The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

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Judging by reader reviews, this is a book you love or hate. It is the story of a circus, one that “arrives without warning” and whose tents and even the ground around them are black and white. No other color intrudes.

I should have been warned right there.

The point of view is third-person omniscient, meaning that the story is told from the perspective of a distant and unnamed consciousness who knows everything that goes on in people’s hearts. Thus we enter the minds of no less than fifteen characters.

The two main characters are Celia and Marco, whom we first meet as small children who have come under the care of two magicians. These two father figures, whom we later discover are fantastically ancient, profoundly disagree about the place of magic in the world and long ago devised a competition to prove their respective points. In this round, Celia and Marco will be their proxies and the circus their gameboard.

After a long introductory section devoted mostly to their training, Celia and Marco begin devising magical attractions for the circus, aware that they are competing (though initially Celia does not know with whom), but not what the stakes are. We know that they couldn’t be higher. Of course, the two young people fall in love, just to make things harder.

There is much that I loved about this book. The circus attractions are astoundingly creative: a pool of tears where you drop in a stone to leave your grief behind, a cloud maze where you climb “a series of platforms swooping in odd, diaphanous shapes, quite similar to clouds” and jump from them without injury. And each contains an element of emotional truth about our humanity, reminding me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. For example, another character, Widget, creates a tent of bedtime stories, full of tables and shelves stocked with all sizes and sorts of bottles. When you uncork one you are enveloped by a mixtures of scents:

The scent that wafts from it is the unmistakable smell of the ocean, a bright summer day at the seashore. He can hear the sound of waves crashing against the sand, the cry of a seagull. There is something mysterious as well, something fantastical. The flag of a pirate ship on the far horizon, a mermaid’s tail flipping out of sight behind a wave. The scent and the feeling are adventurous and exhilarating, with the salty tinge of a sea breeze.

The magic is presented so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to accept, even as another part of your mind suggests that, to a boy, simply the smell of the ocean can evoke memories of Peter Pan.

Another thing that I enjoyed, though it took until almost the end of the book for me to appreciate it, is Morgenstern’s intricate plotting. She weaves together the stories of many characters and multiple timelines, inserting clues whose significance only becomes clear much later.

There is also much that I hated about this book. Those multiple timelines had me forever flipping back four or five chapters to understand how they fit together. Just one of these timelines had anything distinctive, a character named Bailey who only shows up in the most distantly future timeline. The others had the same characters doing similar things but back and forth in different years. Looking back, I can see how this way of organising the material enabled Morgenstern to unfold her story in an important way, but as I was reading, it was confusing and downright annoying.

The pace is mostly excruciatingly slow, especially in the beginning. I was quite bored and came close to giving up.

Worse, the characters are flat. They are good or bad. Period. Marco and Celia have no inner life, no goal other than the game imposed on them by the two evil magicians. Marco and Celia are so unrealistic as to be not even human—seriously, what teen would put up with the abusive training regimes their mentors devised for them? None of the other characters have much more to them, though at least they have interesting quirks. Only Bailey, whom we get little of till the end, has any inner life.

My opinion shifts, though, when I consider the book through the filter of Angela Carter’s definition of a tale: something not reflecting everyday experience, drawing on fairy tales and the unconscious rather than placing the reader in the experience of realistic characters. We don’t expect Hansel and Gretel to give dramatic monologues about their internal conflict. In fact, I see Carter’s influence here, though not acknowledged beyond a book written by a character mentioned once with the title of Carter’s novel, Nights at the Circus. I also see the influence of Ray Bradbury’s stories of dark circuses and carnivals.

As a novel, I would say this book deserves all the one- and two-star reviews it has gotten on Goodreads. As a tale, though, it earns the equally many four- and five-star reviews. Although a bit slow, it makes a fine tale. And you have the added delight of the imaginative attractions, whose descriptions are like gems scattered through the story.

Have you read a story that you consider more of a tale than a novel?

And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman

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While in line at Starbucks, small businesswoman and single parent Heloise Lewis learns of the apparent suicide of the so-called “suburban madam”. She hears the woman behind her patronisingly mocking the dead woman’s mental health and—in an action that might seem odd to anyone not from Baltimore—turns to confront her. Heloise defends the dead woman, arguing that prostitution is a victimless crime and, further, that as a person the woman deserves more respect than to have her entire life summed up in two words. She was “‘Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother.’” Like Heloise herself.

