REVIEW: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
Dear Ms. Cashore,
It’s been over five years since you’ve had a novel out, and I’m a big fan of two of your past YA fantasy novels, Graceling and Bitterblue, so when I heard you were finally coming out with another, I took note of its publication date. After Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves, yours was my most anticipated release of last year.
Jane, Unlimited begins as Jane is on her way to a mysterious house called Tu Reviens. Before the recent death of her aunt Magnolia, the only parent Jane has ever known, Magnolia made Jane promise that if she was ever offered such an invitation, she would accept it.
Since the death of her aunt, Jane was forced to drop out of college to make ends meet, but she works at the university’s bookstore, and that is where she runs into Kiran Thrash, a young alumna who once tutored her. Kiran is the daughter of the wealthy family which owns Tu Reviens, and after she learns of Magnolia’s death, she invites Jane to Tu Reviens for one of their quarterly galas.
Tu Reviens is a strange house filled up with odds and ends as well as lots of expensive art. The family, which has been wealthy for generations, their staff, and their houseguests are all strange and mysterious.
Kiran’s dad, Octavian Thrash IV, was married twice, once to Kiran and her twin brother Ravi’s mother, a theoretical physicist who is referred to mainly as “the first Mrs. Thrash,” and more recently to Charlotte, an interior designer who has gone missing. Kiran’s brother Ravi works for an art gallery owner named Buckley who also happens to be father to Ravi’s on again, off again girlfriend, Lucy St. George.
Kiran’s boyfriend, Colin, is Lucy’s first cousin and he works for Buckley alongside Ravi. But Kiran also seems to have a history with Patrick, one of the house staff, and she doesn’t even seem to like Colin, though he is officially her boyfriend. Her relationship with Patrick, meanwhile, is strained due to secretiveness on his part.
Equally secretive is Patrick’s sister Ivy, another member of the house staff, and one with whom Jane immediately hits it off. There are hints of an attraction between Jane and Ivy, but Jane senses Ivy is hiding something from her.
The house staff includes a repressive, disapproving housekeeper, Mrs. Vanders, her husband, Mr. Vanders, and their adult son, Cook. Jane learns that Mrs. Vanders may have known her aunt Magnolia, and she feels the need to talk to Mrs. Vanders about why Magnolia wanted her to come to the house.
Besides Colin and Lucy, Jane is introduced to two more houseguests staying at Tu Reviens, Philip and Phoebe Okada. On a trip to the attic to get some art supplies, Jane finds Philip there with gloves on, and he claims to be a germaphobe, but later she discovers he’s a doctor, which makes his excuse seem unlikely.
Jane also spots a familiar-looking little girl digging outside in the rain. There is mention of the Panzavechias, a family who may be mixed up with the Mafia, at breakfast by Phoebe, but Lucy St. George knew the Panzavechias and she doesn’t believe it of them.
Octavian is a night owl and seems to be living in the library, playing Beatles music obsessively. On her first night at Tu Reviens, Jane hears Ravi arguing with him about a priceless abstract fish sculpture that has gone missing. Ravi wants Octavian to care about the strange loss of this masterpiece, but Octavian doesn’t.
Later that night, Jane goes into the servants wing to get something and she overhears a conversation between the Okadas and Patrick, a conversation that doesn’t make much sense. But she spots a gun in Philip Okada’s hands.
Jane learns that aunt Magnolia left her a message, “Reach for the umbrella.” Jane is an artist who crafts unusual umbrellas in her spare time, but is this what Magnolia meant?
Then there is the Thrash family’s dog, Jasper, who does not behave like any dog should, and who seems to be trying to communicate with Jane, as well as block her way or encourage her to go in certain directions, on some occasions. Jane quickly bonds with him.
This cast of characters is diverse, in that Kiran and Ravi are half Indian, their mother being British Indian, Ravi is also bisexual, Philip is English with a Japanese heritage, and Phoebe, his wife, English and black. A gala worker who may be more than what he appears to be is Asian. And of course, there’s the same-sex romantic tension between Ivy and Jane.
At around 20% in, Jane sees the little girl who was digging outside return something to one of the rooms and then immediately leave again.
At this point Jane comes to a fork in the road and is faced with a choice of which of five characters—Mrs. Vanders, the little girl, Kiran, Ravi, or Jasper—to follow or talk to next. Then the narrative splits up a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, but only at this one point in the narrative. Each “adventure” takes place in an alternate universe from the previous one. Each is more outlandish and wilder than the last, but some themes recur from one to another.
