Monday, May 27, 2019

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Back when I was in college, I took a literature course called "Realism and Naturalism." I didn't know anything about this literary period when I first went into the class, but it was my favorite one by the time I came out of it. Something about the stories I read here fascinated me. They were gritty and dark and pretty much always ended with a tragedy, but still, I was in love. For the first time, I found myself having actual thoughts and opinions about literature. I started raising my hand and speaking with classmates. I started reading classic novels with the same kind of interest that I had for contemporary novels. Best of all, this was the class where I met some of my favorite authors. Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, and Henry James became authors that I still seek out and read to this day.

The instructor for this course was a young graduate student, but her enthusiasm for this period and her expertise were clear. I loved the reading selections she made and the way she taught the course. I distinctly remember her telling us one day that her favorite naturalism novel of all time was Jude the Obscure. This wasn't one of the readings assigned in the class, but I always remembered the title, and meant to read it myself one day. When I saw that one of the categories in the Back to the Classics challenge was a "classic tragedy," I figured that this was the perfect time to pick it up.

The plot of the novel follows Jude Fawley, a young orphan being raised by his aunt in a small English village. Despite being born into a poor family, Jude has scholarly aspirations. He dreams of attending one of the colleges in Christminster, a nearby, academically-focused city. He embarks on a course of self-study, teaching himself Latin and Greek and reading everything he can get his hands on as he grows into maturity. In an effort to fund his reading materials and eventual tuition payments, Jude apprentices himself to a stone mason, and he eventually becomes quite skilled at that trade. As he works and trains, however, he always holds fast to his dreams of higher education and uses all his free time to continue his personal studies.

Things begin to veer off track for him when he meets Arabella Donn, a country girl living near his aunt's house. He begins a relationship with her that becomes physical very quickly. A pregnancy scare leads him to push his studies aside and get married, a step he almost immediately comes to regret. His marriage with Arabella is a very unhappy one. They quarrel constantly and are obviously unsuited for each other. After a particularly bad fight, Arabella decides to move with her family to Australia, and Jude is only too happy to let her go. He returns to his studies again, but with a shadow over his heart. By entering into a marriage, he knows that he has spoiled any future romantic prospects in his life. His wife may be out of the country, but she is still his wife, and he is living in a time where the social attitudes concerning marriage and divorce are extremely conservative. Marriage is forever here, so Jude has doomed himself.

He still has his academic dreams though, and he resolves to continue forward on that path. He redoubles his efforts in that direction and finally moves himself to Christminster, the city he has been in love with since his childhood. He is soon thrown off track again, however, for two reasons. One, he discovers that the cost of attending a university is so expensive that he will realistically never be able to afford the tuition no matter how hard he works, and two, he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, and falls hopelessly in love with her. Both of these events are disastrous for Jude. Realizing that his scholarly goals will never happen ruins a huge part of his identity, and his love for Sue is tragically impossible. He is already married, and she is about to be married to someone else herself. Sue has strong romantic feelings for Jude too, but she goes through with her own wedding anyway, and winds up desperately unhappy.

Despite that fact that everything about a relationship between Jude and Sue is inappropriate at this point, the pair can't keep away from each other. Through a combination of moving between different towns and making arrangements with their original spouses, they manage to get divorces and move in together. However, neither wants to get married again, even to each other, based on the bad experiences they had the first time around. Instead, they live together and have children out of wedlock, an act that alienates them from society and creates huge financial difficulties for them. Things go from bad to worse for the pair until a truly shocking act drives them towards their final ruin.

I don't use the word "shocking" here lightly. The end of Jude the Obscure is horrific and tragic and I did not see it coming. If any readers out there aren't already spoiled as to the specifics of it, I strongly encourage you to read the book for yourself and let it hit you. It feels like a punch in the chest. It will be a reading moment you always remember, which is something I love about novels from this time period.

