Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Game of Thrones: Why Daenerys As Queen Is the End Game

Spoilers for anyone who has not read A Feast for Crows or A Dance With Dragons, or the released chapters of The Winds of Winter.

By now, viewers of Game of Thrones can see that the show's creators are beginning to shift the story toward its end game, toward the final Ice Zombie Apocalypse and One Who Wins the Iron Throne.  The outcome of most characters is highly uncertain.  Will Daenerys Targaryen fly her way back to the Throne on dragon wings?  Or will Jon Snow forge his way to the Iron Throne through a phalanx of ice zombies?  Or will it be stoic, meticulous Stannis Baratheon?  Or (f)Aegon?  Or Sansa Stark?  Maybe some combination of the above, like Jon and Daenerys, or even Jon and Sansa.*

Who do I think it will be?  Daenerys.

She seems like the obvious choice, which in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe usually means she is marked for death.  And I would not at all put it past Martin or the show's producers to kill her off before she sits on the Iron Throne.  Or, for that matter, after she sits on the Iron Throne, when we're lulled into thinking she's safe.  That said, there are a few reasons I think that she will make it all the way to the end.

The Second Dance With Dragons.  Even though Daenerys has been built up as the "savior" ruler, her path has not been easy.  And nothing underscores this more than the fact that (f)Aegon is being positioned to "save" Westeros in her place.  (f)Aegon, brought up to rule and to be a mighty warrior since birth, who takes Storm's End seemingly with ease, will be viewed as the "champion" and the true holder of the Throne.  By contrast, Daenerys will be chided as the one who is too late, too preoccupied with saving slaves in Essos.  Yet if the prophecies are true, Aegon is really fAegon, and Dany will need to wage a battle simply to get through him to the Throne.  Why go to such narrative trouble, making her really work and struggle to sit in that chair, and not have her be Queen in the end?

Targaryen House symbol next to the Blackfyre symbol.
Targaryen Lore Is Everywhere.  I didn't realize this until I reread the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but the references to Targaryen history are constant.  Aegon the Conqueror and the Targaryens' construction of the Red Keep.  The Targaryens' dragons, including the crypt of dragon heads.  The Blackfyre Rebellion.  The War of the Ninepenny Kings.  Tales about the fire at Summerhall.  While the series is filled with other histories, Targaryen lore is quite predominant for a dynasty that was supposedly disgraced beyond redemption.  And that's not even considering ancillary texts, such as the Tales of Dunk and Egg, or The Princess and the Queen, or The Rogue Prince, or The World of Ice and Fire.  It really gives the impression that Targaryens are the true rulers, and that Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen are just temporary seat warmers until their dynasty returns.  

Do Any of the Others Really Work?  We all have our sentimental favorites and our "surprise" victors, but let's think seriously on this.

Let's start with Jon.  Jon is the one probably most-frequently touted as the Dany alternative, due to his parallel coming of age storyline and possible Targaryen roots, but sit on the Iron Throne in King's Landing?  It would be highly ironic, given that as a man of the Watch, he is bound to the Wall.  His pledge to have no wife or family would work against starting a new dynasty.  Martin seems to like that sort of irony, but beyond that, could you really see Jon in King's Landing? Even a "winter is here," barren wasteland zombie-apocalypsed King's Landing?  After a while, the politics and intrigue would start up again, and Jon doesn't seem like the sort who can deal with it.  At least Daenerys has some experience with shadowy political intrigue in Meereen.  Jon seems like someone who would make an effective interim ruler before eventually retreating to his remote holdfast.

Then there's Stannis.  We may like him in spite of ourselves, but would he make a good, long-lasting ruler?  No doubt he would be grimly just, and effective in his own way, but there would be little love or trust for him, especially once he breaks out the fires to cleanse the "unworthy."  Moreover, based on Dany's visions in the House of the Undying and Gendry being prominently set up as Robert's oldest male bastard, Stannis's story appears destined to end short of the Throne, as well as (sniff) his daughter Shireen's.

(f)Aegon?  Book readers would cause riots, unless he impresses much more than he did in A Dance With Dragons.  Given that he has yet to appear on the television series, it's likely that he is little more than an obstacle in Dany's path, maybe even a descendent of Daemon Blackfyre.

Sansa's brutal education at King's Landing and with Littlefinger could make her a Queen skilled at intrigue, yet also capable of commanding love and respect.  At the same time, she does so much of her work behind the scenes, I have trouble seeing her as a ruler in her own right.  More likely, she would be paired with someone else.  Serving as Jon's consort would be rather ironic, given how much Sansa disdained him in the first novel.  Yet I think she has another destiny, one that causes her to embrace her Northern roots, but at the same time be far wiser than her father.  The television show referring to her as "Lady Stark" seems to hint at that.

