Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

An oldie but a goodie... time for some mysterious genre goodtimes!

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

Procured from my all time favorite bookstore, McKay's Used Books in Knoxville, TN - woot-woot!

Procured in Summer 2009

Finished on December 15, 2011

Format: Mass market paperback with a super creepy chick on the front

Why I gave it a try: I've long heard that Wilkie is the godfather of modern mysteries, so I wanted to see for myself. Besides, how often do you get to read a book by someone named Wilkie?

Summary: Our handsome hero is a gentlemanly drawing master - not gentry, but honorable and in the employ/company of the aristocratic class (think a governess status level). He's walking home one night after securing a new post in the Lake District, when this odd woman dressed, you guessed it, in white, approaches him on Hampstead Heath, desperately trying to figure out how to get to London. Being the stand-up guy that he is, he helps her find her way and leaves her in a carriage, slightly confused but no worse for wear. Suddenly, two guys race past him to the nearby police officer. They tell him to look out for a woman in white who has just escaped from their asylum... dundunDUN. He goes onto his new post, where, surprise-surprise, the woman in white still plagues his life and the lives of the women he's instructing. 

Thoughts: I had a hard time getting going with this one, I'll be honest, because the first 20 pages don't exactly hook you in. I got stuck there and left it lingering for a couple of months, but then I picked it up again, just to get it off my TBR pile. Oh. my. gosh. Thank the Lord I did! Once this story gets cooking, it grabs you by your nose and will not let you go until the end. It's one of those books that I got really upset about because I was so worried about what was happening to some of the characters. I simultaneously wanted to slurp up every one of the 567 pages in one sitting and to leisurely sip it over several weeks - I was torn between my need to know what happened and my enjoyment of the beauty of the language and Collins' observations.

These beautiful observations, to me, were the biggest surprise in my reading of The Woman in White - the fact that there are complex, compelling characters in the midst of what is essentially a suspense or mystery type book. It's curious, in the sense that this is seen as one of the forebearers of the more conventional mysteries from folks like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. My obsession with these guys is well documented, so I am safe in saying that you don't necessarily associate terribly deep characters with their works The characters in this book are, generally, very well drawn and interesting. Granted, we have a Stock Noble Hero and Stock Vulnerable Heroine who, I suppose, are who we are really meant to be rallying around. What we also have, however, is a superbly strong, able female lead who ends up being the true driving force of the novel. You take out Marian Halcombe and you don't really have a story. She is a nuanced depiction of what an independent minded woman of the time could have looked like and you find yourself routing for her all the way through. (As an aside, there are so many insightful and surprising references to the value of strong women in this book! Considering the period of its composition and that one of the heroines is such a typical depiction of fragile femininity, Collins has some fascinating commentary on the societal position of women through several of the characters... I'd love to have a book group discussion about that theme.)

Not only has ol' Wilks given us developed good guys - this has well developed bad guys! I won't reveal who they are, because that's something you won't find out until a couple hundred pages in. Suffice it to say, they are super intriguing and just evil... dastardly is probably the best adjective. This is where the flat Stock Vulnerable Heroine comes in, because she's just pitiful in light of the others, making them even more scary, and making Marian's valiant efforts to thwart them something you just can't help but cheer for. The side characters are pretty great, as well... I freaking loved Mr. Fairlie, their "invalid" uncle, who is just so smarmy and self-centered that you want to get up and smack him. In my mind, he has a waxed mustache and a ponytail... kind of an emaciated, mustachioed Gaston a la Beauty and the Beast. You can take that as you will.

All of this is not mentioning the actual plot aspect, which is fairly predictable, once it gets in full swing, but unfolds satisfactorily and engagingly as you go along. I'll also give Collins his due in mentioning that you don't totally see where things are going and how the crazy lady from the asylum will tie back in until about 150 pages in- by then, you're hooked and you don't care so much if you have an idea of where things are going. He also genuinely puts his characters in conflicts and danger, which adds to suspense, and serves as a good handwaving trick to distract you from one pretty glaringly thin plot conceit.

All this to say, this was a really enjoyable read. I loved it, truly, and I'm looking forward to diving into The Moonstone


6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW 

Do you generally like "classics?" How does a novel achieving "classic" status impact the validity of its genre?

Barnes & Nobles

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