I don't mean to imply, however, that the final events in the novel are just a gimmick or there merely for shock value.Thomas Hardy's themes are clear throughout the text. His message is all about how harmful social divisions and expectations can be, especially the attitudes and laws around marriages in the late 1800s. We see this in Jude's failed academic pursuits and in the string of failed marriages taking place across the novel. In Jude, we have a character that is doing the best he can. He saves money and studies to achieve academic success, he marries a woman when he believes it is the only honorable course of action, he lets that woman go when it becomes clear they are both unhappy, and he tries to be a good provider for the woman he discovers later on to be his one true love. None of that is good enough.

The problem is, Jude wasn't born at the right social station to do anything more than be a tradesman and follow the rules. He reaches too high and gets smacked right back down. Hardy's story allows that reader to see that Jude didn't deserve this, and that the rules governing society at this time period are unnecessarily punitive. Why is it so improper and ridiculous for a man to want to improve himself? Why is the barrier to entering a university so high? Why can't people obtain divorces easily and without intense social stigma? Why is a marriage necessary for domestic happiness at all?

These kinds of questions brought Hardy some negative reviews when Jude was first published. People interpreted his work as being anti-marriage and labeled the novel as "obscene." Hardy wrote about these reactions in the postscript to the first edition of the work, in which he defended himself as being not anti-marriage, but pro-divorce. His opinion was that, "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties," a view that seems quite reasonable now, but was very controversial during his lifetime. He ended up being so disappointed with the reception to this novel that he never wrote another one. Jude the Obscure is his very last book, which is a shame, because he lived another 33 years after it's publication.

Along with from the complex themes present in the novel, there are many other aspects to enjoy. Hardy's prose is masterful, his characters are layered and nuanced, and his plot twists and turns are very engaging. This is one of those classics that is on the longer side, but still easy and relatively quick to read. The only thing difficult about it is how dark it is. Nothing goes right for Jude, and that gets to be heavy after a while. However, if you enjoy sad novels, you can't do much better than this one.   

Thinking back to my college instructor who called Jude the Obscure her favorite book, I can understand why she liked it. This is a well-written work that asks interesting social questions and gives readers a wonderfully tragic story to hang those questions around. This novel didn't grab me in the same way the other works we read in the class did, so I would still say I prefer Edith Wharton or Frank Norris overall, but this was still a very worthwhile read and an excellent choice for my "classic tragedy" challenge category.   

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#33 on my list): 46/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Classic Tragedy) 7/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 30

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

For my next read, I was in the mood for some young adult fantasy. I picked up A Curse so Dark and Lonely from Target last month, so I decided to give that one a shot. It's a "Beauty and The Beast" reimagining, and I have a weird fondness for stories inspired by fairy tales, so I went into my reading with pretty high hopes. I was expecting romance, adventure, and maybe, hopefully, a scene in which a young woman is gifted an entire library (which is not something from the original tale, I know, but it is my favorite part of the movie).

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is told from two alternating perspectives. The first perspective is from Rhen, the prince of a kingdom named Emberfall. Rhen has been cursed by an evil enchantress to keep repeating the same three months on an  endless loop in his castle. At the end of each of these three months, he transforms into a monster and goes on a rampage around Emberfall, killing anyone in sight. At the end of his rampage, the season resets and he becomes himself again. The villages outside his castle don't loop with him,  they still experience the forward march of time, and any people killed there stay dead. It's only Rhen, his only remaining guardsman, Grey, and his castle that reset. In order to break this cycle ad sync back up with the rest of his kingdom, Rhen must find a girl to fall in love with him. He's wooed countless girls over countless cycles of his curse, but he hasn't had any luck finding true love yet.

The second perspective in the novel is from Harper, a young woman living in our modern reality in Washington D.C. As the story begins, she is mysteriously whisked away into Rhen's timeline, where he plans to try his luck wooing her in order to break his curse. Harper, however, is completely unlike the other women he has tried this with in the past. She is a fighter and isn't willing to entertain any ideas of romance. She only wants to find a way home, back to her struggling family and terminally ill mother. She will stop at nothing to return, and even attempts to confront the enchantress responsible for the magic that brought her to Emberfall. The longer she stays in the kingdom, however, the more she comes to care about the people living there, including Rhen and Grey. A rival kingdom has noticed the absence of the royal family and a lack of soldiers protecting Emberfall, and is making moves to invade the territory. Her desire to help the struggling kingdom directly conflicts with her need to return home. As the danger to Emberfalls grows, Harper must try to find a way to help all of the people she cares about.

