Living in Threes – Judith Tarr

This was a book received through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers (thank you!). I’ve been trying to cut back on the books I put my name in for on LibraryThing, because while I’ve had pretty good luck there have been a number of clunkers – plus I’m a ways behind on my Netgalley books. But when I saw Judith Tarr’s name on the book, it was a no-brainer – I had to request it, and I was happy when I received it.

I was not so happy with the cover art. This is one of those times when I’m happy to have the Kindle, so I don’t have to look at … that. It’s awful, amateurish and ill-conceived and just plain ugly. Book View Café, the cooperative publisher which allows authors to publish books they either can’t or don’t wish to take through traditional venues, apparently does not have an art department.

The book starts off much like one of the girls-and-horses books I loved when I was a tween and teen; it is a young-adult novel, and there is a heavy horse presence. I don’t know if I would have loved it when I was the age of the characters, though. Meredith is a sixteen-year-old Florida girl who is looking forward to a summer spent with her friends and her newly pregnant Lipizzaner mare. However, her mother – in remission from a serious bout with cancer (not that any bout with cancer is anything to take frivolously) – puts a very firm kibosh on the plans: Meredith’s aunt, an archaeologist working in Egypt, is on the verge of something big, and Meredith is going to go join her dig. And there’s not a thing she can do to prevent it: to Egypt she, sullenly, goes.

Just before she leaves, she takes refuge in one of her favorite pastimes: she begins writing a story. It writes itself, really: a science fiction tale set in the far future (about four thousand years out) about a sixteen-year-old girl named Meru whose mother – also an archaeologist, of sorts – has gone missing, whose last fragmented message sends Meru looking for her into areas where she should not go. Meredith is unsettled by the story; it’s too real. And then there are the dreams that begin about a girl named Meritre, who is a sixteen-year-old temple singer in the Egypt of four thousand years ago. It’s all very strange – and more and more there seems to be a reason for this strangeness.

English: Favory Pallavicina, approved Lipizzan...

English: Favory Pallavicina, approved Lipizzan stallion, Australia Deutsch: Favory Pallavicina, gekörter Lipizzanerhengst, Australien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I liked the characters. They were a little precocious for their ages (“ages” can and should be taken two different ways here; Meritre was a bit too sanguine about all of the things which were completely alien to her, which would be … just about everything), but that’s part and parcel of the reading experience. I mostly liked the idea, which I won’t go into here (spoilers!), though it stretched willing suspension of disbelief for both me and the characters – with the fact that the latter had a hard time with it making it easier for me. Meredith, though sullen for much of her part of the story, had good reason, and was likeable anyway – quite an accomplishment.

Second-tier characters were lovely; I liked all three girls’ circles of family and friends. Were it not for the ending, I think I would have loved this to pieces when I was sixteen.

There were a few things that bothered me:

– I admit, I smirked a bit over the fact that Meredith’s horse is a Lipizzaner, given that Ms. Tarr devotes the non-writing bulk of her life to her Dancing Horse Farm, and that it took a little jiggering to explain how a sixteen-year-old Florida girl owns a Lipizzan mare. But it is explained, and “write what you know” can often equate to “write what you love”, and Ms. Tarr’s love of the breed cancels out my qualms.

– Meredith’s writing voice was no different from that of the rest of the book, which considering Judith Tarr’s skill means she’s a pretty remarkable writer for sixteen. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be worse – I wouldn’t want to be forced to read fake juvenile writing, but if that’s how the girl writes she should have a multi-book contract by now. Given that very little throughout the rest of the book is made of Meredith as a writer (she doesn’t really have time or inclination for writing after this one burst), another means of introducing Meru might have been smoother.

– Meritre reacts with bafflement when she first sees a horse. Now, I know Ms. Tarr knows her Egypt, so I’m not questioning her decision here to have the girl not know what a horse was … well, maybe a little. I’ve seen the pictures of wall paintings horse-drawn chariots; there were horses in Egypt, introduced “during the early Second Intermediate Period (1700 to 1550 B.C.)”; I found it a little hard to swallow that Meritre never heard of them.

– Again, Meritre was cool with the concepts Meredith and Meru were exposing her to – including the archaeological dig that was opening up the tomb which in Meritre’s time was just being sealed. She didn’t like that – but she accepted it. And I didn’t buy her acceptance of it: it violates every precept of her religion.

– The future world of Meru lacked depth for me. It was, I think, to some extent down to the fact that ancient Egypt is relatively familiar, almost as much so to Northeastern me as present-day Florida is (and the Florida-ness of the present-day setting was not overly stressed), and so shorthand went a long way in placing Meredith and Meru in their backgrounds. Meru, though, lives in an unimaginable future, and I floundered with where on Earth she was (literally) and how far she had to travel and in terms of alien presence are we talking Starfleet or Mos Eisley Cantina or Serenity, or what? What there was was intriguing; there just didn’t seem to be enough.

– The aspects of the three worlds, past and present and future, were in a way both too closely parallel and not closely enough. They’re all about the same age – though that means something drastically different in ancient Egypt from what it means in modern Florida. (Don’t know what it means in the far future…) All three girls have mothers in peril – one dies early, one will probably be fine, and one dies at the end. All three have fathers who are absentee, or all but – one works a lot and is ill, one is divorced and elsewhere, and I honestly don’t remember a thing about the third. Love is blooming for two, but not the third; all three have aspirations and vocations (at least, Meredith wants to write and spend a lot of time with her horse). I think I would have been slightly happier if there had been more resonance among the three girls than the name similarity … but too much would have been irritating. Ah well.

– That ending. Meredith discovers that her mother sent her off to Egypt knowing that she was about to go into hospice, that the cancer was back with a vengeance and she did not have much more time. By the time Meredith finds out she can only arrive home in time to – just barely – watch her mother die. My mom is eighty-five years old, and I don’t need this crap. I would have hated it like poison when I was sixteen, and I hate it more now. That’s on me, and not the book – it was the right way to end this story, and it tied it up without tamping all the edges down overly neatly – but I hated it.

These are, really, quibbles. The writing – always reliable, in the word’s best possible meaning – carried the book through whatever difficulties I had with the details. The idea was fascinating, if outré – it pushed the envelope without busting through. Am I glad I won this book? Absolutely. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Will I read it again? No. Do I still love Judith Tarr? Oh yes.

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2 Responses to Living in Threes – Judith Tarr

  1. calmgrove says:

    Though I’m unlikely to read this novel, for various reasons, I still love your absolutely fair analysis and criticism, both positive and negative, and the pointers you give about what contributes to a convincing work of fiction.

  2. stewartry says:

    Thanks! You made my day.

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