Wednesday, June 29, 2011

GRG Recap - Biographical Fiction

Our topic last night was biographical fiction, which are novels based on real people. This is another of my favorite types of novels to read because I love to see in what ways an author’s imagination will twist and bend perceived reality. I would consider alternate history, like Naomi Novik’s wonderful Temeraire series (the Napoleonic Wars fought with dragon air forces), to be offshoots of both biographical fiction and science fiction/fantasy.

Next month’s topic, or rather non-topic, is our biannual Salon Discussion! Please make a note on your calendars that our July meeting has been moved up one week to July 19th at 6:30pm. Bring any book (on any topic) you would like to share with the group! I am in the process of tallying the votes for our next six months of reading, so I should have an August selection of books ready to go when we meet on July 19th!

The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall

A stunning novel about two women and two marriages -- George Eliot at the end of her life, and another woman a century later.

The year is 1880 and the setting is Venice. Marian Evans -- whose novels under the pen name George Eliot have placed her among the famed Englishwomen of her time -- has come to this enchanted city on her honeymoon. Newly married to John Cross, twenty years her junior, she hopes to put her guilt to rest. Marian lived, unmarried, with George Henry Lewes for twenty-five years, until his death. She took a tremendous risk and paid a high price for that illicit union, but she also achieved happiness and created art. Now she wants to love again. In this new marriage, in this romantic place, can this writer give herself the happy ending that she provided for Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke?

The parallel story of a sculptor named Caroline Spingold brings us to Venice one hundred years later, in 1980. Caroline’s powerful, wealthy older husband has brought her to the city against her will, to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Having spent a perfect childhood summer in Venice with her parents, before her father left her mother, Caroline had vowed never to return.

In alternating chapters linked by the themes of art, love, and marriage, The World Before Her tells of these two women -- and their surprising similarities. In a city where the canals reflect memory as much as light, they both confront desire and each assesses what she has and who she is. At the heart of this sumptuously and evocatively written novel lies the eternal dilemma of how to find love and sustain it, without losing one’s self.

The reader’s description of this novel, both the topics and format, brought to mind several other great reads! Loving Frank by Nancy Horan chronicles the long-term affair between renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (movie adaptation available) is formatted in a similar way to Weisgall’s novel, reflecting on the last days of Virginia Wolff while paralleling her tale with a contemporary plotline. This novel is beautifully written but does not contain any happily-ever-afters. Shopgirl (movie adaptation available), by comedian/actor/musician Steve Martin, explores the complexities of a modern relationship between Mirabelle, a lowly salesclerk at a department store glove counter, and Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. In Tracy Chevalier’s first novel, The Virgin Blue, the New York Times best-selling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring (movie adaptation available) relates the parallel stories of a young girl involved in the Huguenot-Calvinist conflicts of the 16th century and a modern American woman unhappy with her transplanted life in southwestern France.

Speaking of George Eliot and Steve Martin in the same conversation also brought to mind Martin’s excellent movie adaptation of Eliot’s Silas Marner, A Simple Twist of Fate. This is not the only book-to-movie adaptation in which Martin has been involved. His film Roxanne was an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and journalist, has written a fascinating first novel based on the life of his real-life ancestor, Elizabeth Bathory, the legendary Blood Countess. Codrescu expertly weaves together two stories in this neo-gothic work: that of the 16th-century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful and terrifying woman who bathes in the blood of virgin girls; and of her distant descendent, a contemporary journalist who must return to his native Hungary and come to terms with his bloody and disturbing past.

Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, a Hungarian-born journalist who has lived in the United States, returns to his native Hungary, only to be the target for recruitment among a patriotic group that wants to restore the glory--and the horror--of the Hungarian aristocracy. As a descendent of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, he is heir to all that is wonderful and terrible about his country and his family's past. Codrescu brilliantly explores Drake's anguish, as he realizes the truth behind his gruesome family history. But more importantly, Codrescu also creates a convincing and historically accurate picture of a sadistic woman obsessed with youth, vigor, beauty, and blood – a woman with enough power to order the deaths of 650 virgins so that she could bathe in their blood.

The Blood Countess is a bizarre and compelling book about the horrors of the past, shown so effectively in the monstrous yet attractive personality of Elizabeth, and what pull these horrors have on those who live now.

Tilting at Windmills: A Novel of Cervantes and the Errant Knight by Julian Branston

In seventeenth-century Valladolid, Spain’s new capital, Miguel de Cervantes is busy writing episodes of his comic masterpiece, Don Quixote. His comedy is quickly making him the most popular author in the country, when three potential disasters strike: Cervantes discovers that there is a real Don Quixote, exactly like the character he thought he’d invented; a jealous poet’s plots involving one of the novel’s other characters make Cervantes a laughingstock; and Cervantes falls in love with a beautiful, widowed, but unavailable duchess. Many duels, misunderstandings, and betrayals later, Don Quixote himself comes to Cervantes’ rescue.

This sparkling tale of crazed knights, thwarted love, and literary rivalry is imbued with all of the spirit, verve, and humor of the classic novel to which it pays playful tribute. Tilting at Windmills is a dazzling evocation of Cervantes’ life and times, and a brilliant weave of fact, fiction, and farce.

Happy reading!


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