This 2012 stand-alone from the popular author draws us irresistibly into Heloise’s life, a life she’s fabricated out of her damaged past to protect herself, her son, and her employees. Chapters alternate between Heloise’s history and the present where her carefully constructed life is under siege from an increasing number of threats.

Lippman deals out these threats with care. She follows up the surprise of Heloise’s profession with an account of the moment when as a child, then called Helen, her father first turns on her the anger and fists previously reserved for Helen’s mother. Then in the present, Heloise suffers the small betrayal of one of her oldest and favorite clients asking for someone new on his next visit.

By this time it was hard for me not to identify with Heloise and feel so firmly on her side that I could not abandon her when a worse threat is revealed: the possibility that her son’s father, a gangster and murderer, might be released from prison. I could not distance myself, thinking that such a thing would never happen to me. I could understand only too well how I might have gone down that path.

As K.M. Wieland describes in her blog for writers, it is a character’s backstory (or history) that makes a reader identify with her. As Lisa Cron says, backstory is “what gives meaning to everything that is happening up there on the surface” of the story. The trick, of course, is to weave it in carefully so it doesn’t overwhelm the story. With the parallel stories of Heloise’s past and present, Lippman doubles the difficulty. The difference in names–Helen and Heloise–helps keep the reader oriented between the two stories.

There are more betrayals, large and small, as Heloise struggles to save her life and the lives of her sons and colleagues. For me, the great joy of this book, aside from its powerful momentum, is the way Lippman details the inner workings of Heloise’s business. She’s thought through even minor details such as Heloise providing bracelets with GPS chips for her employees. When they leave her employ, they can have the chip removed and keep the bangle as a souvenir.

Even better is the way Lippman presents Heloise’s approach to running her business. It reminded me of Stringer Bell taking economics classes to better manage drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s business in The Wire. It only makes sense, of course. A business is a business. Yet it keeps the reader identifying with Heloise even as we venture into less familiar territory.

As always with a Lippman novel, even as I’m racing to the end to find out what happens, I’m aware as a writer of bits of information falling into place, even those that seemed random or extraneous. I resisted this book for a long time because I so loathed the misogyny of the Philip Roth novel that the title pays tribute to that I not only threw it out but also tore it up first so no one else would suffer from its poison. However, I’m happy to recommend Lippman’s book as a supremely satisfying read.

Have you read any of Laura Lippman’s books? Which one is your favorite?

Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey

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While the town of Salem, Massachusetts does make an appearance in this mystery/suspense novel, the title refers to Salem Wiley, a young woman whose deliberately uneventful existence in Minneapolis is torn apart by a phone call. She is a genius at cryptography and produced ground-breaking research for her PhD thesis, but her life is severely limited by a form of agoraphobia. The call from her best friend, Bel Odegaard, changes everything.

Police have informed Bel that her mother’s apartment has been broken into, a neighbor and her dog left in a pool of blood, and Grace–Bel’s mother–gone missing. When the two young women arrive, they discover that Salem’s mother was at the apartment as well, something we know from the prologue, and both Grace and Vida are missing, one of them probably dead.

Despite FBI Agent Stone’s warning that they too may be targets, Salem and Bel set out to follow the clue left for them by Vida, hoping to rescue their mothers. Or revenge them. As this tense, suspenseful novel tears along, the two women uncover a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. Each clue involves some kind of code, which Salem must decipher–and fast if they are to help their mothers. Factor in unforgettable characters they encounter, Emily Dickenson’s home and poetry, and an election about to produce the first female president of the U.S. and you have a story that works on several levels.

Lourey also works in references to scientific contributions by women, without slowing the breakneck speed of the story. She does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the emotions of the characters, especially the fraught mother-daughter relationships.

There are a few continuity problems that another editorial pass might have caught. There are also a couple of what Ray Rhamey calls “information questions” where information well known to the point-of-view character is teased yet deliberately withheld from the reader, presumably to create suspense. Mystery readers usually want to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, so such tricks feel as though the author isn’t playing fair.

And it’s unnecessary, because Lourey is brilliant at ratcheting up the suspense. Every page has multiple instances of what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension” . A new and stunning bit of information or insight, a panicked physical reaction (“frantic movements”), even the use of especially active adjectives and verbs (“The . . . plane pitched and dropped, yanking Salem out of her light sleep.”) all keep the characters’ emotions in conflict and the reader turning the pages.

