While reading The Rosie Project, I found myself laughing, cheering, and swallowing around a lump in my throat. Did I ever find the hero, Don Tillman,...moreWhile reading The Rosie Project, I found myself laughing, cheering, and swallowing around a lump in my throat. Did I ever find the hero, Don Tillman, deserving of pity, mockery, or sarcasm? No. Indeed, he felt every bit like a hero: caring, smart, strong, brave, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others, and defined by a strong moral code. However, I happened to read a few Goodreads reviews prior to writing my own, and I realized that the words of caution against humor given by one of my graduate professors holds true: humor can easily be misunderstood and lead to hurt and offense. So that said, I'd venture to suggest that anyone unfamiliar with the formula of contemporary romantic comedy or who has a friend or loved one struggling with the challenge of Asperger's Syndrome should pause to consider before reading The Rosie Project. For some of the reasons I outline below, I believe it is a charming, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming story, but I also believe that some won't.
I bought The Rosie Project knowing that it is a contemporary romance written with a scientist as hero. I happen to be married to a scientist and know many scientists and technical people. I have a little (very little) knowledge of and experience with individuals with diagnoses on the autism spectrum (there are others besides Asperger's). Given the constraints of the genre -- happily-ever-after, first-person narrator who learns to grow and change during the process of falling in love, misunderstandings and miscommunication between the hero and heroine, and situations that invite empathetic laughter -- I found Don Tillman to be sympathetic and believable. I became attached to him and wanted him to succeed with his goal: to find a life partner.
Although Don rarely mentions his emotions, that doesn't mean that he doesn't have any (in fact, that is explicitly one of the lessons that he learns). His narrative provides ample clues to his emotional states. Don's way of conveying his feelings at certain points holds a greater punch than if he'd said, "I was embarrassed" or "I was devastated." During a scene involving his awkward efforts to dance with a partner, Don looks to see who in the crowd isn't laughing because he knows that they are true friends. Reading this, I felt sympathetic anguish. Don makes it very clear that he can count his friends on one hand, and this incident highlights a history of painful lessons on the cruelty of people. When Don states matter-of-factly that his parents had stopped visiting him in anything other than a ritualistic way once they realized he could live on his own successfully, I felt the echo of his pain at being abandoned. Another time, Don mentions his cheeks being wet even though rain only threatens. Obviously, he's crying, but he doesn't know how to express his grief. I could have wept with him.
At other times, Don describes his thoughts and actions in a way that an astute reader can interpret to mean that he's feeling powerful emotions, but that he's unable to describe them using the language of emotion. In these cases, he describes going mentally blank, shutting down from an overload of stimuli, and needing quiet time to reflect logically and rationally on his situation. Given the context of the situations he finds himself in, readers shouldn't need to have Don spell out that he's confused, lonely, angry, upset, grieving, excited, joyous or any of a number of other emotions that logically attend the events he experiences.
Even though Don realizes he has Asperger's (another one of the lessons he learns), he also realizes something else that many people don't: how much he has in common with other people. In this way, Don is a much larger hero than that of his own romantic comedy and The Rosie Project achieves more than being a genre romance. Don becomes something of an everyman and his condition (if that is the right term) can be understood as simply a degree of the human condition. The message of The Rosie Project --that love and affection, both from friends and a mate, can be the catalyst for greater understanding and enlarging our humanity -- also lifts the novel above its genre. (An example of this is when Rosie helps Don understand how much he has in common with other men. When she asks him if he'd ever thought about having children, he says no because he didn't want to embarrass them. Rosie laughs and tells him that all children are embarrassed by their fathers.)
My husband knows my reading tastes pretty well. He recommended Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to me, noting that it had elements that reminded hi...moreMy husband knows my reading tastes pretty well. He recommended Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to me, noting that it had elements that reminded him of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (another book that he recommended to me). He was right: there are certainly some similarities. Each book features a set of magicians whose individual systems of magic are at odds with one another. In The Night Circus, however, there is a second set of magicians, students of the first set, whose rivalry evolves into a competition to win the other's love. Both books are also set in the 19th century, although Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell opens it in England (Jonathan Strange enlists with Wellington's forces to help the British defeat the French in the Napoleonic War), while The Night Circus closes it, largely set in London and Concord, MA. Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter in The Night Circus, resembles Jonathan Strange; both magicians are intuitive, natural talents who learn their craft in the real world (so to speak). Unlike Jonathan Strange, who comes to Mr. Norrell for tutoring (if I recall correctly), Celia Bowen finds herself unhappily left with her self-absorbed father, who recognizes her as the potential champion of his approach to magic. Celia and Jonathan's rivals, Mr. Norrell and Marco Alisdair, learn magic from intensive academic study. While Mr. Norrell is an unlikable pedant who learns from books because that's where knowledge of this craft largely resides in his day (organic magic use having been lost in the mists of legend), Marco Alisdair is an orphan taken in by Mr. A. H--, Prospero's rival, and trained in lonely seclusion as an illusionist.
