisfiction, which is the book world’s law enforcement agency. It does things like making sure characters are behaving as they ought; clearing out grammasites; dealing with outbreaks of the mispeling vyrus; Heathcliff protection duty; filling in plot holes; and I think there’s a certain amount of minotaur chasing too, though that might not be till the third book. Quantities of pink gooey Dream Topping come into play at one point; the Cheshire Cat appears; and I rather enjoyed the footnoterphone.

        I seem to remember Fforde has a lot of fun playing with the conventions around of the use of coincidence in fiction.

  6. I loved this book a lot (even the sequels) 🙂 I find them hilarious though I must admit I read and fell in love with the third book first before I went back to this one, and the second one. Hahaha!

  7. I was very torn about Kavalier and Clay. I thought parts of it were fantastic, and I was very impressed by how ambitious it was, but the whole crushingly depressing part in the middle with all the dead people and dogs just put me off. It seemed to throw the whole book out of balance in a really fundamental way that I can’t quite explain. The whole book struck me as great but deeply flawed, which is really how I’ve felt about all the Michael Chabon books I’ve read.

    • Yes! I loved the idea behind Kavalier and Clay, and there were parts that I thought absolutely nailed it, but then there were other parts that were disappointing. I haven’t read anything else by Chabon because I figured, Kavalier & Clay is supposed to be his best book, and if I didn’t like that one, how will I like the others?

  8. I enjoyed this one, but there were definitely flaws. I think there are two kinds of first books in series: either the one that you hold all the other books to, and they eventually let you down, or the one that shows promise for the rest of the series. I definitely think this is an example of the second one. It set up a great series, rather than being a great book itself. I’m definitely going to read the rest of them, just not right away.

    • Huh, I wonder which brand I’d prefer. The latter, I guess, just in terms of quantity. My mum and I are both big fans of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, and I always feel sad for her that her favorite is the first one. For me the series gets better and better for a while before leveling off. I hope I’ll discover that the Thursday Next books are the same way!

  9. I actually read this book *before* I’d ever read Jane Eyre, so I didn’t have the problems with his versions of Jane and Rochester. (I also didn’t get at least half the jokes the first time I read it, of course.) I’ve read the rest of the series (except the most recent one), and they’re about the same – heavy on the clever worldbuilding, and kind of light on the plot. Although this book does get one of my favorite tags on LibraryThing: “permeable boundaries between books and reality.”

    … and on that tip, I just read The Unwritten yesterday, and holy cow, why did you (and Nymeth) not beat me over the head and demand that I read it sooner? 🙂

    • Isn’t it good? I’ve got all the single issues starting from the Kipling one, and I’m doling them out to myself one every Tuesday (because Tuesday is depressing: still early on in the week, AND no good TV that evening). Yayyyy I am excited that today is Tuesday! The last comic left me on such a cliffhanger!

      That is an excellent tag!

  10. Totally random: I thought I was the only person who didn’t like THE PRINCESS BRIDE! The movie rocks my socks, but the book really let me down. 😦

    As far as this book goes, I read it before I was more than slightly familiar with JANE EYRE, and I did enjoy it. I think I might have felt differently about it if I were a hardcore Eyre lover, though.

  11. Really? You didn’t like the book version of The Princess Bride?

    It’s been a while, but I think I was only mildly disappointed in it. Of course, maybe that was because I skipped all the boring parts (meaning, everything contemporary). 🙂

    • Bleargh, I hated it. It just went on and on and on and on. There’s this book I like where the protagonist hates reading, and someone gives her Harry Potter to read because she likes the films, and she says “Reading the books after seeing the films felt like going into black-and-white slow motion with the sound turned off”. Exactly, exactly how I felt about the book of The Princess Bride. Inigo Montoya just wasn’t as cool when he wasn’t Mandy Patinkin.

  12. I have Jasper Fforde on my shelves but can’t quite pick him up (he’s heavy – no! bad joke, early Monday morning here). I find I can’t quite get on with books that don’t do emotion. Not that I want dripping sentiment either, but I like something a little real. And metafiction is perfectly capable of delivering that, so it’s not just about the form. So I remain where I am with him, sort of intrigued not enough to read a novel of his.

    • I’m with you. I’m just sitting here trying to think if there are any books I do like that don’t bother much with emotional development, and I can’t think of a one. Equally I tend not to care for disaffected alienated protagonists who think everyone around them’s awful, because there’s no relationships for me to support. Up with emotional connections!

  13. I’ve got Kavalier and Clay high on my reading list and I hope this means I’m going to like it. My son passed it to me saying he thought I’d love it, because he did, and I gave him The Eyre Affair because I loved it, and he did…isn’t it funny, though, how you can be in total agreement with people about one book, and furious disagreement about another? I liked Lost in a Good Book even more, though I don’t think his subsequent books have been as good. I don’t entirely agree with you about lack of emotional development – Thursday felt very English to me, which isn’t the same thing – but most of the other characters are jokes rather than people, I guess. I like Thursday’s family, but Landen gets some pretty cavalier treatment as the series goes on, by the standards of most novels at any rate.

    • It is strange, this business of taste! I find I’m bothered far more when someone whose tastes I generally share doesn’t like something that I like. When my little sister and I differ on a book or movie, I feel like I should be able to argue her round to enjoying it. 😛

  14. I’ve bought this book a few times. I buy it, start it and give it away. I WANT to love it! Thank you for finally putting in to words what I’ve always been unable to describe. I keep thinking, “Maybe this time I’ll love it….”, but alas….it hasn’t worked yet. Have you tried Jasper Fforde’s nursery rhyme series? I wonder if it’s any better.

    Also…thanks to your review…Ella Minnow Pea is next up in my stack. Your review also brought to mind how much I love the classic kids book, The Phantom Tollbooth. Have you read it?

    • I LOVE The Phantom Tollbooth. I reread it recently and was charmed all over again. One of my favorite bits is when they’re visiting the sound fortress, and Milo’s trying to steal a sound. And oo, I love Faintly Macabre! That’s where I learned the word macabre.

      I hope you enjoy Ella Minnow Pea! There is something about it that’s reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth, that affection for words and the grave approach to what’s essentially a nonsense premise.

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