Friday, November 8, 2013

Hero(ine) of my own life

Like The Weird Sisters, finished earlier this summer, Eileen Favorite's The Heroines sounded like the kind of great-literature-inspired story that appeals to my dormant English major. The audiobook has been in my possession for quite some time -- thank you for 150 renewals -- and, timing being everything, I needed a short book while I waited for another book to come in that I "have" to listen to. And now, I've got one less audiobook waiting patiently on the shelf. That always makes for a good day.

The Heroines is the story of 13-year-old Penny Entwhistle, at adolescent loose ends during the summer of 1974, the weeks before Richard Nixon resigned from office. Her single mother (Penny's father is not in the picture ... maybe) runs the Homestead, a B&B near Lake Michigan, that attracts a very unusual clientele: Fictional heroines (destined for a bad end) taking a break from their novels for a few days.  Among their guests: Emma Bovary, Blanche duBois, Catherine Earnshaw, Franny Glass, Scarlett O'Hara, and Hester Prynne. (If you don't know who these ladies are, you can't call yourself a professional English major ... ;-)!)

Penny's mother, Anne-Marie, used to try to keep her daughter away from these guests, but now that she's a teenager -- and a well-read one at that -- she pretty much knows what's going on. And it bugs her a little bit, well more that a little bit actually ... Penny often feels that her mom is more interested in helping the heroines than in learning what's going on with her daughter. So, when the latest heroine knocks at the door -- a hysterical woman who says her name is Deirdre (this link tells Deirdre's story, but don't click on it if you don't want a kind of spoiler) -- Penny races off into the forest that surrounds the Homestead, a place her mother has always told her not to go after dark.

In the forest, Penny encounters a first: a man on a horse with an enormous sword -- claiming to be a king -- who is in frantic and violent search of Deirdre. (No heroine has ever come through with her male protagonist before ... maybe) Eager to get rid of the houseguest, Penny agrees to help him; but instead, her story gets her committed to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. Penny is beginning to feel like she's in her own version of a heroine's story.

I enjoyed this a lot, mostly for the English-major thrill of watching Favorite install familiar (and not so familiar ... I've never read Franny and Zooey) characters into the modern surroundings of the Homestead. Since they never leave the Homestead the fun is more how Penny and Anne-Marie react to the heroines and their eventual plight. (Anne-Marie never tells them what's in store for them once they return to their stories.) Since I was a teenager at the same time as Penny, it was also fun to take that trip down memory lane in clothing, music, sultry Midwestern summers with nothing to do and, naturally, Richard Nixon. When the novel switches to the psych ward, it takes on another type of a classic feel: how many stories have taken place within the closed society that is a mental hospital?

It's been more than five years since I listened to Charlotte Parry read an audio- book, but she never does a poor narration. She surprised me here in The Heroines with her natural American accent, as I've always heard her read with an English one. Of course, in this novel, she gets to read with all sorts of accents as she portrays the heroines ... French, English, Southern American, Irish, as well as what I'll call olde American speech for Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl. (Katherine Kellgren speaks similarly here.)

Parry gets to further showcase her talents with the diverse medical staff and patients of the psych ward, a young pothead who helps her escape, and the Germanic inflections of the Homestead's iron-willed housekeeper.  All the accents aside, it's her portrayal of the smart and moody Penny that is a real standout. All Penny's boredom, anger and adolescent attention-seeking is clear in Parry's first-person narration. It's a stellar performance, enjoyable from start to finish.

In the department-of-slightly-amusing, four books ago I listened to one called Hero. I admit to liking it when things accidently work out like that; it makes me think I've got a plan. I like having a plan.

[The eponymous letter from the 1878 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. And because I can't resist a photograph of the English countryside, here is Wuthering Heights, courtesy of Gary Rogers and the Geograph Project (and Wikimedia Commons).]

The Heroines by Eileen Favorite
Narrated by Charlotte Parry
Recorded Books, 2008.  7:50

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