Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Woman In White

by Wilkie Collins

I bought this book at W.H. Smith in Paris, primarily because it was cheap - only a few Euros. It was sitting out on a display of classic books and I brought it home along with a copy of Oliver Twist. I guess there's more to it than that...I've (sadly) gone past the days where I freely bought books without a second thought, so although the price was right back in those early sticker shock days in France, there was something else that called to me. Perhaps it was the spooky cover illustration of a woman wearing white (natch), perhaps it was the promise of "one of the greatest mystery thrillers in the English language." No matter. It sat on my shelf until this month, when I read it as part of the RIP II reading challenge. It was a perfect choice.

I'll start by giving my rating -- this is a book that you should trot right out to the library and read as a Halloween classic, as long as you enjoy a 19th centure style. Hell, if you have the money, go ahead and spend it on a copy. It has won a place on my bookshelves and will (as of the moment) be making future moves along with me, but is still a lendable book. If you borrow it and get a few pages stuck together with maple syrup, I will mind but not freak out. I guess this makes it a 3.5 PMF star book.

The charm of this book lies in the plot. I cannot really describe a Wilkie style...he hung around with Dickens (odd discovery considering its twin during the purchase) but doesn't really have the same feel. What he does have is a talent for story-telling with some unexpected twists and turns. There were a few plot details that I could vaguely see coming, but I was still surprised at the way they arrived. He is also quite witty and I laughed out loud a few times, firmly placing him on my good side as I can get easily frustrated with an author who takes himself too seriously. I don't want to give away too many actual plot details because that would spoil the experience, so I'll just say that the book is written as a series of observations and testimonies from different characters about the main mystery of the book. Some are key characters, some are simple witnesses. The primary narrator is Walter Hartright, a drawing master who comes to the aid of a mysterious woman in white and becomes entangled in events ("machinations" they're called on the back of the book) that seem to be beyond his control as a man of limited resources. There. That's all you get.

I also really enjoyed most of the characters. Hartright seems a decent enough fellow...not much to say about him. The character that I loved to hate was Mr. Fairlie who provided most of the comic moments for me; he didn't get enough pages devoted to him, though. I had a difficult time picturing the Count fellow; maybe a more corpulent Jacques Chirac with a dark side. Nah, after Les Guignols* I can't picture him as anything but a sumo-loving fellow hiding things in his wife's big hair. Carry on, shall we?

The biggest annoyance of this book for me were the women's characters. Marian Halcombe was certainly admirable, intelligent, brave and possibly the cleverest person in the novel, but this was back in the day after all and she was assigned the role of spinster (think Jane Eyre). Apparently the worst thing in the world for a woman of this time period was to have dark skin...she was described as looking like a (gasp) gypsy, which then reminded me of Heathcliff. For the movie version I keep picturing Ralph Fiennes in drag. The author redeemed himself a little regarding her character by the end, but for a while I just kept rolling my eyes and sighing "Wilkie, man, come on!"

On the other hand, the female who was supposed to represent all things feminine was a pain in my side...fragile, blond, innocent, blah blah blah. I never really got around to liking her as she said things to Marian that made me want to smack her. You'll recognize those parts when you read them. Now, Laura plays an important role in the plot and this could have ruined the book for me, but it didn't. It's written in a way that I was able to gloss over her as a minor annoyance and still enjoy the story.

So, go out and read it, then let me know what you think.

*This link is not working correctly because of an apostrophe. If you're interested, add on an 'info after the web address. It should be en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Guignols_de_l'info

3 comments:

Kristy said...

I knew you'd be great at reviewing. I may have to pick this one (like I need another book to read;-)

Bookfool said...

Are you new to reviewing (yes, eavesdropping, here)? That's an excellent review that makes me want to drop everything and run right out to get a copy. Unfortunately, I've got a new rule that goes something like this: "If you've already got the author on your shelf, you may not bring home another book by said author till first book(s) have been read." Darn, I hate that rule.

We're past the syrup on the pages years, thank goodness. My youngest once painted with syrup on the carpet. So artistic! And, awfully smelly. Hot water to remove syrup - remember that.

Pardon My French said...

Thanks, Kristy -- You might like this one, although I think it's kind of a seasonal book.

Hi, bookfool -- welcome, and yes, I am new to this reviewing thing. Thanks for your compliment and I laughed at your rule! I think I might implement that, although I might give myself a 3-author exemption so I'd better choose carefully. And thanks for the tip on hot water!