Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson: Impressions

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I was initially intrigued by the subject matter of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, a lovely debut novel written by Suzanne Joinson.* The story alternates between two times and places - 1923 Kashgar and present day London - and follows two young women whose lives are vaguely connected, though you don't find out how until maybe a quarter of the way through the novel. 

Eva, from whose perspective the 1923 portion of the story is told, is a young woman posing as a missionary both to accompany her sister on an expedition to Asia and to gather material for a travel guide she hopes to write. Her sister Lizzie has become taken with Millicent, the elder, leader missionary, whose methods of conversion involve latching on to a woman's secret unhappiness in order to manipulate them into separating from their current way of life and joining the evangelical mission. On their journey, the stumble upon a young girl about to give birth. Though they try deliver the baby safely, the too-young mother dies, and the local people accuse Millicent of murder. They are taken to Kashgar and put on a sort of indefinite, somewhat loose house arrest. 

In present day London, Frieda, an academic scholar whose work involves much travel to Muslim areas to work on her research, has returned from her latest expedition to realize she's completely dissatisfied with her life, both her career and her relationship with a drunkard married man who appears to have no redeeming qualities (making one question why on earth she ever bothered with him to begin with - purely for the physical relationship seems to be the answer). Tayeb, a Yemeni in London illegally after his travel visa ended years ago, has been found out by the authorities and is trying to avoid deportation back to Yemen where he would most likely be jailed or killed. Frieda receives a strange death notice in the mail, and the story takes off from there. 

To be fair, it took quite a while for this book to pick up for me - possibly until a quarter or a third of the way through. The 1923 thread was fairly intriguing right away, but the journal-style read a little awkwardly for a while. The present day bit, following Frieda and Tayeb who form an unlikely bond in an almost too unlikely way, took a little too long to explain what was going on and why we should be interested. But right about the time the connection between the two stories becomes clear, the stories both really seem to hit their stride. 

Through Eva, we learn a little about Kashgar, a formerly Buddhist town in western China that had become mostly Muslim. It is one of the towns on the Silk Road, and during this time period attacks are beginning in the region. She's brought her bicycle along and occasionally manages to ride around town, and it later becomes crucial to her survival. Frieda discovers more about her past than she ever thought to ask. Both women in the process come into their own and realize important qualities about their characters.

The bicycle remains in the background of much of the story, symbolizing both responsibility and freedom. The book is interspersed with bicycle guidance, a touchpoint of recurring themes: 

What the Bicycle Does: Mounted on a wheel, you feel at one the keenest sense of responsibility. You are there to do as you will within reasonable limits; you are continually called upon to judge and to determine points that before have not needed your consideration, and consequently you become alert, active, quick-sighted and keenly alive, as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself. 

Though the novel did start off slowly for me, and had a few elements of unbelievability, it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I generally enjoy novels that give a glimpse of other cultures, and this one lives up to that. It is also a refreshing story about women in that it does not revolve around men or their relationship to men, but rather their relationship with each other, with their families, and with themselves. 

*I received this book for early review courtesy of Bloomsbury via NetGalley, and it is set to be published in June of 2012.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: Impressions

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Although I enjoyed The Marriage Plot overall, ultimately it fell short of realizing its potential. Eugenides is no doubt a talented author, and clearly does not rush anything to publication, having only published 3 novels in almost 20 years, but this could possibly have done with a little extra tweaking. 

This book has been out for a few months, so I'll try to keep the synopsis short. The love triangle plot revolves around three Brown graduates, focusing on the year or so following their graduation in June, 1982. Mitchell, the author in thinly veiled fictional form, is an awkward Greek boy from Detroit, obsessed with religion and with a girl named Madeleine. Madeleine is a bibliophilist English major, struggling with the semiotic interpretation of literature, particularly with the plot type centering on the marriage of its main characters, most popular in 18th & early 19th century lit. She's of Greek heritage and a privileged background, and is obsessed with Leonard. Leonard is supposed to be of more modest roots, from Portland, OR, and is wicked smart and bi-polar. Leonard is not obsessed with Mitchell and kind of likes Madeleine. 

I'll start with the virtues. Eugenides deftly captures all the emotional turmoil of transitioning from teenager child to young adult sent out into the "real" world. Everyone feels everything with vivid acuteness. Break-ups are earth-shattering, even if the relationship was a mere three months long. Everyone is afraid of rejection, though they all face a fair amount of it. The reader keenly feels every self-conscious apprehension. At one point, Madeleine becomes suddenly self-conscious when having a conversation with Leonard that isn't going so well: 

The conversation lapsed. And suddenly, to her surprise, Madeleine was flooded with panic. She felt the silence like a judgment against her. At the same time, her anxiety about the silence made it harder to speak. 

(This is a scenario to which I can definitely relate - my now spouse can attest to that.) Their joys are also intensely felt, and I enjoyed the poser-ish ways of college students brought to light, the unfounded self-assuredness flaunted to mask secret insecurities, the bookshelves lined with appropriately intellectual books, the patronizing combativeness that passes as flirting, etc. And the state of things at the end of the book was ultimately satisfying. 

Now, the vices. Madeleine is supposed to be a liberal, feminist character, but she spends most of the novel in reactive instead of active mode (even in the end, which took away from the otherwise satisfying ending). Her thesis is in part titled Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot, but we never find out what those thoughts actually are. She is a grown woman who calls her father "Daddy." Is it just me that finds that weird and creepy? Mitchell, for most of the novel, is suffering his unrequited love for Madeleine, and is on a spiritual journey or mission of sorts. But his journey seems to be dismissed in the end. Leonard is mostly trying to deal with his bi-polar-ness, and we only get a glimpse into his story for one section, past the middle of the novel. 

The story is ultimately about finding oneself, or coming to some hard-earned conclusions about one's place in the world, and in that it succeeds, at least in part. The characters were interesting and relatable, and mostly likeable. It was a worthwhile read overall, as long as you can accept some of the elements that don't quite work.
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