So that leaves Dany.  Sure, there are dozens of other characters who could take the Throne, from Arianne to Littlefinger to Rickon Stark.  However, that doesn't mean they are legitimate contenders, or that there wouldn't be serious problems with their claims.  Daenerys is the one who has the whole package: a large army, charisma, intelligence, and compassion.  Moreover, she really seems like she's working at being a ruler, a good ruler.  She has already made difficult decisions in Meereen that go against her personal happiness for the sake of the realm.  Dany seems like she would be up to the grueling task of ruling Westeros for years and years.  The people would embrace her (at least initially) because she would herald the return of a celebrated dynasty, yet be untouched by the nastiness that had plagued Westeros over the past decade.  By contrast, even if Jon is Rhaegar Targaryen's secret son, it would take a lot for many great families to accept "the bastard's" legitimacy.

Maybe Martin is just trolling us by spending so much time setting up Dany as the final ruler, only to smash her before the end.  Yet if so, he is asking a lot of his readers by making us plod through so many chapters about Meereen.  Martin has focused so much on Dany because she will be the eventual Queen of Westeros.  She has all of the necessary attributes.    

Oh, and she has dragons.  Duh.

* At least if the rumors are true and she is really his cousin.  It's no more icky than him marrying his "Aunt Dany."

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Novel Update: The Unlikeable Female Protagonist

I gave my novel draft over to be critiqued by a professional editor, as I said I would do in my last update.  While she had a lot of positive things to say about the story and characters, she had one major criticism: she did not like my female protagonist.

I've gone into my novel and its characters in previous posts.  Suffice it to say, my character, Isabella, has a lot of issues.  She is young, angry, scared, and overwhelmed.  She responds by lashing out at those who don't deserve it, with some pretty terrible consequences.  As a result, she bears a life-long scar.  Though she reforms, by the end of the novel, her reformation is not complete.  And, to be perfectly honest, it will probably never be.

Isabella is not my first "challenging" female protagonist.  For a pilot script I wrote some years ago, my female protagonist was also angry.  She had just lost her job and ended a relationship.  She finally bonded with her teenage niece, only to learn that that niece had been lying to her about a very important part of her life.  Feeling betrayed, my protagonist ordered her niece out of her apartment.  In San Francisco.  At night.  Even though she was the only one in the city whom her niece knew.

While my script went on to win in competition, it divided those who critiqued it beforehand.  One critic felt that my female protagonist was too angry and hard, and impossible to empathize with.  This was despite the fact that my female protagonist felt remorse for her actions soon afterward, looked for her niece for the rest of the night, and made up with her niece later, with no lasting harm done.

I don't know why I'm drawn to unlikeable female characters.  Maybe I'm just projecting anger that I'm feeling inside.  Or maybe I'm acknowledging them as human beings, that people who have been through their experiences would be that angry, and that it's more dramatically interesting to let that anger show.

Regardless, as with the protagonist in my pilot, Isabella is a divisive character.  Some readers, while acknowledging that she is not the nicest person, like her and find her situation poignant.  Others want someone they can root for, and believe that her unlikeable behavior brings the story down.

These negative perceptions raise several questions.  Are they due to my failure to write characters, or to my being too successful?  Are my characters uniquely problematic, or is it due to a larger societal prejudice against unlikeable female protagonists?

If the concern is that books starring unlikeable female protagonists won't sell, it should be put to rest.  Books with unlikeable female protagonists have sold a lot of copies.  A lot of copies.  For every Elizabeth Bennett, there is an Emma Woodhouse.  For every Jane Eyre, there is a Catherine Earnshaw.*  And then there is the grande dame of unlikeable female protagonists: Scarlett O'Hara.

Given Scarlett O'Hara's nature, why would anyone want to read about her for 1,000 pages?  It's not because she has a tragic backstory: although slightly distant from her mother, she is spoiled by both of her parents and wants for nothing at the beginning of Gone With the Wind.  She has strength and resiliency, but it's for her own survival, which by default helps other members of her family.  She loves just one person throughout, while hating or resenting everyone else, including her sisters and her children.  She causes the death or ruin of more than one good-hearted character.**  And finally, she yearns for a world that few people today would revere: one where slavery was reinstated and those "darkies" knew their place.

