As numerology buffs (and, frankly, straight out nutters) are preparing for the Day of Significance that will be tomorrow - Tuesday, the eleventh day of 2011 at 11 a.m. (or p.m., unless you like military time) -- we lesser mortals will start our celebration of significance today. The first Monday of the month..., erm, no...
Let's try again: The first non-holiday Monday of the year -- technically.
Okay, fine. You've got me. I'm late, which is typical, but what the heck.
Because I say so, it's time once again for book talking. It's Wicked Cool Overlooked Books (The Late Edition)!
Reader Gut Reaction: DECEPTION by Joan Aiken = SO. MUCH. FUN.
Now, I admit that I am a Aiken fan of the first water. Many a great love of Gothic art was born of the marriage of Aiken's books and Edward Gorey's book jackets. Her books were deliciously spooky, the adults crooked and evil and mean -- which we all at some age suspect that they truly are. (And we're not half wrong on that.) Because of my early (- okay, I read her in college, but I was eighteen, that counts) love of her delectably dark books, I will read ALL THINGS Joan Aiken. This, while surprisingly different than what I've read of hers previously, is to date one of my favorites, and I still have REAMS of her books to go. (YAY!)
Published in the UK in 1987, it followed her series of Austen-esque fiction, and still keeps kind of the flavor of ridiculousness those books have. No, seriously - Jane Austen wrote the big-time humor. Her novels poked sly fun at the manners of society in that day, and Aiken keeps up the good work in this novel. It features a typical storytelling trope of trading places, and adds spice to the brew by throwing in a.) a girl with a mission to save souls, b.) a penniless girl with little interest in making the switch, who wants to be left alone to write and c.) British/American differences. Could a girl from Massachusetts actually trade places with a British girl, and no one see any difference? Welll.... no, actually...
Concerning Character: Because Aiken was herself a mix of American and Britishness(her father was the American poet, Conrad Aiken, and her mother was apparently no one special and British; in her books it is noted who her father is, and her mother is not named at all. Nice, huh?) the characterization of the American girl, Alvey, really works. She is at once observant and inobservant; seeing at first only the gloriously huge, old home in which the Brits live, and their servants and their dependents in the village, and not seeing the people themselves at all. I have been guilty of this, in the UK -- everything is so simply infused with venerable old history that it's easy to make the mistake of looking at everything -- and seeing nothing. Eventually, Alvey sees that not only are the family to which she is pretending to belong real -- they are people with their own problems and issues. There are no gilded, gentried British families; there are only people, and they are flawed, flawed, flawed. And she's stuck in the middle.
Recommended for Fans Of...: Lovers of period novels and school stories will enjoy this, though the action doesn't take place at a school, and it's not written IN 1815, but Aiken did her research, and the novel has a good feel. Readers who like Dodie Smith will enjoy this, too -- there's a lot of melodrama and an insufficiently caring family. Fans of Jane Austen, who enjoy the way her characters stand on the fringes and peer into the human psyche, and writers -- this book is dedicated to us, and will make writers who think themselves observant laugh most of all. It is funny and witty - and frothy enough to read happily in a short afternoon.
Themes & Things: The major themes of switching stories are always things like Appearance vs. Reality, and/or Image and Identity. The book is seriously about identity -- once you've been playing a role, who are you? When you are writing, and filling your head with the lives of others, where does the "you" that makes up YOU go? There are a few moments when Aiken steps out and asks herself these questions - and the answers are sort of queasy-making for the character. Like an emptied out cup, once her Great Work is written, there's nothing more in her head -- and that's a little alarming. It happens, though - and fortunately for writers, the imagination eventually fills the cup again.
Authorial Asides: In a 1998 Locus interview, Aiken admitted that there was a seven year gap in the middle of her writing of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, due to the death of her husband, and her having to get a job to support herself. That gives me hope - that myself, and my fellow writing-group peeps, and others will be able to survive and write, no matter what interruptions. We are hardier than we think, scriptors!
Oddly enough, though I HATED The Prince and the Pauper and all other Twain/Disney/Freaky Friday switcheroo type of stories, this one really works -- mainly because of the ways in which it doesn't -- switching doesn't change anyone drastically nor does it remove obstructions to various circumstances. It simply puts life on pause - and then it resumes at a fast-forward.
Hat tip to Jo Walton, who first interested me in this book by reviewing it at Tor.com.
Sadly, this book is out of print. However, since it wasn't published that long ago, it's bound to be at Powells or Abebooks, as well as in those lovely bins full of used books in the better indies. Look for DECEPTION at an independent bookstore near you!