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122 Reviews
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars intriguing mystery with some major flaws
I read this book on a vacation and found it to be a page turner. I loved the atmosphere, the gypsy elements, the police procedure at the turn of the century and some of the characters. However, I spent some time pouring over the book after I finished and found many holes. First of all, the first major section of the book is about the fig (which is quite well done), but...
Published on July 18, 2002 by M. H. Bayliss

versus
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mystery and History Combined
My Mother lent me this book to read, commenting as she did it that the book was "definitely unusual." I'm inclined to agree. While it's basically a mystery novel, most of the time it reads as historical fiction; thoroughly researched and exquisite in detail. Set in early 20th century Vienna, Shields has fictionalized the story of Dora, a case study by Freud,...
Published on September 21, 2000 by pinolegirl@yahoo.com


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly engagin mystery nvoel, authentically detailed., September 7, 2000
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
The Fig Eater is an exquisitely written murder mystery set in the Vienna of 1910. The murder of Dora, troubled daughter of a respectable bourgeois family is being investigated by The Inspector, newly schooled in rationalist criminology just coming into vogue. The Inspector's wife, Erszebet, is a Hungarian steeped in intuition and mystical Gypsy lore, and becomes obsessed with the murder and launches her own parallel, secret investigation. The Fig Eater is a truly engaging mystery novel with a surprise ending that is greatly enhanced along the way for the readers total enjoyment with authentic details of food, botany, fashion, medical practices of the day. Highly recommended!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Oddly written and flat...., November 18, 2005
By 
S.Lynne "Lynne" (Washington state) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Fig Eater: A Novel (Paperback)
Did anybody else notice that on the first page the author used "poised" instead of "posed", twice? I had to stop reading and make sure there wasn't an alternate definition. Poor choice of words for an author. Can't imagine how it got by the editor. (And no, using a word incorrectly doesn't quality as being different or "artistic.")

I enjoy fictional history and didn't mind the side trips into early criminology, though they started to drag at end of the story.

The book is fairly descriptive, dwelling a great deal on Hungarian country superstitions. She has what could be interesting characters, but there is little depth to them and their motivation is indirect and muddy. The impression is that the author is merely trying on different pieces of period clothing and "poising" for us.

After reading this book, I'm left with the feeling that the author either doesn't like to read the kind of book she wrote or that this is just another artistic project, one she can cross off on her list of fashionable things to do.