If you like to unravel a conspiracy or a good puzzle, if you long for a novel with engaging characters and a little history and literature thrown in, then hop on this rocket of a story.

Have you read a good mystery/suspense novel lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Bachman

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My first reaction to this bestselling debut novel was that it was a pleasant read, but not particularly substantial. Aside the characters’ ages and the book’s length, I thought it read like a book for ten- to twelve-year-olds. I was surprised my book club had chosen it and afraid we’d have nothing to talk about when we met.

I was wrong.

We had quite a discussion about the subtlety with which Backman unfolded his characters and how they might reflect Swedish society. Although a couple of us complained about the overly cute chapter titles, we all enjoyed reading this story of a grumpy middle-aged man who has just about had it.

Although Ove is only 59, he comes across as much older. Recently laid off, he continues his engraved-in-stone routines, such as inspecting the neighborhood every morning to make sure everyone is following the rules, and fills in the empty hours with trying to kill himself. He complains about everything, from a neighbor’s dog relieving itself on his paving stones to the way computers and espresso machines are destroying peoples’ minds.

Needless to say, I identified with him. Not about dogs or computers or espresso machines, but I’ve gotten increasingly grumpy about other trends, like increasingly reckless drivers on my local streets or—well, I’ll save the specifics. And I’m completely with Ove on the dire lack of practical skills among most people today. Since home ec and shop classes were done away with, too many people don’t know how to cook a meal, hem a skirt, use a stick shift, or rewire a light.

Don’t get me started.

Things start to change for Ove when a young family moves into the neighborhood and refuse to be put off by him. A scrappy feral cat adopts him in spite of his efforts to drive it off. Another neighbor asks him to bleed her radiators, and word gets out about his competence with tools.

Backman gradually fills us in on Ove’s background, the influence of his father, what he learned about work, meeting and wooing his wife. It doesn’t feel like a tease, yet the careful parsing out of details takes the reader deeper and deeper into this one man’s character, making it impossible not to care about him.

One man, but he’s also an aspect of us all. Not the grumpiness, necessarily, but the desire for a good life, the attempt to control what can be controlled, the difficult balance between solitude and society.

I still think a ten-year-old could read this and get something out of it, yet there is much here for an adult to ponder as well.

Have you changed your mind about a book you’ve read, perhaps after you finished it or as a result of discussing it with others?

Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

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Somehow, in all my reading, I only recently stumbled across this author. Carter was a British author who died in 1992, only fifty-two years old, and known for her wildly inventive and imaginative work. In addition to the short stories collected in this volume, she wrote novels, poetry, children’s books, plays and nonfiction. I know! How could I have missed her?

I love these stories. Actually she calls them tales, saying, “The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience.” Thus she draws on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. The tale “retains a singular moral function—that of provoking unease.”

While, yes, these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation. You may be reading along, buried in a forest, and only gradually understand that you are in a bizarre version of Briar Rose where the sleeping maiden is actually a vampire. Or is it Jack and the Beanstalk? Maybe they are actually the same story.

Within all the fun and games lurk shadows, ones we can’t help but find resonances of in our own lives. Sex and power and passivity shift in surprising ways in these stories. What happens when the girl with the red scarf finds a wolf has eaten her grandmother, but she only laughs when he threatens to eat her? Who emerges triumphant when a wild child who’s grown up with the wolves is returned to her family? What did the “stern and square” four-year-old Lizzie Borden learn when she ran off to see the circus tiger, who is obedient until he is not?

Some tales go directly for society’s jugular. One such is “Our Lady of the Massacre”, written in the lush voice of a Lancashire orphan, transported to the New World for stealing where she ends up with an Iroquois tribe. Another is “The Bloody Chamber”, a richly imagined Victorian version of Bluebeard, where the power struggle between man and woman reaches a surprising resolution.

As Salman Rushdie says in his Introduction: “She opens an old story for us, like an egg, and finds the new story, the now-story we want to hear, within.”

My two favorites stories are “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, narrated by a Puck even more irreverent than Shakespeare’s creature, and “The Erl-King”, a passionate retelling of the classic tale that begins—against modern story-telling advice—with a long descriptive passage that immerses the reader in the haunted atmosphere of the autumn woods, woods that

. . . enclose and then enclose again, like a system of Chinese boxes opening one into another; the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveller walking towards an invented distance that perpetually receded before me. It is easy to lose yourself in these woods.

