Character Assassination

What can ruin a good story for you?

For me, if I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about the story. I felt that way while watching the film Public Enemies – John Dillinger was a horrible person, and I couldn’t invest any energy in caring whether he was caught or betrayed or killed. His charisma wasn’t enough to make me care, the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with the Feds wasn’t enough to make me care, his Johnny Depp-ness wasn’t enough to make me care. I was completely detached from the film, just waiting for it to end. (And trying to spot my friends Bill and Shannon Butler, who were swing dancing extras in the movie – the only thing that made watching it worthwhile.)

Femme-Nikita_2

Likewise, I have a friend who hated La Femme Nikita, because the title character murders a cop in cold blood at the beginning of the film, and he couldn’t forgive her for that. Never mind that the story was about transformation and redemption – and about how society says it’s okay to be a monster, as long as you’re a monster on the right side of the law.  (Yeah, I loved it. But I get why he didn’t. )

We all have sins we consider unforgivable.

I just finished reading Menfreya in the Morning, by Victoria Holt. It was written in the 1960s – a Daphnie du Maurier-style Gothic romance, set in the early 20th century.

I was liking it a lot, the style is spot on: sweeping rocky coasts, a glorious old manor gone to seed, horseback riding accidents, political scandals, rumors of a ghost in the east wing – the whole Gothicky works. The main character, Harriet, is likable: a lonely, odd, smart girl with a despised limp, who ends up capturing the heart of Bevil, the man she’s been in love with since she was 10 and he was 20. He’s a gorgeous Lothario, and the most eligible bachelor in all of Cornwall. Even after they get married about half way through the book, she can’t really believe that he wants her – he’s had a lot of affairs in the past and still flirts with women more beautiful than Harriet.

Menfreya

The marriage happens early on, because the rest of the the story is tres Rebecca: what with the dark suspicions about her husband’s infidelity, the ghost in the east wing, the sinister governess and all. So, although they have an ideal honeymoon, when they get back, those little dreads begin to take hold. One night they have a major disagreement over Harriet’s best friend, who is also Bevil’s sister. After the argument, Harriet is furious with him, and announces that she’s going to sleep in the other bedchamber. He says no, he wants her there with him. She refuses.

Aaaaannnnnd he rapes her. It isn’t spelled out as such, but it’s pretty clear what happens… her arms and back are covered in bruises the next day, and she describes it as “the most soul-shattering experience of her life.”

Okay, I thought. Do I put the book down now? But Holt doesn’t pull her punches. She takes care to express the rage, humiliation and fear Harriet feels, and especially the loss of her autonomy, the realization that whatever she wants, he’s stronger, he’s her husband, and she has no way of fighting back.

Meanwhile, there’s a kind young man lurking vaguely in the background, and I started wondering whether Harriet was going to ultimately end up with him. Would her husband die? Then I thought, wow. This is a totally different book than I thought it was going to be.

EXCEPT IT’S NOT. Harriet makes excuses for her husband, and eventually learns that she was wrong about the sister, and he was right, and all her suspicions about Bevil’s infidelities were unfounded, and he really just loves only her and she loves only him and those two crazy kids work it out, by gum.

Fuck you, 1966.

What story was ruined for you by a character’s actions?

 

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Alternative Universes and Time Travel and Witches, Oh My!

I  pretty much stopped reading children’s and YA fiction when I discovered Lord of the Rings at the age of 11. Then it was all Epic Fantasy and Science Fiction and American Classics and Gothic Romance and even a little Kurt Vonnegut. 

I, like everyone who actually peruses these posts, was reading “at a college level” (whatever that means) before I hit puberty, and I had very little interest in fluttering back to the YA nest once I had spread my wings.

I read Anne of Green Gables when I was in my mid-teens, but other than that, I can’t recall one children’s or YA novel I read between the ages of 12 and 30. Sure, I’d peruse an Edward Gorey or Shel Silverstein book here and there, but none of the fantastical kid’s novels I’d enjoyed as a child.

Then J.K. Rowling came along and ruined everything. Heh. I tease. She made everything awesome again. Much as my experience watching Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in the theater shot me straight back to the unadulterated thrill I got when I first saw Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harry Potter made me feel like I was 8 again, reading under a bedspread tent with the aid of a flashlight. (Lumos!)

I devoured the Harry Potter series; I adored them; I speculated online, between books, about where the plot was going; I read them again and again – even out loud, twice, to friends, in their entirety. But then they were done, and I could never read them for the first time again.

 Eek! Expelliarmus! Stupify!

So, I started searching for Harry Potter Withdrawal Novels. I found some good ones too, among the best – Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. (The former is considered YA, the latter is not)  But years passed, and the more I tried to dive into an exciting YA series, the more disappointed I became. The Hunger Games was ‘meh’ to me, Twilight was unreadable.

I was almost ready to give up, when I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. The mistake I’d been making was looking for new fantasy fiction. Diana Wynne Jones wrote a lot in the 80s, and once more, it’s clear that she was a very strong influence on J.K. Rowling.

(Also, Jones wrote Howl’s Moving Castle, which was made into a lovely film by Hayao Miyazaki.)

The first books I read of Jones’s were the Chrestomanci Series. The order in which you’re supposed to read them is not the order in which she wrote them. Here’s a handy guide:

CHRESTOMANCI series

You could actually read any of the books in this series at any time – they are each stand-alone novels, essentially, but the whole picture becomes clearer if you read them in order. And why wouldn’t you? The series takes place in multiple, parallel worlds, so each of the books inhabits very different settings. The one character who appears, to some degree or another, in every book, is the Chrestomanci himself, an extremely charismatic, powerful, and dandy-ish enchanter.

And that’s all I’ll say, except her books effortlessly balance some very complex ideas, and at the same time they’re funny and charming. Also, she captures the awkwardness and awe of adolescence very well. But the original cover art is often atrocious. What can I say – YA fantasy in the 80s.*

Since the Chrestomanci series, I’ve read The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City, both good. Fire and Hemlock, which seems to be a fan favorite, is rooted deeply in the heroic classics, and yet it is a modern, romantic tale. Terrific.

I just checked out 6 more of her books from the library today.
Packing them into my backpack, I felt that thrill of being a kid again.

*The art for newer additions, however, is lovely.