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
Continue reading Janet Maslin on The 19th Wife
A couple months ago I received an advance copy of David Ebershoff’s latest novel, The 19th Wife, through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program. My first few posts will be reprints of reviews I’ve already written, and here’s the first of them.
The 19th Wife is a novel with the blessing—or curse—of having its subject matter plastered all over the news leading up to its release: in this instance, the recent raids at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. While potentially stirring interest in a novel about such a polygamist community, the very real significance of those raids put the book in danger of seeming glib or unserious—or, worse, rushed and poorly researched.
The 19th Wife passes through most of these dangers unscathed. The historical narrative, of Brigham Young’s “19th wife” Ann Eliza, is based on her real, published memoirs, which helped lead to the banning of polygamy in Utah and eventually the change in Mormon church teaching on the subject. The story of Ann Eliza’s family, from the childhood of her mother through her own struggle to extricate herself from “Zion,” is excellent historical fiction. Fictional letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles round out the picture to include the stories of Ann Eliza’s family and of Brigham Young himself. The faith of the newly founded Mormon community, from devoted and devout women grappling with the realities of polygamy and the need to get to heaven, to husbands and fathers unable to cope with the size of their families, to Ann Eliza herself who can never accept the lifestyle she was raised in, is portrayed throughout respectfully and with, I think, significant understanding.
The contemporary narrative, however—despite the greater interest and faster pace of a murder mystery—lacks much of that substance. The principle figure is a “lost
Continue reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff