Three quick reviews for today.
These Shallow Graves
Curiosity from seeing Jennifer Donnelly’s books on the YA shelf at the library finally prompted me to actually read one of them. These Shallow Graves is a bit more conventional than the title would suggest, but that’s what I like about it. Set during the Gilded Age in a time when feminism was actually necessary, at least in the view of some, the story is about society girl Josephine Montfort finding the life that she wants to live.
Yes, the plot is a mystery involving her family’s company, but the point of novel is to show a young girl trying to break free from the expectations of those around her–and succeeding. This is something anyone can relate to, for we often, man or woman, young or old, chafe under the burdens placed upon by our stations in life. Sometimes our resentment is warranted, sometimes not. In this case, Jo’s wish to flee to a different simpler life is best, for the life she has is stewed in lies, her families riches built upon harming others.
Largely atmospheric, the book is a quick read and carries Jo from one weird New York City world to the next. Many of the characters are Dickensian in nature, and much time is spent detailing just how unfortunate the “unfortunates” and poor of that time were. It’s also set in a time when some journalists were actually doing what journalists should do: hold the rich and powerful’s feet to the fire, root out corruption, and plead the case of those same unfortunates to have a chance in life. Jo’s ambition is to be just such a reporter, and by the end of the story, we’ve no doubt she’ll succeed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story and was pleased that the feminism did not, as is does today, involve the hating of men. In fact, Donnelly, is kind to all of her male characters, even the despicable ones, even the ones who don’t get the girl. Donnelly hints that they are just as trapped in society as the women are, and it is to her credit. Life is so much better if people can live in truth (even if it’s bitter) and freedom. At the end, Jo doesn’t quite get her man, but it’s clear she probably will in the future. Even couples in love have to find their way though misunderstandings and uncertainties, but I suppose that’s what makes the dance of romance something exciting and worth doing. I plan to read more of Donnelly’s work, and look forward to her future well-researched and well-crafted stories.
The Man in the Brown Suit
My second reading of this fine novel of Agatha Christie’s left me feeling torn. I thought it was my favorite of hers, but now I’m not sure. I love the adventure of the story and the determination of Anne (with an ‘e’!) Beddingfeld to solve the mystery even if it means taking a huge risk to journey on an ocean liner to Africa at a time when she is nearly penniless. That takes guts and the certainty that one will figure things out, that one is smart enough and wily enough to do so. Few in this life have that confidence, and many of those who do find they have to “call a friend,” for they find their gamble does not pay off. I love that it takes place on a ship and I love the characters on that ship. By the time they got to South Africa, though, the story seemed to drag, and the romance was instalove that relied heavily on coincidence, especially in one key part after which Anne ends up on an island with her lover. It seemed a move unworthy of Christie, but this was written before the Poirot stories, I think, and many of her even better mysteries to come. Even Agatha Christie wasn’t Agatha Christie right away.
The first time I read the story, the mystery part seemed a lot more intriguing; this time not as much. However, I still like the romance a lot. It is “instalove” or love at first sight, but in Christie’s defense she doesn’t pretend it’s anything else. Does this kind of love exist, we ask ourselves from time to time? How could it be possible? Doesn’t one have to know another person very well, both their flaws and their brilliance, to say that you actually love them for all of them? If we’re honest, we’d have to say no. Most of the time, sure, especially in romance, it’s good to get to know your partner thoroughly before declaring your love, but it’s completely possible that there are couples who have the ability to know each other through and through almost instantly. It doesn’t make sense and almost seems like magic, but all love is a sort of magic, really. That love should exist alongside all of the bad in the world doesn’t truly make sense–but it doesn’t have to.
Does the instant love that parents have upon seeing their newborn child really make sense? What do they know of their baby after all and what he or she will become? Children love their parents while actually knowing very little about them as people–their hopes, dreams, desires, past wrongs and faults, and yet we don’t declare their love as being false in some way, do we? Love at first sight for another person is something we all will likely experience at least once in our lifetimes, but it’s scary, so many people run away from it–thinking it can’t possibly be true–rather than embracing it as Anne does here. Her lover is dumbfounded by her and at first fiercely pushes her and her instalove away. When they actually do get time together, he is uneasy. This love is something that is rapidly overwhelming his world. Here is a woman who with no guile declares her love for him and that she will fight for him. And, because of that love, she’s asking for the same in return, that he declare his love for her, and that he fight for her as well. For any man, I think this would be a scary situation. It’s maybe easier on men when women don’t declare their intentions quite so openly. Openness leaves no way out: A man either rises to the occasion or he does not. In this case, as a man probably would, he warns Anne that there will be no turning back, no getting out of this relationship once he’s all in. As if that would scare her. She passes all of his tests, every single one, but is no small task to accept a man’s love. His warning is a strong one that we women should take to heart, for men, once they are in, they are all in. Such love is precious and should be treated as such.
Is this instant love realistic? For most people, no, but a few willing to take the leap find that the blessings of it far outweigh the risks. Christie muses a lot on the fact that all most women want is a man who will fight for them, who will want them and who will not say “the choice is yours,” but rather, “I want you, and I’m keeping you no matter what.” To our modern ears this sounds a bit caveman like, but it is true that there’s a bit of a turn off if the person you love tells you it doesn’t matter whether you are with them or not. They mean to be kind in giving the other person the choice, but, oh, what a blow to the soul. God’s love is never like this: He loves us and wants us completely and will always fight for us. His love is both instant and eternal. Earthly romance is supposed to be a mirror of this quality of God, but we so often lack the courage to manifest it. It’s wonderful and comforting to be able to look to a Being who has perfect love when we so often don’t. We see it is possible, that everything can be possible with Him.
Anyway, The Man in the Brown Suit is an adequate adventure story with much food for thought on the nature of romantic love, and largely amusing even if the story doesn’t seem fully formed as Christie’s latter works do.
The book of Isaiah in the Bible is one of my go-to Advent reads. At 66 chapters, it’s a bit long, but is well worth the yearly read. Handel’s Messiah uses text from it, and though it details the gravity of God’s judgement against man’s sins, it is also a beautiful declaration of the Gospel, of God’s promise to send a Savior, Jesus Christ, and His plan to save the world. (Sorry, Q, you’ve got nothing on God, and if your plans are succeeding it’s only because God wishes it at this time.) We are wholly unworthy of God’s holy love, yet we possess it in spades. He sent his Son, born as a babe, to live perfectly for us, to suffer all of our sins once and for all on the cross, and, in the ultimate pinnacle of that suffering, to die for us in our place. There can be no greater love than that. There will never be any greater love than that.
Advent in the Christian church is a time when we look forward to remembering Christ’s birth and how God sent us the perfect gift of salvation. I look forward to reading the promises in Isaiah once again.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”Isaiah 1:18 NIV
I encourage you to read through Isaiah this Advent and contemplate just how much God loves you and all the world. With Him there is true hope, love, and peace, ultimate peace between God and humanity. From that springs forth the waters of forgiveness, kindness, patience, and compassion, and the real possibility of peace among all men, women, and children in the world.