Thursday, January 27, 2011

Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery

Emily of New Moon (Emily Novels)I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know another of L. M. Montgomery's delightful young heroines, Emily of New Moon. In fact, I only reluctantly put down Emily Climbs in order to write this review before the end of Carrie's L. M. Montgomery Challenge. Though I didn't get the whole series read during this challenge, I plan to finish the next two books soon and review them here, challenge or no.
L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge
There will certainly be more L. M. Montgomery novels to choose from next year.

Of course, it is inevitable that one would compare Anne of Green Gables with Emily Byrd Starr, but I'm not ready to make a final decision on which is my favorite. I cannot read Anne without hearing the soundtrack and picturing the movie and the scenery of Prince Edward Island, all of which make me sigh and long to transplant myself there 100 years ago. It doesn't seem like there is quite the allure of the land in the Emily books, but maybe that is because Emily does not invent quite so many fanciful names for her surroundings. Emily is certainly creative, but her imagination is poured into the written word at a much earlier age than Anne. She clearly loves New Moon and the Blair Water and nature in general, but even her early attempts at poetry have a certain refinement that is quite different from Anne's romantic enthusiasm.

There are many similarities between characters and plot, of course. As Amy noted in her review of Magic for Marigold, many Montgomery novels could be summarized as an orphan with an (over)active imagination who overcomes obstacles of misunderstanding and various mishaps to find friendship, recognition, success, and eventually love. But even with these common features, Emily did not seem to me to be simply another version of Anne. Her personality is distinct; her passion is writing, not just imaginative names and enchanting phrases, and somehow this makes her a little less dramatic, I think. (I know Anne is a writer also, but it seems like this comes out later in the books, whereas Emily is almost inseparable from her blank books from the first.) She has a more reflective, less impulsive nature and is very astute in her first impressions and judgments of others. After being ill-used by one friend, she is a bit more reserved in her friendships, though that does not prevent her from forging strong bonds with a few chums: Ilse, a hot-tempered, but fiercely loyal girl of her age; Teddy, a gifted artist with an obsessively jealous mother; and Perry, the hired boy with aspirations of political grandeur.

I think the part that I like best, and which also sets this novel completely apart from Anne, is that her kindred spirit is an adult, and a man at that, but in Dean Priest, a schoolmate of her deceased father, Emily finds someone who understands her way of thinking and can further her imagination and education with stories of distant lands and myths of long ago. "In Dean Priest Emily found, for the first time since her father had died, a companion who could fully sympathize. She was always at her best with him, with a delightful feeling of being understood. To love is easy and therefore common - but to understand - how rare it is!" (272). In a modern novel such a friendship between a twelve-year-old girl and a thirty-six-year-old man would be suspect at best, and predatory at worst. But Montgomery pulls it off with innocence and propriety, and the subtle hints that Dean drops indicating his complete enchantment with Emily and hopes for when she is grown only make me want to keep reading to see how several overlapping love triangles will play out as Emily and her friends grow older.

And with that, I must get back to Emily Climbs!
Emily Climbs (Emily Novels)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables (Signet Classics)I count it no small accomplishment to have read Les Misérables in 28 days - yes, all 1463 pages in just 4 weeks! Now, I must admit that I skimmed some of the more lengthy historical parts, but I did slough my way through 60+ pages on 19th century Parisian sewers. That's got to make up for skimming the parts I read ten years ago during my first attempt when I only made it about two-thirds of the way through the book.

There is so much that could be said about this novel, and I immensely enjoyed our book club discussion which delved into many and varied topics. Julia's insights into the lack of father figures was particularly insightful!

As for me, the characters are what make a great book, and Les Misérables has an amazing cast of characters that evoke a whole spectrum of emotions. The bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, is inspiring and endearing. Jean Valjean is marvelous, complex, troubled, and above all good after the act of forgiveness and generosity that transformed him. Thenardier, well, he simply makes me shudder, and his wife is just as dreadful. Cosette and Eponine...I could go on and on...

But the main topic that I have debated myself is the idea of redemption in this novel. I think my expectations must have been too high to start with because I had been told that Les Misérables is the greatest story of redemption ever written, apart from the Bible, and I read it with that in view. I think I was looking for a more obvious correlation to the gospel, an actual spiritual redemption, not simply a moral one. But I suppose that was too much to expect from a story set in Roman Catholic Paris and from an author who rejected his Roman Catholic upbringing and called himself a freethinker.

Redemption is certainly a theme, but I must question if it is truly a Christian view of redemption since Christ is noticeably absent. Though the bishop's words certainly convey the idea "You were bought with a price..." (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23), that price was paid by the bishop himself, and it is to him that Jean Valjean's thoughts always turn when he wrestles with difficult decisions about the right path to follow. This charge: "Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man...Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God" (106) becomes the guiding force of Jean Valjean's life, but in the absence of the gospel - of a clear declaration that Christ died for you, now you must live for Him - Jean Valjean's goodness is only a compilation of merits accumulated to assuage his conscience and overcome the social stigma of a convict. Now it must be granted that such a view is in keeping with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church where redemption would be the process of a lifetime, a conjoining of the work of Christ with the works of man. This is understandable in the historical context of 19th century France, but while a works-based idea of redemption may be true to the historical context and setting of the novel, it simply is not the penultimate illustration of redemption since true redemption cannot be separated from the true and complete gospel.

Thus, my Protestant and Reformed sensibilities have a hard time applying the term "redemption" to the whole story. It could be construed as a story of sanctification, though there are theological difficulties with that, as well, given the Roman Catholic context of the novel (see above). But if we shift the focus from man to God, it becomes quite obvious (to me, at least) that Les Misérables is a story of providence. Maybe this was even Victor Hugo's intention. He writes, "This book is a drama whose first character is the Infinite. Man is the second" (509). At the very least a testimony to providence is the result he could not hide in spite of his vague deist ideas of God, for he crafts a story in which it is only too obvious that something, someONE is superintending all events, bringing the exact people and circumstances together at the right times to preserve life, to give second chances, and yes, to further moral redemption, even if not salvific.

Now I'd like to hear your thoughts on this. Have you always considered Les Misérables a story of redemption? Can you see how it is a story of providence from first to last? Whatever your opinion, I'm sure we can agree that Les Misérables remains one of the greatest novels of all time, unsurpassed in its depiction of the depths and the heights of human character. Even though its length is daunting, it was well-worth the time (which really didn't seem that long), and I hope to read it at least once per decade.

On a side note, aren't these original (1862) illustrations of Cosette and Gavroche by Emile Bayard amazing? I would love to see an edition that included all the original illustrations.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

L. M. Montgomery Challenge 2011

L. M. Montgomery Reading ChallengeI'm a little late to the party on this one because I was determined to finish Les Misérables before starting the L. M. Montgomery Challenge, hosted by Carrie at Reading to Know. While I am still processing my thoughts on Les Mis, I am prepared with the three Emily books already checked out from the library, overcoming at least one obstacle that stymied me last year. I would like to read all three - Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest - in the next 2 weeks, but we'll see how that goes. I'm looking forward to comparing Emily with Anne and getting to know another Montgomery character, as well as returning to the picturesque villages of Prince Edward Island. Maybe I'll check out the movies, as well, although I usually prefer to read than to watch.

Thank you, Carrie, for hosting this challenge again. Your enthusiasm is infectious, and if you ever plan a reader's tour of Prince Edward Island, I will be one of the first to sign up!