Speaking of Janet Maslin’s reviews (in the comments of my last post), she has now published a middling-to-negative review of The 19th Wife, which I gave a middling review of myself recently. And yet I can hardly identify with her criticisms at all. She complains that:
What he has replicated just as powerfully as the turbulent history of polygamy in America is the exhaustive, arid scholarly process of looking things up. Far from bringing him closer to his characters, it muffles his novel’s drama.
Maybe I just like arid scholarly processes, but I didn’t get this impression at all. I complained that he was uneven in his telling of the historical storyline and the present-day one, but I thought all of his ersatz documents did an okay job of getting us the look and feel of early LDC activities. And I’m not sure how the “process of looking things up” gets conveyed by just presenting the reader with various diaries, letters, and journals—how is this different from any epistolary novel, few of which I would say make the reader feel like he is doing research?
Furthermore, in Maslin’s review she actually gets facts from the novel wrong. Not important ones, but still, this is her job. She says BeckyLyn is “the 19th wife of a present-day polygamist leader in Utah”—she is the wife of a polygamist in Utah, but he is far from a leader. She did not murder the sect’s prophet, and while this is not a huge thing to get wrong, the ensuing events probably would have been different if she had. Maslin also claims BeckyLyn was incriminated in an email message when it was really an instant message, a tiny error but still troubling to my mind.
And further complaints about too-long documents:
The trouble comes when Mr. Ebershoff begins diluting these strong effects with windy, overlong documents, like a 1939 letter from one of Ann Eliza’s sons. Enamored of dolphins and perilously long-winded, the son writes unforgivably: “Can I describe the joy of a spouting blow hole?” And it gets worse: One of the book’s longer documents, a women’s studies thesis written by another of Ann Eliza’s descendants, includes a footnote about infant mortality rates in the 19th century.
Now, first, I enjoyed the letter from Ann Eliza’s son more than most of the other documents, so I just disagree on that part. And I do think the women’s studies thesis was awful—not very scholarly at all if you ask me—but oh, the horror, a footnote in a fake thesis! Infant mortality rates at the very time when half the novel takes place and infants die! Maslin concludes:
Mr. Ebershoff clearly had the doggedness to invent many voices. What he didn’t have — or want, given the book’s deliberate epistolary nature — was a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I might possibly agree with this. I thought the book’s greatest fault was in not sending a clearer message about polygamy both in the early church and in the present day, and perhaps his many voices let Ebershoff get away with being too wishy-washy to lay down what he really thought.