Here is another one of her subtle, rule-breaking techniques: changing the point of view without warning. She sometimes goes from first- into third-person or vice versa, leaving me unsettled and wondering what I’d missed.

In his essay on Carter in Children of Silence, Michael Wood suggests that among her exuberant and often hilarious imaginings, Carter is luring us into considering other possible ways of being in the world. She isn’t recommending them per se but rather making a passage for them, as a bullfighter creates a space for the bull to pass him.

He says, “Difference is Carter’s great theme. We can know other creatures, including humans, but only if we know their difference.” He goes on to talk about how she so often uses beasts in her fiction, beasts being “absolutely other”. But they are not “beyond transformation.” Nor are we, as the many tales here of people turning into beasts and beasts into humans suggest. Even though there are plenty of evil deeds perpetrated by both humans and beasts, Wood concludes that “there are no monsters, there is only difference.”

I cannot think of a theme more relevant to our world today.

Have you discovered a new author lately?

Migrations to Solitude, by Sue Halpern

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Here’s another essay collection, this one from 1992 on the theme of solitude. Halpern says these pieces are not about the right to be left alone or protection of privacy but rather about “the experience of being left alone, or of not being left alone.”

In these essays she interviews, among others, a couple who have chosen to isolate themselves in the woods for 40 years, monks whose order has rules of silence, and a prisoner in and out of solitary confinement. Much has been written lately about the dangers of solitary confinement, its potentially dire consequences. Halpern relates the story of a thirty-two-year-old French woman who in 1989 isolated herself in a cave for 111 days as part of an experiment. A year after completing the experiment, the woman killed herself.

Halpern also interviews homeless people, pointing out the terrible need for privacy in homeless shelters, especially those whose beds are in dormitory rooms. She interviews a woman who has finally moved to an apartment and her fierce joy at having a place where she can close the door.

Although Halpern says these essays are not about political definition of privacy, she does look at government surveillance, still in its early days since this book was published in 1992. She talks about the cross-checking made possible by large government databases and quotes Frank Church on the power that this technological capability would give to a dictator if one ever took over the U.S., something that’s looking all too possible today, during this bizarre presidential election.

Halpern isn’t trying to make an argument or put forth a thesis. She simply introduces us to some people whose stories illustrate the need for, and dangers of, solitude and privacy. Such stories are a good counterbalance to a culture that today seems to privilege the social over the private, where wanting to spend time alone is often considered an indication of mental illness.

What I said most often as a child, what I repeated over and over was Leave me alone. Growing up in a large family meant frazzled, impatient parents and younger siblings tagging along when I tried to escape. Solitude became my vision of paradise. But no matter what white-room fantasies I’ve had, I know that absolute seclusion is not the right thing for me. I’ve found my own balance between being alone and being with others. Society, community: these are needs as well.

As may be obvious, I’m rereading some books that I’ve held onto for a while preparatory to passing them on. It’s time to clean out the bookshelves. Our local free book exchange, The Book Thing, burned down a few months ago, but I still have a few options for giving books away to those who can use them.

Where do you donate books? And what for you are the uses of solitude? What balance have you found between solitude and society?

Ordinary Mysteries, by Stephen Vicchio

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It’s been almost 15 years since I first read this collection of short essays by Vicchio, longtime Philosophy professor at Notre Dame College of Maryland. Even then I recalled having already encountered a few of the pieces in the local paper; this was back when Op-Ed pages sometimes carried such diversions.

The essays, which rarely run more than three or four pages, are what we would now call creative nonfiction. Truer to Montaigne’s original definition than to the formal school essays to which we’ve become accustomed, Vicchio’s ponderings range from funny to profound. Reading them is like having the best dinner conversation ever.

He takes the most ordinary occasions—looking at the clouds, going to a toy store, watching students raise their hands in class—and carries us more deeply into the experience. As a man who has read widely and thought deeply, Vicchio surrounds each simple experience with a web of echoes and associations.

For example, in “Music is its Roar” he writes about listening to the ocean on the last night of vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware. After placing us in the moment by describing his porch and the beach and the children playing there earlier “looking like small King Canutes”, he tells us that “this evening everything has disappeared.” What follows are descriptions of the sounds and the thoughts roused by them, ranging from the Byron quote which provided the title, through baseball, Hindu priests and Darwin before coming to rest in Plato. Although this may sound forced and dauntingly erudite, believe me: It is not. The sentences flow one into another in a beautifully quiet rhythm, leading in only two short pages to a satisfying conclusion.

