The odd thing about this book is that the titular conceit—the miniaturist—is completely unnecessary to the story. The main character, Nella, leaves heThe odd thing about this book is that the titular conceit—the miniaturist—is completely unnecessary to the story. The main character, Nella, leaves her provincial home to marry a wealthy merchant from the Dutch East India Company and take up her role as a wife in cosmopolitan Amsterdam. But she soon finds herself lonely and neglected in the house that should have been hers to run. Her husband Joahnnes mostly ignores her and his sister Marin holds on to control of the household with an iron grip. Nella, only 18 years old, is overwhelmed and feels lost. Her husband gives her the gift of a cabinet house and she contacts a miniaturist to commission pieces to fill it. But, as I said at the start of this review, the miniaturist and the "coded messages" sent with the tiny dolls and furniture are totally unnecessary to the story. It is the weakest part of the narrative. The lives of the household—Nella, her husband, her sister-in-law, and their servants (one an orphan and the other a black man whose skin makes him stand out in this part of the world)—are far more interesting than the peripheral mystery of whether the craftsman is spying on the family or has some kind of supernatural gift. To me, the book would have been stronger without the person who gives the book its name....more
The first section of The Visitors, which introduces us to our narrator Lucy and the cast of British and American archaeologists and aristocrats gatherThe first section of The Visitors, which introduces us to our narrator Lucy and the cast of British and American archaeologists and aristocrats gathered in Egypt in the 1920s, is the most engrossing section of the novel. Young Lucy falls in love with Egypt and meets her best friend, Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist. But after her season spent in Egypt, the book flounders a bit in terms of direction. Lucy returns to her father in Cambridge to find that all traces of her late mother have been erased and in their place she find a young and beautiful governess who seems to have totally dominated her father and plans to bring Lucy under her spell as well. For a time, I thought the book was going to explore how Lucy finds her voice and independence because of the mind-expanding influence of her time in Egypt...but nope! It's just an interlude before her second trip to Egypt, during which the famous discovery of King Tut's tomb is finally made. The book has some inconsistencies in characterization. Lucy's status seems to shift without warning—sometimes she and her traveling companion Miss Mack seem to be complete outsiders, viewing the king's excavation with the crowds through their looking glasses, while at other times they seem to be intimates of the key historical players, hosting them for tea and sharing their confidences.
I waffled between three and four stars on this one, but ultimately went with 3 since I don't think it's a book I would reread. It's just a bit too uneven to give this a four-star review. As you're going along, it's a pleasant journey, and Lucy is a compelling narrator with a unique voice. Recommended for lovers of historical fiction set in Egypt. ...more
Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantParis, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantly watched lest she squander the little money she makes as a laundress on absinthe. Eldest sister Antoinette makes what money she can as a walker-on at the opera, but the family’s best hope lies with the youngest two daughters, Marie and Charlotte, who have begun their training as petit rats, the youngest ballet girls. Both hope to be promoted first to the quadrille and then up the ranks of the ballet corps. It’s not only a way to make a decent living, but a chance to rise above their birth and become something beautiful and admired.
Painter Edgar Degas sits in on each class, sketching the dancers in a novel way: as they are in the practice room—small, tired and thin—rather than as they are on the stage. He chooses Marie as one of his models, creating portraits of her that ultimately result in a sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie is grateful for the extra money and finds that she is a quick study, becoming one of the more promising students in the class though she began her training later than the other girls. She dares to hope that she may be promoted to the quadrille, but is haunted by the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with her. Marie is a student of the most recent studies on human physiology, which link physical features like a broad forehead or large jaw with criminal behavior and moral degradation When Marie looks in the mirror, she can’t help but see these features…and wonder when her baser nature will make itself known.
She seems them also in Antoinette’s lover, Emile Abadie, a roguish youth who calls home wherever he can find a bed and spends his money on rounds of drinks at the cafes. Antoinette is enamored with the way he adores her, the pretty words he showers on her, and the two become more deeply involved as they work together as permanent extras in a sensational new play depicting the bleak lives of the working class—a plot all too close to home. Blinded by her devotion to Emile, Antoinette refuses to admit that she is drifting away from her sisters and compromising her chance at a good and honest life.
The Painted Girls was everything I look for in historical fiction. All of the main characters are real figures, but their stories have been massaged in some cases to intersect. Marie really was the model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Antoinette really did act in the adaptation of Zola’s naturalist novel on the stage, but the insertion of Abadie (another historical figure) into her life is a liberty—but one I didn’t mind. Since Buchanan has chosen to chronicle the lives of such peripheral figures—not kings and queens, but average people—there’s little chance of jarring us with a bit of historical play. The Painted Girls concentrates on the story of sisterhood and finds its strength therein. It’s an absorbing novel, balancing the emotional weight of poverty and class strife with the grace of the ballet and the hope of childhood.