That is probably where the similarities between the two novels leave off (though I can't be sure since it's been years since I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I thoroughly enjoyed, as only a nerdy academic can, the historical footnotes used throughout JS&MN, and I marveled at the imagination that constructed such a familiar and yet strange world. Even now I can't say exactly what drove the narrative engine of JS&MN, but the alternative world drew me in and kept me going until a strange sort of creepiness took over whenever a particular character arrived (it's not for concern about spoiling that I'm leaving his name out; rather I can't recall his name, only that he was a fairy). The creepiness turned into full-blown horror at some point, as unexpected as it was thrilling.
No creepiness or horror motivates the narrative in The Night Circus; instead, an innocent wonder at Morgenstern's fantastic world draws the reader in and pulls her along for much of the story. Le Cirque des Rêves, The Circus of Dreams, truly feels magical and mysterious. Save for a handful of domestic scenes with Bailey, a young boy in Concord, Massachusetts, who falls in love with Le Cirque des Rêves, dreaminess wafts through the narrative like an intoxicating fog. The reader becomes, along with Herr Thiessen, the German clockmaker, a riveur, a dreamer who finds the circus more compelling than the ordinary world. Much of this dreaminess is owed to the vivid, coherent images of the circus environment and its entertainments, which make it feel both real and yet tinged with the impossible. From the star-filled tunnel to the winding paths among the black-and-white-striped canvas tents, from the crisp apple cider and chocolate-covered popcorn to the ever-burning bonfire in its whimsical, cast-iron cauldron in the circus's courtyard, Morgenstern sets the stage with so much finely chosen sensory detail that I swear I can smell caramel-scented air and wood smoke.
The narrative engine of The Night Circus is the methodical, inevitable running of a clock, in this instance an automaton clock, a type of mechanical clock popular in the Victorian era. The timeline swings like a pendulum between the beginning of the contest between Prospero and his enigmatic long-time rival Mr. A. H-- in 1873 and the first time that Bailey visits the circus in 1891. At the beginning, the swings between timelines is slow and leisurely, but gradually the swings shorten and the motion between the two timelines quickens, bringing the magic competition to a dramatic finale with a dilemma for the future of Le Cirque des Rêves. Too, the novel's characters and their scenes resemble an automaton clock's figures and their actions: they appear and disappear as if on cue and with predictable and planned movements. While on some level, I would have liked the characters to be less static, on another level, this wondrous structure, which is echoed in the clock that Herr Thiessen creates for the circus, reinforces the fairy-tale nature of the story. (less)
To be honest, my ten-year-old son rates this 5 stars. He enjoyed it very much. I too enjoyed it, but it's a rare book these days that I'd rate a full...moreTo be honest, my ten-year-old son rates this 5 stars. He enjoyed it very much. I too enjoyed it, but it's a rare book these days that I'd rate a full 5 stars.(less)
I don't write reviews of genre novels generally, partly because I don't read many of them, mostly because it doesn't seem to be a worthwhile exercise....moreI don't write reviews of genre novels generally, partly because I don't read many of them, mostly because it doesn't seem to be a worthwhile exercise. After all, I don't write spoilers, which leaves a very short review of how well the author met the requirements of the genre as I understand them. Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham, a historical detective novel, falls outside the usual genre expectations for a murder mystery. At one point, I realized that it reminded me of Caleb Carr's The Alienist, and that's a very good thing in my book. The narrator, Timothy Wilde, is a smart, likable character with a distinct voice and unique vocabulary -- he speaks "flash," the argot of the criminal classes and gangs in mid-nineteenth century. The setting, events, and characters of The Gods of Gotham's feel authentic (for the most part), something which takes a "dab hand" to create. Faye clearly cares about the history and the people as much or more than the mystery, although I enjoyed tagging along as Timothy unraveled the case (I'd mostly figured it out, but I wasn't entirely correct about the final explanation, which was complex).
