Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book 18: Angelica

Angelica by Arthur Philips

This book was so close to being good but it missed the mark for me. The story is told from four different perspectives, the intent being to show how very differently certain events are being interpreted by the different characters involved. Is it a haunting? Is someone losing their mind? Is there abuse in the house? The main problem with this approach is that one of the four characters and viewpoints completely failed to be believable or sympathetic. Even this would possibly have still worked if it hadn't been for the fact that this was the very first person's view to be described, and hence set the tone for the novel.

In addition to writing a novel set in Victorian England, it appears Philips was attempting to write a Victorian novel so that the language also seemed stilted. I read classic novels, of course, and I don't complain about the language because that's how things were done back then - occasionally, I think they are rather vague, talk around things or are too flowery - other times, their use of language is amazing (such as the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, which to be completely honest, still drags on too much for me - I got it, contrasting times, two or three extremes were enough, thank you). However, someone actually trying to recreate that on purpose except to use as dialogue - ugh. It seemed very unnatural, especially in the first section. I'm not sure if it got better as the novel went on or if I just got used to it, but basically, the first hundred and fifty pages of the novel just didn't do it for me.

I noticed on Amazon that people either loved or hated this novel (with slightly more love): it had no three star reviews. I picked it up based on a review at Bibliolatry so I would definitely recommend checking that out for a favorable review. In fact, if you think you might be even slightly interested in reading this book based on my above description you might want to stop reading. I am not sure if this is a real spoiler since I'm not giving away the ending, but the premise of the book relies on believing the multiple view points for the tension to work. I felt one of the view points was weak and unbelievable, and am about to talk about why I thought it was weak, so this would affect people's interpretation of events and the novel's ability to create tension.

After their four year old daugher, Angelica, moves into her own room, Constance begins noticing strange happenings in the house, eventually leading to the question whether her house was being haunted. In the character of Constance, there are so many different ingredients that could make for a sympathetic character and an analysis of women's roles in Victoria society but they never come together in a proper manner. I wanted to believe that Constance was seeing signs of a real haunting but it was so obvious that she was imagining everything and going insane. Given such precedents as The Yellow Wallpaper, I wanted to believe a patronizing husband and the overbearing doctors were making her condition worse but Constance never made me feel that much sympathy for her. While reading The Yellow Wallpaper, I remember being impressed by the writing and believing her paranoia as it slowly increases until the woman begins tearing at the wallpaper in her room. In this case, I just wanted to scream at Constance to have an actual conversation with her husband.

There are so many different forces at work that should make it easy to sympathize with Constance. She is a woman in Victorian England and as such, her husband has all the power. She grew up poor and married higher up so that she feels like an outsider. She has had three miscarriages and her daughter is the only surviving child, whose birth almost killed her. She feels like she should be having sex with her husband but also fears for her life, and doesn't even seem to like it anyway, thinking of it as a duty to satisfy his horrible, animalistic urges. She never had the opportunity to receive more of an education due to her gender and her former social status so it is not surprising that she would have a hard time entertaining herself. And yet, I didn't find myself feeling sorry for Constance or her situation. I thought she was overly sentimental, a little dizzy, and paranoid. Even when the story is being told from her perspective, I didn't quite buy her view of her husband as a horrible monster, and thought he was being rather reasonable. Since Constance failed to work for me as a character, it removed much of the tension from the novel because it wasn't a question of what was really happening - that was rather obvious from the beginning.

There are several reasons that Constance thinks her husband is a villain beginning with the fact that he makes her move their four year old daughter downstairs into a room of her own. Obviously given what I wrote above, it is easy to understand her extreme attachment to the child, but she is going completely overboard. She also is incredibly upset and jealous because her husband starts taking an interest in the child when he didn't before (my response to this was, "maybe he is starting to see her as an actual human being rather than just an infant that doesn't do anything") and doesn't want him to send her to school (she should be ecstatic he wants their daughter to be educated in that day and age). She also reacts badly to discovering that his scientific work involves animals but I'd take his rationalism over her spiritualism any day. She rebukes him every time he touches her, even when it seems to simply be a gesture of comfort or to get close to her since their marriage has clearly fallen apart. She devotes every minute and second to their daughter and barely even talks to him. Also, she was kind of racist: John, her husband, was of Italian origin so she kept referring to his hot-blooded nature, and thought of him as somewhere between white and brown.

I liked the other perspectives, even if these characters were far from perfect as well and made incorrect assumptions. I also wanted to beat them over the head and tell them to actually talk to each other, but they were still much more sympathetic to me.


kingsmartarse said...

hey, thanks for the comment. i did enjoy the ideas of how it'd realistically affect our world, and the "real-life" politics that would come into play, but the writing just did it in for me. i'm actually a sailor filling an 8month IA. I've got about 4 months left before heading back to the boat, but the 'Stan hasnt been too bad. Not the greatest of accommodations, but I'm getting by well enough.

denesteak said...

Just your one-sentence description of The Yellow Wallpaper sounded deliciously foreboding. I might have to look for it in my library next time I go.

Jen K said...

I actually found a link with the full text to The Yellow Wallpaper:

I reread it for the first time in a few years today, and it definitely shows the wife's helplessness in her situation and how she has very little say over her own life in society. Gilman actually based the story on her own rest treatment.