Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Year of Wonders" (Geraldine Brooks): Okay, but ...

I finished Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. The 2001 novel is the first of the works on the summer reading list I inherited for the senior English course I'm taking over next year.

The story is based on a true incident during the outbreak of the plague in England in 1665/6 in which a village, Eyam, voluntarily quarantined itself as it battled the spread of the disease. The minister in the book is based on the minister who led the community. The narrator, Anna Frith, a shepherdess/maid, was created based on a brief mention of a maid who assisted the minister.

The first part of the book is well written and gives a real sense of the times, people's daily life and work, and their struggles. The descriptions of the effects of the plague were powerful. Many of the characters were interesting and believable. Brooks did her research.

But then ...

Brooks had to augment the drama inherent in the situation by adding liberal doses of melodrama. We start getting twists and turns involving "wise women" (witches!), the narrator's evil father and stepmother, the troubled wife of the minister, the less-than-noble minister, mining, murder, attempted murder, abortion, religious doubt, a North-African Muslim harem (did I mention this was supposedly set in England?) and more. There is eventually a sex scene you knew was coming. It was not graphic, but was written in typical romance novel style that stands in marked contrast to some of the really nice descriptive writing earlier in the novel. The narrator also begins to develop a contemporary feminist sensibility that seems out of place. By the end of the book, she achieves the skewed feminist dream of having children without the inconvenience of a physical husband. And the ending is so implausible as to be almost laughable.

The book does not get a thumbs up - but it also doesn't get a thumbs down. It's an interesting read for the first half to two thirds of its length, enough to offset the ending. But next year when I have more control I might think of dropping it from the required reading list, and maybe put it on the optional independent reading list.

Pax et bonum

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