I ended up liking this novel a lot more than I thought I would. Kemmerer's take on a classic fairy tale is creative and interesting, and her characters were well-developed. I especially enjoyed Harper; she was far from a damsel in distress, and was eager to learn how to fight and take care of herself when given the opportunities. I also liked that fact that she was very principled. Even when thrown into an entirely different world, she did not hesitate to defend people who needed it and stand up for what was right. She comes to care deeply about the people of Emberfall, which helps forge a powerful connection between her and Rhen. It was obvious from the beginning that these two characters were destined to fall in love, but I appreciated that the eventual relationship was forged through the strength of her character rather than through superficial characteristics, like her beauty.

It's also noteworthy that Harper has cerebral palsy, which is a congenital disorder than affects movement and coordination. The condition affects people in different ways; in Harper's case, she has a pronounced limp and weakness in one of her legs. She does not let this illness define her, however, and manages to make her way around the world just fine. Kemmerer portrays her well in this regard. She is a character with this disorder, but it does not define her. It is mentioned from time to time, but is not treated as a big plot point. It's just a part of who she is, which is true for the hundreds of thousand of people who have it in real life. You don't often see protagonists with medical conditions like this where the condition is not the whole focus of the story. I appreciated this. We need more characters like this in our young adult books.

Rhen and Grey were also characterized well. Rhen was suitably tormented by the curse, and his feelings of guilt and despair at the situation were interesting to delve into. Unlike in the original fairy tale, Rhen is initially cursed because he spent the night with the evil enchantress, promised her the world, then didn't deliver. Of course, he was spoiled and selfish in his youth as well, but having the enchantress be a spurned lover was an interesting twist on the story. It made the curse more personal, and allowed the enchantress character to have a bit more depth. She appears throughout the story, and her cruel, twisted behavior helps the reader sympathize more with Rhen. He definitely learns and grows throughout the cycles of his curse, seeing him be forced to watch his kingdom suffer because of his selfishness while he is stuck in time makes this change feel genuine.

I admit though, that I was more of a fan of Grey, the lone, faithful guardsman to Rhen. He stays by his prince, helping him try to break the curse, long after all of the other Emberfall guardsmen have fled or been killed. I have a thing for loyalty in characters, so his perseverance to his job and his unfailing friendship with Rhen really appealed to me. I was secretly hoping that he'd end up with Harper, as there was definitely a bit of a spark between them too, but of course, his type of character wouldn't do such a thing to Rhen.

While the book was engaging throughout, I did think that things moved too slowly in the middle. There were several scenes in an inn where Harper and Rhen assisted some villagers that I could have done without, as well as some sections where they visited neighboring villages that dragged. The novel is almost 500 pages long, and some trimming definitely could have been done here and there.  Also, the story eventually becomes intensely political, with strategy sessions and battle plans taking center stage. I would have preferred more scenes developing the romance between the protagonists instead. However, the ending of the book is exciting and interesting enough to make up for the slow parts and I still consistently enjoyed my read.

The novel ends with an epilogue that contains a major cliffhanger, meaning that I'm going to be anxiously awaiting the sequel that is set to come out in 2020. I will definitely continue on with the series, despite the fact that Harper was (sadly) not bookish at all and there was no library scene. This was a very creative and different take on a classic fairy tale and I am looking forward to diving back into the world of Emberfall next year.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 15/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 29

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

*This review will contain some spoilers*

I first came across Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits when I was searching for some books about different cultures to add to my Classics Club list. This Latin American novel was one of the ones that kept popping up, so even though it was published in the 1980s, making it stretch my definition of what a "classic" is, I decided to give it a go. I picked it up towards the end of April in an effort to continue catching up on my reads from that list.

