Monday, March 11, 2013

Eye of the beholder

At the risk of repeating myself (actually not a risk, I am repeating myself), last year's reading for the Morris Award really killed my reading mojo, and what contributed to its death more than anything else was the paranormal.  I read about various iterations of angels, demons, valkyries, lycanthropes, the "kind and the unkind" until they all blended together in a jumble of lasting romance, gawky girls not aware of their tremendous beauty and powerful skills, and eyes of a color rarely (if ever) found in nature. So, I was predisposed not to like Elizabeth Fama's Monstrous Beauty, one of the Odyssey's Honor audiobooks. I think you can tell from the cover what non-human human is featured.

But Monstrous Beauty has some quirks that help it rise above your ordinary paranormal. A fully realized setting (Cape Cod near Plymouth Rock), a main character who has an unexpected reaction to learning of her species, lots of great historical detail, some fairly shocking violence and an ending that (fingers crossed) is an actual no-sequel-needed ending. Hester is a 17-year-old nerdy history buff who lives with her father and stepmother in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She works at nearby Plimoth Plantation as an interpreter. There's a boy who likes her but Hester has made it quite clear that romance is not in the works. She fears romance, in fact, as she comes from a tragic line of women who all die mysteriously in the days immediately following the births of their daughters.

Escaping from a school-year-end party, Hester retreats to a cave on the beach only accessible at low tide and has a conversation with an unseen man -- whose name she later learns is Ezra. Drawn to this man even before she fully meets him, she is charmed by his courteous manners and old-fashioned way of speaking. We've already met Ezra by the time Hester does, because we've also been reading about the life of another young woman, who lived about 130 years earlier in the 1870s. Syrenka is a mermaid with a penchant for humans (after several tries, she figures out how not to kill them) and she has met and fallen in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. Like another mermaid, she makes a significant sacrifice to join her lover on land, but Syrenka's fate has longer lasting consequences. Ezra is not the only ghost Hester encounters hanging about Plymouth.

I'm predisposed to like Hester because she goes to the library to do research (although preposterously, she finds what she is looking for during her lunch hour ... and then, there's the question of the theft!). If she gets a little too swoony over Ezra, I'm trying to give her some slack (it's in her genes). And she is capable of making some hard decisions that she knows are right, even though they may end her romance. I really enjoyed her scenes at Plimoth Plantation, where she speaks in that 17th century vernacular for the tourists, while skewering stupid tourist questions at the same time. The 19th century characters who haunt the churchyard are more interesting than the contemporary ones, perhaps because their stories are ultimately tragic.  The mermaid sequences get a tad tiresome -- although the Sea Hag is quite awesomely evil.

I enjoyed the twining of the two stories -- I thought I had the con- nection figured out and was pleasantly surprised when it worked out slightly differently. Where Fama truly excels is her setting, which I had no trouble picturing as I listened -- the wild ocean off Cape Cod, the tide-strewn beach, the old meeting house and its creepy crypt, a dusty history museum, even the lair of the Sea Hag.

I did find the main premise -- Hester can't fall in love because she mustn't have children -- to be a bit of a stretch and not exactly the message that I'd like young women to take away from this book, i.e., love = children. Also, I want young readers to practice birth control and to know that there are many ways to make a family without actually giving birth. But I also realize that quibbling about this is fairly ridiculous.

Katherine Kellgren -- whose narrative gifts have been recognized by all but one of the Odyssey Committees since the award's inception in 2008 -- narrates the novel.  She's good, per usual. Her narrative authentically captures Hester's insecurities and Syrenka's predatory, seductive nature. She shines in the sections at Plimoth Plantation, and she produces a terrific characterization of an alcoholic Scots preacher. There are even dolphin-like clicks as she creates a mermaid language. It's a fine performance -- among all her fine performances -- worthy of Odyssey notice.

There's a brief musical intro and outgo that is suitably siren-y -- complete with vocalizations. There are the mermaids sunning themselves, combing their hair and humming a few bars.  Kellgren and Fama (FAH [like the note that's a long long way to run] -ma) enjoy a brief conversation at the conclusion of the audiobook that is the usual questions (on both sides), but is interesting nevertheless. (You know which questions I'm talking about: where did you get your ideas, how did you research it, what's your favorite character, etc.)

In the department of weird: This blog records three books featuring mermaids (including this one), and I posted on the first two almost exactly one year apart -- while this third one comes in at the 11-month mark. Wonder what I'll be listening to next year ...

[This photo of Plimoth Plantation was taken by Nancy and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Macmillan Audio, 2012.  8:01

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