“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Let me start by saying that I have not yet read We are all Completely beside Ourselves. It is on my to-read list, but unfortunately someone ruined the twist for me. So I am currently holding onto a vain hope that I might forget and be able to actually enjoy the book one day, because I have heard good things about it.
This book, on the other hand, I had heard nothing about. I picked it up at the same time as We are all Completely beside Ourselves – having subsequently heard good things about the latter, but prior to having it spoiled for me. It was one of those books that I bought without having much intention of reading straight away, I’m sure you know exactly what I am talking about….
Tsundoku: n. The constant act of buying books, but never reading them. Specifically, letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them.
Anyway, I finally turned to this book one day when I was struggling to choose what to read next, with so much choice before me, I opted for a book which was actually quite low down on the list of things I wanted to read.
Bookworms are strange people.
As it happens, I took this book to Hong Kong with me just before Christmas, and, truth be told, if it hadn’t been the only book I had with me I mightn’t have finished reading it, but by the time I got back to the UK, and my beloved book shelves, I was committed.
It’s not that the book is bad as such, it’s ok, and that’s about it. It certainly did not blow me away.
The book is set in San Francisco in the 1890s – a town of contradictions, apparently. Lizzie Hayes is introduced as the main protagonist, she’s a slightly plain, inconspicuous, but well-off woman who volunteers as the treasurer for the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home, or the Brown Ark as it is also known. It is very much implied that Lizzie is just sort of drifting through life, waiting for something to happen: she never married, she doesn’t socialise much and she has a decent allowance from the estate of her late father and doesn’t have to work. She is just Lizzie, plain, predictable, well-reputed Lizzie.
This all changes when the affluent, well-connect but highly ill-regarded Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark with a small orphan girl in tow – little Jenny Ijub. Lizzie finds herself drawn to Mary Ellen, and by extension, to little Jenny. She feels as though Mary Ellen gave the child to her for a reason, and seems desperate to find out more, this is only exacerbated further when other people being asking questions about the girl. Just who is Jenny Ijub? Why was she brought here? As she attempts to uncover the secrets of Jenny’s past, as well as those of Mary Ellen, Lizzie begins to discover things about herself. It is as though Mary Ellen, with her mysterious past, holds the key to Lizzie’s future, wherever that might lie.
The book isn’t badly written, as such – there are no grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or clumsy paragraphs – but it feels somehow incomplete, as though the author skipped speaking to an editor and sent the text straight to the proofreaders.
The style is dreamy, and almost mystical, as though the writing itself has been clouded by Mary Ellen’s mysterious tea blend. In principle, I think writing in this way is a great idea – what better way to get the reader to connect with the main character than to have them go though the same experiences? That said, I don’t think the story itself is strong enough to support this type of writing style. The dreamy nature, far from making things feel magical and alluring, left me feeling more than a little confused, and unsatisfied. I was desperate for something to exciting to unfold out of Lizzie’s trips to the Pleasant house, and wanted to so badly know more about the life of Mary Ellen, but in reality, every time I was vicariously permitted access into the mysterious household, the tension was built up, as though something really shocking was about to happen, only for everything fall completely flat. I was left with so many unanswered questions and unfulfilled desires.
When I first read the blurb of the book – which was, admittedly, after I bought it – I was quite excited by the historical nature of the story, as apparently many of the figures are based on real historical figures from San Francisco around this time. I love a bit of historical fiction, and feel you can really feel when the author has done their homework, even if you have more or less no background knowledge of the gilded age of San Francisco (guilty!). I can’t really suggest how ‘truthful’ to events and people the author remained, but I will confess that I found it rather difficult to follow at times, as though a lot of information was included just for the sake of it, and this suggests to me that the historical nature of the book has not been pulled off effectively. There are a great many background characters thrown into the story who seemed on the whole to be quite unnecessary, and I am sure I not the only one who got to the end of the book and couldn’t quite grasp what, exactly, the point in all of it was.
Overall, I wasn’t overly taken in by this book. The storyline felt confused and posed far more questions than it answered and I found it really difficult to submerge myself or to connect with any of the characters on a personal level. I felt more like a distant observer of confused goings on, rather than having any real connection with the book, and was more than happy to finally close the last page and call it a day.