Yet people do read about her quite willingly, myself included.  For me, there's something about Scarlett that, even long after her antics have grown tiresome, feels satisfying and alive.  And maybe to some people, many people, that's enough.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a larger societal prejudice against "unlikeable" women, not just in fiction, but in general.  With this prejudice comes, it seems, a basic dislike of complexity.  Many people would say that they like "strong" women.  Yet when "strong" is defined, the woman ends up sounding more like an archetype than a flesh-and-blood human being.  She should be confident.  She should be aware.  She should know what she wants.  She should take actions that express what she wants.  What she wants should be admirable and, most importantly, not the slightest bit inconvenient to others, unless those others come from a group that is obviously in the wrong and must be defeated.

Both real and fictional women who fail to meet all of the "strong" requirements get criticized for what they supposedly lack.  Hillary Clinton, Yoko Ono, Empress Alexandra of Russia... the list goes on and on.  Women who don't meet any of the requirements are not even worth considering.  If, by chance, a fictional female character does take unpopular actions while also being "strong," she saves herself only if she is fully aware of her wickedness, embraces it, and is willing to face the consequences.  "I don't care if she's a bitch, as long as she owns it," is a lament that I've read more than once about nasty female characters.  Yet how many real people, let alone fictional women, act in such a black-and-white manner?

While men and male characters face these expectations, it is not to the same extent as women and female characters.  Readers and viewers have also been exposed to a wider range of male characters over the centuries.  By contrast, in much of the mainstream media, complex female protagonists who display qualities other than "strong" and virtuous are still a rarity, but are gradually becoming more acceptable.

As for why many people shy away from characters who are not easy reads, who zig when you expect them to zag, who knows.  Essays have and will be written about readers' character preferences.  Maybe readers who dislike complicated characters believe that if they are making such an investment of time, they should know what they are getting.  I expressed in my Fingersmith review that I disliked Maud's change in Part Two.  Though that wasn't so much about her becoming more complicated as it was her becoming flatter and less interesting, at least in my view.  But I digress.

Where does that leave Isabella, my female protagonist?  In many ways, she displays "strong" qualities, such as having to make decisions on behalf of a large household, or making decisions that frighten her as she tries to learn who betrayed her mother.  At the same time, her most fateful decision is made without her knowing why she's made it until afterward.  We then learn that it was based in fear and insecurity.  While to some readers, it might be nothing more than a wrinkle in her character, to others, it could wreak of a serious betrayal.

As for whether I'll soften her at all, I haven't decided.  If there is one thing I've learned, everyone has opinions, and some are greatly divergent.  Even if I soften her character, someone will be dissatisfied, whether it's because she's still too "hard" or because she's too soft.  Right now, I like her the way she is -- unlikeable and all.        

* Granted, Cathy isn't exactly a protagonist so much as one main character in Wuthering Heights, but still, her complete awfulness hasn't discouraged new readers.   
** Her second husband, Frank Kennedy, died after attacking freedmen as part of a Ku Klux Klan raid, but the novel portrays it as a noble effort to avenge Scarlett, who had been threatened earlier.    

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dickens Watch 2015

This is just a brief update.  Work has been grueling of late, I've been trying to write my one page per night, and damn those seasonal allergies.  Anyway, I thought it worth mentioning that I've put aside Bleak House for now.  I was into it for a short while, but somewhere around the time the heroine met Mr. Jarndyce, or whatever his name, I stopped caring.  I'm not sure how many pages I am into the book... my Kindle tells me 8%.  I'll try again, really.

Some observations: Dickens uses a mixture of styles that I had considered to be "modern" and hadn't really seen in other Victorian novels (though my catalogue is far from complete).  The first chapter begins almost like free-verse poetry, written by someone on crack: "As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

Both the first and second chapter are written in third-person present tense, while the third chapter abruptly changes to first-person past tense.  It's interesting to observe, and I'm assuming I'll learn why, in time.  When I pick Bleak House back up again.

Which I will do.  Eventually.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Unpopular Opinion: Maybe Those Twilight Zone Wives Had a Point

Growing up, I loved watching the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  It was the perfect blend of creepy and thought-provoking, often portraying what happens when we take certain longings to their natural (or supernatural) conclusion.

For Twilight Zone junkies, the classic episodes are almost too numerous to count.  However, the best of them tended to tap into our deep-seated fears and yearnings.  These include "Walking Distance," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "The Hitch-Hiker," and "A Stop at Willoughby."

Yet while Twilight Zone had that sort of universal appeal, it was hard to dismiss that its perspective was largely white, middle or upper-middle class, urban, and male.  The theme of an inordinate number of episodes was men longing to escape the constraints of their hectic modern lives, whether that involved escaping shrewish wives or modern urban life altogether.  The "ideal" world was one that likely never existed, where its inhabitants had all day to stroll leisurely through town squares, where there were always band concerts and cotton candy.  Even though the series sometimes poked fun at these longings, it returned to these locations often enough that it must have held real appeal to Rod Serling and the other writers.

