Pride and Prometheus – John Kessel

I haven’t posted here since November??

Oops.

I don’t really have any excuses (life, the universe, and everything)… and I’ll have to try to do better. Or Netgalley will boot me.

Speaking of which:

I have to give a lot of credit, in a way, to an author who decides to write a sequel to a classic novel (much less two). It’s a gutsy thing to do, and risky, which I think is why I keep trying them – although, honestly, I’m hard-pressed to think of one that has actually been really good. You have to imagine Mr. Kessel telling people he was putting out a sequel to not only Frankenstein but – brace yourself – Pride and Prejudice …. It’s crazy. It’s crazy enough that it might work: mad gambles have pretty often turned out to be very enjoyable, in my experience.

I think the best thing about this book was the mention, while Mary Bennet is in Lyme, of A young woman who had stopped there the day before with a party of visitors from Uppercross had fallen from the Cobb. Witnesses of the accident said she had lain as if dead. She was being attended to in the home of Captain Harville, only recently settled in Lyme.” It was quick and not much attention was drawn to it, and I loved it.

I have to say I didn’t out and out love much else. I liked the way Mary and her growth to just-about-spinsterhood was charted (poor Mary); I liked how Kitty had grown bitter and reckless faced with the same fate. I appreciated the author’s undeniable knowledge of both the books he was following up; he knows his Bennets (and Musgroves), and he knows his Frankenstein, and I never bickered with the way any of Shelley or Austen’s characters were handled. Victor Frankenstein is self-involved – as Kerry Greenwood once said, “self-centred as a gyroscope”, and absolutely clueless about what anyone else in the world, from his fiancée to Mary to his monster, might think or feel about anything. He also has a certain superficial charm that makes it easy to forget what a weasel he is.

And I liked that the frightening thing about the Monster wasn’t that he was green with bolts in his neck and looked like Boris Karloff or Herman Munster. “I have studied my reflection in still water. There is no obvious flaw in my countenance.” His problem is that death lingers about him. He unsettles people because he’s not … quite … normal. He is too still, maybe, too alien. Something this book points out is that he was created only three years ago – he’s a three year old in a giant adult body, and has been through more trauma in that short life than a lot of adults. He’s not normal. He can’t be.

So I had no argument with the approach, the premise of melding what happened to Mary Bennet after the events of P&P and Victor Frankenstein and his Monster after their book. The writing carried the day and made it very readable, if not perfect.

My unhappiness with the book was simply the place where Kitty and Mary are when the book opens, and – not to be spoilery – where the book takes them and Frankenstein, maker and monster. “At least Lizzy and Jane had taken an interest in Kitty; they had brought her into their homes for months at a time, and put her in the way of any number of eligible men, while they were content to let Mary live at Longbourn, the sole object upon which their mother might inflict her nerves. As far as Jane and Lizzy were concerned, Mary might retire into spinsterhood without a sigh.” That’s disappointing. Mary, here, has changed and grown from the stupid-smart girl of the book, and it’s depressing that it all came too late for her, and that her family doesn’t even notice. She has broadened her outlook – and at least this actually gave her something to talk about with her father. However, ” He warned her of the sad fate of the female bookworm: ‘Beware, Mary,’ he said impishly. ‘Too much learning makes a woman monstrous.'” Undoubtedly. She has finally begun to understand things like the fact that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Also depressing is the fate of another secondary Austen character, someone I always rather liked, and who deserved better. And then there’s Mr. Collins, who is thriving in his absolute obtuseness.

But most depressing at all is the book’s headlong rush in exactly the direction I thought, with dread, that it might. Remember how Kitty coughed all through Pride and Prejudice? So does the author. And thus the story takes a turn to “an impossibility so out of keeping with the world of Bingley and Darcy” that the world Austen created quails away.

The believability of the whole thing stumbles around the same time. Again, trying not to be spoilery, suffice to say that Mary undertakes a two hundred mile journey under conditions which would be quite frankly physically impossible for – well, for any woman of the period, and darned unlikely for most women anytime. Sanitation, sustenance, safety, access to adequate clothing and footwear … it’s all lacking, and I found it ridiculously improbable.

I suppose I should be grateful that the book did not do one thing I feared it might (which is a full-on romance between Mary and Victor, which because of so many things would have been such a horrible mistake), but what happened instead was just … disheartening. There is no clichéd happy ending, for which I was relieved … but there’s no real happy ending at all, and that’s surprisingly hard.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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