What a strange, lovely novel Belle Epoque turned out to be. Not a particularly fun or entertaining novel, definitely not as profound as it co3.5 stars
What a strange, lovely novel Belle Epoque turned out to be. Not a particularly fun or entertaining novel, definitely not as profound as it could've been, but still, thoughtful and original in a sense that YA rarely is. Instead of focusing on the romance or getting lost in the beauty of the times, instead of using the story to bring another tiring, perfect main character who does nothing wrong, the author didn't shy away from giving us a flawed and average main character in a strange, emotionally and psychologically taxing situation who ends up being, essentially, the eyes through which we learn about situations and characters a whole lot more interesting than herself. That in itself was a pretty big risk. I commend the author's commitment to the story where she would rather make a point than make up this ridiculously perfect main character that never grows, develops or makes mistakes, but, ultimately, Maude herself suffered as a character because, pretty much, everyone else was more interesting than she was and it was a bore sometimes to go through her scenes of introspection.
At times, I really liked that the author purposely made Maude so average and unassuming so that we could better enjoy the strong characters around her, but at others, I struggled with actually caring about Maude at all. What I appreciate the most about this, however, was that this was a perfect technique to avoid the infuriating girl-on-girl hate that pervades in YA, but it had the downfall of making Maude rather uninteresting and, for some reason, also softened the impact of her emotions on the reader. Maude felt like such a passive observer for so much of the novel, than when it was her time to deliver on the big emotions and make big leaps in characterization, it almost fell flat for me. It wasn't that I didn't care about her, but simply that I didn't care enough to make a difference. I did generally like what the author did with Maude as a character, and I enjoyed that Maude was allowed to grow and develop by making mistakes, by making bad choices and turning into a unlikable person because it made for great characterization and it felt natural. I really enjoyed the way Maude got caught up in the fantasy of living this life that was never meant for her, which is when she came off as the most realistic for me.
What struck me the most powerfully about Maude was her need to survive, how she was willing to do anything to hold on, and her development as a character felt natural, and I know there aren't many authors out there willing to tarnish the perfection of their main characters so they can learn. But, ultimately, Maude was still a two-dimensional character at times. Aside from her need to survive and prove the people from her past wrong, the other big emotion I perceived from her was the emotional blow working as a repoussoir had on her self-steem, which I suppose is the very point of the novel, certainly, but never went as deep as I would've liked it to go and was mostly static and repetitive.
There's not a particular focus on romance in this novel, which was a refreshing change, and a definite spotlight on friendship, which was one of the strongest aspects of the novel for me. While not developed further more than was necessary, Marie-Josée and Isabelle were two very compelling and strong characters that reinforced the message of the novel. Far more interesting that Maude herself, they often carried the weight of the scene, the chapter and even whole sections of the story. They even embodied the message of the novel more strongly than Maude herself. They were not fully-fleshed and sometimes even felt like a draft of their own characters, but reading about Maude in their company were often the most engaging parts of my reading experience.
Belle Epoque is a very original novel with an unusual take on what could've been a recycled story. I was expecting for Maude to have a Cinderella story, for her to go from ugly duckling to beautiful swan like many other novels, and I was very pleased when, not only did that not happen, but when I realized that setting itself apart from that was one of the points of the novel. Slightly heavy-handed in delivery, sure, but this book still made very important points on beauty and shallowness, in personal strength and self-steem, in fighting for your dreams and yourself as a human being with feelings and dignity, and all that endeared me to the novel.