The story is set in Chile and it follows three generations of the wealthy Trueba family throughout the 1900s. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Esteban Trueba, who is the patriarch of the family, although the journals and letters of other characters, along with some elements of magical realism, allow the perspectives of other family members to come across. The plot centers around the women in Esteban's life, including his wife Clara, his daughter Blanca, and his granddaughter Alba. Esteban is a cruel and rash man, and his relationship with each of the women is largely characterized by his demanding and violent nature. He does have his moments of regret and change over the years, however, and the political upheavals that rock Chile towards the end of the novel become a catalyst for his personal growth.

As this is a generational story, it's difficult to succinctly summarize the whole novel. It moves through many years, with the women in the story each taking a turn to drive the plot. The first part of the novel features Esteban's wife Clara, a woman known for many eccentricities as well as an ability to see spirits and predict the future. She marries Esteban because she has seen her future self do it, and while Esteban loves her with a devotion that borders on obsession, she does not particularly love him. Eventually, she bears him three children: twin boys and a daughter named Blanca.

When Blanca is old enough, the story shifts over to focus on her. She does not have her mother's ability to see spirits, and is a bit more practical-minded. She falls in love with a boy who works on their estate, someone who is far below her social station. Esteban would never allow such a match, so they are forced to sneak around to meet each other. Eventually, Blanca becomes pregnant and Esteban, filled with rage at this development, attacks her lover, nearly killing him, and marries her off to a family acquaintance. The marriage doesn't work out as planned and Blanca returns home, where she gives birth to her daughter, Alba.

Alba takes over the focus of the story for the last part of the novel. As a young adult, she takes a more active role in the socialist movement that is picking up steam in the country, much to her grandfather Esteban's consternation. She also falls in love with an inappropriate man, a leftist, whom Esteban sees as an enemy to his own political viewpoints. Like her mother, she must sneak around to be with the one she loves. Despite this, she becomes very close to her grandfather, and he loves her devotedly. His old age, and the changing politics of the time, are softening him a bit; he is coming to realize that his harshness as a younger man has cost him a lot. When the military seizes control of Chile and establishes a dictatorship to quash the socialists, Alba is taken prisoner and Esteban embarks on a quest to get her back.

The House of the Spirits is truly an epic read. Allende does an excellent job depicting the different generations of the Trueba family throughout the years with appropriate pacing and weight. The story is big and it feels big. Similarly, her language is beautiful and draws you right into the story. The magical elements, including Clara's clairvoyance and the spirits that drift in and out from time to time, are well-incorporated and wonderfully weird. It is clear from page one that this is a special book, and it has earned its place as one of the most respected works in the Latin American literary cannon.

I enjoyed my reading for the most part, but there were a few elements I struggled with. One of the big ones was that Esteban is a serial rapist. He rapes many women throughout the course of the novel and really only stops due to various injuries or old age. He leave many of his victims with children that he does not acknowledge in any way and never shows a bit of remorse for his actions. He believes it is his right to behave in this way. While he does end up suffering for this behavior by the end of the story, the person who suffers the most for his behavior is Alba, who is assaulted by one of his illegitimate offspring. Her reaction to this is one of oddly placid acceptance that didn't sit right with me. I do not believe that Allende means for the readers to love Esteban. I believe that she means to present him as a very flawed character that is tormented by regrets. However, this whole "great cycle of rape" plot point didn't sit well with me.

Another aspect of the story that I didn't love was the fact that neither Blanca, Alba, or the political strife that comes later in the novel were as interesting as Clara. The best character in the story, with her mysterious ways and magical powers, comes first in the line of featured women, and as the plot gradually shifts away from her, it becomes more boring. I found myself wanting more time with her and less of everything else. As the novel reaches it's final quarter or so, the socialist movement and the resulting military coup take center stage, and without knowing a lot about the politics of the period, I found my mind wandering.

Neither of those points takes away from the fact that The House of the Spirits is a worthwhile read and an obvious great work of literature. I am glad I ended up picking it for my Classics Club list because this is one of those novels that you feel accomplished and wiser after reading. I learned more about life in a different culture and experienced the writing of an excellent new-to-me author. Time with The House of the Spirits is time well spent.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#17 on my list): 45/100

Total Books Read in 2019:28