As for the men who longed to go back, the audience was meant to sympathize with them.  Poor overworked, incredibly successful people, with your big houses and mixed drinks.  Though their yearnings are somewhat relatable, there is something incredibly passive and myopic about the way they view their circumstances.

Take Garth Williams in "A Stop at Willoughby."  He appears to be an ad executive along the lines of Ted Chaough or Ken Cosgrove: successful, but too sensitive for this world.  He works for a sadistic boss and could, we learn, leave at any time and take a significant amount of business with him.  Yet he stays on, drowning slowly from demands and expectations.  At home, when he complains about feeling trapped and about his fantasy of Willoughby, his wife, Jane, has little sympathy for him.  "It's my mistake, pal, my error, my miserable, tragic error to be married to a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!"

Eventually Garth decides to get off his daily commuter train at the Willoughby stop, only for the viewer to learn that there was no stop, that Garth essentially committed suicide, and Willoughby was a funeral home.  The height of irony would be if the Willoughby fantasy world turned out to be a very creative ad campaign.

"Poor Garth," we think.  At least he's happier now, right?  The poor, sensitive man beaten into submission by a shrewish wife motif can be found in other episodes, including "Time Enough at Last" and "A World of His Own."  In the latter case, the shrewish wife was actually created by the man out of his imagination.

Back in the 1960s, it might have been expected for audiences to side with men like Garth, but it's a little unsettling that many people today take his victimhood at face value.  Yet when I go to places like IMDB and read the Twilight Zone forum during marathons, I see a variety of comments labeling his wife a miserable, cold bitch who didn't understand him and kept him down.

When I watch their (only) scene together, I see something different.  Garth's wife comes across as cold, yes, and unsympathetic.  But then, her husband has just told her that he wants to quit his job and go off an live in a fantasy world.  If you view circumstances from her perspective, her reactions make much more sense.  Imagine you have been married to this man for several years, even decades.  You have energy and ambition, but you live in a society that punishes you if you try to express it in any way other than through marriage.  So you do the socially acceptable thing: you marry a man whom you can guide to a greater position.  Maybe he appreciated your help at first.  After all, if he didn't want your help, he could have told you so at any time.

Over the years, he has started complaining more about his role and his job.  Yet rather than do something to change his situation, like leave his hated firm and go to one he might like better, he just stays and complains, and you have to listen.  At first you're sympathetic.  But the more he complains, but never actually changes, the more your sympathy wanes.  You might even be more understanding at this point if he quit and took a job as a teacher, or something, just as long as he was doing and not complaining.

In that one scene, Garth's wife asks him: "Did you wreck a career this afternoon?  Did you throw away a job?"  She then criticizes him for living in "a permanent self pity."  Yet when Garth says "I know where I'd like to be," for one moment, her voice changes.  "Where's that?" she asks.  She sounds genuinely interested, as if hoping he'll show some true motivation.  Only after he's described Willoughby do her voice and manner revert back to the previous cynicism.  Because while places like Wlloughby might be nice, they aren't real life, and dwelling on places like Willoughby suggests a resistance to dealing with real-world problems in any meaningful way.  Jane has probably heard this a lot, and she's sick and tired of it.  Wouldn't you be?

Similar to Jane, Gregory West's wife, Victoria, is critical of him and generally meant to come across as a harpy.  Her crimes: she takes obvious offense at her nebbish husband having a mistress, and at the possibility that she is a figment of his imagination.  The mistress, meanwhile, is all sweetness and support.  The audience is meant to snicker at Victoria's growing horror that she doesn't have any real self determination.  Her most independent act, throwing her character description into the fire, is the one that leads to her destruction.  That Gregory West would replace her with the worshipful, compliant mistress is supposed to be seen as a no brainer.  Essentially, we're supposed to view the person in complete control of the situation, Gregory West, as the victim who is finally "free" of his shrewish wife.

Did the Twilight Zone writers understand the irony that these poor put-upon men could actually change their situations any time they chose?  They had full legal rights.  There were no social or legal barriers to their entry into an occupation.  Even woeful Henry Bemis from "Time Enough at Last" had more to fear from his terrible eyesight than from his wife, who was more of a caricature than a true human being.  Meanwhile wives like Jane and Victoria are meant to be seen as controlling shrews for expressing any discontentment at all.  Never mind when they actually had a point.

