the pathetic caverns - books by author - Fay Weldon
eclectic reviews and opinions
The Cloning of Joanna May
This chilly novel, largely about what an "identity" is and genetic predeterminism, is set in England in the days and weeks immediately before and following the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl. One of the things that really struck me about the book was how much more of an impact the accident had on people in Europe, as compared to, say, the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. In 1979, I lived in Maryland, within a hundred miles or so of the Harrisburg plant, more than ten times closer than anywhere in England to Chernobyl. We didn't worry about the drinking water or the rain, but the characters in the novel — and maybe in the real England, I don't know — hide from the rain and stop drinking milk. (I do have a sense of the relative scales of radioactive material released in the two accidents, but what I lacked was a psychological sense of how Europe and the British Isles might have viewed their proximity to the accident.)
Anyway, the pervasive fear of technology run mad provides a perfect backdrop. The novel tells the story of Joanna May, and her four clones — a fracturing and stealing of the self, if you will — ripped from her for the sin of infidelity by her former husband and would-be godling, Carl May. It was not always credible, but nonetheless emotionally compelling — it disturbed me enough that at one point I had to put it aside for a few days and read something fluffy in between. That's a pretty strong recommendation, as far as I'm concerned.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
In the vein of continuing my burgeoning obsession with Miss Austen, I also just read Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. I loved it.
It's something between a set of essays and an epistolary novel of sorts — it's purportedly written to Alice, a niece who complains of Jane Austen's irrelevance to the twentieth century reader.
It offers some interesting historical and biographical perspectives on Austen — answering Alice's implicit question about why Austen was not more radical in areas of gender roles and class distinctions by demonstrating that Austen was remarkably radical for her time.
It also significantly deepened my appreciation for Austen's work — no small feat, since Austen was already among my favorite authors.
It also offers a spirited and interesting discussion on what differentiates cpaital "L" literature from plain old fiction, in a way that's engaging and remarkably free of pretention.
Dept. of Deepening Resonance:
One of the interesting things about Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen is that the titular niece, Alice, is herself working on a novel, and Fay Weldon dispenses some advice on the crafting of literature as well as the appreciation of it. I've learned since writing this review one of Jane Austen's own nieces, Anna Austen Lefroy, also began a novel. The real-life Austen wrote letters of advice on the proper construction of novels to her Alice. A very nice touch.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
The Live and Loves of a She-Devil is a memorably bitter, blackly funny fable of a woman driven by her hunger for revenge (upon an unfaithful husband) to transform herself utterly. He calls her a devil; she decides to become one in truth, gradually excising every trace of her humanity. I know the novel was filmed in 1989, with Meryl Streep (as the adultress, Mary Fisher) and Roseanne as Ruth (who, significantly, I think, is given no last name). I can't imagine how on Earth it could be faithful to the book, which gets most of its power from Ruth's chilling internal mental landscapes (delivered mostly in terse paragraphs that reminded me a bit of Vonnegut).
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