Because so many readers have pointed out the loose ends, I won't repeat them. There are hints to settle them, but written in a vauge, unsatisfying manner. When a reader asks for directions, the writer should have written directions, not shrug and gesture as if to say oh somewhere over thatta way. You have to be willing to settle for ambiguity. And maybe that should be the final say on this book; ambiguous, vauge and unsatisfying.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Extremely disappointing, December 23, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
This book is so disappointing because it had the potential to be quite good. It started out well, with a wonderful location and time period, unusual characters, engrossing atmosphere, and a shocking crime.
Unfortunately, it all came apart very quickly. The Inspector and his wife evolved from unusual to overwrought, needy, secretive and selfish. The engrossing atmosphere went sour as the author padded the book with several contrived and irrelevant scenes. And the crime itself was solved in a ridiculous way that completely ignored the main clues of fig, excrement, and severed thumb.
And finally, if there was any link between this story and Freud's Dora, I completely failed to see it.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Literary and atmospheric but uneven, June 6, 2000
By 
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
Literary, well-written and atmospheric, Jody Shields' first novel is the story of a young girl's murder in 1910 Vienna. It's also the exploration of a marriage and the changing, repressive culture of the city and relations between the sexes.
Dora, the daughter of respectable people, was murdered in a public park. In her stomach is the remains of a fresh fig, hastily eaten, a fruit unavailable in Vienna in August. The unnamed inspector's wife, Erszebet, a painter, is brought in to make up the corpse and becomes obsessed with the dead girl. Erszebet, a passionate Hungarian, steeped in gypsy lore and superstition, has just returned from an exhausting bout of nursing a servant girl who died. "...this was her patient, returned to her. She was cold Lazarus."
Certain that the fig is the key, that Dora knew her killer to eat a fig with him, Erszebet enlists the help of a young English governess, Wally, to search for the tree, which must grow locally and must be found before the first snow when it will be wrapped and buried to keep it alive until spring. Meanwhile the inspector, an adherent of "rationalist criminology" interviews family and friends, exploring inconsistencies for "what is unspoken remains most powerful."
His wife's unspoken acitivities loom ever larger between them. The inspector notes small details that warn of a secret in his wife's life, details that would escape most men. Tensions build in the marriage through silence.
It's all very intriguing but as the book progresses, questions clamor in the reader's mind. The observant inspector completely ignores the vital clue of the fig. Why? And how does a middle-aged, syphilitic, autocratic burgher (Dora's father) get to be so attractive to women? Why doesn't the inspector have a name? He is certainly an individual and often more sympathetic than his prickly wife.
The book abounds with sensuality and repugnance. As part of a vow, Erszebet starves herself and feeds her husband sumptuous dishes. She forces Wally into role playing and housebreaking. Though resentful, Wally remains in thrall to Erszebet and discovers the liberation of passing as a boy. Shields explores the oppression of women as a catalyst for male depravity and female hysteria. Meanwhile the inspector becomes ever more morose while Erszebet grows more powerfully mysterious. Ultimately, the enigmatic second half does not live up to the vitality of the first half and the ending is bizarre.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars CSI Vienna, 1910, June 6, 2002
By 
Virginia Lore "rumtussle" (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Fig Eater: A Novel (Paperback)
The Fig Eater by Jody Shields reads like a combination of a CSI episode and a research paper. If you like historical forensic medicine, you'll find the first 25 pages fascinating, as the analysis of a murder scene unfolds with pinpoint historical accuracy. You'll also enjoy the many references to the police procedures of the time as the Inspector mentors Franz, a young policeman in the fundamentals of patient investigation. For this purpose, Shields relies heavily on the System der Kriminalistik, by Hans gross, published in 1904. One of the passages read begins "When he starts work, the most important thing for the Investigating Officer is to discover the exact moment when he can form a definite opinion. The importance of this cannot be too much insisted upon, for upon it success or failure often depends."