To some extent, you could make these criticisms of a wide swath of Twilight Zone episodes.  Did Nan Adams really have to drive across three-fourths of the U.S. before it finally occurred to her to call home?  Couldn't someone have clocked that little brat, Anthony, over the head a lot sooner?  Still, the discontented urban upper-class male is such a prevailing theme throughout the series that I singled it out.  Again, it would probably bother me less if some of its more insulting aspects -- wives that aren't completely worshipful are shrews -- weren't still embraced by many people today.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Frozen

Yes, another article about Disney's Frozen.  At least it's relevant, given the recent premiere of the Frozen Fever short and the announcement that there will be a Frozen 2.

While Queen Elsa's character in Frozen has often been compared to a lesbian coming out of the closet, her embrace of her icy powers could be metaphorical in other ways.  One such way could be an introvert learning to embrace her true nature... or conversely, learning to become an extrovert.

Can Elsa's character arc be read either way?  To begin with, is Elsa an introvert?  Introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

Some of this would definitely apply to Elsa both pre-Trauma (nearly killing her sister) and post-Trauma.  Even early innocent Elsa was more reserved than Anna, and she seemed more inclined to think about consequences than her sister.  Apart from that, we didn't see enough of pre-Trauma Elsa to extrapolate much else.

Post-Trauma Elsa is where it gets interesting.  She's so reserved, she rarely expresses her feelings.  She chooses her words very carefully.  Before she "lets it go," she needs to be alone to keep her powers under control, and afterward, she chooses to be alone in order to truly be herself.  I think it's safe to say that Elsa was and is an introvert.  The question is what message the movie is trying to convey about introversion.

Message No. 1: Be Yourself and Don't Hide Away

That seems to be the most straight-forward message from the movie.  Elsa should be allowed to show off her ice powers and have a relationship with her beloved sister Anna.  It seems to be the message the movie wants to convey.

And yet, what does it say that Elsa alone creates a spectacular ice castle, while Elsa in society seems content to merely create a public ice rink?  In fact, Elsa's happiest discovery in the movie seems to be that she can make the effects of her ice powers go away.

Message No. 2: Limit Your Unique Abilities to Be Socially Acceptable

Newly Fulfilled Elsa discovers that love can thaw ice, so through loving her sister, she frees her realm from perpetual winter.  It's certainly not a bad message, and Elsa learns that her ice powers don't control her.  Yet it never quite seems like she learns to control them.  Moreover, if Frozen Fever is anything to go by, Elsa's ice powers are still treated as a barrier to Elsa having a normal life.  Elsa plans a great birthday party for her sister and catches a cold, as people do, but her sneezes turn into party-wrecking gremlins.  Oops!

Message No. 3: You Gotta Join the Normals, Elsa!

It's significant that Elsa is not the main character of Frozen, but rather the extroverted Anna.  Like the rest of the realm, she just doesn't "get" what's up with Elsa, though in her case, there is an emotional component.  Yet the movie's journey is not about her learning to appreciate Elsa's uniqueness (to the movie's credit, she has no fear of Elsa's abilities), but rather Elsa coming down from the mountain and learning to socialize.  Elsa learns to loosen up and be with other people, and finds that her subjects still love her, at least as long as her ice powers are limited to snow flurries and ice rinks.

So is Frozen saying that the introverted Elsa should learn to be extroverted in order to be happy?  Is it saying she should keep the unique talents she cultivated bottled up in order to fit in?

Honestly, I'm not sure.

One way to sort out Frozen's attitude toward introverts is to look at how it treats another introvert, Kristoff.  Early on, Kristoff seems perfectly content to live out in the wilderness with his reindeer pal, with occasional visits to his friends the "love experts."  By the end of the movie, even though he enters a relationship with Anna, there's no sense that Kristoff has really changed.  I could see him still living on his own in the wilderness, swooping in on Arendelle now and then to date Anna.  I also don't get the sense that Anna expects him to be someone else.  Meanwhile, a more seemingly extroverted character, Hans, is the villain.

Overall, it's probably tough to draw specific conclusions about Frozen's attitude toward introversion.  Maybe the wisest conclusion is one that cuts down the middle: Frozen thinks it's okay to go off by yourself and "let it go," but too much alone time never suited anyone, and even the most introverted person needs connections to other people.  It's hard to argue with such sentiments, but it still raises the question of whether characters like Elsa give up too much in the process of forming connections.  I guess that's for Frozen 2 to answer.


Number of Introverts: At least two.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?:  Pretty well, surprisingly.  Arendelle still accepts Elsa as their queen despite her unexplained absence for three years.  Once she returns from the mountain, they embrace her.  Anna treats Kristoff's introversion like a facet of his personality as opposed to something he should change. 