Some of these plot offshoots worked better for me than others, but ultimately, I think I would have rather had an entire book based on almost any one of these than this book, in which all five happen.
The novel also contains homages to Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Winnie the Pooh. In fact, I may never look at A.A. Milne’s books the same way again after reading Jane, Unlimited.
The writing here is well-crafted but the structure and plot are a bit too surreal and avant-garde for me, and I’m a reader who likes surreal fiction. It doesn’t help that every time I got invested in a world and story, I’d discover it came to a resolution and the next section was set in a different version of that world. I immediately had to backtrack in my mind to the place Jane was at the end of the first section, and it was like rewinding a movie and starting over again from the old starting point, but going off in a new direction.
There’s an element of Groundhog Day here, too, because Jane relives the same day or two, but differently, in each section, and so certain moments in the narrative would recur from section to section in slightly different ways. This, I liked (Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies), but because unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, Jane retains no memory of the previous adventure each time she starts a new one, for me the book never cohered, as Groundhog Day does, around one story goal.
If there’s a unifying story goal in this novel it is Jane’s wish to discover why her recently deceased and beloved aunt Magnolia wanted made her promise to come to this house if she was ever invited. Almost as important is the question of whether Ivy and Jane will form a romantic relationship. Ultimately, we get answers to both questions, but Magnolia’s request that Jane visit Tu Reviens also serves as a vehicle to explore the different universes, and to write each section’s adventure in a different genre.
The first adventure is a kind of heist / suspense story, the second a quirky spy story, the third an eerie, subtly horror-ish story in which the house itself may be haunted, the fourth a surreal, zany SF narrative with spaceships and travel between alternate universes, and the fifth more of a fantasy story. Ultimately, the differences from section to section were disparate enough that the goal of discovering Magnolia’s purpose wasn’t enough to entirely unify them.
Without that unity, even as well-written as it is, the book feels less like a book and more like an exercise, and a test of this reader’s patience. Ivy and Jane’s romance is the best aspect of it, and I really liked them both, as well as the dog, Jasper. The language was nicely crafted, too. But none of these were enough to make Jane, Unlimited a truly satisfying novel. C.
I liked it better than you did, Janine, although I agree that the different stories never did quite gel. I think it’s worth mentioning that Jane is clearly bisexual, and her ethnicity left deliberately ambiguous.
@hapax: Yes, it is worth mentioning that. Thank you.
I read the book and wrote this review late last year, and it sat on my hard drive for months. I actually like the book a bit better in hindsight, but at the time I read it I was really frustrated with it. But then, I never did like choose your own adventure stories, either.
Did you have a favorite plot offshoot, Hapax? I liked the first, heist story one, and the last, fantasy-with-dogs one best.
The set-up sounds great so I’m sorry the execution didn’t measure up. And, Mrs. Vanders–yep, my mind immediately went to Mrs. Danvers.
@Susan: Actually for the type of book it is, it was executed well. So if you like surreal stories or Choose Your Own Adventure-type books, this may be just the book for you. The problem IMO wasn’t with the execution as much as with the conception… Cashore wanted to mix genres but doing that with a CYOA structure makes it more challenging to create a cohesive whole. I don’t know that another author attempting this would have necessarily handled it better–she is a very skilled writer.
@Janine: I liked the final one, the fantasy, mostly because it gave a satisfying explanation to the Jasper subplot (I adored Jasper) and because it was so gentle and upbeat in mood. The horror one was brilliant, and gave me nightmares; the sci fi made me laugh, but had its moments of Fridge Horror as well. I liked this mostly for the little bits – the rains of frogs! the artisanal umbrellas! Aunt Magnolia’s photographs! etc.
Cashore posted a picture of her working manuscript, which was positively studded with color-coded Post-it references. I think she executed it about as well as one could, but she was so caught up with working out the mechanics, that she lost track of telling the actual story?
@hapax: Jasper was lovely. The horror story was terrifying; I think it might have given me a nightmare too. The SF was too zany for me. The frogstorms just befuddled me and made me think of the movie Magnolia, but I liked the photographs and the umbrellas.
I should check out Cashore’s site for that photo. I think it’s just a format that makes telling a complete, start-to-finish and coehsive story difficult, even once one has the mechanics worked out. If the main character can’t remember her previous experiences for 80% of the book, and if each of the five sections not only plays out differently, but in a different genre too, it is hard to overcome the lack of a linear continuity resulting from the first and the disunity resulting from the second. Storytelling relies on growth arcs based in learning from prior experiences, and on unifying thoughlines. Not that this book’s structure isn’t a possible story structure, but it’s an unconventional one that presents formidable challenges.