Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book Review: The Woman in White

"The driver was evidently discomposed by the lateness of my arrival. He was in that state of highly respectful sulkiness which is peculiar to English servants."

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is really a novel to sink your teeth (and brain) into. (I realize that's not a grammatically correct sentence, but sometimes I opt for the vernacular over the cumbersome.) First serialized in in 1859 and then published in book form in 1860, the work is one of the first in both the mystery and sensation genre. Once I started reading it and wrapped my brain around the 19th century verbosity (the antithesis of minimalism), I was hooked.

The story line is complex, with more than one mystery to unravel. Collins effectively utilizes the epistolary format to present different characters' interpretations of events and to tie together various elements of the plot. This was especially entertaining to me, as it really gives an in-depth look into the perceptions and personalities of different characters.

Collins is adept at creating memorable characters, almost all of whom seem so real you would know them anywhere. Consider this description of Laura Fairlie's former governess, Mrs. Vesey: "Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life. Sat in the house, early and late; sat in the garden; sat in unexpected windowseats in passages; sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking; sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question -- always with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn of the head, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic circumstances. A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth." Can't you just see her?

Of course, there those few issues when 21st century readers dive into a 19th century text. Certain plot twists meant to elicit shock fall short; but that's to be expected. We're talking about one of the first mystery novels published. Contemporary readers of the novel were completely surprised by developments that readers today can see coming from miles away. That being said, The Woman in White still has the power to pull the rug out from under us, keep us guessing, and pull us into the story. For me, that is a hallmark of a classic. The laundry and dishes may pile up and your family may wonder aloud about supper, but sometimes the book is so engrossing you just can't put it down. Aren't those the best?

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