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REVIEW:  Children of Liberty by Paullina Simons

REVIEW: Children of Liberty by Paullina Simons

Dear Ms. Simons:

When I saw this book available online, I snapped it up without a second thought. I am a huge fan of The Bronze Horseman and its two sequels, and I also enjoyed The Girl in Times Square. I’ve avoided some of your other, earlier books because online reviews have indicated that they are different in tone and style and perhaps a bit downbeat. But Children of Liberty sounded like a vibrant historical novel with a love story at its center, so I was hopeful that it would be somewhat similar to The Bronze Horseman.

Children of Liberty by Paullina SimonsAs it turns out, this book is actually a prequel to The Bronze Horseman trilogy. For some reason it took me a while to figure that out – the mention of a character’s last name, “Barrington”, niggled at my memory but not enough to really turn the light bulb on. But when I did figure out that the Harry and Gina (later called Jane) of this book are Alexander’s parents from The Bronze Horseman, I was dismayed.

Why? I guess I should spoiler-mark this for anyone who hasn’t read the earlier books and thinks they might someday:

[spoiler]Readers of The Bronze Horseman know that Alexander’s parents died in the Soviet Union, killed by the regime they had once idealistically idolized. Furthermore, in my hazy recollection, Alexander’s memories of his childhood featured a kind but weak father and a bitter, alcoholic mother.

I’m not, as romance readers go, an absolutist on HEAs. I can accept a sad ending, when it’s appropriate to the story. (See: The Time Traveler’s Wife. Sniff.) But this is just depressing. I don’t want to read a whole book about two people who are going to get to know each other, fall in love, and then wreck everything with their bad decisions and personal foibles.[/spoiler]

Anyway…

Gina Attaviano arrives in America at Boston Harbor in 1899, along with her mother and older brother Salvo. They have emigrated from Naples, an emigration that was long the dream of Gina’s father, who died before they could leave Italy. Immediately upon arrival, the Attaviano family encounter Harry Barrington and Ben Shaw, who troll the docks hoping to set arriving families up in apartments owned by Harry’s father (this set up seemed kind of unsavory and potentially exploitative to me but it is never suggested that Harry’s father is any sort of a slumlord, so I guess it’s okay). The Attavianos are bound for Lawrence, Massachusetts to stay with family, but Ben, who has taken a shine to Gina, lobbies hard to change their minds, and when that fails, insists that he and Harry (who’d rather just move on to another arriving family) accompany the Attavianos and their worldly goods to Lawrence to see them settled.

Ben persists in his moony-eyed attraction to Gina even when he finds out she’s only 14 years old (he and Harry are both 20) and in spite of Gina’s mother and particularly her brother’s protective attitudes. Gina, however, only has eyes for Harry, for reasons that weren’t especially clear to me.

Ben and Harry are Harvard students and lifelong friends. Ben has been pretty much raised by his aunt Josephine after his free-spirited mother found she couldn’t really take care of him and live life the way she wanted to. Harry lives in the family manse with his father and sister and suffers under the weight of his father’s heavy expectations for him. It is expected that Harry will join the family business upon graduation, though Harry’s interests lie in literature and, later, political thought. Ben is obsessed with the Panama Canal (in the planning stages in  1899). The Panama Canal business is oddly shoehorned into the story and at times reads like a lot of historical info-dumping. In general, Ben is kind of an odd character; he’s absent for a lot of it but his supposed love for Gina lingers over the story. It feels almost like parts of Ben’s story were edited out or perhaps like he’ll come up as a more significant character in future books (assuming there are future books, which seems like it will be the case). But he could have been removed from the story entirely without altering it significantly.

Anyway, Ben loves Gina (though he hardly knows her), Gina loves Harry (ditto, but at least she has her tender age as an excuse), Harry is indifferent (and has long been practically engaged to his father’s business partner’s daughter). Gina chases Harry by enlisting his help in getting her brother Salvo a business loan so that he can open a restaurant. Harry and Gina become friends of a sort while the restaurant is coming together, but when he realizes that he is actually sort of attracted to her (Gina has turned fifteen at this point), he abruptly breaks off contact and they don’t see each other for five years.

Cut to five years later: Gina is a politically active college student who now goes by the name Jane. Gina/Jane’s transformation from moony teenager to political firebrand and Emma Goldman enthusiast is unconvincing. When Harry encounters her again, he wonders “When did she get so fiery?” which only highlighted for me the change in her character. Sure, people change, and teenagers mature – but it would have been more plausible and interesting if there was some sort of reason given for her political awakening.

I also just wondered at this juncture in the story – what was the point of first half of the book? It’s a lot of pages in which not too much happens; the characters are introduced and their situations established, but I was left wondering if the story could have just started with the “five years later” part and introduce Harry to Jane then. A lot of the early plot goes nowhere. For instance, Salvo briefly works for and flirts with Harry’s soon-to-be-fiancee, and quits after offending her, but it never comes up again (in fact, Salvo disappears in the second half of the book).

