Wednesday, October 29, 2008

There's something about Mary

For the last couple of days, conversation has been very circular between Best Beloved and I. I have had my head in a book, and the circle goes like this:

Me: 'Oh no, oh no no no no. Frigging hell'
Him: 'What?'
Me: 'Nothing. NOOOOO! GAH!'
Him: 'Chuck the bloody thing!'
Me: 'I can't! I have to get to the end.'
Him: 'But why? You're hating it.'
Me: 'Yes, I am. Shut up.'
Him: 'I just don't understand.'
Me: 'Me neither.
Oh my gawd...'
Him: 'What?'
Me: 'Nothing. ARGH! Cow!'
etc etc

You see, a woman walked into a secondhand bookshop... sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn't it? But it's no joke.

I did indeed walk into a secondhand bookshop last week, and sitting on the 'new arrivals' shelf was a brand new, hardly touched hardback of Colleen McCulloch's latest tome, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, for $17.

I hadn't planned to touch the book until I find millions of copies dumped at the Lifeline Bookfair a-la Bryce Courtenay next year, but... but... but... I just couldn't resist the chance to buy a relatively cheap copy so close to the release date.

'Oh!' said the man I bought it from, 'this has only been on the shelf 20 minutes.'
I bought it, then told him that it had only been out about three weeks and that it would have been snapped up by the next person to walk in if it hadn't been me. His face instantly fell, and you could see him worrying about his boss's reaction (she certainly wouldn't have marked it that cheap).

Anyway, I took the incredibly purple volume home and placed it on top of my 'crap to read when recovering from anaesthetic' pile. But then it kept calling to me: 'I'm a sequel to P&P! I'm either going to be fun and funky or extremely tragic! Come and find out!'

Come and read me, Duckie!

So I picked it off the pile and read the first page. And then couldn't put it down, in the same way you can't stop looking at a snake if it's looking at you. And the circular dialogue started, and didn't stop until I finished, last night.

Yes, I've read the reviews, especially the bit where McCulloch predicts
"The literati are going to scream blue murder... 'How dare she touch Austen!', they'll say."

Well, all I can say is that she can't, and hasn't touched Austen. Nothing in this book even remotely resembles Austen except the names of the characters. My big question is rather why she bothered?

It's very much a McCulloch novel, a cross between Angel Puss and something Georgette Heyer would write if she were suffering from indigestion. I don't begrudge CM the right to write an historical romance, because she's hell-bent on creating a career that includes at least one of every literary genre known to man (with the noted exception of Literature). This book could quite easily be a novel about a completely different family, and would probably be very successful. But these particular characters have such a weight of affection attached to them that her snarky authorial intention saps the book of any playfulness she attempts.

I think the biggest disappointment for me with the book is Mary's makeover. When I first read that CM was writing this book, I got quite interested in the idea of her exploring Mary's options as an ugly spinster at that time of history. But within the first chapter or so we discover that she has had her acne cured by a simple remedy and it has left no scars, and that once an overlapping tooth was removed, her teeth moved perfectly into place. And so the ugly duckling is rendered beautiful, and Mary's only real problems are those of convincing the world that she is worthy of being taken seriously. Sounds like McCulloch's own problem. Why on earth would you flatten out the best issue of the book like that? Shame on you, Colleen, I thought you were gutsier than that.

But really, I should have known better. McCulloch's books feed off each other in unhealthy ways. She's turned Mary (and Lizzie, since they now look a lot like each other) into Julius Caesar's excellent (according to CM) mother, Aurelia, with her purple eyes, and Lizzy's son into Caesar himself, with his masculine qualities yet looking feminine enough to make other men doubt his sexuality, including, in Charles' case, his father 'Fitz' (Darcy). Purple eyes! That's McCulloch showing her age, holding Elizabeth Taylor up as an icon of ultimate female beauty. At least she gave Aurelia dark hair with the eyes, whereas Mary and Lizzy are gingers, playing complementary opposite colour games with my mental images of these poor women, sending me mental. Lizzy, a ginger? With purple eyes? Nuh uh. That's akin to sci fi in my head.

McCulloch may have done her research and be able to reel off all the appropriate suppliers of gentlemen's clothing in the early 19th century, but her writing is purely contemporary, and never at ANY point evokes a skerrick of Austen's charm. This is probably a good thing, because (as May Day Press points out in the comments below) attempts to write in an Austen-like manner invariably fail. The plot is melodramatic, tacky, and at times just wretched. I dare anyone to read the deliberately provocative last line without retching: Worst. Last. Line. Eva.

I'm a pretty forgiving reader if there's some charm and goodwill; I've read nearly everything she's written -- mostly while I'm in the bath, since I don't care if the book gets wrecked -- and this is the first time I've ever put one of her books aside with a sense of resentment. If this novel was really only written to piss off people, she's succeeded. I'm pissed off at the waste of paper,* and the waste of McCulloch's -- I don't know if I can actually say talent -- story-telling abilities.

Approach with caution, and only when it's been remaindered. I think I'm going to walk it straight back to the secondhand bookshop. And thus the circle will turn again.

* this is not just a point about the writing; I'm sick of these slab-like books printed on half a rainforest that could easily be a slim handsome volume if the designer just reduced the obscenely bloated line leading. A bit less space, a lot less paper, instant footprint reduction. Sigh.


may day studio said...

Okay, it sounds terrible. But have you tried Linda Berdoll's _Darcy Takes a Wife_? The (ahem) author has never read Austen--she was inspired by the BBC miniseries. (And I know Colin Firth is a hunk, but really...)