The same might be said of a writer, and therein lies the failure of this book. Shields values the pieces of information she has come across too highly and maintains a psychic distance from the characters of the story. Though she uses myriad historical details to pin the reader into place, she fails to allow us to grow close to, or care much about, the characters. Even the most intriguing character (Erzebet, the Inspector's wife, who lives in a mental landscape of Hungarian folk tales) is viewed as if from the wrong end of a telescope. Specifically, the two most disruptive elements in the writing style are the choppiness of the passages (seldom does one scene last longer than a couple of pages), and Shields's stylistic reliance on the present tense. This lends the book to being difficult to staying involved with, and difficult to pick up again once it is put down.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fig Eater definitely a hothouse fruit., June 12, 2000
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
Ms. Shields novel is full of atmosphere, history and superstition. One can definitely say that the Vogue editor has a sense of style. Her prose is very rich and rather purple, like the title, but there is a hothouse quality to it, a quesy, cloy- ing mixture of decay and decadence. She takes relish in describing corpses and food, gypsies and aristocrats, servants and masters, that is both disturbing and fascinating. However, style is over substance if one considers this story to be a mystery. Reading it is rather like going through a maze; when one reaches the end and looks back one wonders why he or she took so many strange turns. Why was the Inspector never given a name,for example, or why are the sapphic tones of the novel never resolved in any way? As a novel Fig Eater works a little better, with the advice from the police manual being a nice way to punctuate the chapters. First rate research gives the reader the feel of Vienna in the Edwardian
period. So, while not giving me the whodunnit I expected, I'm nonetheless glad to be transported to old Vienna for a few hours diversion...but I brought bromide powder just in case.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Case of Showing Off, April 24, 2001
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
I'd suggest going with the original inspiration for this novel, Freud's, "Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" which is a truly fascinating piece of writing. Shield's idea here is wonderful, but she fails to carry it off. The book is nothing but a vehicle for showing off her prodigious research on 'fin-de-siecle' Vienna. All sorts of details are thrown in about Vienna just for the sake of putting them in and without furthering the plot in any way. The ending was a huge disappointment. The author had the best of intentions here and the book could have been truly interesting, thus the three stars, but in the end it was a bore.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, January 23, 2001
By 
aribeth76 (Somerville, MA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
I bought this book because it was being compared to "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr. While it is true that both books are historical mysteries, that is about all they have in common.
I found this book to be exceedingly boring. In fact, the only reason that I finished reading it was because I wanted to know who the murderer was. However, I should have given up long before that moment. The end of the book where the identity of the murderer is finally revealed makes little sense. It is almost as if the author completely disregards all of the clues/evidence to pull the murderer out of the hat.
Some might find the lengthy descriptions of character and locale to be one of the strengths of this book. I merely found them to be long-winded, slow, and boring. Even the main charaters (who are meant to be vivid and engaging) failed to appeal to me. You never really care about these people and their motives for behaving the way they do. To me the most appealing character was the nameless inspector, but the fact that he wasn't even blessed with a name seems significant in retrospect. He is an incomplete man, just as this was an incomplete book.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Freud Versus the Gypsies, February 2, 2001
By 
This review is from: The Fig Eater (Hardcover)
"The Fig Eater", by Jody Shields is the most interesting historical mystery I have read in some time. It resembles "The Alienist", but with darker shadows and greater ambiguities. Set in the Vienna of 1910, it centers on the search for the murderer of Dora, the eighteen-year old daughter of a respectable haut-bourgeois family. She is also probably the famous "Dora" from Freud's case study of female hysteria, but that information is of no help in solving her fictional murder, except to alert us to the sexual overtones of the plot. Shields evokes pre-WWI Vienna with sensuous descriptions of the food, dress and landscape. She shows the diverse cultures, the ancient superstitions, and the new inventions that roiled this capital of an unraveling empire.
The Inspector (whose name we never learn) investigating the crime is experrt in the latest scientific police procedures -- photography, fingerprinting, autopsy -- and is a student of Prof. Hans Gross who pioneered the psychological study of crime. His investigation leads him (and us) through some of the more bizarre medical practices of the day. The Inspector's wife, Erszebet, an artist steeped in her native Magyar-Gypsy mysticism starts her own secret investigation of Dora's murder. She is independent, tough-minded, and completely unfettered by the restraints under which her husband operates. Erszebet enlists the help of a young English governess she met (by accident?) on a path beside the Danube. Their detection is fueled by intuition, tarot cards, and frequent doses of torte and kuchen. They also engage in more derring-do than the Inspector does in his plodding, legitimate investigation.
The Inspector and Erszebet live and move in the same affluent milieu as the victim's family. Like his name, the source of their wealth is undisclosed. They attend a Fasching Ball and visit friends in the country for a wild boar hunt -- a Central European version of Roderick and Troy Alleyn. One of the many tensions in the story is watching the effect their joint but separate obsession with solving Dora's murder has on their marriage.
Unlike conventional mysteries, all the characters in this novel are changed by their connection to the central crime. They discover the sexual cross-currents beneath the proper middle-class veneer and are affected by that discovery in different ways. In the end, we learn the identity of Dora's killer, but Shields leaves us with an unanswered question: Do shape-shifters really roam Vienna in the night? "The Fig Eater" is an ambitious and impressive first novel.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Very Disappointed, November 14, 2004
This review is from: The Fig Eater: A Novel (Paperback)
To compare this book to The Alienist is a crime, no pun intended. I am in agreement with the other readers who thought this book needed an editor, or a better editor. So many great things could have been done with this material. There were so many loose ends that went unresolved. When I finished the book, I threw it against the wall.
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The Fig Eater: A Novel
The Fig Eater: A Novel by Jody Sheilds
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