The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
Read from May 03 to 06, 2012
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall suggests that, had she lived, Anne Bronte would have been the greatest artist in her literary family. Not only does this realistic novel tell a story that might have been ripped from the headlines of 2012, but Bronte structures her novel in a highly unconventional way. Rather than a straightforward narrative, Tenant wraps an epistolary tale of letters from farmer Gilbert Markham to a friend around the diary of mysterious Helen Graham, the tenant who intrigues Markham. Each of these characters narrates his own story — Markham describing how his life and love was upended by the arrival of the beautiful but standoffish painter and her young son at a broken-down manor house with only a few rooms fit for habitation and Graham explaining the circumstances that led woman of wealth and breeding to a life as an impoverished hermit in nosy and small-minded rural environs. Through the eyes of Markham and Graham, Bronte depicts the maliciousness of small-town gossips and the debauchery of the wealthy elite, showing her readers a 19th century England that is very far from the village cosiness and court splendor of more well-known novels. She peoples her story with an array of vivid characters, high born and low, who provide a evocative panorama of 19th century English life. Yet this is the story of Gilbert and Helen, an unlikely pair of lovers but ones who readers root for through all the twists and turns of this most modern of tales.
Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë
Read in May 2012
Agnes Grey is the first novel of Anne Bronte, the youngest of the storied literary clan who produced two of the enduring novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Unlike the stories of her older sisters, Agnes Grey is NOT romantic. In fact, the most striking thing about this novel — and this author — is her realism, which anticipates the work of later writers such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Agnes Gray is the daughter of a minister who loses what little money he has in an investment he’d hoped would make him rich. In hopes of helping support the family, Agnes takes a job as a governess, although she has no experience or training for the post. The children in the first family she serves are spoiled and vicious, problems overlooked by their doting mother and arrogant father. The second family are aristocrats and the children are young girls readying themselves for a marriage market, focusing on finding wealthy husbands with titles rather than companions for the journey through life. Anne Bronte’s depiction of those families is unsparing, almost reportage rather than entertainment, and the misery of Agnes in their homes is believable and heart-breaking. Eventually, she employs her hard-won wisdom in selecting and capturing a man she can both love and respect. And while the end provides the conventional girl-gets-boy finale, the pages leading up to it offer a stark realism that is quite unusual for a novel first published in 1847.
Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith
Read from April 19 to 23, 2012
Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Arkady Renko novel is a slight book — my version has just 241 pages, about one-third fewer than the earlier novels in this series. And that is one reason that I found it just “okay.” There’s simply less story on offer here than in earlier outings by the Russian investigator. In addition, much of the tale is told from the point of view of other characters — the chess prodigy he has sort of adopted, a young prostitute searching for the infant daughter who was snatched upon her arrival in Moscow, a ‘tween street urchin who acts as mother for a tribe of orphans. There are several mysteries on offer and some of the usual elements of Renko’s life — the clashes with his bosses in the prosecutor’s office, his buddy Orlov, the hideous aspects of the new Russia. Until this title, Smith has consistently delivered engrossing mysteries against a panoramic backdrop of a Russia evolving from the grey monotony of the Soviet Union into the gaudy neon of current oligarchy. Perhaps Russia simply isn’t as interesting these days, or perhaps Smith has tired of his character and setting.