Review: The Observations, Jane Harris

Y’all have heard me bitch about the New York Public Library in the past, and I will probably bitch about it in the future. Here’s the big thing about the New York Public Library, and I will preface this by saying that I am well aware these are problems created by a larger system and a greater number of patrons, rather than some sort of inherent crappiness on the part of the NYPL. I KNOW THAT. The big thing about the New York Public Library that makes me not love it is that I cannot get a large number of books I want at once. In the olden days, I would go to the library with an outsized canvas bag; I would fill it up with books from my TBR list; and then I would go home and read the books I wanted and ignore the books I didn’t want. I cannot generally do this in New York. The New York Public Library has roughly the same selection books that my home library had, but fewer of them are available at any given moment. I have to place holds (takes forever) or accept substitutes (unsatisfying). Boo. I miss my lovely, comfortable home library.

One of the many, many benefits of my old style of library-going was that I really love book sampling. In the evening before bedtime, I would climb into bed with five or six books and start sampling them to get a sense of which one I should read first. I’d read the first twenty or so pages of each, and toss them over the side of the bed if they displeased me. Sampling books in bed is lovely. I did it recently with the largest batch of desirable books I have ever managed to procure from the library in New York, and the big winner of my book sampling was The Observations, a book to which I have been weirdly resistant in the same way that I am nearly always resistant to historical fiction.

The Observations is about a Victorian Irish girl called Bessy who takes a job as a maid in a manor house near Edinburgh. The mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, is generally kind, though she sometimes acts in ways that Bessy can’t understand — angry one second and kind the next; asking Bessy to sit down and stand up, sit and stand, sit and stand, until Bessy refuses to go on. Bewildered, but enjoying the attention, Bessy becomes devoted to her mistress. When she discovers that she’s the subject of Arabella’s study of the behavior of house maids, she comes up with a plan for revenge. What begins as a silly prank spins out of Bessy’s control INTO MADNESS.


Victorians and MADNESS!

(Just wanted to make sure y’all know what’s going on in this book.)

I had a slightly grumbly mindset when I started The Observations, because of my aforementioned, inexplicable mistrust of historical fiction even when a bunch of people have said it is good and even when it is set in a time period I like (wooooo Victorians!) and even when it deals with elements of the time period that are of particular interest to me (VICTORIAN MADNESS!!!!). But it won me over. The best thing about the book is Bessy’s narrative voice. She is funny and pert and a little unreliable, and although she can take care of herself and talks tough, you can see the cracks in her facade.

I’ve probably overstated the role that MADNESS plays in this book, but only because, you know. I like MADNESS in Victorian novels. If you like MADNESS too, this book could be for you! And even if you don’t, Bessy’s narration is so enjoyable that you will probably like it anyway.

My one complaint is that the ending felt too pat. Oh how I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending! And that’s what this ending felt like. It wasn’t, like, happy. You would be hard-pressed to call it a happy ending. Some grim things occur. Some grim revelations are revealed. But still the ending made me feel like the author was asking me to be happier than I wanted to be. I was rendered contrary by this. I was all like, Quit it, Jane Harris! I’ll feel how I want to feel!

Other reviews are findable here! I wish I could remember who recommended The Observations to me in the first place, so that I could say thank you. I have been intending to read it forever and ever, and at last I finally did.

26 thoughts on “Review: The Observations, Jane Harris

  1. Oh Jenny, you really do deserve a title as most straightforward, honest, and entertaining book blog person (That’s an awful title, but I don’t seem to be very creative right now). Your posts always cheer me up, and there’s just so much you coming through. The library may be shitty, but I would love to meet you one day, which is connected because it’d mean me moving to New York. Okay, sorry, this has nothing to do with the actual book you reviewed.

  2. I have also resisted The Observations, despite numerous glowing reviews because I have a fatal mistrust of narrative voices that are too prominent and eccentric. But I have bought Jane Harris’s recent novel, Gillespie and I, and if I love it enough, I daresay I will give into The Observations as I am very fond of a bit of Victorian madness too.

    • Me too — I’m always afraid they’re going to be picaresque, which I do not generally care for. Tell me how Gillespie and I is once you’ve read it! Inquiring minds want to know.

  3. Whoa, I have had this book on my shelf forever and have never pulled it down. I remember wanting it really badly, though, because I have it in hardcover. I must not have known about the MANDESS.

  4. Ha! you could have been talking about my library. Sadly, I haven’t been in several months because every book I want I end up waiting months for and, well, the people just aren’t that nice and I get tired of leaving the library feeling sad. One should leave the library excited with a ton of new books. I leave annoyed, sad, and carrying several books I feel meh about.

    Anyway, the book I hadn’t heard about but it sounds good. Love Victorians too!

  5. You sound like an amiable despot when you describe tossing out the books that displease you. 🙂 It is fun to see which of the library haul will be the first. I think I have this book on my to-read list, or did at one time, but it is not high on the list. I get what you mean about that type of ending where you feel that the author is saying, hey this is a happy ending, but the tone doesn’t match the events somehow. It’s kind of like how I feel about the ending of the movie Source Code. Filmmakers, you could have ended it at the bittersweet moment, but you thought we wanted a happier ending except your ‘happier’ ending leaves behind some troubling questions.

    • Hahahaha, that was the effect I was going for. In fact I think I was imitating Bill McNeil from NewsRadio, in a moment when he was sounding most like an amiable despot. 😀

      You know, I always want to despise filmmakers for changing to happy endings, but it seems like time after time, the test audiences insist on the happy version of the ending. I wish filmmakers would be more honest but I can understand why they don’t.

  6. I also resist historical fiction, even when I’m told it’s good and the subject is right up my alley. I’m ALMOST interested in trying this one, though. If anyone could convince me, it would be you…and the subject of Victorians and MADNESS 🙂

    • Wait, have you read Sarah Waters? Because if you’re going to make the historical fiction leap and you want something Victorian, do it for Sarah Waters, not Jane Harris. Jane Harris is good but Sarah Waters is incredible.

  7. I miss American libraries in general. My local library only lets you take out one book per person in the family, plus you have to pay a monthly library fee. The Jerusalem library is free but you can only get out one book. It’s very frustrating. One of my favorite libraries is in Spring Valley, NY, which has a lovely little Café where you can buy muffins and coffee to enjoy while you peruse through books.

    • WHAT. One book per person EVER? That sounds terrible! And here I was at the New York library the other day preemptively complaining about lending limits that might not allow me to take out more than thirty books (in the event, they let me take out all I wanted). I am sorry I have complained! I should never complain again!

  8. I’m afraid that this book was utterly forgettable for me. Read it about 5 years about and only vaguely remember it was about a servant (not even the MADNESS made an impression!).

    • Yes, I enjoyed reading it very much but I don’t think I’ll return to it — hence the three-star ratings rather than four or five. The girl’s narrative voice was very very good, though.

  9. Oh dear oh dear. I have been trying very hard to keep myself from descending into another Victorian-era reading frenzy. Reading too many Victorian books is not healthy. But you had me at MADNESS. I am sold.

    • You don’t have to have a FRENZY you know. You can always just read this one and then dash back out again. But if you do have a Victorian-era reading frenzy I will be closely monitoring your progress to see if there are any Victorian-era books I need to get in on.

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