Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book #985
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

Moll FlandersWhen I began Moll Flanders, I thought I may have already read it for an English class at high school, but I soon realised that my semi-conservative all-girls school would have been hesitant about a novel about prostitution, bigamy and crime. Indeed, if the novel was known by its full title, it may cause more of a stir than it already does:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

What better plot summary can there be? Moll Flanders was indeed a prostitute and thief, numerous-times married (once, unknowingly, to her brother).

Moll’s mother is a convicted felon; shortly after Moll’s birth, her mother is transported to America, and Moll is raised by a kindly woman. She grows to be a beautiful young woman, and is seduced by a young man who promises they will be married; however, he has no intention of marrying her, and begins to leave money for Moll after each of their encounters. When he abandons her, she marries his younger brother, a sweet young man who truly loves her. He dies after a few years, and she quickly marries again; however, her new husband flees England as a fugitive from the law. Moll marries again and moves to America with her new husband, but discovers that he is actually her half-brother. She is horrified, and returns to England, where she becomes mistress of a man whose wife has gone insane. Their relationship ends after he experiences a religious epiphany of sorts, and she begins a relationship with a banker whose wife is cheating on him. Moll agrees to marry him if he will get a divorce; while awaiting his decision, she travels north and marries a rich gentleman, who turns out to have as little money as Moll. They discover each others “fraud” (having let everyone believe that each was very rich), and separate. Moll returns to marry her divorced lover, but he is poorly and dies soon after.

Moll is thrust back into a life supporting herself and soon becomes an expert thief with a reputation for being talented at her trade. Eventually she is caught and sentenced to death; in prison at Newgate, she is reunited with her “rich” husband, who has also been arrested. They are both transported to America, where they become plantation owners, and return to England in their old age, finally rich and successful.

This was a surprisingly easy read, although initially I struggled with the first-person female character being written by a man. The characters were colourful, believable and natural, while still a little larger-than-life – typical of the era, of course. I enjoyed Defoe’s plain, simple style, and his ability to create such strikingly vivid imagery of dark and dangerous nights without an overuse of literary elements.

There were many moments of darkness in the story, and that helped temper the slightly comic nature of Moll’s many relationships and marriages. Each step in her life was both tragic and exciting; as a reader, I found myself caught up in wondering just where she was taking me next. Interestingly, I found myself sympathising and celebrating with Moll more than chastising her; Defoe has created a strong character who, despite her lack of morals, is self-sufficient, strong and smart.

It frustrated me slightly that the entire novel was written as one chapter (called, rather cleverly, Chapter One); there were no natural pauses or breaks for finishing those late-at-night readings…my issue more than the novel’s! I thoroughly enjoyed Moll Flanders, and give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Book # 880

Reviewer: Ange – Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

TWiWThe Woman in White, published in the 1850s, is considered one of the earliest mystery novels published. It is a story wrought with danger and intrigue, mystery and deception. It is a detective story and a love story, with the twists and turns one would expect from any modern-day thriller.

I’m not one for giving away huge plot details, but especially not with a story such as this where the reader waits for everything to unfold. There are moments where the plotline is rather predictable, but not in a way that had me rolling my eyes; instead, I hurriedly turned page after page, eager to discover how thing unfolded for the characters.

Without spoiling anything (I hope!), the novel is about a young art teacher who, on his way to begin some private tuition, helps a woman dressed in white. When he arrives at his posting, he is struck by the similarity between the woman in white, and his student. The tutor and his student fall in love, but she has been promised to another man; they marry and the reader soon learns some disagreeable facts about her new husband. As the identity of the woman in white is slowly revealed, the plot thickens around her young lookalike and her new husband, and assorted other characters of similar unsavoury natures.

The story features an escape from a lunatic asylum, a dramatic church fire, identity switches, and tragic deaths – all the features of a good mystery or thriller novel.

I’m a big fan of writers from this era, and this, my first Wilkie Collins novel, did not disappoint. Full of characteristic and dramatic descriptive passages, and passionate, dramatic characters, The Woman in White is a compelling and intriguing read. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Book #840
Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina is the tragic tale of  Anna Karenina, a married aristocrat and socialite, who betrays her husband by having an affair with a count. The count, Vronsky, pressures Anna into making a decision about leaving her husband; if she does, he says he will marry her, but Anna is reluctant to leave. She feels the pressures of Russian society – she is, after all, the wife of a government official – and is rather insecure and vulnerable. After fleeing to Italy with Vronsky, they eventually return to Russia and Anna finds herself ostracised, which does nothing for her insecurities. This begins to take a toll on her relationship with Vronsky; she is convinced he is unfaithful, despite his assurances that he is not, and she becomes quite possessive. The story ends rather tragically, but it seems a fitting end to such a tale.

