Thursday, December 29, 2011

Falling Angels

For some reason, several years ago I felt compelled to pick up several Tracy Chevalier novels at a library book sale, even though at that time I hadn’t read anything by her. Fortunately, I’ve enjoyed The Lady and the Unicorn and the movie version of The Girl with the Pearl Earring (which I watched before realizing it was based on a book). I decided to give Falling Angels a try and ended up reading it in one sitting.

Unlike the other Chevalier novels I’m familiar with, this one doesn’t focus on the story behind a piece of artwork. It takes place at the turn of the century in England. It’s about a world poised on the brink of major changes – the death of Queen Victoria, the invention of cars, wider use of electricity, women’s suffrage, breaking away from old traditions. While we today are thankful for this changes and it would have been exciting to be part of that, Chevalier shows that it would also be a time of upheaval and struggle.

If you’re a progressive woman in the early 1900s, sympathetic to the women’s rights movement, you would likely feel out of place in your home. You’d be torn between family duties and being a suffragette. Your husband likely wouldn’t want you involved, and even your daughter who you’re in part doing this for won’t understand when she’s young. You may be arrested and put in jail. You may ruin the family name simply by protesting. Chevalier shows this struggle, and also shows that sometimes even when we’re fighting for what’s right we can go too far.

There were several references to Dickens in the novel, and I couldn’t help comparing Kitty, who becomes a suffragette, to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Both have good intentions, but take their focus on volunteering to such an extreme that it hurts their families. Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed with helping children in Africa that she fails to see the state her own children are in. Kitty becomes so focused on supporting women’s suffrage that she neglects her own daughter, even though she claims she’s doing these things to help her daughter, and ends up causing tremendous harm to her family and a neighboring family.

I think perhaps one of the reasons I was enchanted by this story is that when I was little I had the Samantha doll and books from American Girls, who was from the turn-of-the-century. Although Samantha was from New York, the overall setting was very similar and she even attends a women’s suffrage event in a park in one book. Reading Falling Angels felt like reading a grown-up version of the Samantha books, where the rose-colored glasses are removed and there are deaths, violence, lies, scandals, and affairs.

Also, I tend to enjoy novels that are written from various points of view, and Chevalier does that well. The voices are distinct, so you don’t have to keep reminding yourself whose section you’re reading. I love getting to see multiple sides of the same story and learning from the various perceptions. You can see how people think they’re fooling others but aren’t, or sometimes are, and how two different people view the same conversation or event. I think it adds depth to a story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated its ability to pull me completely into the story. The one negative is that the first page makes it sound like it’s going to be about a group of swingers, which it’s not at all. Don’t let that throw you off. I think that was an odd decision to make in an otherwise wonderful read.

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