Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Youngest Miss Ward

Note: This entry is nothing but rambles about the book mentioned in the title. Please don't feel obliged to read it. (g)

I actually read a "new to me" book, the last week of July. (Generally, I tend to reach for familiar friends when I read, these days.) I picked up my copy of The Youngest Miss Ward, by Joan Aiken, at the big library book sale, months ago-- and I think I'll be donating it back to next year's sale-- or Good Will, maybe. I don't think I'll ever be tempted to re-read it. (Besides, about half-way into the book, the pages started smelling of cigarettes, which wasn't exactly pleasant. Now I'll forever associate the story with stale cigarette smell! (g))

The story is described as "a Jane Austen Entertainment" because it's loosely tied to the characters of Mansfield Park. (Technically, I guess you'd call it a prequel, though the two novels don't focus on the same group of characters. It's more like a few characters from the original have guest roles in this new novel.) It didn't feel like Austen to me, and I think it would better have been written to stand on its own. I certainly wouldn't recommend reading it with the expectation of something along the lines of Austen.

I found the story readable enough, though the plot felt a bit haphazard-- just a series of odd misfortunes peopled by too many unpleasant, bossy characters for my tastes-- one dark situation after another. (I will admit, though, that the story wasn't as depressing as it could have been, given the laundry list of "bad stuff" it describes.)

A blurb on the cover touts the title character, Harriet "Hatty" (ugh, hate that name!) Ward, as having "a will of her own". Eh, well, maybe-- but she doesn't seem to exert her will often enough! Maybe young women of that period couldn't exert their wills-- but in that case, why even mention her "will" on the cover?

I'm rambling. My point is that while I like heroines to be "nice", it irritates me when they (usually) refuse to stand up for themselves. Being nice doesn't mean you have to let people walk all over you! Maybe it's because I'm just not that nice, myself. ;o) In any case, it annoyed me.

In spite of all that, I didn't dislike the character, so I was disappointed by the ending, which I thought was an unnecessary let-down. I wouldn't say that it was an unhappy ending-- but it was somewhat odd. Just another instance of an author trying to make you root for one ending, only to snatch the rug out from under your feet and present you with a different one. I think it's a pretty under-handed trick to play on a reader who's invested hundreds of pages in a story. (shrug)

In fact, I think it's time to post a. . .

(insert red flashing lights and wailing siren here) ;o)

Ok, so it's the story of a girl's coming of age-- not strictly a "love story"-- but romance is definitely a driving force. The reader hopes (if not expects) that the girl will achieve success/happiness in several areas of her life, and part of that is for her to be married, engaged, or "attached" by the end of the book.

The author gives us a variety of possible matches, but soon it's obvious that we're supposed to be focusing on this one person. Ok, I say to myself. I'll play along. I'll root for this couple to find their way toward happiness. It'll take a little imagination, because honestly, I don't sense much chemistry there-- but I'm willing to give it a try. ;o)

After a certain number of pages, I just want the couple to finally be on the same continent again! (g) (Can I just tell you how hard it is for me to think well of a man who completely needlessly leaves the girl he supposedly loves to go on a long, dangerous adventure? Wow, what a guy! ;o) He doesn't know that she knows he loves her-- or that she's returned the favor-- but still. . . ) So I keep doing my best, just waiting to see if he'll ever make it back to her. . .

And he does (just a few pages before the end of the book)! But he brings a wife back with him (an "Indian" girl he saved from starvation)! One he probably doesn't even really love-love. (Yeah, it's like "like-like", but for grown-ups. (g)) All because the idiot heard a second-hand (third-hand?) lie that the original girl was to be married. (Why not at least write to make sure before tying the knot with this new girl?) The man is obviously shocked to find the original girl still unmarried, but that's not much comfort, is it?

The original girl, angel that she is, doesn't even make a fuss. (Does she even cry? I can't recall.) Making a fuss or crying wouldn't do any good, I know, but at least it would be an understandable, human reaction. Instead, she's all too happy to agree-- that same evening-- to marry and settle down with a different guy-- one whom we've hardly been encouraged to think of in a romantic light. (A pear-shaped head with eyes that shift back and forth with amusement would be difficult to write about romantically, I'll admit. Maybe Aiken simply wasn't feeling up to the challenge.)

Couldn't she (Aiken) at least have given them. . . I don't know, a month or two to form a new attachment? Please give the poor woman a little time to recover! Must Hatty really say "oh well!" and go merrily on her way so soon after this horrible shock? No real, feeling woman could do that-- unless we're to believe that she wasn't really/still in love with Guy #1. (I guess there were instances of people talking about Guy #1 is a "saint"-- unrealistic, impractical, expecting more of people than they can give-- but nothing to make the reader would think Hatty doesn't still wish to marry him.)

Why do authors think it's acceptable to lead a reader on for chapters, only to pull the old switcheroo? Especially such a wholly unconvincing switch! I wouldn't have been quite as upset, I think, if she'd ended up with Ned-- though I suppose he'd been on the fringes of the story for too long to bring him back for a convenient stand-in husband. ;o) Besides, she was so tied to the hideous thatched cottage that it would've been awkward to tear her away. . .

Anyway. . .
I know that it's formulaic and conventional and inartistic to let a story play out the way 9 out of 10 readers want it to play out, but writing's still "business" for most authors, and you know what they say about the customer always being right. . . ;o)

Personally, I felt cheated. I had to make an effort to want those two characters together in the first place. There wasn't quite enough substance there, and I was hoping that when they were finally reunited there would be something more than a hint of mutual fondness. Instead, this. Yeah, it's great that Hatty manages to find happiness, anyway, with a different person. That's probably how life most often works out. But I still felt cheated. (g)