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March 2018

There were moments earlier this month when I wondered if we were going to ever make it to our March book discussion after the bad weather delayed your book deliveries, so I’m really happy we’re finally here to discuss Jane Steele.

 

I know a lot of you waited two weeks before your book arrived and I really am sorry for that – the so-called Beast from the East and then Storm Emma really threw a spanner in the works. At least it was worth the wait. (right?)

 

This book was actually one of the first titles I knew I wanted to send with the book subscription. It’s exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for; one that’s smart and fun and interesting but was never going to get the kind of attention that would propel it to the bestseller charts.

 

Some of that comes down to snobbery – so often critics and booksellers reserve their praise for really highbrow literary fiction, that anything that doesn’t fall into that category ends up overlooked, forgotten or ignored.

 

Part of what I’m here to encourage you to do with this book club is branch out and enjoy all different types of reading. We all need variety – if we get stuck in a rut reading only one genre or only one type of book we miss out on all the wonderful things happening elsewhere.

 

In my opinion you don’t need help finding what’s on the bestseller lists – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a brilliant book, but also one that’s in just about every window at every bookstore around the country. It’s getting plenty of attention. I’m here to bring some balance and offer attention to the Jane Steeles of the world instead.  

 

So we’ve established Jane Steele is a book close to my heart. Now let’s get into what it’s all about.

 

Strictly speaking this isn’t a retelling of Jane Eyre – it’s a pastiche. What I mean by that is that this book imitates the style of Jane Eyre and is also a (loving) parody of it. By changing the story the author also draws attention to what’s ridiculous about it, and actually there is a lot that’s ridiculous about Jane Eyre.

 

Charles Thornfield’s big skeleton in the closet is pretty much literally a skeleton in the closet – he’s running a morgue from his basement.

 

In contrast, Rochester’s big dark secret is that he’s hiding his mad wife in the attic in solitary confinement and attempting to consign her to history by marrying his governess instead. (Which, I think we can all agree, is way worse)

 

Jane Eyre is so often depicted as a romantic story, and Rochester is right up there with Mr Darcy in terms of brooding, highly fanciable leading men.

 

But a lot of his actions are pretty inexcusable, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about Charles Thornfield in comparison that I realised just how problematic he can be. (but that’s a conversation for another day)

 

The two heroines are alike in some ways – both resourceful – but also very different.

 

Unlike Jane Eyre, who is rigidly bound by the rules of society, Jane Steele lives on the fringes of society and makes her own rules.

 

This book also plays with all the same themes present in Jane Eyre – both Janes grapple with identity, guilt and goodness. Both are called wicked, both eventually come to realise why they aren’t.  

 

But of course the original Jane Eyre isn’t a murderer, and Jane Steele is – five times over. I’m not sure I ever truly had an opinion on whether or not I enjoyed reading about murder before, but in this book I loved it.

 

One of my favourite scenes is when Jane kills her headmaster Vesalius Munt. She tells us that he had been ‘felled by a strangely skillful blow, as if i had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided he should stop being alive.’

 

The way she matter-of-factly describes how he came to be dead was one of the things I liked best about this character and what made her a charming narrator I could go the distance with.

 

Jane Steele certainly borrows elements of mystery and thriller, but it’s not really accurate to call it a thriller as such.

 

Even in its most climactic moments it didn’t really feel like all that much was at stake – as a reader I was always pretty confident that everything would work out in the end, even if I wasn’t sure how it would work out. It’s written to entertain us rather than make us truly nervous.

 

This is a clear decision on the part of the author and one I mostly agreed with – what it sacrifices in nail-biting tension it makes up for with energy, wit and plot.

 

But looking back on the story, there is a crucial moment where we need more tension and we don’t really get it – and that was when Jane confronts Garima Kaur.

 

The mystery of the missing jewels was becoming more fraught – we knew we’re building up to something. And that something is a confession.

 

In the space of a few pages Garima Kaur moves from being a barely noticeable secondary character to being the person that connects every single mystery in the book.

 

The reason we never truly know her better makes perfect sense – the reader can’t have the opportunity to figure it out too soon – but it also meant that in this case when it does all come together it all felt a little flat.

 

In the space of a short conversation the mystery is solved. Did Jane even solve it? Not really. She was just around to hear the confession.

 

Kaur’s revelations should be like a punch to the gut. She has been overlooked, ignored and betrayed by the people who she believed should love her.

 

Kaur’s hurts are real, but they don’t have much emotional impact for us as readers because we barely know her.

 

Through Jane we’re told to consider Kaur’s point of view, but never really have the chance to feel it.

 

That’s not to say the confrontation isn’t pacey – the scene with Jane and Garima leads to Sardar losing his hand and Sahjara being kidnapped. The only piece that was missing here was heart.

 

We don’t know Garima well enough to feel empathy for her, and without it, when she falls from the horse and dies it almost didn’t matter.

 

She was a shadow, and then a crucial character, then a shadow again. As a plot device, Garima is very important, but as a character, she’s poorly rendered.

 

While I’m pointing out things that didn’t work for me, the other one I’ll highlight is the dialogue.

 

That the author was American, and not British, felt really obvious to me on more than one occasion. Some of the turns of phrase just weren’t quite right.

 

For the most part, it was something I noticed and then forgot. But once or twice – usually when Charles Thornfield was talking – the language felt so off that it took me right out of the story and really didn’t do justice to a book that for the most part I felt was very strong.

 

Dialogue aside however, once I got into this book – and it didn’t take long – I didn’t want to put it down. 400 pages felt like half that length and I flew through it in just a couple of days. I hope you had a similar experience.

 

Now, tell me: what did you think of Jane Steele? Did you like the book, and the character it’s named after? And what about Charles Thornfield? Smouldering hero or uptight glove-wearing weirdo?