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Downton Abbey: Assessing Series Five

I'd mentioned back in August that I was disinclined to blog recaps for Downton Abbey Series Five due to, well, a complete lack of interest.  After finally watching Series Five, I'd say my instincts were correct.  Series Five was a snooze for about the first two thirds, with only the final third making it a better series overall than Series Four.

Overall, these are my impressions of Series Five:

1.  Even the Show Realizes How Poorly Used Cora Is.  For four previous series, Cora was little more than a cushion on the sofa, zoned out and seldom interesting unless the script called for it.  In Series Five, the script did call for it quite often.  Not only did Cora receive the attentions of an elegant art collector, but she also got to remind the audience of her life before marriage, as the daughter of a Jewish millionaire.  Cora was interesting and insightful in a way that she was rarely called upon to be, and the scripts acknowledged that part of her previous misuse was due to Lord Grantham taking her for granted.  Will the more interesting Cora stick around for Series Six?  We can only hope.

2.  Edith Can Be Dumb (and Selfish).  Edith is probably my favorite of the Upstairs group, but Series Five highlighted her short-sightedness and taught us that, yes, she is Mary Crawley's sister.  It would have been fairly easy for her or Mr. Drewe to tell Mrs. Drewe the truth about Marigold, though Mrs. Drewe would have been daft not to suspect.  Then a lot of craziness and heartbreak could have been avoided.  But no, not only did Edith not give Mrs. Drewe the courtesy of knowing the truth, but she ultimately yanked Marigold from the woman who had been raising her the past year.  Yes, her reasoning made sense, but that didn't mean she wasn't also being selfish.

3.  Jewish History in Britain.  One of the more interesting story lines of Series Five was the Russian refugee/Jewish one, involving on the one hand, nobles fleeing Communist Russia (given their role in making villains of the Tsar and Tsarina, I can't say they didn't get what they deserved) and, on the other, Jewish Russian refugees who became extremely successful and assimilated (for the most part) into Russian society.  The Aldriges' complex standing in British society -- they want to be British, but also want to maintain their Jewish identity -- was touched upon all-too briefly.  It probably won't get much more screen time, sadly, since the actress who played Rose has left Downton Abbey for greener Hollywood pastures.  

4.  Sometimes People Can Leave Downton Abbey.  It's a long-running joke that characters with aspirations never get to fulfill them because that would mean Leaving the Abbey.  The joke is only partially based in fact -- previously, Gwen, O'Brien, and Alfred left Downton to fulfill their ambitions, as did Sybil in her own way.  However, characters who would be much better off away and have no reason to still be there, like Daisy or Edith or Thomas/Barrow, always seem to find reasons to stay.  And then there's Tom, always talking about going to America.  When is that ever going to happen?  Well, it finally did happen.  Tom left Downton for Boston at the end of the Christmas Special.  Even though he'll probably be back (if rumors are correct), it's nice that at least he'll have some time away to grow and become his own man.

5.  Older Women Can Be Interesting and Desirable!  Another good story line from Series Five was men being interested in the Dowager Countess and Isobel.  You got to see the former, in particular, as more than just a witticisms machine.  The latter story line with Lord Merton had an unsatisfying conclusion, if that was the conclusion.  Isobel's refusal to marry Lord Merton because it would come between him and his horrendous sons is right up there with Daisy's "Oh heck, maybe I'll just stay and study here a bit longer instead of going to London" as an Unjustified Excuse to Avoid Having a Character Leave Downton.  My guess is that Lord Merton will finally get through to his sons in the second-to-last episode and another wedding will be had.
6.  They Really Don't Know What to Do With the Bateses.  When is the last time we saw Anna smile?  When is the last time I liked John Bates?  I don't remember, but the answer to both is likely "Too long ago."  Far too many plots have been devoted to their guilt or innocence involving various crimes.  Show: if you can't find anything new to have them do together, it's time to break them up.

7.  Mary and Her Men Are Pointless.  So the tug of war between Blake and Gillingham was for nothing.  Lord Gillingham turned out to be a dud in bed, as well as penniless, and ended up going back to his fiance, Mabel Lane Fox.  Blake had no interest in Mary after Series Four and went off to Poland to... do something.  Now there's a new beau introduced in the Christmas Special, but I'm hoping the true end game will be Mary and Tom.  Yes, I said it.

Mary is just boring and unpleasant when she has no real pressures to face.  Though to the show's credit, it seems to understand that, as Violet, frequently the show's mouthpiece, more than once chastised Mary for her behavior.  It will be interesting to see what she does when she finds out about Marigold's true history... since she is the only one still in the dark.       

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Fingersmith

I feel as though I've been living in a cave.  Sarah Waters has been publishing neo-Victorian and early/mid 20th century novels since 1998, yet I learned about her only a year ago.  More is the pity, because her writing style is so compulsively readable, at least going by her third novel, Fingersmith (2002).