Others of his pieces take off from a news item. Since most of these pieces were written in the 1980s, you’d think old news would be boring. Unfortunately, though the names may have changed, we still have dishonest preachers, muggers, and mass murderers. We still have the mentally ill, shoved onto the street when the back wards were emptied, left to die alone, stifled by their delusions like Gladys Finkenbinder. The plastic she’d taped over her windows to keep the voices out prevented anyone from noticing the fire in her kitchen until it was too late.

In some essays, Vicchio writes about his childhood, summoning up a world now gone, a world of dancing to Buddy Deane with his sisters, cutting mass to have a cherry coke at the Rexall drugstore’s soda fountain, feeling awkward at CYO dances, watching Sky King on Saturdays, fearing the school incinerator and its terrifying keeper. Such pieces brought back many memories for me, but the grounding of experience in each is universal enough to appeal to those growing up in another time or place.

I especially loved the essays that touch on time and memory. This is a collection I know I’ll come back to again. And if you’re looking for some good dinner conversation, invite Stephen Vicchio by picking up this or another of his essay collections.

What essays have you read lately that set you thinking?

Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. His fears for his son’s physical safety took on new resonance in the outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others.

Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

Golden’s book has a different focus than Coates’s. It is not a letter written to her then-teen-aged son. Rather it is a combination of interviews, essays and journal entries that document her search to discover how on a practical level she can keep her son—and all our sons—safe.

How much should she worry about his taking on the walk and fashions of the street? Should she and her husband move out of Washington, D.C., to a suburb? Should she take Michael out of public school and send him to boarding school? What should she tell him so he can protect himself? How to couch it so as to scare him enough but not too much, this child she has worked so hard to make feel loved and safe and secure?

You can imagine how Golden’s thoughts and fears hit home with me, since I have two sons, at that time barely out of their teens. I worried about them, knowing how dangerous the streets are for young men, whether from other young men looking to assert themselves or from those who assume a teen-aged boy must be a troublemaker.

Walking in our neighborhood, they had been bullied by police who assumed they must be about to commit a crime. But they weren’t handcuffed or arrested. They weren’t shot. I knew already, before reading this book or any other, that insulting and infuriating as those incidents were, they were nothing—nothing—compared to what could, maybe would have happened if their skin had been a darker color. They and I are well aware that we walk with privilege, unearned and unwelcome.

I urge everyone to read this powerful book. Golden’s call to action is more vital than ever. She says:

There was a transcendent moment in our history when we faced bulldogs, water cannons, jail cells, firebombs, assassinations, sacrifice, so that our children could be full citizens. What will we do so that they can live?

They are my children too. And yours. They are the future.

What will you do?

The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

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It’s been a few years since I read this novel by the incredible Marita Golden. In her work she consistently takes on issues so delicate that most are afraid to discuss them at all. Golden approaches them with intelligence and humanity, forcing us to envision and inhabit lives that may be different from our own. To me this is what make literature one of the highest callings: that it nurtures our empathy.

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison.

As Teresa’s grandmother (and Lena’s mother) Ma Adele says, “‘She’ll need you to love her, love her to the bone.’” But Lena isn’t at all sure she’s ready to do that. She bitterly resents the losses that her mother’s actions caused and misses the father who left them shortly before events spun out of control. Ryland has been too absorbed in his own grief to be much of a father to Teresa, leaving her to Ma Adele’s steadfast care.

All of these characters have a turn, as the story moves between Teresa’s first-person point of view and the third-person point of view of the others, particularly Lena. Their actions and memories balance Teresa’s and add context and depth.

Through this “chorus of voices” as Golden describes it in the Reader’s Guide, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. This theme is what brought me back to this book, now when it seems as though our society may finally be ready to confront the massive racial inequality in the U.S. prison system.

I’ve learned so much from Marita Golden’s workshops. Her skill is evident on every page. Look at how Ma Adele is introduced. About to leave for work, Teresa stops to see her grandmother, entering a bedroom full of plants and flowers. “Some days I heard her behind her door conversing with the plants. She had names the cactus Butch and the azaleas that hung from the ceiling Aretha.” From this we get a picture of Ma Adele as nurturing and having a sense of humor.