Simons’ writing style has always been unique; I’ve wondered if it’s partly a result of learning English as a second language. It’s not a style that works that well for me, oftentimes; in fact, it’s a tribute to just how much I love the Simons books that I do love that I’m able to put aside my issues with her prose, since prose is generally a pretty important factor to me when I’m reading. In Children of Liberty the writing quirks were more noticeable and aggravating, since I wasn’t caught up in the characters and plot so much. Some examples:

“To say she looked unreservedly pleased would be to under-define her expression.”

Very awkward.

“He didn’t want to unpack the reasons why.”

The modern usage of the already annoying phrase “unpack” stood out glaringly for me.

“He smiled rotundly, patting his daughter’s back.”

Rotundly?

And really, there are many more examples I could give.

The biggest problem I had with Children of Liberty, though, is the character of Harry. He starts out as not particularly likable but not really objectionable, either, but by the end of the book he is entirely contemptible. I mean, just a total asshole. First of all, in five years he hasn’t matured in any appreciable way; he’s still engaged (though at least a wedding date is set) and living off of his father; he’s working on his dissertation and seems to have been for a while. He’s also teaching at Harvard but is alternately clueless and rather childishly sullen about the fact that his students don’t like him (he’s too hard a grader and doesn’t connect with them).

He’s sexist: At one point, Harry muses to himself about Jane’s interest in anarchists; “For some reason, women found all that talk of liberty appealing.” He also seems offended that Emma Goldman speaks about free love given that she’s “homely.” He is jealous of Jane’s friendship with a classmate named Archer; at one point Harry, bringing Jane flowers, finds her accompanied by Archer and is so angry that he flings the flowers at her feet and stalks off. I am guessing that this is supposed to show the intensity of Harry’s feelings for Jane, but really, it just makes him seem like a big baby. Furthermore, his indignation is ridiculous given that he has a fiancée. In the end he makes a choice but it’s done in the most cowardly and passive way possible, making the choice (and Harry himself) impossible to respect.

Gina/Jane is a Tatiana-like character in some ways – she has a similar childlike enthusiasm and naif appeal. But she lacks Tatiana’s essential charm and the Mary-Sue-martyr tendencies that made Tatiana weirdly compelling as a heroine.

What it comes down to for me is that without the compelling characters and plotline that characterized the previous Simons books I enjoyed, this is simply a book with many more flaws than virtues. My grade, regretfully, is a C-.

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

REVIEW: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I became a George Eliot fangirl after reading and loving Middlemarch a few years ago. I had previously only read Silas Marner by Eliot, in high school English, and while I had kind of liked parts of it, I recalled it as a bit of a slog (but then, a lot of 19th century fiction was and is a bit of a slog for me). When casting around for a classic to read, I thought of this, George Eliot’s last book, about which I knew nothing beyond the title.

Daniel Deronda by George EliotDaniel Deronda opens in a casino in a resort town in Germany, and the first few chapters only mention the title character in passing. The initial focus is on Gwendolen Harleth, a vivacious young woman who is staying with friends, gambling and generally enjoying time away from the constraints of her family. Daniel is also in town and he and Gwendolen make note of each other but aren’t actually introduced, and when she returns to her room late one night Gwendolen finds a letter from her mother that changes the trajectory of her life. Her family is financially ruined, her mother writes, and Gwendolen must come home immediately. Gwendolen prepares to return home the next morning but first pawns a necklace with the idea that she might use the money as a stake in winning back the family fortune. (Gwendolen appears to be about as naively hopeful about gambling as I am on those rare occasions that I buy a lottery ticket.) Before she can set out for the casino again, a hotel porter returns her necklace with a mysterious note from someone who “found” it. Gwendolen realizes that Daniel Deronda, whom she knows to be staying at a hotel adjacent to the pawnbroker’s shop, must have seen her and bought the necklace back for her. She is angry and humiliated by this unexpected and unexplained liberty from a stranger, thinking:

No one had ever before dared to treat her with irony and contempt. One thing was clear: she must carry out her resolution to quit this place at once; it was impossible for her to reappear in the public salon, still less stand at the gaming- table with the risk of seeing Deronda.

The story then moves to an earlier time (I found the timeline confusing here; I first thought that Gwendolen was returning home after the previously described events, but it eventually I realized that she’s returning home from an earlier absence), and we meet the Harleth family, consisting of Gwendolen’s mother and four younger sisters. It’s clear that Gwendolen is ultimately the person around whom the family revolves; her mother is pessimistic and meek, and her sisters no match for Gwendolen’s charisma and force of will. It’s not surprising that she chafes at the restrictive life she has been reduced to, though Gwendolen, especially early on, is often not a terribly sympathetic character, being both self-involved and rather disdainful of others. She accepts it as her due when men fall in love with her, and generally only thinks in terms of what she can get out of people. Still, when she speaks of wishing to have adventures like Lady Hester Stanhope, or laments that as a woman (especially as an unmarried one), she doesn’t have the freedom that men of her class enjoy, it’s hard not to feel for her; one realizes she might indeed be a very different person if she *had* been born male.