Definitely slow, Belle Epoque could've used a bit more liveliness, a more engaging current to Maude's narrative and more emotional strength behind her voice. It's not a novel that will have to reading deep in to the night, not one that will deliver thrills or excitement. It's a slow, thoughtful process the reading experience for this novel, and I think that was precisely the point. I think it could've been better, but that's just me wanting to derive more enjoyment, more meaning from this novel, to make it a whole lot more memorable and give it a lot more impact than it had, because, in the end, I think Belle Epoque is exactly the type of novel it wants to be and that, even if it does not make me love it as desperately as I wanted to, it does deserve my respect. ...more
I'm just going to go ahead and award myself a 100+ buff on nerd cred for having read this book. Entertaining, definitely, but seriously overhyped. MedI'm just going to go ahead and award myself a 100+ buff on nerd cred for having read this book. Entertaining, definitely, but seriously overhyped. Mediocre writing, inconsistent pace that began with an insufferably slow start and then jumped into overdrive from a second to the next, and loose plotting, all combined with a tell-instead-of-show type of narration, shallow characterization, and self-congratulatory name and reference dropping (what I like to call intellectual masturbation, where the person loves to show others just how much knowledge they have in order to please themselves) make this novel a bit hard to get through, but I'd still say it's satisfying enough if you're just in for the fun. Cliched, certainly, predictable too, and the romance is forced and pretty much gave me second-hand embarrassment, but there's just something about the product as a whole that makes it charming, engaging and definitely memorable. Mediocre book in technique, but ultimately a very fun one in content....more
Juvenile writing, an insufferably idiotic and boy-obsessed main character, lack of world-building, age inappropriate writingThis book was unreadable.
Juvenile writing, an insufferably idiotic and boy-obsessed main character, lack of world-building, age inappropriate writing and dialogue, a maddening fixation on the boring romance, generic characterization, a frustratingly slow pace, and a complete disregard for the impact of rape on a character.
I have nothing else to say about this book. ...more
After a beautiful start, Donnelly and I have had a very rocky last two years. I fell in love with Revolution and A Northern Light, which always seemedAfter a beautiful start, Donnelly and I have had a very rocky last two years. I fell in love with Revolution and A Northern Light, which always seemed to me like gorgeously written and very sensitive books about realistically complex girls. I ached for those two main characters, different from each other but equally compelling and believable, and I believed their pain and their world and the things they had to do to overcome their circumstances. Donnelly conveyed their lives with a sensitivity that showcased amazingly human emotions and made it really easy for me to connect with them, to root for them and believe their every emotion. I think those two are extraordinary novels that speak to YA audiences like mature, intelligent persons capable of understanding the nuances of a life full of tragedy and difficulties, lives that shaped young women into heroines, not always understandable and certainly flawed, but strong and worth caring about.
And then Deep Blue happened, a huge disappointment that I let slide because the book was aimed towards the middling line between Middle Grade and YA. Still, my faith of Donnelly was shaken enough that I was wary of These Shallow Graves, but not enough to dissuade me from reading it. I already knew she could write beautifully, that historical fiction is certainly her forte, and that writing once more for a strictly YA audience, I could trust her to deliver another tough, strong and realistic heroine fighting her way through everything. As it turns out, Donnelly brought the general gist of story to YA standards again, she just forgot to bring the rest of her craft, including the main character.
First off, there is absolutely no reason for this book to be 500 pages long. Absolutely NONE. I understand that the purpose behind this was to deepen the mystery, which admittedly worked somewhat, and to show the way this situation affected all aspects of Jo's life, both her life as a NY socialite and her more private life, but what it lend itself to was for a very repetitive and often uneventful narrative. Something was consistently happening in the novel, which saved it from being dreadfully boring, but the same things would happen over and over with just the smallest of differences. We got Jo pondering the same things over and over, engaging in the exact same actions and interactions with other characters, and, in the end, it was all extremely unnecessary, for it didn't add anything to the actual core and quality of the story and only padded the book far beyond what was needed. Moreover, this also had the unfortunate effect of making the story predictable. I appreciated the effort into making the mystery a lot more complicated and complex, but it made the twists evident since the very start. This was all the more frustrating because of how unbearably naive the main character was.
Jo is an exasperating, willfully ignorant, reckless and irritating main character. She was a study in contradictions, and not the good kind. Jo is 17 years old, and yet she behaves, thinks and speaks like she's 12. Everybody around her treated her like she was such a smart woman, so mature and intelligent, but nowhere did she ever act like anything more than a child. She was outstandingly ignorant, jaw-droppingly naive and frustratingly slow to catch everything that went on around her. She constantly needed someone else to spell things out for her, and that would've worked with her characterization of a sheltered socialite groomed to be nothing but a proper wife and mother, but the story itself attempted to sell her as a sensitive, knowledgeable, intelligent, driven and conscious girl that wanted to break with social norm, find herself, pursue a career that most society would frown upon and fight social injustices. Needless to say, Jo failed to uphold any of that.
