Monday, June 16, 2014

Random Reviews: SAVAGE GIRL

Jean Zimmerman. SAVAGE GIRL.

The premise of Jean Zimmerman's Savage Girl is gripping: What would happen if a wealthy couple with everything they could possibly imagine came across a so-called "feral child" in a tawdry Nevada sideshow and decides to bring her back to New York and convert her into a society belle? With shades of Pygmalion crossed with the darker hue of Edith Wharton, Savage Girl posits this theory and adds another layer: What if all the men who show an erotic interest in the girl start to turn up dead and the disturbed son of the wealthy couple begins to suspect she may be a brutal killer, even as he sees disturbing signs within himself that he might be to blame?

There is no question that Ms Zimmerman is a masterful writer; her prose is beautiful and she brilliantly captures the unreliable voice of the couple's son, Hugo Delegate, who narrates the story. Hugo is both repelled and fascinated by Bronwyn, the "savage girl," whose past is slowly revealed as Hugo's suspicions and attraction to her deepen. The world of Gilded Age New York also comes to vivid, detailed life; we feel the hypocrisy and emphasis on lineage and social position as the curiosity-obsessed Delegates seek to put one over on their peers by turning Bronwyn into something she is not. Bronwyn fascinates in her contradictions - alluring yet remote, with a tendency to slip out after-hours to roam the streets, wearing a glove fitted with claws. However, her distance from the narrative voice and Hugo's preoccupation with a variety of other concerns dampen the plot's thrust, as he's distracted both by his own torment and his family's foibles. At times, there simply is too much story in this heady brew, diluting the lethal mystery at its heart.

Nevertheless, the experience of reading it turns compulsive, as the underside of the Gilded Age is torn asunder by the introduction of the wild within us all - a metaphor for how we seek to curb our baser instincts, forcing our repressions to find other, more unsavory ways to erupt. Hugo's confession turns chilling as we realize how far his family has gone and the terrible price exacted of them, while Bronwyn's own secrets lead to an excellent denouement. In the end, we find ourselves questioning: Who is truly the savage here?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Random Reviews: HOTEL DE DREAM

I read voraciously and have been writing reviews for years, both on Goodreads, for Amazon Vine, and the Historical Novels Review. So, I decided to start a Random Review feature here on my blog where I'll offer select reviews of books I personally enjoyed. Most have a historical component, of course. Hope you enjoy!

Edmund White. HOTEL DE DREAM.

Edmund White is rightfully considered one of our finest living English-language writers, though his output is not as prolific as others in his cadre. Nevertheless, he has carved an indelible mark for himself in portraying both gay life and history in his works, his prose always luminous and his insights into the foibles of the human condition often profound.

In his deceptively slim novel, Hotel de Dream, Mr White re-imagines the final days of American literary phenomenon Stephen Crane, who is wasting away from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. Acclaimed posthumously for his work, Crane was only a one-hit wonder in his lifetime; and as he slowly suffocates from his illness, he labors to dictate his final novel - a strange, elegiac tale of a boy prostitute in 1890s New York and the staid, married banker whose obsessive love for the boy precipitates his own downfall. Woven in between scenes of Crane and his work-in-progress is the story of how Crane himself met a similar boy years before and how that fateful encounter haunts him still.

Portraits of Henry James and other literary luminaries pepper the pages - the depiction of pompous and reluctantly proper James is startlingly amusing - and balancing it all could prove exhausting, not to mention cumbersome, in the hands of a lesser writer. But Mr White commands his triple narrative with consummate style, giving his moribund protagonist a mordant wit that makes light of his dire circumstances, even as Crane reflects on the swift-fire passage of time and depths of passion to which we can descend, as exemplified by the boy's doomed suitor.

This is a brilliantly executed novel, brimming with respect for our flawed humanity. White's portrayal of the boy himself is masterful - a jaded youth of the streets who retains only a semblance of innocence yet remains utterly naive to the vicissitudes he unleashes. Likewise, White's evocation of the morals of a bygone era and stark class disparities in New York, where the wealthy rub elbows with the downtrodden and destitute, is vividly rendered, but never ponderous.

If you read only one work by Edmund White - and you should read more - let it be this one