Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…

Completed: Year of Wonders

Book Cover: Year of Wonders by Geraldine BrooksYear of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

(Opening paragraph.)

OK, I have to confess: I’ve been avoiding writing this post. No excuses of busyness (although I’ve spent far more time watching college (American) football this fall than I’d anticipated–Kent’s been winning!!) or reading slowness. I’ve simply kept putting it off.

It is of course, much harder to write about a book I don’t have strong emotions towards.  I don’t love it, don’t hate it, didn’t find it an excellent book, didn’t find it a terrible book. It’s just a book I enjoyed reading while I was reading it but will probably forget soon (save for this post).

I mentioned previously a vague feeling of dissatisfaction while starting this, and as I read the source became more clear to me: my expectations were too high. I’d heard such good things about Brooks’s novels, especially her Pulitzer winning March, that I think in some ways I was expecting (unconsciously) the same difficult level of other books I’ve read this year, most of which made me work as a reader. This one did not, which threw me a bit off balance mentally. This isn’t meant as a reflection on Year of Wonders so much as my over-expectations. And to be fair, this is Brooks’s first novel–perhaps March is exactly what I’d been expecting here.

The novel is an historical tale, set during the plague year of 1666 in a small village in England. It is based on a real story of a village that shut itself off from the outside world in a noble effort to confine the plague to their borders. It is in many ways a fascinating story–the struggles of the villagers through daily life with the pall of death constantly surrounding them, struggles both of survival and to remain human. Although is is mostly likely classified as historical fiction, I would make an argument that it is more a thriller–a thriller in which the villain is not human but microscopic infection, although at times the greatest monsters were those left to mourn. I think there is much potential in a story like this for a real in-depth character study of how such tragedy changes those left behind. But here it seemed more surface, and I almost felt there was too much plot, the pacing was too fast. (Which I find incredible that I am saying as I like plot.) There is one character whose changing response to the outbreak leans to what I am looking for, but in some ways I think it comes too late, is looked at too lightly.

This is not to say there aren’t some things I really liked in Year of Wonders. Brooks has an absolute knack, perhaps it is her journalistic background, for describing a setting so that I am there, even in a landscape I have never seen either in real life or in pictures. It is not just the visual image, but the whole atmosphere–I am there because I smell it and feel it and hear it. The story, plot-heavy as it is, is compelling. The reader knows certain outcomes, who lives and dies, from the beginning, but Brooks makes the stakes are such that this knowledge doesn’t impair the reading. Indeed, it could be evidence for the argument that for a well-written book there is no such thing as a spoiler.

My one other issue with this book I think is more personal, that is, I suppose many readers might disagree. I didn’t care for the ending. Without giving anything specific away, I thought it was too pat, too neat. This is a story from real life, although the characters are invented, and in real life things aren’t neat. Especially after such a dire situation. It just didn’t feel real, didn’t feel plausible, and although there are moments of implausibility earlier (I thought the narrator’s eloquence a bit of a stretch given her lack of education), this is the one that stands out. I imagine that many readers would rather have everything tied up just so–it feels more complete, there’s a more definitive end–but in this particular instance I’d rather leave it more open-ended. Perhaps Brooks did so originally and her editor disagreed. Perhaps not. I will say though, she did lead towards the ending very nicely, there was no “where the heck did that come from?” about it.

Would I read more of Brooks’s novels? Perhaps. March intrigues me, as does Caleb’s Crossing. Would I recommend Year of Wonders? If you are a fan of plot-driven historical fiction or are particularly interested in the story of Eyam, England, yes. If you prefer more gritty realism or characterization over plot in your books, it’s probably not for you.

Additional thought: Earlier today, I saw THIS article from the Guardian regarding open-ended novels which relates to my feelings here. Check it out for a pro-ambiguity argument.