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Be Careful What You Wish For Wednesday

As usual these days, crossposted to Dreamwidth.

What I've Finished Reading

The Maias isn't shy about being a story made of words, or a satire of Lisbon literary layabouts. The characters – at least the male characters – are bright but not deep, and the female characters are less bright and less deep. It may also be the least gothic incest story of the nineteenth century. We have four hundred-odd pages of bubbly club talk and overeducated emotion while the incest scenario gets set up (Maria and Carlos were raised separately; Carlos thinks his sister is dead and Maria never knew that she had a brother; they meet and are amazed by how well they understand each other! They even have the same middle name, what a cute coincidence! It must be destiny!) When Ega learns the horrible truth about his friend Carlos' mistress (entirely by accident; a friend of the family who knows Maria but hasn't seen Carlos in many years notices them walking together an remarks on it in all innocence) he agonizes over whether to tell his friend, tries to burden the family steward with the information, and finally breaks the news. Carlos is horrified for about fifty pages before he breaks it off with Maria and they go their separate ways. He weeps with bitterness, and the curse of the Maias is acknowledged.

Then, in the final fifty pages of the novel, the world slides back into alignment. A decade passes, and Ega and Carlos are back at the Grémio, gossiping and self-deprecating as if nothing had happened. The horror has lasted a few months at most; the long business of wasting one’s life extends beyond it into the future. Maria has made a perfectly respectable and boring marriage; Carlos has gone back to his relatively harmless wastrel existence, Ega still hasn’t finished that atom book and isn’t going to, but he’s definitely going to buy some clothes and complain that he spends too much on clothes. So the world keeps turning under the cursed and the charmed alike. I’m not completely sure what to make of this, but I think I like it.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't love The Ladies of Missalonghi at all. I disliked it so much that I felt bad about it and went back to try to find some things that I liked. I did find some - the history of the town of Byron (named after the first poet its founder could make heads or tails of), the description of Missy's medical examination, the line drawings) - but eventually I gave up and gave in to my dislike.

I knew it was a ripoff of (or “homage to”) The Blue Castle, L. M. Montgomery’s joyful comedy of, by, and about shameless wish fulfillment – but I wasn’t expecting that knowledge to be as much of a handicap as it turned out to be. In theory, I’m all for ripping off The Blue Castle! In practice, I wasn’t able to give it a fair chance. I found I was unable to read without mentally cataloging the differences: Missy swoons to trashy romances instead of to pompous nature writing; her friend is a perky self-hating librarian rather than a lonely consumptive with A Past; her guardians are more sympathetic and the rest of her family worse; the golden-child cousin is meaner and the narrative cattiness she elicits less subtle, and all the emotional beats are less heightened than in The Blue Castle. Not all of the differences are disappointing, but a lot of them are. In the end, Missy gets her man by deliberately lying about having a terminal illness, and the man she gets can’t shut up about what a bitch his first wife was. It’s not completely clear that the ending is meant to be happy, but it also isn't successfully ominous or satirical as far as I can tell. We never really get to know The Mysterious John Smith, except for some choice monologues about how women are the worst, and I didn't really feel like I knew the nasty relatives well enough to rejoice in their comeuppance.

I was accidentally spoiled for the Big Twist about Una, the librarian who pushes Missy to trick John Smith into marrying her. On the whole I'm glad I was, because if I hadn't seen it coming I would have been extremely mad. Do you want to know what it was? Here is a spoiler cut.

[THE TRUTH ABOUT UNA]Una is the ghost of John Smith's dead wife! She is so sorry about what a frigid harpy she was in life that she has decided to make up for her crimes of the heart by setting Missy up with John Smith (and encouraging her to NEVER TELL HIM THE TRUTH about her health, because MEN CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH and it's better that way! Honesty is for suckers! Una was honest about not wanting children and LOOK WHERE IT GOT HER). Thanks, ghost? It does make sense that a ghost would project a lot and have priorities not necessarily aligned with those of the living, so maybe this makes the story more interesting? I'm not sure. If I hadn't known it was coming, it would have come way the hell out of nowhere. I knew it was coming, and it still felt totally unearned and nonsensical.

