Madeline's Reviews > Under the Poppy

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
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Aug 23, 11

it was ok
bookshelves: 2011, library-books, novels, queer, historical-fiction, the-victorians, class, not-deadwood
Read from August 20 to 23, 2011 , read count: 1

1. Do you know that person who always goes on about how - whatever. How original and daring and outrageous they are? How they don't have any patience for bourgeois affectations, and that they're just going straight for, like, blood and raw truth and odd drug habits? You know, they are the human equivalent of the poster for the David Fincher adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? And after a while your eyes just sort of glaze over from boredom, and then you feel kind of sorry for them, because they can't see how boring they actually are? You know this person? This book is that person.

2. But, right, you should say something nice, so let me say that Koja's prose is very good. It is snaky and complicated but reads like water. Labyrinths on every page! (Marine labyrinths?) That's not a complaint: I like prose you have to work for. It's the reason this book is getting two stars. (Aaaaalthough, she re-uses a handful of fairly unusual words and it loses its charm pretty quickly.)

3. I guess it's not really Under the Poppy's fault that it uses a bunch of tropes I've just sort of got tired of. Number one among them is the Special Brothel. You know this book, you have probably read it: it is a story about a whorehouse, but not just any whorehouse because, I guess ordinary ones are boring? So, there is something ~*special*~ about this one. Except, Under the Poppy is really two novels (short ones, but still) and the first one ends up being totally pointless: the second half could survive without it, and frankly the whole thing isn't . . . interesting enough to be invested in it. This book, generally, would have been better if Koja'd gone the Mamet route and cut out the first twenty minutes and all the backstory. The backstory makes the characters look ridiculous and boring.
3a. PARTICULARLY in the case of the two main characters, Rupert and Istvan, who broke up when they were teenagers because - wait for it - they had a fight. Yes! Is your mind blown? Other characters wonder about this youthful parting of ways like it was a huge tragedy, on top of a mystery. And you, reader, are just like: well, they had a fight. It's not exactly on par with standing up your boyfriend at the train station when you're about to flee Nazis, okay?
3b. Over-reacting and running a way is pretty much how everyone gets through their lives in this book. There's one person who overreacts and stays (in the Special Brothel), but she's also firmly grounded in reality unlike EVERYBODY ELSE, so you respect her teeth-and-nails approach to keeping property.

4. Everyone in this book takes their lives and actions Much Too Seriously. And then they turn around and obsess over the main characters, even though on the page Rupert and Istvan are both kind of charisma-less. (Less of a problem if their charm and irresistibility weren't such a Point.) And the novel harps on its themes without doing anything with them, so it's hard not to roll your eyes after a point.

5. It's the sort of book that reminds you of all the books its ripping off, which you'd much rather be reading. I don't expect any book to be the next As Meat Loves Salt, even if I'm always looking for the next AMLS, but how can you not compare them? And how can you find UTP anything but wanting in the comparison? And in Decca's desire for home after a war, how can you help but think of Scarlett O'Hara? But this isn't nearly so compelling a book. And in the focus on lovers in the underworld, who are also in high society for a while, how can you help but think of Swordspoint? Ellen Kushner helpfully blurbed the book and everything. But it doesn't work like Sworspoint works. And in a vaguely Francophone setting (this vagueness is another failure of the book), populated by iron-willed women and wilting men (Benjamin is seriously just Cheri with the serial number filed off, and plus gayness), how can you help but think of Colette? But then you're just like, "damn, I'd rather be reading Colette right now." I picked this up because I read a review that name-dropped Angela Carter (it's easy to think of Nights at the Circus) and Sarah Waters (not seeing this one so much) and got neither, really. (Angela Carter had a sense of humor, for one thing.)

6. I can see very clearly what Under the Poppy wants to do, but it never earns any of those things. It's really disappointing.
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Reading Progress

08/20/2011 page 61
08/21/2011 page 115
32.0% "Why are they explicitly speaking English in this book? Are they supposed to be in Calais? The 19th century seems late to be speaking English there."
08/23/2011 page 237
66.0% "Against all odds, this book is really dull."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Tocotin Hey! I loved this review. I've been thinking of buying this book. Funny thing is, I am also reading "As Meat Loves Salt", and it's indeed amazing :)

Madeline Yes, don't buy this, just reread As Meat Loves Salt!

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