Janet Maslin on The 19th Wife

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.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

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 boy,” kicked out of a remote polygamist community as a young teen and left to fend for himself, with relative success. He returns home when he sees that his mother, also a 19th wife, has been arrested for the murder of his father. But his feelings toward his mother, his father, his (many) other family members, and the polygamist town as a whole are volatile and difficult to understand. In the end he is unable to take a principled stand either for or against the polygamists: He vaguely calls for the rights of adults to decide on their own lifestyle, but waffles about how things are different when children are in the picture. He is a young man and seems generally politically and religiously ambivalent, but the timeliness of the subject matter makes this, I think, a weakness—it seems almost as if Ebershoff is writing an entire book about polygamy and how damaging it can be only to avoid the chance for his protagonist to pass moral judgment on the issue. (A problem that comes up more strongly, I think, in the less prominent storyline of the stereotypically Mormon-perky BYU grad student writing a thesis on Ann Eliza: heavy on hand-wringing, light on substance or controversy.)

Still, that doesn’t stop the contemporary narrative from being enjoyable as a story of a young man trying to deal with his past, a truly messed up family life, and possibly his future, in some pretty trying circumstances. The resolution might have been a bit too easy, and our protagonist’s queeny friend back in LA a bit too silly, but I did find myself more interested in the modern mystery than in the story of many long-suffering Mormon pioneers (since we all know the end of that one, anyway). The biggest flaw, in my opinion, was the jumpiness of the two narratives. Rather than alternating chapters of similar lengths, the transitions between the two main plots were less regular and I found it irritating that sometimes—but not always!—there would be several chapters or documents belonging to one narrative in a row. I believe rearranging some of the organization may have made the novel as a whole flow more smoothly and seem less uneven. The fact that there were many different documents making up the historical thread, while the contemporary thread had a very strong focus on a single first-person narrative, also contributed to the feeling of unevenness. I love this kind of polyphony in novels, but it can be difficult to pull off.

In the ultimate assessment, I raced through the rather long novel in the span of under two days, eager to reach the end, but there was nothing groundbreaking here. Good light reading, and may well spark an interest in further research into the LDS and FLDS ways of life.