As with Crimson Petal and the White and The Seance, I read with one eye toward seeing (1) what aspects of the Victorian Era were incorporated, (2) what "modern" elements were added, (3) what worked and did not work, (4) how well Fingersmith conformed to expectations of "what would sell," and (5) whether it was a good story.

Starting with No. 2, one common aspect of Sarah Waters's novels is that their protagonists are lesbians.  Not all, but at least the first three, including Fingersmith.  Waters was working toward a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, with a thesis focused on "lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present," when she came up with the idea for her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998).  The material for her thesis would inspire several of her novels.  Whereas other neo-Victorian authors might send their lesbian protagonists out into the woods, where they could be free of social disapproval, Waters based her novels in the heart of London.  Her intent was, in some respects, to correct misunderstandings about Victorian mores and aspects of society considered purely heterosexual.  Though at first publishers rejected Tipping the Velvet, it was eventually picked up and received both critical acclaim and commercial success.  Therefore, by the time Waters published Fingersmith, she already had a good idea that her work would sell.

As for why I chose to read Fingersmith over Tipping the Velvet, the story just appealed to me more.  But was it a good story?  For the most part, yes.  Like Crimson Petal and the White, some aspects left me very frustrated, so that I consider Fingersmith a very good novel rather than a great one.  In short, I adored the first third, but was unable to suspend my disbelief regarding the twists in the next two parts.

Plot Synopsis

From this point onward, I will assume that you have read this book, and this review will be filled with spoilers.  

In early 1860s London, 17-year old Sue Trinder lives in a "den of thieves" under the protective eye of mother figure and baby farmer, Mrs. Suksby.  Sue is a "fingersmith" whose mother, she was told, died from hanging after a theft gone wrong.  One day, a rakish associate known as "Gentleman" shows up, with a proposal that could potentially make Sue very well off.  He proposes that Sue serve as a lady's maid to Miss Maud Lilly, niece of an eccentric gentleman who lives in an isolated manor house, whom Gentleman has been assisting.  Gentleman intends to make the "odd" Miss Lilly fall in love and elope with him so he can claim her 15,000-pound fortune.  Then, with help from Sue, he will deposit her in the mad house.

Sue agrees to the plot, but from the moment she arrives at the manor house, nothing goes as she imagines.  Among other things, she does not expect to have feelings for Miss Lilly, and vice versa.

The Good Aspects of This Novel

Writing Style.  I really liked Waters's way of writing, the way she doesn't need to fuss over every detail of description, yet provides very vivid descriptions when the scene calls for it.  On the one hand, we never know quite what Gentleman looks like, other than that he's "handsome."  On the other hand, we know exactly what Maud's manor house prison looks like, including the library her uncle inhabits with his ink-blackened tongue and green spectacles.  I think it's because Waters understands that what Gentleman looks like is not essential to the story.  He's handsome and charming -- what more do you need?  On the other hand, it is very important that we feel the mouldy claustrophobia of the Briar so we understand not only why Maud chooses to escape it, but also the events that preceded Maud and Sue's births.

Waters's characters have a plain speaking style, yet the story is constantly leaking new details that keep it intriguing.  Except for some stretches (see below), she also knows how to keep the story moving.  Most scenes advance both plot and character (though in some respects, character development is a bit of a chimera), which makes Fingersmith something of an anti-Crimson Petal and the White.  Faber could not resist showing the same scenes again and again, lingering on what each character was wearing and details of the room.

Interesting Places.  Fingersmith has no shortage of interesting places that manage to be more than simply an homage to Dickens.  There is Mrs. Suksby's den on Lane Street in London, where dog-skinners, con artists, and "fingersmiths" congregate, while dozens of orphaned babies live upstairs, their cries dulled by gin water.  Then there is the Briar, which somehow makes quiet country life seem like a horror story, and the true horror story of the asylum where Sue remains locked up for months at a time.  Even spots that should be fairly nondescript, like the cottage where Maud and Gentleman spend their first married night, carry foreboding.        

Rupert Evans as Gentleman in the BBC version.
Looks much younger than I pictured him...
Character Development (to An Extent).  For the most part, I liked the characters, though not as well as I'd hoped (see below).  The one I liked best, mainly for her consistency, was Sue.  She is brusque, yet soft; uneducated, yet astute; shrewd, yet innocent.  I liked her realistic responses to the changes in her life.  Even though she is supposedly a hardened street girl, she is still afraid of leaving home and homesick.  The development of her love for Maud is delicately done, as is Maud's reaction to her feelings.  And Maud... I really liked Part One Maud.  I loved her nervousness, her seeming naivete, the way she wore her white gloves like armor.  I was intrigued by her nightmares, the way she kissed her mother's portrait each night, the way she seemed to yearn for someone to love her, and her slow awakening to Sue's passion.  I mourn for Part One Maud.  Had she been that way throughout the book, she might have been my favorite character.  Otherwise, despite the fact that Maud narrates roughly half of Fingersmith, Sue feels like the main character.

The other characters are interesting, if a bit two-dimensional, especially Gentleman and Mrs. Suksby, who knows more than she lets on.  Much more.    

The Less Good Aspects of This Novel

Twists That Don't Make Sense.  That really is my main gripe with Fingersmith.  While yes, they keep you reading, they also take away from what made the book so good in the first place.  And the first third was so, so good.  I liked Sue's past with the dead mother who was hanged for murder.  I liked how Maud was quirky and clearly suffered from OCD, but was also kind and sensitive.  I liked the unexpected friendship, then love, that bloomed between Maud and Sue.  By the end of Part One, I was convinced that Sue would smuggle Maud away from the asylum and the rest of the book would be their adventures together as two unmarried women in love, trying to forge a life in 1860s England while staying one step ahead of (now vengeful) Gentleman.  But maybe that would have been too much of a stretch even for Sarah Waters.

So instead, at the end of Part One, we learn that Maud is, well, not Maud.  In Parts Two and Three, we discover that very little of what we knew about Maud Lilly is real.  She's not really naive about sex.  In fact, she knows more about it than Sue.  She's not naive about the marriage plot -- she helped hatch it with Gentleman.  The reveal is an interesting plot element, but it comes at the expense of character.  The Maud Lilly of Parts Two and Three is flatter than the Maud Lilly of Part One.  Flatter, and possibly too modern.  (Would an unmarried girl of good breeding so casually refer to Gentleman as "Richard"?)  We know her unusual background, her resentments, her penchant for abuse, but Waters cannot get inside her mind quite as easily as she does Sue's.  Therefore Maud of Parts Two and Three feels like the antithesis of Maud of Part One, but not much more.

Maud and Sue share a bed at night due to Maud's nightmares.
Or should I say supposed nightmares?
Other twists follow, each more absurd than the last.  It's not enough for Maud Lilly, gentleman's niece, to conspire with Gentleman to leave her rural prison.  Nor is it enough for her to simply be a fraud.  No, she must be Mrs. Suksby's real daughter, purposely switched with the true Miss Lilly -- Sue!

The backstory behind this twist is shaky, but I could buy it if it didn't render other aspects of the novel more ridiculous.  Specifically, why was Sue ever involved in Maud's plot of escape?  Did Maud really need a lady's maid to help her sneak away on Gentleman's boat?  Why were Maud and Gentleman so confident they could keep Sue locked away in the asylum without Mr. Lilly or his household staff ever checking on "Maud"?  And why would Mrs. Suksby be so quick to toss aside the girl who was basically her daughter for 17 years and replace her with a virtual stranger?

After a while, the plot seems to strain under its own weight.  While the reading is rarely dull, it is also not satisfying.  I wanted a character that I could hold onto as an anchor in the constantly shifting waters.  The only one who seems to maintain her inner core is Sue, which was why she was the only character I truly liked.                        

Redundancy.  Even in a novel with as many twists as Fingersmith, there are stretches that are slow and redundant.  The worst is the first half of Part Two, which recounts the events of Part One from Maud's perspective.  While it provides for some amusement -- revealing that Maud's seeming oddness was really discomfort at deceiving Sue -- it easily could have been reduced to a few paragraphs.  Sue's time in the asylum, likewise, is interesting, but much too long.  

Cliches.  Sometimes it feels like Waters doesn't trust the characters to hold our interest by themselves.  Instead of letting us empathize with Maud simply for being a young Victorian girl trapped under the thumb of her crazy uncle, she has to include the shocking! twist that Maud is also forced to read passages from porn literature to eager gentlemen visitors.  How edgy.  How modern.  Yawn.


All in all, while I didn't love Fingersmith, I liked it a great deal.  Enough that I sucked down the 580-page book in a little over two days, and vowed to read more of the Sarah Waters canon.  Enough that I decided to make my next read a Dickens novel.  Dickens!  A bit of background: Dickens is the Victorian author whose writing I could never tolerate.  Many times I picked up one of his overwrought tomes and tried to read beyond the first page, but failed.  Yet if Michel Faber and Sarah Waters love him so much that their novels contain obvious homages, maybe I should give him a chance?  So my next read will be Bleak House.  If you don't hear from me in three weeks, send help.