Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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No Name by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars


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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”

Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.

If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.

“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”

Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.

What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.

Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

“If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman – and I loved his wife so dearly!”

A thoroughly entertaining novel that is intriguing from the very start. One of the most famous works of what is now called ‘sensation fiction’, it combines gothic elements with romantic ones voicing anxieties of the Victorian era in an almost inconspicuous manner.Serious issues are shadowed by highly dramatic moments charged with an almost surreal quality. This novel is a brilliant example of melodrama that is brimming with Collins’ sharp sense of humor. His characters are vivid and interesting. Marian, well, I loved her. On the surface she confirms the idea of a resolute strong woman is either ‘manly or unattractive’, yet, if you look beyond that, you see that she is a much more encompassing portrayal of a resilient woman living in a society that seeks to diminish her sense of self: she believes Victorian gendered ideals for she is a Victorian woman. Still, Marian remains aware of wanting to behave in a way that wasn’t deemed appropriate; she scorns most members of her own sex because they are made to fit notions of femininity that she abhors. Her sister Laura embodies conventional ideas of a woman, an ethereal fragile beauty, yet, when the situation demands it, she showcases a wilful mind. The bond between these two sisters is one of the strengths of this novel.

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

Then we have Count Fosco…well, he is an engaging ‘villain’. I sort of loved-to-hate-him. His appreciation for Marian was priceless.
Walter Hartright wasn’t as interesting as the other characters, however, I did enjoy reading about his deep friendship and loyalty to Marian, who he had initially judged based on her appearance. His love for Laura is somewhat ‘instant’, but, I believe that it fits with the overall story.

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared.”

The story slowly unravels the mystery of this ‘woman white’, with Marian and Walter acting as sleuths. I did find the last part a tad drawn out. Marian seems to fade into the background which seemed odd given her pivotal role in a major section of the novel.

“The only mystery that remains, is the mystery of his motive

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a third reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not to highlight, or make a note of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that beautifully convey the many nuanced feelings and thoughts of her protagonist as well as the different landscapes she navigates. She offers her readers intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful asides and complex character studies that struck me for their realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator’s interior struggle. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her shifting sense of self. Yet, even upon a third reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with her readers (speaking of, there is an almost meta aspect to her narrative as she directly address readers and refers to scenes occurred in previous ‘chapters’).
Her self-division

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed and quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of who she is.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment, reason and feeling, is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood
which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
The cast of characters is not necessarily likeable but I grew fond of them nonetheless, Lucy’s banter with a certain professor and a rather spoiled pupil made for some truly entraining scenes. I appreciated how imperfect and sometimes idiosyncratic these characters were as these things made them all the more believable.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s shifting individuality.

DISCLAIMER: this novel is decidedly of its time so expect a lot of phrenological references (or viewing someone’s physiognomy as indicative of their character), the majority of Catholics in this novel are definitely a wee bit fanatical, many annoying remarks—usually by men, but sometimes by women as well—regarding women (the weaker sex etc…), a major character owns a plantation in Guadeloupe and no one bats an eye about it (I definitely recommend Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy for those interested in postcolonial sort of retelling of Villette, it is a short but truly captivating read), people from France and Spain are often portrayed as ‘other’, even ‘alien’, and a little girl with learning disabilities is referred to as a ‘cretin’ and some other unpleasant terms.