 

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November 2017

Welcome back to our book club this month – and for our new joiners, hello, so happy to have you here.

 

It’s time to discuss The Madwoman Upstairs. Where to begin?

 

So the book opens and we’ve got Samantha, who is at times a painfully socially awkward student starting her first year at Oxford. And then of course there’s her suspiciously young, cranky tutor Timothy James Orville III, the best looking and worst named professor in the history of literature.

 

Though this is a contemporary story, it heavily borrows gothic elements – if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre as soon as you met Orville you’d have smelled an opportunity for a deeply repressed courtship (which I am obviously 100% here for).

 

There are many nods to classic literature in here, but that said, you don’t need to catch every single one to thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The plot on its own is enough to keep you turning the pages right to the end, and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about Madwoman Upstairs. It’s got a pacey story but also some smart and interesting things to say about the Brontes and literature in general. There’s plenty of food for thought on these pages.

 

As with any novel where a character tells their own story, your enjoyment of this book really hinges on how well you can get along with the narrator. Samantha is smart but inexperienced, and this combination can be both endearing and annoying at the same time.

 

There were moments I loved and related to Samantha, and others where I felt like the title of the book might actually be referring to me rather than Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason because Samantha was driving me crazy.

 

Along with trying to cope with an unreliable narrator, to really get into The Madwoman Upstairs as a reader you need to accept a few – in my opinion – fairly fantastical things.

 

The first is that Samantha’s connection to the Brontes – when they don’t even share a last name – would be enough to make her a minor celebrity around campus to the point someone finds her interesting enough to put in the paper.

 

Thinking back to my first year of uni I don’t know if I would be aware of or care that someone was related – distantly – to a famous literary family. If anything her relationship with the university’s youngest and hottest professor would be a bigger source of gossip, and I suppose ultimately, it is.

 

Her complicated relationship with both her parents was the biggest risk of the book and not one that paid off in my opinion. Much longer novels have been devoted to simpler family dynamics than Samantha’s relationship with her estranged mother and dysfunctional alcoholic father.

 

That Sam is so disconnected from her mother that she’d go to boarding school rather than live with her when her father died, yet visit her in Paris when the going gets tough felt just a little too convenient, even accounting for the fact that we’re seeing her mother through the prism of Samantha’s own version of events.

 

And then there’s Rebecca. This character was also hugely problematic for me. Expecting me to believe this woman is simultaneously so loyal to Sam’s father that she’d keep her promises and so brutal in the final turn was maybe just a bridge too far.

 

Their altercation in Orville’s office and then again on the quad just seemed insane to me – we don’t know enough about Rebecca or her relationship with Sam’s father to justify her bitterness and without it the tension here just felt a little artificial.

 

While I can sympathise over her anger at the break in, it’s not as if she wouldn’t instantly know who broke in and stole her bookmark. Has this woman really been quietly toiling away in the mathematics department waiting for Sam to show up so she could ruin her? As a prestigious mathematician surely she’d have something better to do?

 

Samantha’s mother, father and Rebecca should make for incredibly complex reading, but these characters felt more like chess pieces; their behaviours help move the plot forward but if you try to examine them and their motivations, make almost no sense.

 

Problematic plot points aside, what I loved about the The Madwoman Upstairs is it made a nice point about the dangers of being stuck in your own story.

 

Samantha, her father, Sir John and Rebecca all are caught up in their own stories – and their versions ultimately prevent them from living their lives.

 

Sir John is so caught up in believing his version of the truth he loses his job and family. Rebecca wastes years of her life to extreme bitterness. Samantha jumps into a dirty well. In each instance the character is more attached to the idea of the story they’ve invented than living with the reality right in front of them.

 

And who among us hasn’t been guilty of creating our own version of events once or twice. How many times have you made something about you only to realise later it had nothing to do with you at all? In that sense, The Madwoman Upstairs resonated.

 

Last but not least, there’s Orville. Samantha’s older-but-not-so-much-older-that-it’s-weird-professor does his best to be the brooding Mr Rochester we all want him to be and he sort of is.

 

Again, we don’t really know what’s going on with Orville most of the time because all we have is Samantha, and she is not exactly the most perceptive narrator in history. But actually for the most part I loved Orville. Hot and grumpy is always a winning combination.

 

His relationship with another student, though you can very much argue it wasn’t like that, makes things with Sam very tricky. Their relationship is already at best completely inappropriate and to add in the fact that he’s dated a student before muddies the waters even further.

 

The author throws the revelation about his past relationship with a student in the latter half of the book as a big oh shit moment and never really gets resolved. It really took away from the triumph you should feel at these two characters getting together – instead I felt very much on the fence about whether this was a good thing or not.  

 

Orville does his best to hold strong but love wins in the end, career be damned. Considering he was a child genius and worked very hard to get to where he is that he’d just give it all up and move to Ireland didn’t quite fit with his character.

 

Again, it felt more like a convenient ploy to shoehorn in one last Jane Eyre reference (if you remember, Jane was going to *maybe* be shipped off to Ireland when Rochester decided to get married) rather than something that would actually happen. That he’d be fired and disgraced or Sam would switch to a different college would have been a lot more plausible.

 

For the fact that there’s so much back and forth about authorial intent it’s slightly ironic that a lot of the action towards the end felt very heavy-handed by the author.

 

And – last rant, I promise – the epilogue was just a firm no. A firm, firm no from me. Again, fans of Jane Eyre will recognise exactly why it’s there. But to me the story would have been a lot stronger if we’d resisted the urge to tie everything into a neat little bow.  

 

The thing is, even in spite of a few major plot problems, I really enjoyed the Madwoman Upstairs. I tore through it in just a couple of sittings and it stayed on my mind long afterwards. You can’t ask much more than that from a book I think.