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Beautifully written but unlikeable characters
on May 12, 2013
Erika von Kessler is a diva with big dreams; though she's well into her twenties and married, she secretly longs to leave her husband and travel to Italy where she might become the star she believes she is destined to be. Her businessman husband Peter's fervent desire to have a child, and her seeming inability to conceive, have only caused her to long even more to leave him. Fertility doctor after fertility doctor have failed to help her conceive, until the couple go to Doctor Ravell, a Boston specialist who has reportedly worked miracles in an age before artificial insemination was regularly practiced. Ravell is immediately captivated by Erika and, eventually, she by him, until their lives and ambitions become woven together.
This was not a book that sucked me in right away. In fact, I didn't actually like the characters. Perhaps realistically, they are all very selfish in their own ways, very human and particularly flawed, but that certainly makes them hard to understand. Erika's struggle for a child dominates the beginning of the book; it infuriated me, I must admit, when her husband refused having his sperm sample analyzed and then Ravell found out that the "fault" lay with him, not her - I find this difficult to articulate but I intensely despised him after his arrogance allowed him to go on blaming his wife for something that had nothing to do with her, when in reality it was a burden they could have borne together.
In some ways, despite the fact that I didn't like her much, it's easy to understand Erika's struggle, which was particularly indicative of the early twentieth century. Her ambitions are greater than the life she has, and she is forced to contain her talent in a world which expects her to be happy as a wife and mother. Although some women are, she isn't made for that role, and because she doesn't fit the mold, she has to do something extreme to achieve her own dreams. Still, she doesn't do so without any emotion, and her eventual choice is one that does in fact devastate her. I may not have appreciated the "romance" within this book much, but I can't fault McDonnell's characterization of these characters.
Yes, the "romance". I really did not feel that much about any connection between Erika and Ravell. I did not like a huge number of their actions and I honestly didn't get where the romance came from. Ravell has a complicated relationship with his gynecological patients, given he's also having an affair with another one when the book opens, and there is some insight in how they could feel some level of intimacy towards one another. But ... I just wasn't convinced.
Anyway, the book is actually quite well written and cleverly structured, with different phases of Erika's life mapped out with different sections of the novel, of which there are six in total. Some of the scenes are beautifully written, and I found those in Trinidad, in the jungle, to be particularly appealing, almost as though I could feel the sand and the breeze and the warm nights. I think McDonnell could be a phenomenal writer, and it's impressive that this is her first book - it's just a shame I didn't relate more to the characters in this very character-driven novel.