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This book started strong, telling the story of Bit Stone, a boy raised in a commune in upstate New York in the seventies. The character portraits of tThis book started strong, telling the story of Bit Stone, a boy raised in a commune in upstate New York in the seventies. The character portraits of the inhabitants of Arcadia are engrossing and Groff weaves in some really interesting ideas about the power of personal mythology and finding the sublime in nature. But honestly, I was disappointed when the final segment morphed it into a dystopian novel. Arcadia was so fresh and different. It read part historical fiction, part coming of age and part existential examination. It was beautifully sad. And I really have nothing against dystopian novels—it's just that there are so, so many. It's become the genre of our time and this book just didn't need to be a part of that group. Remove that element completely and you still have a fully formed, thoughtful, compelling novel about a little-written-about community, i.e. commune kids. I would have liked the last section to focus more of the effects growing up in Arcadia had on the children who were born there. Their stories became side notes in the end, when I wish they had been the focus. ...more
When Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in thWhen Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in the mail during World War II, and only now have the letters been delivered through a quirk in the postal service. But Edie is surprised to see her mother’s strong reaction when she opens the letter, and even more surprised to learn who Juniper is. Edie discovers that her mother spent part of the war in the countryside, taken into Milderhurst Castle by the three Sisters Blythe. Glimpsing this hidden chapter of her mother’s life, Edie becomes obsessed with learning more about the castle and the sisters, especially when she discovers who their father is—Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s classic The Mud Man, the story that first got Edie interested in writing and set her on the path to becoming an editor. As Edie meets the sisters, she begins to discover secrets long buried, about her mother, the sisters, the castle, and the origins of The Mud Man.
About a year ago I picked up Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and found myself lost in a gothic mystery that was both delightful and surprising. I say surprising because I hadn’t expected much from the book—I picked it up at an airport bookstore in an hour of need—so the payoff was all the sweeter. I noticed two books of equal girth that also carried Ms. Morton’s name and mentally filed them away (or added them to my Goodreads queue) for a future read.
I’m sorry to say that my second encounter with Ms. Morton left me more than a little disappointed. In fact, though The Distant Hours seemed like it would have many of the same characteristics as Morton’s earlier work, they were almost entirely absent from this book. The Distant Hours felt under-crafted and under-thought, with paper-thin characters and a heavy-handed delivery. It’s all the more surprising because I described The Forgotten Garden as finely crafted, with a light touch of symbolism. The Distant Hours is the opposite. Edie is a clunky narrator with no apparent personality and her voice often drew me out of the narrative with references to “what she’d learn later” or things she “wished she could have known then.” She has no personality of her own and her mother’s connection to the castle is never properly exploited.
Instead of developing the ostensible main character, the book focuses on the three sisters and Edie becomes just a set of eyes, an outsider stand-in for the reader who does a lot of telling instead of showing. Morton wants to deliver a mystery, to make us wonder about how these three women came to spend their entire lives in a decaying castle. But the “mystery” of it all is laid on so thick that we learn next to nothing about the characters until the final act. By then, I cared little for Saffy and Percy Blythe or the origins of the mysterious Mud Man. These people even edit their own thoughts to keep us from discovering their secrets (which, by the way, are not even that scandalous or surprising). The only one with any semblance of depth was Juniper Blythe, who had some vivacity in her early appearances in the novel as a young girl, but is rendered into a Jane Eyre Bertha-esque specter in Edie’s present-day interactions with her. As Morton keeps us from the secrets, whole chapters end up feeling like treading water. I kept telling myself there’d be some kind of shocking payoff, but there wasn’t. t can hardly believe the same person wrote both these books.
Would I recommend? The Distant Hours was a real disappointment to me. I’d certainly recommend The Forgotten Garden (I even consulted some others who had read that book to be sure it was as good as I remembered. I started to doubt myself after reading this one. They assured me I had not lost my mind or taste in books.) But my advice is to skip The Distant Hours. It’s not a good reflection of Ms. Morton’s talent.