The "gods" in the title refers to the political, religious, and social upheaval in New York following the mass immigration of the Irish during the Great Potato Famine. Faye prefaces each chapter with quotes from actual historical documents, primarily one aimed at warning "nativists" about the danger of "popery." Although in the past year I did learn more on my own efforts about that contentious era (PBS has a wonderful series titled "God in America" which traces the influence of religion on the formation of American society and government), The Gods of Gotham distills the same history into a delightful story. I would very much like to continue following this thread, both through fiction and non fiction.(less)
After reading Margaret George's Elizabeth I, which covered that redoubtable monarch's final sixteen years, I wanted to read more about the earliest ye...moreAfter reading Margaret George's Elizabeth I, which covered that redoubtable monarch's final sixteen years, I wanted to read more about the earliest years of her reign. Letton's The Young Elizabeth covers the decade between Henry VIII's death and her ascension to the throne, bringing me tantalizingly closer to understanding what formed her and the challenges that she faced to claim her crown. Obviously, nearly the first thirty years of Elizabeth's reign are not covered by either of these novels, so I'm left wanting to read more, but remarkably, Elizabeth feels much the same person in both these novels, despite great differences in their style, narrative length, and point of view.
Letton writes dialogue that sounds to my untrained ear historically accurate, which I appreciate and miss in more contemporary historical fiction. While George's first-person story often left me feeling as though the scope of Elizabeth's life had been narrowed too much, Letton's more impartial, limited third-person left me at times too distanced from Elizabeth and some of the important people around her, such as Thomas Seymour, who married Henry's widow, Kate. Kate, by all accounts, had a warm heart and succeeded during her reign in creating a family of sorts with her stepchildren, including Elizabeth. The triangle that emerges among these three seems fraught with so much emotional tension and potential drama that I found myself disappointed in Letton's storytelling.
Letton introduces Robert Dudley, who may have been Elizabeth's great unrequited love. Their initial meeting at Letton's hand is both telling and yet not very compelling, especially as Dudley's father is the same Duke of Northumberland who is executed for treason after marrying another son, Guildford, to Lady Jane Grey and crowning her queen in order to deny Queen Mary. Although Elizabeth is off scene for much of this drama (and powerless), she's not entirely without danger given Mary's bitter, suspicious nature and fanatical Catholicism. (less)
As much as I enjoyed the descriptive writing -- boy, can Margaret George make me experience the reality of living as an Elizabethan -- and the deft ha...moreAs much as I enjoyed the descriptive writing -- boy, can Margaret George make me experience the reality of living as an Elizabethan -- and the deft handling of a middle-aged woman's viewpoint, I struggled to finish this novel. I even struggled as I read it to identify what, exactly, my issues were with it. Was I just not in the mood for a novel that stretched more than 600 pages? Have I gotten so used to reading my guilty-pleasure reads that I can no longer tolerate the slower pace and richer language of less-formulaic fiction? In all honesty, I made it halfway through Elizabeth I before whatever magic glue pulls a reader through a book ran out. Given that I know how it ends, I had little motivation to keep reading. Perhaps for the less-knowledgeable reader, not knowing how Elizabeth's relationship with the Earl of Essex develops is enough to maintain suspense. But, from a purely dramatic standpoint, it is a tepid suspense even so.
In the end, I'm perplexed about what George could have done differently to keep my attention from wandering. After all, the broad strokes of her narrative were already defined for her and likely well known. Even her use of Elizabeth's cousin (and Essex's mother) Lettice, added little drama and seemed designed to mitigate the limitations of a first-person narrator (Elizabeth). Yet Lettice is really only a commentator on the action rather than an actor. Elizabeth herself, although a queen who must have had a very busy life ruling her kingdom, comes across as having little to do or think about save Essex and, occasionally and as an afterthought, the vile Spanish. There is very little about the continued religious fragmentation of English society beyond Elizabeth's mention that she has done her best to hold her beloved country together.
George opens the novel dramatically with the Pope's blessing of papal bulls condemning her, the Spanish Armada setting sail, and Elizabeth anxiously awaiting the fate of England and herself. After that, the action dwindles, and almost all of it is "off stage" because neither Elizabeth or Lettice are able to see or experience most of Essex's adventures and plans. Essex is a cipher, known only through the biased prism of each woman's eyes. Both women come across as highly intelligent and mostly reasonable (if biased toward one another), but I was left frustrated with my inability to decide for myself about Essex's character and motivations.
As with most historical novels that I read, I've developed a strong desire to learn the actual details of Elizabeth's life and reign. Even the small amount that I've uncovered makes me yearn to read a novel of her early years, the ones after her infamous mother, Jane Boleyn, is beheaded and she is shuffled away from court where she is a sad reminder of Henry's desperate and divisive attempt to beget a male heir. I want to read about her romance with Robert Dudley, her terror at being sent to the Tower (her mother's last home) by her eldest half-sister Bloody Mary, who had every reason to dislike and distrust her, and her choices about her advisers, the men who empowered her to rule. I want to read all the drama and conflict inherent in the tumultuous early decades of her reign, including her clever handling of all her suitors and her house arrest of her cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots. I think that that story would provide a nice counterbalance to George's reflective, almost elegiac, story. (less)