I was beginning to wonder why the novel was called Daniel Deronda by the time the title character reappeared and we finally learned something about him. Deronda’s past is mysterious, even to himself – he has been raised by Sir Hugo Mallinger, who has told him nothing of his parentage. Deronda (and others) believe he may well be Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son, but he seems afraid to ask, or perhaps just too respectful of his foster father to discomfit him in any way. If Gwendolen is seriously flawed, Daniel Deronda himself is damn near a Christ figure (minus the martyrdom) – he is the epitome of righteousness and goodness. For all that, Daniel doesn’t really feel one dimensional – his pain over his unknown origins gives his character depth.

Daniel and Gwendolen’s lives continue to intersect when, back in England, she is courted by Henleigh Grandcourt, the nephew of Sir Hugo Mallinger. Anyone can see that Grandcourt is bad news, and eventually Gwendolen sees it too; it is revelations about his past and present situations that send her fleeing to Germany originally. But when she returns to the news of her family’s penury, and the prospect of having to work as a governess, Gwendolen breaks a promise and accepts Grandcourt’s suit.

Meanwhile, Daniel rescues a young woman from the Thames as she attempts to drown herself and takes her to the family of his good friend Hans Meyrick for care. Mirah Lapidoth is a Jewess who has come to London to find her long-lost mother and brother; despairing and alone, Mirah is suicidal by the time Daniel finds her.

It’s Daniel’s attempts on Mirah’s behalf to locate her missing family that put him in contact with a Jewish family, the Cohens, and their mysterious houseguest, the consumptive sage Mordecai. Mordecai ends up being Daniel’s friend and teacher, introducing him to a world and a religion he’d been unfamiliar with. Soon revelations about Daniel’s true origins sharpen his interest and draw him deeper into the lives of both Mordecai and Mirah.

As with many 19th century novels that I’ve read, there is at times, in Daniel Deronda, a lack of subtlety in conveying themes, especially where issues of morality are concerned. It’s not that the characters are one-dimensional, but generally virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, or at least repented of. The contrast between Gwendolen and Mirah is particularly sharp and at times felt unfair. By the time Gwendolen marries Grandcourt, it’s clear that she does so not just to benefit herself but her mother and sisters, who are relying on her to make a good marriage and get them out of their dire financial straits. Furthermore, when the marriage turns sour (actually, I’m not sure it’s ever anything *but* sour), Gwendolen takes pains to keep the truth of it from her concerned mother. (Though this may be due in part to Gwendolen’s natural strong pridefulness as well as a desire to protect her mother from the truth, I saw this as evidence of growth on her part.) Yet Gwendolen repeatedly flagellates herself for her choices, remembering the broken promise and the advantages the marriage brought her but forgetting that her choice was not entirely motivated by self-interest.

Mirah, meanwhile, chooses (attempted) death over dishonor. (Though I believe suicide is a sin in Judaism; perhaps this was not such a consideration for Mirah, raised without religion by her wicked father.) Mirah is the sort of historical novel character that I think readers were originally meant to admire because she’s just so good. But she comes off simpy and colorless most of the time. She’s not truly unlikable, but in contrasting her with Gwendolen, who I think we’re supposed to judge for her willfullness, the reader is sort of forced to choose between them (much as Daniel is, though for him it’s no choice, really). I’m always going to choose the Gwendolen type over the Mirah type, even if early in the novel Gwendolen made me want to slap her a couple of times. She has spirit; meanwhile Mirah is often described using the modifier “little”, which got on my last nerves.

I will go even further and say I prefer spirited, selfish Gwendolen to chastened, semi-helpless Gwendolen. It’s interesting to me that a female author who could fairly be seen as proto-feminist portrays her female characters in such a traditional and unfeminist light. I don’t judge Eliot here; it’s not really surprising as she’s a product of her times. I think even giving a character such as Gwendolen some depth and sympathy was probably more than could be expected of many of Eliot’s contemporaries.

Similarly, the depiction of Judaism and Jews is both interesting and a bit problematic for me. Clearly Eliot is more sympathetic to Jews than many other 19th century British authors (and probably many other 19th century Brits, period). But she does indulge in stereotypes in the portrayal of the moneylender Cohen and his somewhat graceless and grasping family. To be fair, they are not truly demonized, and a lot of Daniel’s (fairly muted) distaste for them could probably be judged simple classism (which even the most liberal of 19th century authors were guilty of, in my reading experience). Perhaps if Cohen hadn’t been a moneylender it wouldn’t have read as squicky to me. Similarly, when Mirah’s father shows up, he’s thoroughly villainous, a greedy, thieving gambler who essentially tried to pimp his daughter out (which is why she fled him initially). There’s nothing in his portrayal that read specifically like an indictment of Jews or Jewish characteristics to me, but at the same time his depiction did make me a little uncomfortable.

Ultimately, Daniel Deronda did not capture my imagination the way that Middlemarch did, but I appreciate the creation of a female character who is flawed but not irredeemable, and an interesting look at the way Jews were depicted in 19th century English literature. My grade is a B.

Jennie

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