There are many themes to Anna Karenina: jealousy, faith, (in)fidelity, social change, the value of the country life​, death. These were important aspects of Russian society in the 1800s. It is suspected that there are elements of Tolstoy’s own life reflected in his writing of this novel; a quick delve into his history is enough to see why these themes occur again and again in his writing.

​It is a moving story, passionately and beautifully written. Some may find Tolstoy’s style cumbersome, but I enjoy it. I like the personalities he creates, their relationships and interactions. They tend towards the overly dramatic, but that was the style of the time, and such a tragic and passionate tale requires a style that reflects this. I found the character of Anna intriguing – such a beautiful woman with everything in her favour, yet she is incredibly insecure and lacking in confidence. Vronsky irritated and appealed to me, in equal measure.

There are some lengthy passages that left me feeling glassy-eyed; Tolstoy has a propensity for describing things in great detail (as with the military maneouvres described in War and Peace), but skim-reading them didn’t detract from the novel at all.

This is a classic that, in my opinion, is well worth reading; I give it 4/5 stars.

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende

Book #276
Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

The House of the SpiritsMany years ago, on a whim, I picked The House of the Spirits off a bookshelf and bought it, with no knowledge of the author and having heard nothing of the book. What was a punt turned out to be a brilliant decision, as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and have since read more of Allende’s work.

I love her magical, poetic style, and her ability to weave intricate relationships between characters. Her characters are all beautifully drawn; the reader is pulled into their world, and the imagination is set alight. I do wonder how this would read in Allende’s natural Spanish, and hope that none of the musicality has been lost in translation.

The House of the Spirits is a truly magical story, set in Chile, about four generations of the Trueba family. It is a story about class inequality, family and fate, with numerous plot twists and allusions to the political and social struggles in Chile’s past. It is magical and ethereal, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Clara is the main female figure in the novel. She is a clairvoyant and telekinetic, rather vague and impractical in an everyday sense, but the backbone of her family. She marries Esteban, one of the story’s narrators; he becomes involved in politics and their relationship is a volatile one. The rest of the family stem from these two.

I must give special mention to Clara’s sister, Rosa the Beautiful. She is exceptionally, ethereally beautiful, with transparent skin, yellow eyes, and green hair. She is described as mermaid-like; in any other novel, this might seem strange and detract from the story, but Allende is very skilled at building layer upon layer of “normal” characters, until each quirk simply becomes normal too.

This is a book I have lent to so many people with no hesitation, and it has been returned with excited sighs. I give The House of the Spirits 4 out of 5 stars.

The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides

Book #143
Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

The Virgin SuicidesBefore reading The Virgin Suicides, I knew of it only as a film starring Kirsten Dunst; when I purchased a copy of the book second-hand, she graced the cover. Having not seen the film, and having heard very little about the story, I was going into this read completely open-minded.

The novel is about the suicides of the five Lisbon girls, living with their parents in suburban America. It is narrated by one or more (this is left quite ambiguous) middle-aged men who were teenage boys at the time of the suicides; men who have been infatuated by, and obsessed with, the girls and their deaths for more than twenty years.

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

The Lisbons are a catholic family with five daughters: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese. Mr Lisbon is a teacher, and Mrs Lisbon is a housewife; from the outside, they appear to be your normal middle-class family. However, their lives are changed one summer when 13-year-old Cecilia attempts suicide by cutting her wrists; weeks later, at a party at their home, she jumps from a second-story window and dies. The reason for her suicide and the effects on her family become the neighbourhood’s main point of gossip, and the narrator(s) use information from these neighbours as they try to piece everything together, decades later.

When 15-year-old Lux misses her curfew after a school dance, her parents pull the girls out school and to all intents-and-purposes, the family disappear from public life. The house becomes derelict; none of the Lisbons leave the house, and no one goes to visit.

After the remaining daughters successfully end their lives (three of them on the same night), their parents leave the neighbourhood; their belongings are thrown away or sold, and the young men scavenge through the remains, searching for anything they can claim as evidence in their quest to understand what went on in that house.

This is rather a dark novel, touching on an extremely sensitive issue. What makes it most poignant and tragic is that it reflects on normal life; the Lisbons are an average middle-class family, living in a normal neighbourhood in a normal suburb. The fact that their neighbours react to the suicides with such fascination highlights that this is the kind of place where things like that just don’t happen, and I wonder if Eugenides was commenting on this aspect of society as a whole?

Everybody had a story as to why she tried to kill herself. Mrs Buell said the parents were to blame. “That girl didn’t want to die,” she told us. “She just wanted out of that house.” Mrs Scheer added, “She wanted out of that decorating scheme.”

I was left feeling a little disappointed at the end of the novel, and I’m not 100% sure why. Perhaps I was hoping for more clarity on the deaths of the young girls, more reasons, more information. I usually don’t mind when loose ends are left untied, but for some reason, it left me feeling a bit empty with this story.

I can’t say it was an enjoyable read, but I did like Eugenide’s prose and the way the descriptive nature added to the mystique of the story, thus I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.