Maybe The Mysterious John Smith's misogyny is supposed to make him a more "realistic" character than The Blue Castle's Barney Snaith, whose only major flaws are an embarrassing writing style and a tragic inability to speak in complete sentences. But given that T.M.J.S. is also a rich mastermind who rolls into town and buys a valley just in time to be tricked into a wish-fulfillment marriage by Missy and [SPOILER]the self-hating ghost of his dead wife!! this superficial nod toward realism seems neither necessary nor sufficient. Besides which, he's no fun. I don't at all mind reading about fictional misogynists if they are in a book about asshole artists or how much being in the army sucks, but I don't like them in my rom-coms. No snappy pillow talk about how your first wife killed herself just to ruin your life, please! And because I already had it in my mind that this book was going to be similar to The Blue Castle, I wasn't able to relax and enjoy my dislike of T. M. John Smith as I might in any number of other books. I kept waiting for the story either to abandon the template or do a better job of following it. Which is, again, totally unfair to poor Colleen McCullough, who was presumably just trying to write a book like anyone else.

I don't know. This book got me thinking about romantic comedies: how pretty much all my life I've been convinced that I love them, because I love them in theory and there are a few that are my favorites, but if you pick a rom-com at random and show it to me, I'm overwhelmingly more likely to hate it than not. Why I should have such an easily outraged Rom-Com Ideal when I have no problem enjoying mediocre sci-fi and bad murder mysteries is not clear to me.

I was disappointed in myself for not being able to enjoy this book on its own merits (or if not "enjoy," at least separate it from The Blue Castle enough so that I feel like I'm being fair), but I'm also not convinced that it's worth the effort to try again. Oh, well! Better luck next time, Australia.

What I'm Reading Now

I've started The Complete Works of Hadewijch, a present from several years ago, but I don't expect to get through it very quickly. Hadewijch is a thirteenth-century mystic whose works are letters exhorting friends to live in Christ, and poems about personal revelations - all well out of my comfort zone.

Also started: Chicks in Chainmail, a very 90s, very tongue-in-cheek comedy-fantasy anthology with a "warrior women" theme. There is a silly story about a man who dresses as a woman in order to be allowed to fight, and a silly story about the unforeseen consequences of a tax on metal bras. There is an extremely silly story about Hillary Clinton in Valhalla that made me so sad I couldn't follow what was happening, through no fault of 1994.

What I Plan to Read Next

Herself Surprised by Joyce Cary, probably some other things.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 7th, 2017 01:40 pm (UTC)
I'm glad the Maias escaped Gothic doom. And intrigued, too - what a century of change that was! Because they'd surely have ended up like the House of Usher if they been written fifty years earlier - and here they are being perfectly stable late nineteenth century bourgeoisie, like The History of Mr Polly or something.
I'd like to read it sometime, though I can't see that I'm likely to get to it soon.
Jun. 8th, 2017 12:34 pm (UTC)
It's worth reading! Not a book you have to rush off and read immediately so your life can be changed, but interesting and fun.

Edited at 2017-06-08 12:37 pm (UTC)
Jun. 7th, 2017 03:03 pm (UTC)
Because rom-coms tend to be light so it should be easier for them as a genre to be enjoyable and therefore it's annoying when it's not? I'm not having much luck with the lighter side of Shakespeare.
Jun. 8th, 2017 12:44 pm (UTC)
That's probably part of it! I don't necessarily have a great time with Shakespeare's comedies, either - though I do remember enjoying As You Like It (haven't read it in almost ten years(!) though!)
Jun. 8th, 2017 02:23 pm (UTC)
I keep mixing it up with 'All's Well that Ends Well' as they both begin with an 'A':S
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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