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**spoiler alert** When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to**spoiler alert** When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to nurse his ailing wife, Elisabeth. Minke’s time with Elisabeth in the attic of her lavish home is short, but the two form a bond as Elisabeth relates her travels to Argentina through sporadic opium-induced dreams. Then, suddenly and almost without warning, Elisabth passes away and Sander DeVries—the man who came to fetch Minke—proposes to Minke, hoping to secure a new wife less than three days after his last has died. At first scandalized, but later charmed by Sander and his promises of adventure and beauty in Argentina, Minke accepts and the two are married in the old way, breaking a ring in the company of her family. Minke and Sander board a ship for Comodoro Rivadavia, along with Sander’s business partner, Cassian, an enigmatic doctor charged with looking after Minke while Sander sees to his business ventures onboard. Minke’s life settles into a series of peaks and valleys. She falls deeply in love with Sander, enjoying their nights together and his passion. But Sander often leaves her alone and in the dark, about himself and their future. The nature of his business is murky, mixed up in oil, shipping, and morphine, and he shows streaks of jealousy and possessiveness as Minke befriends some of the men onboard. At her first sight of Argentina, Minke is disappointed by the barren, dirty town, its houses with walls of corrugated iron and dirt floors, but she soon embraces her new surroundings, befriending the wild gauchos who ride into town to trade, much to the dislike of her husband. Minke will soon find out that Sander is not the man she thought he was and will have to fight for a happy future for herself and her children.
A Young Wife is compelling, partially as it’s based on the true story of the author’s maternal grandmother. It’s the second book I’ve read this year that tells of women’s struggles to carve out better lives for themselves and their children in male-dominated societies. (More on the first here.) Minke’s voice is honest and clear and Lewis weaves a beautiful narrative. Some elements are a bit expected, but in general the story is fact-paced and engrossing. I could have done without Minke’s secondary love interest and found Cassian inconsistent, sometimes acting in sinister capacities for Sander and sometimes proving Minke’s ally. But these niggling points aside, it struck me that while Minke’s story is a coming-of-age tale, it’s also about a woman learning to understand a man and the progression of their relationship. We see Sander through Minke’s eyes and though there are clues that he’s duplicitous, we always have Minke’s understanding and also her love for him, especially in the first portion of the book. As their story unfolds, we see what Minke thought was a love story dissolve into a tragedy. But with this dissolution, Minke learns about herself and grows up. She is, after all, a very young wife.
Would I recommend? I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It has many elements that I am drawn to: a strong female narrator, a historical basis, and travel to exotic locales. Though a few plot points didn’t come together for me, A Young Wife is emotionally honest a worth a look for fans of historical fiction and romance.
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**spoiler alert** Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a tradition**spoiler alert** Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a traditional path of marriage and family that will bring her comfort and stability. Soo-Ja devises a plan: she’ll marry a weak man, one who will let her make all the decisions and won’t stand in her way. When she meets Min, a young student swept up in a protest movement and a member of her own class, she thinks she’s found the perfect target. Min seems madly in love with her and promises to follow her to Seoul. Soo-Ja agrees to their marriage, only to be approached the next day by Yul, a handsome doctor who is also a part of the protest movement and who once saved Soo-Ja’s life. Yul asks for her hand as well, warning her not to marry Min, but Soo-Ja believes she’s made the right choice. Min will take her away from the confines of traditional Korean life. Or so she thinks.
Three years later, Soo-Ja knows differently. Trapped in a loveless marriage and forced to serve ungrateful in-laws, Soo-Ja’s only joy is her daughter, Hana. She will do anything to build a better life for her child, even if it means bowing to the very doctrines she tried to escape. And Yul is always in her mind and sometimes in her life, reappearing as if by providence when she needs him most. Soo-Ja knows she can never leave Min if she hopes to keep her daughter. Korean law will give custody to the father and leave her with nothing. Bound to Min, Soo-Ja must give up everything else—her ambitions, desires, and even her dignity—to hold on to her daughter. A troubled love story, This Burns My Heart explores the aftermath of choosing the wrong person, what it means to live with that decision, and how we go on with life, even as our hearts burn.
So, the plot of This Burns My Heart is by no means revolutionary. I’ve read my fair share of books about Asian women searching for love in a patriarchal oppressive society, variously set in China and Japan between 1850 and 1980. This version takes us to Korea and is set a bit on the late side, post-Korean War and into the 1970s. The tropes of the genre are still there: the sacrifice of love for duty, the domineering mother-in-law, the repression of the female perspective. That said, I still enjoyed This Burns My Heart. It’s greatest redeeming factor is Soo-Ja’s voice, which is raw and intimate. This book is less about the particulars of Korean society, only touching on some of the details of cultural practices, but it’s not really meant to be a portrait of a place in the way that Memoirs of a Geisha or Empress Orchid were. This book is far more internal and, at its core, a romance novel.
Would I recommend? Sure! I think I’d wait for the paperback release, but as a light summer read I’d endorse This Burns My Heart. I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one was well done, with just the right balance of forbidden, repressed desire and hope and a compelling heroine to give the story depth.
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