I like good, strong voices in fiction. I like characters that ring true, make a distinct impression, and keep me engaged in the story.
In the past week, I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley. These two novels each offered a unique point of view: one from the outside looking in, and the other from inside looking out.
The Virgin Suicides is a dark coming-of-age story set in the 70s suburban, middle class community. The families appear to be living the American dream, with their white picket fences, and identical model homes, right down to the elm trees in the yard. The illusion of perfection is shattered, however, when thirteen-year old Cecilia Lisbon commits suicide. The Lisbon family unravels, the community does not know how to react to the situation, and eventually the rest of the Lisbon sisters (Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Theresa) all take their own lives, marking “the year of the suicides.”
The point of view, interestingly, is from an unnamed narrator speaking collectively for the neighborhood boys, for whom the Lisbon sisters have become an obsession. Day in and day out, the boys monitor the Lisbon household, attempt contact with the girls, keep abreast of the neighborhood gossip, and add to the growing collection of Lisbon girls’ ephemera (obtained through various means, i.e. breaking and entering, picking through the trash, etc.) stashed in their tree house.
Given the title and the blurbs at the back, the reader goes into this book knowing the girls will all eventually die, but its disarming candidness kept me reading. I liked how I could feel their fascination and longing for the girls, the hunger for anything remotely related to them, and their despair and frustration at not being able to do anything about the gradual decline of the Lisbon family. I like how the narration is cobbled together from bits and pieces of information that the boys cull from their observations from across the street, the interviews they conduct, neighborhood grapevine, and the “evidence” they manage to scrounge up, in an attempt to examine the reason behind the girls’ suicide. There’s something wicked about reading their account of events, highly voyeuristic, like you’re holed up in the tree house with them, getting your turn at the binoculars. The veracity of their version of events is never confirmed, however, and to the very end they remain outsiders to the Lisbon girls:
“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.”
I also liked the thought-provoking commentary that the novel offers towards the superficiality of keeping up appearances, the irony in living the “great American dream,” and the charade of “being neighborly.”
Meanwhile, The Lacemaker and the Princess is a young adult historical novel set in reign of Marie Antoinette, culminating in the French Revolution. Eleven year old Isabelle is a lacemaker in Versailles who catches Marie Antoinette’s fancy and is appointed as a companion to the queen’s nine year old daughter, Therese. Hence Isabelle leads a double life: at the Palace as “Clochette,” dressed in exquisite frocks, feasting on sumptuous food, and waited upon by servants; and back at home as Isabelle, where she struggles to ply her needle to make lace to keep her family alive.
Isabelle lives a fairy tale life, but the Revolution is brewing outside the palace walls. Her brother George, one of the stables at the palace, reminds her that all the time she spends at the palace still does not make her royalty, and he opens her eyes to the plight of the families worse off than theirs, who are slowly starving to death and are eager to overthrow the monarchy.
Isabelle is torn between her own impressions of the Revolution and her friendship with Therese and Marie Antoinette, and she must reconcile what she hears out on the streets with the family she has come to love as much as her own.
As soon as I saw this book in the sale pile at the bookstore, I knew it would be going home with me. I love historical YA novels, and this is the first one I’ve encountered about the French Revolution.
I liked the protagonist, Isabelle, because she seemed to come alive on the page — I could feel her emotions page after page, from her resentment at having to make lace since she was five years old, her enthrallment towards life at the palace, her love for Therese and Marie Antoinette, and her confusion at the events happening around her.
I also liked Bradley’s depiction of the reign of Louis XVI — the life of the royal family at Versailles; Marie Antoinette and her entourage of courtiers; the rustling of silks and the clink of the silverware and the china. The book also gives as a look at the artisan trade, the craft of making needle lace, and the importance of patronage for tradesfolk. And while Isabelle’s story is fictional, the afterword by the author reveals that there is some historical basis to it: there are recorded anecdotes of Marie Antoinette paying special attention to children, and her daughter Therese did have a companion, Ernestine, who also appears in the book.
Even though I knew enough about the French revolution to know how it would end, I still enjoyed reading this story.
The Virgin Suicides, hardcover 4/5 stars
The Lacemaker and the Princess, hardcover with dustjacket, 4/5 stars
Books #100-101 of 2010
Book E for the A-Z Challenge
*top photo courtesy of sxc.hu