The only way I've gotten halfway through is to count the ridiculous interjections of 'hence' and 'betwixt' in her otherwise crappy modern text. And it's taken me a year to get to p. 194.

Just a snippet to make you giggle: "In light of having no clue why either of the ladies was incited to such merriment by her introduction, Elizabeth took mental inventory of any possible indiscretion of her costume. All accoutrements seemed in order. Hence, she prepared an insincere apology to excuse herself from such discourteous company."

At least there isn't such big leading between the lines--just obscenely bloated text (465 pages of it)!!

naomi said...

purple eyes and ginger hair just aren't possible biologically are they?

TimT said...

Purple cover? Are you sure it isn't a hardback version of Larvatus Prodeo?

TimT said...

Oh all right. My conscience has got the better of me.

Larvatus Prodeo is an Interesting and Worthwhile Political Blog, with Stimulating and Informed Commentary on Many Important Matters in the World Today, and is in Not Comparable to Colleen McCullough.

lucy tartan said...

Ducks, thanks for reading this so I don't have to! Just one question, though; does CM give any hint that in carrying on about disfiguring acne scars and overlapping teeth she sounds exactly like Sir Walter Elliot on his Golwand's Lotion kick?

(Doorbitch says derfu, which is the name of the cancer-curing rainforest bug rendered extinct by over-inflated HB books...)

Ampersand Duck said...

No, I dare say she hasn't bothered reading the other Austen novels, since P&P was such a disappointment to her.

I do think you should force yourself to read it, though, because there is much I have omitted to say, and the plot does get absolutely fantastical in places -- including Mary's brush with a religious cult.

Would you like me to donate this volume to your Austen fan-fic collection? I'd feel happier donating to a good cause. I have a feeling that this one would rank far lower than the one about Darcy's dog.

harry said...

# Oh? I thought it was a reagion in west africa that no-one cared about?

re: thickness of books.
The thickness tests is one of the best tests ever to a worth of book.
The vast number of important books ie ones ABOUT something that also added to world goodness are thin. Sometimes extremely so.

Mary Bennet said...

Oh &>, I'm sad you wasted so much time on this travesty. I read a review the other week and told everyone who might think I'd enjoy it not to give it to me for Christmas.

I completely understand your inability not to finish it too. I was suckered in the same way by her great men of Rome doorstoppers where she slavishly followed the historical sources of one of the best documented periods in Ancient History and only made up really BORING things. Those books were dreadful and I just get so cross when people who get listened to (like Bob Carr) say they're fabulous.

Oh and I'm a little bit protective of the least appreciated Bennet lass. I'd envisaged her having a few years as the only one left at home then a nice quiet life married to a country parson.

Penthe said...

Hmmm. I try to not read any Jane Austen sequels that have actually been printed as books-on-paper after being nastily shocked by an Emma Tennant version as quite a young person.

If you stick to the online fan fiction you get two advantages:
writers who really like Jane Austen (and who are not trying to make a buck), and
no rainforests die (but lots of petro-chemical products and carbon emissions).

recentsm - is it a tendency to elevate the recent to a religion, or re-centing things for philosophical reasons?

Anonymous said...

You can probably sell it on Ebay for as much as you bought it for - but only while it is very new.

That would be a bonus for having finished it so quickly too.

I went to a dinner where Colleen McC spoke and she was great. She pretty much said she wants to write one of everything (mystery/romance etc etc).

The Rome novels were ordinary though - so repetitive. She handwrites every word apparently.

And yeah - smaller books - the mega bricks are way to heavy to read in the bath or in bed.

Anonymous said...

*stands, applauds*

Everything I've heard about this book has confirmed my worst prejudices about McCulloch.

Ampersand Duck said...

And how. It's taken me twenty years to *really* understand what a self-important and low-reaching woman she is.

Zoe said...

See, I just assumed that from the beginning and have not wasted one hour of my life reading her books.

*smiles smugly at Fyodor*


lucy tartan said...

Thanks for the offer Duck. I'm not sure I really want to read this. So often these things seem like a good idea, but then....and besides thanks to Tim I'm never going to be able to think of this book without getting it all confused with the purpleblog...

Anonymous said...

You realise don't you, if some CmcC fan comes across this blog, you'll be accused of being elitist(tm)?

(Word verification = hunab: the name of the long-suffering Iranian gel in CmcC's upcoming "Forbidden Love"-style epic. Well, she did say she wanted to write one of everything.

Ampersand Duck said...

Yeah, but I've been accused of that for many reasons: I don't like Big Brother, Idol, sport in general, commercial tv...

But I have read all her other books with a modicum of enjoyment, I read (other people's copies of) New Idea, Woman's Day and Who mag with glee, and I listen to all sorts of 'bad' music (according to those who make such judgements), so go figure.

Wow, she's crossing cultures. Now that IS new for her.

Unknown said...


Read Thornbirds way back when and what can I tell ya...

You know - whatsername doing the priest - smutlit masquerading as clever dick (Bryce is just as bad.) The aspirant thinking quiff's Barbara Cartland, maybe.

Someone who shall remain nameless pressed the Roman tome on me just this last summer, insisting I'd enjoy it. Jaysus h christ - too much research, Colleen, makes for b-b-boring as b-b-batshit. Omigod, beyond dreary.

Thanks for the warning apropos 'Colleen does Jane' - I will soooo steer clear of that train wreck...

Embejo said...

I read this book and hated it. In fact it was absurd and ridiculous. And the premise was good...Mary writing a book, and actually being independent at the end?...yeah could have been good.
But, I did enjoy CMc's Morgan's Run. (Is it safe to say that here?)