Books We Loved, Sep. 2017
Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist (Ecco, 2015)
The Miniaturist is an emotionally rich and marvelous novel. In seventeenth-century Holland, young and naive Nella marries a trader with the Dutch East India Tea Company. She moves into his house on the famous Golden Bend, located on the Herrengracht, one of Amsterdam’s many canals.
The household that awaits Nella is definitely odd. Husband Johannes, who has an inspired dialogue about food and what it teaches him about himself, has absolutely no interest in other types of sensuality as far as his wife can tell. His sister’s need for control seems almost Gothic. Then there are the servants, who seem to be much more than servants. Instantly I suspected that a web of complicated relationships was going to emerge.
The novel perhaps intentionally calls to mind the themes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which also deals with the stultifying constraints of society on women. The inciting event in The Miniaturist is, after all, the arrival of a perfect replica of Nella’s new home, a place she is encouraged to finish furnishing. But the concept of that wealthy home as safety is deceptive. Soon secrets come to light, new relationships are forged, and tragedy strikes. But in The Miniaturist the women endure, changed but not hopeless.—GM
Katie Kitamura, Separation (Riverhead Books, 2017)
Yes, this spare, spellbinding story is about a couple who have separated, but it departs on page 1 from anything you might associate with the subject. The unnamed narrator is a translator of literary fiction, and thus the reader is always aware of how easily she might pull the narrative one way or the other with little more than a poorly chosen phrase. Christopher, the husband from whom she is estranged, is a writer of nonfiction, someone who dives into subjects of interest, and he appears to be the one who wrenches the narrative along, in spite of the fact that we never actually meet him.
The tale begins with only a kernel of information—the fact that Christopher asked his wife not to mention the separation to his mother, at least for the time being. Other details accumulate over time, slowly—through accretion, it seems. The pacing, the narrator’s reluctance to tell the reader too much at one time, our suspicion that she might not always be telling the truth anyway, and the realization that every time you think you know what’s coming the narration subtly changes tracks only render the reader more eager to rip through the pages. One reviewer said the novel “lacks the intensity expected in a separation.” This reviewer would say there is plenty of intensity; what it lacks is the expected.—JS
Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (Harper Collins, 2017)
It’s the Victorian era in England, and Cora Seaborne has emerged a widow from an abusive marriage to a powerful government leader. Though scarred physically and emotionally, she revels in her freedom and “strangeness,” for she is a hunter of fossils. This most unfeminine hobby keeps her engaged as she travels from London to Blackwater with her clearly autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha. But something lurks in the Blackwater estuary, a monster of some sort that transforms the pleasant town of Aldwinter into a fearful, superstitious place, right on the heels of Cora’s arrival.
Complications ensue as the famous London doctor Luke Garrett, himself gnome-like and ugly, pursues her with adoration, while she beguiles and is beguiled by Aldwinter’s parson. London’s housing and poverty crises, not so different from our own, and the intense pulls of feminism, socialism, class war, and religion underlie the romantic and personal journeys of all the characters.The writing is sometimes brilliant, and if a few of the conflicts are left unresolved, such, of course, is life.—CHL
Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess, The Painted Queen (William Morrow, 2017)
When Elizabeth Peters died in 2013, fans like me mourned. In my blog tribute, “The Sands of Time,” I wrote about saying goodbye to my favorite characters, including her pair of Victorian archeologists, Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson, and their remarkable son, nicknamed Ramses. So the appearance of this last manuscript, reworked by Peters’ friend Joan Hess, author of numerous contemporary mysteries, was a delightful event all on its own.
The book doesn’t quite capture the style of the original, which drew heavily on the over-the-top prose of H. Rider Haggard with hilarious results. But it offers a rollicking plot and a classic Peters finale. All the familiar players and features are here, including the excerpts from the mysterious Manuscript H that tracks the adventures of the teenage members of Peabody and Emerson’s ever-expanding clan. It’s a lovely tribute to a friend and a joy to see beloved characters strutting their stuff one more time.
If you are not familiar with Peabody and Emerson, their story begins with Crocodile on the Sandbank and picks up steam with The Mummy Case, where Ramses first takes an active part. Fans may also enjoy my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Joan Hess, where we discuss her own writing career and her long friendship with Elizabeth Peters as well as the series drawn to a close in The Painted Queen.—CPL