I've only read three books since my last blog, and I didn't actually read any of them with my eyeballs, I listened to them with my ears, so opinions might be different, as audiobook performance can influence book enjoyment, especially with Life of Pi, which was bloody fantastic and needs no review, since everyone but me read it in 2002. The audiobook reader was Indian-Canadian, making Life of Pi on audio slightly better than the printed thing. I tried reading the paper book towards the middle because I was enjoying it so much I wanted to free my listening from the medium of my car, but I cannot do an Indian accent in my head, so I went back to the the audiobook. Flapping amazing. My only complaint is that the fictionalized author's note, the part in the movie where Yann Martel travels from Toronto to Pondicherry looking for inspiration and he meets Pi's uncle who says something like, "You're a Canadian who has travelled to India, but I know an Indian in Canada whose story will make you believe in God," was absent from the audiobook. My other comment is that dying on a raft so slowly that one ends up immigrating to Canada instead is much more upsetting in stark prose than in an American movie, and what of the two narratives? What of the end? What happened? Why parallel stories? Why the blind Frenchman?! The carnivorous island?! How?! Why?!!
In the public domain, The Palace in the Garden by Mary Louisa Molesworth is a minor children's book, enjoyable in every way, but I have no trouble understanding why it's been lost to history. Think The Secret Garden with less wonder or Mrs. Nesbits' without the magic. The Palace in the Garden has charm and voice and a really obvious mystery spearheaded by three upper-class Victorian orphans who live with their stern, old grandfather in his silent London house, but who doesn't? As the book opens, Gussie, Tib, and Gerald are summoned to grandfather's big, oaken study to be told that he is sending them to his country estate that they've never heard of: Rosebuds. It sounds romantic, doesn't it?, and they are meant never to talk to anyone in the neighborhood while they are there. The children go back to the nursery full of excitement and immediately sort out half the mystery: Rosebuds is written in grandfather's old book of fairy tales, which he wrote his name in as a boy, and another name, Regina, is crossed out under it. Tib's proper name is Mercedes Regina, so a person who's read Victorian novels can guess that someone named Regina has been cut out of the family and they're probably living near Rosebuds, but the fun is in the journey.
Rosebuds is all an English country house it should be, with a cheerful housekeeper and a big enough yard to do all sorts of playing, and a wood at the bottom of the garden near the stone wall, that has a secret door, Gerald finds the secret key, which leads into a secret conservatory, that connects to a secret house, with a secret room with a portrait of an old-fashioned lady who looks exactly like Tib. The kids' playing about was probably the best part of a solid story: "Let's play that I'm the princess and you're a baron and you lock me in the dungeon." "Why do I have to be the baron?"
Aunt Jane's Hero is a little bit nuts. The trouble with a good Christian novel, with good Christian characters who strive earnestly to do what's best in the eyes of an ever-loving and -providing God, is that, because God provides, none of the narrative tension lasts for more than a few chapters. Horace is worldly, then he becomes a better Christian. Horace thinks Maggie doesn't love him, but she does. Horace takes sick, but then he gets better. Maggie's sister Annie is too worldly, but she learns to be a better Christian. Maggie wants a child, and they have one. God provides. As well as God, Horace and Maggie experience the benificient influence of providence in Aunt Jane herself, a pious but pleasant elderly widow in the Protestant tradition, she is Horace's late mother's dearest friend and his advisor on things spiritual. Maggie meets Horace at Aunt Jane's knitting bee and asks him how he knows Aunt Jane, and Horace says, "Why, she's my Aunt Jane too!" Maggie says, "She's not actually my aunt, I just call her that because she is such a dear friend of my family." Horace says, "She's not my aunt either, so we must be cousins!" They joke about all evening but Horace is still too much of the world to realize what a catch Maggie is. Then the Civil War happens, mostly offscreen, and Horace loses a leg at Bull Run. After months in a field hospital and a wooden leg attached with some sort of elaborate leather strapping, Horace visits Aunt Jane again and falls madly in love with Maggie. He's prepared to love her forever in silence, but she loves him too so he need not be silent any longer. Horace doesn't believe he can afford to marry and set up a household on his meager lawyer's salary, but Aunt Jane convinces him that they can live in an unfashionable neighborhood, so Horace marries Maggie and they settle into the kind of genteel poverty that only employs one maid. For a few chapters Aunt Jane's Hero becomes a manual of domestic economy. Maggie scrimps and saves keeps the household budget down and Mrs. Prentiss emphasizes, chapter after chapter, the majesty of domestic economy as opposed to boarding. (If you want a novel of household management with humor and details, read Trials and Confessions of a Housekeeper by T.S. Arthur, the real pseudonym of an editor for Godey's Lady Book.) Something besides a quiet married life needs to happen to a keep Aunt Jane's Hero going, so Horace comes down with typhoid fever, contracted from the Irish to whom Maggie charitably bestows soup. Maggie and Horace spend all their free time trying to convert the Irish. They lure Irish children to Bible Study with cookies. It's all very Protestant and sneaky, and Aunt Jane encourages them at it. Some trials and resolutions later, Aunt Jane says, "What if I told you I was going to Europe?" and means that she is going somewhere better than Europe: the loving embrace of our heavenly Father. Aunt Jane dies peacefully, explaining that, while she's looking forward to seeing her late husband and son, she is more excited to meet Jesus. Maggie has the long-awaited child around the time Aunt Jane dies, and Aunt Jane leaves Horace and Maggie enough money to afford a slightly larger house and a horse, the longest unresolved issue in Aunt Jane's Hero: Because Horace has a wooden leg, he cannot go on walks to cure his dyspepsia like other men, and the doctor recommends he ride, but he cannot afford a horse. Now he can. God provides. Like The Palace in the Garden, there is nothing wrong with Aunt Jane's Hero. It's simple, plodding, predictable, and sweet. Apparently Elizabeth Prentiss is enjoying a renaissance in Christian fiction circles, and it's well deserved. If anyone needs comfort from a Protestant God, Aunt Jane's Hero is written just for that. And Aunt Jane's Hero is ideal for anyone who needs to write an essay on "The Cult of Domesticity and the Early Victorian Novel."