Further we find that she is still in bed reading the newspaper, signaling an active intellectual involvement in the world. “The TV remote control, a paperback mystery, an aged, tattered leather phone book, knitting needles, a ball of yarn, and a stack of bills littered my grandmother’s bed.” We are reminded that Ma Adele is perhaps tired, spending much of her time in bed, a woman asked in her old age to raise another child.

Among the litter on the bed is a stack of letters from Lena. Teresa says, “Each time I looked at my grandmother’s face I saw the shadow and the promise of my mother and myself.” By now we know how complicated her emotions are about this seemingly commonplace observation.

This is just one example. The story takes us deep into the history of these individuals and their experience as a family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

I hope with all my heart that we can learn to live inside the lives of others and, seeing the world as they do, make better choices. Stories such as these help us get there.

What novel have you read that illuminated a life different from your own?

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

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George Eliot’s last novel is an ambitious undertaking. We follow two people starting with the moment they first saw each other, in 1865 at a resort in Leubronn, a fictional town in Germany. As young Gwendolyn Harleth plays roulette, she is observed by Daniel Deronda. She perceives that while he is taken by her great beauty, he seems to be critical of her behavior. Spoiled and stubborn, she refuses to stop until she has gambled away the last bit of her winnings, trying to appear uncaring. The next day she is called home by a letter from her mother that they have lost all their money, but not before the necklace she has pawned after her losses is mysteriously returned to her.

From there we go back to learn how the self-centered Gwendolyn and the quiet Deronda reached this moment. Gwendolyn has had everything her own way up to this point, ruling over her social circle despite her lack of wealth, uncaring about others, and demanding to be entertained constantly. Just before her trip to Leubronn with family friends, she has refused an offer from Henleigh Grandcourt, a man whose wealth and position would seem to promise all her dreams would come true. However, she has learned that he has a family already, with his longtime mistress.

Deronda is the ward of Sir Humphrey Mallinger, Grandcourt’s uncle. Like most people, he believes he must be Sir Humphrey’s illegitimate son. A most generous and compassionate man, he misses a scholarship to Cambridge through helping his friend Hans Meyrick to win one. He also rescues Mirah, a young Jewish girl who was about to drown herself, and takes her to the Meyrick family for safekeeping. Through her he meets a mysterious Jewish visionary named Mordecai and becomes interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. This novel is the first to treats Jews sympathetically.

From there the two stories continue in tandem, only occasionally intersecting. While there is a great deal of narrative, common in novels of the period, the tale is enlivened by Eliot’s light touch with dialogue and by her penetrating, and sometimes satiric, insight. For instance, she says “it was evident that Gwendolyn was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were not beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange.”

I love what Mrs. Meyrick says of her son: “‘If I were to live till my Hans got old, I should still see the boy in him. A mother’s love, I often say, is like a tree that has got all the wood in it, from the very first it made.’”

Deronda’s story of growing interest in Judaism and what we would now call Zionism is less interesting. In his introduction to my copy, F.R. Leavis disagrees with Henry James that Eliot’s intellectual ability is the cause; Leavis admires her intelligence and intellectual powers. Rather, he blames the failure of this part of the book on Eliot’s persistence in endowing her protagonists with idealism. He calls this “immaturity” on Eliot’s part, and even describes Deronda as being a woman in his desire to make the world a better place.

I disagree. As Donald Maass points out, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant.” He goes on to ask writers “What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with?” In another post he suggests that “Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use. Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.” Yet we as readers treasure our encounters with these emotions. “‘Higher emotions’ are called that for a reason. They elevate and inspire us. Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of ‘moral elevation’ by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.”

The trick is to make the character interesting by adding internal conflicts and shadings. He or she cannot be all positive. Plus the character has to change. While Deronda has some internal conflicts over who his parents are and whether the woman he loves will also love him, these do not fundamentally change him and he never does or is tempted to do anything wrong. The only way he changes in the book is through his decision to immerse himself in Judaism. He is still his perfect self at the end. Mordecai too is entirely perfect and does not change.

The other reason why the Jewish part of the story drags is that so much of it is presented in long intellectual monologues by Mordecai, unbroken by action or emotion. Today we call this “info-dumping” and try to avoid it.

I don’t think the problem here is idealism, so much as it is the lack of shading in our idealistic characters and the misuse of dialogue to convey chunks of information. Still, there is much to admire in this book. I found myself, despite having read it before, hurrying to get to the end to find out what would happen to these two characters.

Have you read any of George Eliot’s novels? What did you think of them?