Here are four new or reprinted works of fiction that caught my eye in the first half of the year — each offering something of interest, but none of which quite captured my heart. I can imagine other readers having a different response, though. Have you read any of these? What did you think?
The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
After loving the nonfiction book The Age of Wonder, which included a section on astronomical pioneers William and Caroline Herschel, I was so excited to learn that there was a new historical novel coming out that was centered around Caroline. I ended up being slightly disappointed, but it probably had more to do with my expectations than with the book. While it was a beautifully written and moving account of a unjustly overlooked woman in science, I found being trapped in the limitations of her life somehow too confining, and wished for a wider angle on the time. I was also a little surprised when I learned from the Afterword that several important characters and incidents were made up; this went beyond what I would expect from authors who are trying to make their narratives fit reasonably into the historical record. However, if you aren’t hampered by my expectations, and not bothered by authorial inventions, you may well find this a compelling look at a fascinating corner of history and a remarkable woman.
• Pantheon, January
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
This novel had so many elements that I love — the Brontes, Oxford, a literary treasure hunt — that I hoped it would be a sheer delight, yet it left me feeling slightly queasy. I think the main reason was the relationship between the narrator/protagonist, a kooky American named Samantha who’s supposedly the last living descendant of the Bronte family, and her hunky tutor who can’t seem to remember or stick to the rules about, er, intimate relations with students. Aside from this disturbing theme, their interactions didn’t ring true to me, and the pathologically isolated Samantha made some amusing remarks but was otherwise just too odd to relate to. The literary discussions scattered throughout the text were also frustrating in their emphasis on the assumption that everything in the Bronte novels must have actually happened: Rochester’s bed was set on fire by a madwoman, therefore one of the Bronte girls must be mad and have committed arson at Haworth, etc. This is simply silly and not something one would write papers about at Oxford.
• Touchstone, March
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This is the first in the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of five books about an English family during the years surrounding the Second World War. The whole series has now been reissued in e-book form, and is being marketed to readers looking to fill the gap left by Downton Abbey. I haven’t seen that show, but I can imagine Howard’s work, with its large cast of characters and lovingly detailed descriptions of a bygone time, fitting neatly into that niche. I found myself feeling strangely distanced from the characters, though; they were treated almost journalistically rather than novelistically, and I watched their trials and tribulations from afar rather than feeling caught up in them. Worth a look, though, if you love family sagas or WWII historical novels.
• Open Road Media, April (originally 1990)
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
There have been many books and films in recent years about the theme of exploring different options or paths in life (Sliding Doors, One Day, Life After Life) — kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure” for grown-ups. Here’s yet another one, which presents three versions of how a couple might have gotten together, or not, been married or not, split up or stayed together or come together again. Eva is a writer, Jim a painter, and their careers also take wildly different trajectories in each version, and some unexpected twists and turns. Each chapter takes up a version, usually though not invariably in sequence (1 – 2 – 3), and usually giving three different snapshots of the same point in time in these different lives, before moving on some months or years, as the narrative unfolds from youth into old age.
There is no supernatural explanation, or suggestion that the Eva and Jim in each version know about the others; they are simply presented side by side like a triptych of the same subject with variations between the panels (a kind of painting that Jim does indeed create in one scenario). I enjoyed it, though not as rapturously as did the reviewers of the original UK edition. Following the versions was often quite confusing, with their sometimes minor differences that were easy to mix up. Though this was an interesting and well-executed concept, for me the fragmenting of the characters’ lives ultimately weakened their impact rather than multiplying it.
• Houghton Mifflin, May (original UK edition 2015)
Finished copies of The Light Years (e-book) and The Versions of Us (hardcover) were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.