Jo was competent sometimes simply because the story forced to be. As a main character, she lacked complexity and profundity, and she wasn't even interesting. Unlike previous Donnelly heroines, Jo lacked the strength to carry the book by herself, whereas the first two books I read by Donnelly could well afford to take away from the strength of the plot because reading about the main character made it all worth it. This resulted in Jo becoming simply a placeholder, a figured needed to make things happens, but not someone anybody would glance twice at, nor someone anybody would care about, which, needless to say, makes for a very poor main character and heroine.
My three biggest complaints about YA are: the rampant girl on girl hate, the shallow standard for heroines, and insta-love. My problem with insta-love in YA is not so much that it may happen quickly - I can certainly understand two people feeling an immediate connection or the strong bonding of people after a particularly strong and emotionally taxing event. Heck, I experienced that myself, as my boyfriend and I pretty much fell in love in the course of one week when I was 17 and we've been together for 8 years now. Is not so much a matter of quantity as it is of quality. You want me to believe your two characters loved each other almost instantly? Okay, I can handle it, but you have to give it something that gives meaning to the connection, you have to make me believe that something happened so strongly between these two that time doesn't matter. That's exactly what didn't happen in this novel.
Jo and Eddie's connection came pretty much out of nowhere. There was not a single aspect of this novel that made their relationship believable. Realistically speaking, these two people would never fall in love. Maybe Jo could develop a crush on Eddie, but he would never return it, and so it never felt natural when these two started proclaiming their love for each other. First of all, like I mentioned before, Jo's naivety made her come across as a child, whereas Eddie always felt like very much an adult. That he, in his maturity, was able to be sexually and romantically attracted to Jo, who was essentially a 12 year old in all aspects but physical to the point that I often forgot that she was 17, was nothing short of creepy. Moreover, there was no spark, no sincere connection between them except for the fact that the author willed it so. From one moment to the other, poof!, love. And the worst part is that it took over the plot and made it so irritatingly melodramatic, which also led to the series of cliched and ridiculous scenes I've read in dozens of other YA novels.
In this novel you can find the classic "we accidentally got stuck together in a tight, confined space and we are forced to be extremely close together, close enough to kiss and feel each other's breaths on our faces, and just as we are about to kiss, somebody lets us out", also the tragic "I saw you with someone else that I immediately thought was a beautiful lover but was really family and so I'm going to make a horrible decision out of anger that will ruin our relationship because confronting you about it just won't do", and the much beloved "we are just too different, we come from different worlds, go with that other guy you don't love because this relationship needs some angst".
The romantic relationship in this novel isn't the only one that's not believable in the slightest. Jo developed friendships out of nowhere and for no other reason than because the plot required it. People just don't go around forming instant bonds with others, bonds strong enough you'd risk your life for, simply because you talked to each other once for a couple of minutes and you didn't kill or rob each other. Secondary characters would swoop in and out of the plot wherever it was required. Longtime friends would be mentioned once and then discarded, family members would disappear when convenient, and characters that were built up in the novel, would just never show up again for anything.
This novel tried to be so many things, to include so many different aspects of that society, that it failed to keep hold of any of them. I appreciate the message of female empowerment, of a girl fighting against the ridiculous constraints imposed on all women that would have them being nothing but gloried and submissive servants to the whims of men - hell, I love that, but it was so heavy-handed in this novel, that it was exasperating. Unsubtle and ham-handed, the sexism of the times was thrown at the reader's face at every opportunity, regardless of how appropriate it was at the moment, because the only thing that mattered is that the reader understood that Jo had to suffer through SEXISM, even though it was fairly obvious since the beginning and without the need of having it thrown at my face with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. The worst part is that the book would hammer that on the reader's face, along with some issues like poverty and crime, and then did absolutely nothing about it.
The mystery itself was interesting enough to keep me reading well past what my patience allowed, but it was predictable. Had it been a shorter novel, it would've probably gotten a better rating. The writing was okay, the mystery engaging enough, the epilogue surprisingly satisfying, the historical background perhaps the best thing in the entire novel. But this story was stretched far beyond what it could, and what would've been an unremarkable but decent reading experience got turned into a constant struggle with frustration and a fight to finish. I think this is where I part ways with Donnelly. Maybe in the future I can give some other book of hers a chance, but for the moment, I've gotten all the disappointment I can handle. ...more