Having read reviews of this book, and always interested in a tale of Camelot told from Guinevere's perspective, I looked forward to reading this. I amHaving read reviews of this book, and always interested in a tale of Camelot told from Guinevere's perspective, I looked forward to reading this. I am quite disappointed in the result. First, although I love Mary Stewart's Arthurian cycle, McKenzie's reliance on Stewart went well beyond inspiration. Not only does she track most of Stewart's plot developments, but, at particular moments, she either closely paraphrases or plagiarizes Stewart's description of certain events.
Second, McKenzie's Guinevere is a Mary Sue. Everyone who is virtuous, noble, good-hearted, and kind worships her. Men fall in love with her at first sight and never feel disappointed/disenchanted/less interested upon greater acquaintance. Only the villains dislike her, and they are always motivated by jealousy, either of her beauty or her influence with the King or the respect she receives from everyone who isn't a villain. People who aren't villains but not initially impressed with her are always won over by her intelligence, good sense, wisdom, generosity, etc., etc. Her "flaws" are that (1) she can't understand why Arthur loves her so when she cannot bear him children, (2) she has a hard time reconciling herself to her childlessness (although, ultimately, McKenzie makes that a virtue because it means Arthur doesn't have to share his glory with a child), (3) and she sometimes briefly struggles with jealousy with regard to Lancelot's relationship with Elaine. The first two "flaws" just emphasize how hard she is on herself when she's so generous with others, and the last failing is supposed to make the reader feel sympathetic to her, and then immediately admire her when she (always quickly) realizes that she's being unfair. She is also the most visionary character in the book, seeing a nation where Saxons become British citizens, when everyone else can't imagine such a thing.
Third, the love triangle is very hard to believe in this book. Lancelot and Guinevere love each other passionately and devotedly at first sight, and the intensity of that relationship never changes. They don't feel an attraction that grows into love; it's just there, from the start, entire and complete. And, even though it is all-consuming, Guinevere goes through with a marriage that she does not want, and which both acknowledge she could escape from. Her decision ends up feeling selfish and foolish (a deliberate martyrdom that sacrifices the happiness of four people), rather than forced by circumstance. Then, of course, she ends up falling in love with Arthur, who is passionately devoted to her. But he's okay with her not only loving Lancelot, too, but actually engaging in public displays of affection (I lost count of the number of times she and Lancelot hold hands or kiss before others, or she tells people that she loves Lancelot but it's okay because they won't betray the king). This is 5th C Britain, not 21st C New York City. It's simply incredible to believe that such behavior would not cause a scandal that would force Arthur to put her aside.
In The Once and Future King, T.H. White says that its hard to describe Guinevere because she is a "real person." And White's Guinevere has real flaws; flaws that make her at times unlikeable. But she also has real strengths--courage, determination, humor. McKenzie's Guinevere isn't a real person, and that flaw is fatal for this novel....more
This is an enjoyable novel, with a romantic plot that--in its basic structure--follows the arc made most famous by Pride and Prejudice. Gaskell is notThis is an enjoyable novel, with a romantic plot that--in its basic structure--follows the arc made most famous by Pride and Prejudice. Gaskell is not the writer that Austen is; she lacks Austen's economy of phrase and wit. She also wrote in a more consciously pious time, so there is greater outright moralizing than is found in Austen. But Gaskell creates some strong characters, most notably John Thornton, Margaret Hale, Mrs. Thornton, and Nicholas Higgins. Many of her secondary characters (such as Fanny Thornton, Edith Lennox, and Mr. Hale) are also vividly drawn. One choice that Gaskell makes is to open the hero's mind to the reader; although the majority of the book focuses on Margaret and her POV, there are many scenes where we get to hear Mr. Thornton's thoughts. This technique has the advantage of making Thornton much more likeable and sympathetic in the early pages of the book (contrast that with Darcy from P&P, who doesn't become likeable until Rosings, at the earliest).
North and South also focuses on the social issues of the time, which are never overt in Austen. The tension between labor and management is effectively portrayed, and both sides are treated sympathetically (though, if there's a true "villain" in this book, it may be the union, which Gaskell clearly distrusts).
Having watched the terrific 2004 BBC adaptation before reading the book, I have to say that I prefer the adaptation because the overt piety and sentiment of some of the writing is not to my taste (although Margaret's character development makes greater sense in the book). Nonetheless, it's a strong story, with a great mix of the romantic and the social....more