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Wonderful idea, but lacking in emotional impact
on March 31, 2013
I'm in the middle of the last book in the Montmaray trilogy, so obviously I enjoyed "A Brief History of Montmaray" enough to continue to live with the characters for a few more days. But as I read "Brief History", and have reflected on it since, I feel a little bit sad that it never seemed to get off the ground. The main problem, I've decided, is that in this, the all-important Opening Act, Montmaray itself never got the attention it deserves.
The story is presented through the diary of Her Royal Highness, Princess Sophie of Montmaray, teenage daughter of the King's younger brother, and sister to the Heir Apparent. There are practically no adults on Montmaray, at least, not any responsible ones with authority. It's amazing that Sophie and her siblings and their cousin Veronica, daughter of the King, turned out to be so precocious and well-adjusted (even young Henry is just boisterous, not an actual Wild Child.) They certainly turned out resourceful and enterprising.
There are definite limitations when telling a story in this format. So many details that would breathe life into the setting are left out. The characters are well-written, if a bit narrow in creation (anybody over 30 is useless). Where Sophie's narration fails us is in closely connecting herself, and therefore the reader, to the Kingdom of Montmaray. I never felt it.
The inspiration and motivation for virtually all their actions is, allegedly, Montmaray. It is the reason for their existence and the definition of their identity. They are the ruling royal family. Some of them, including Sophie, have spent their entire lives on Montmaray. But there are novels where the characters' *house* has greater presence and influence than the entire Kingdom of Montmaray. Even Edith Wharton's *unfinished* last novel, The Buccaneers, is more evocative of Time and Place.
In fact, I'm struck, sharply, by an example which brilliantly captures time, place, people and heart, and which coincidentally has a surprising number of parallels, both trivial and significant, to A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY.
There's more than a passing similarity between A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY and Dodie Smith's coming-of-age classic I CAPTURE THE CASTLE. Both stories are narrated by young women, partially through journal entries. CASTLE takes place in England in the 30's (but the politics of the World Stage matter little.) Both young women are growing up without real adult guidance, living in genteel poverty within a claustrophobic family microcosm of colorful characters. Both are the quietly perceptive, sensitive observers in their families. Both are surprised, thrilled, and a little frightened by a new kind of adult they find emerging from within themselves, after having had so many adult responsibilities thrust upon them at an early age. They both face unique personal challenges as each girl, Cassandra of CASTLE and Sophie of MONTMARAY, begin to encounter and navigate the *real* world of adulthood. Both even live in a castle!
But despite the superficial similarities, and the more curious parallels, there is a profound difference between both the girls, and both the books. Cassandra does indeed "capture the castle", in quiet, exhilarating triumph, through an unfolding narrative that blossoms along with her: awkward, precocious, passionate, self-conscious and yet stunningly perspicacious. Sophie does not "capture" Montmaray, its citizens, or really even herself.
In a novel like A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY, Montmaray itself should have as great a presence as any of the main characters. It should be like a living creature who speaks through the other characters. It's not. It should be so vividly presented that the reader finds herself falling - leaping - head over heels into its little world, and feeling so wholly ensconced there that snapping back to the "real world" takes some adjustment. (Well, of course, all the best books are absorbing, but you know what I mean.)
On Montmaray, it should feel as if time has stopped, and the kingdom hovers in some mystical plane, shrouded by mists that part only occasionally to let The Outside World touch it. It should be as remote, as magical, as colorful, and as beloved, as Brigadoon. That would make every single thing that happens in this book and later have a thousand times more IMPACT. From the moment Montmaray's idylls are destroyed, to every tragedy and every triumph after, the story would be so much more engrossing and exquisite if we had been properly enchanted by it *first.*
Instead, Montmaray feels like a cardboard-and-poster-paint stage set. The author makes perfunctory attempts, but winds up giving more time and energy to what's happening offstage than she does to actually building the stage itself. She relied very much on TELLING the reader instead of SHOWING the reader. She did a fine job lecturing on the Spanish Civil War, but never really left the podium to get on with spinning a thoroughly creative story.
It seems like she held onto that podium with white knuckles, clinging to facts instead of letting her imagination run wild. In fact, much of the plot is noticeably tentative.
The author toyed with some mystical elements but seemed a little uncomfortable with the idea. There are several plotlines that unravel awkwardly. The author was temporarily distracted by the idea of 1) a mysterious disappearance 2) the insanity of the king 3) a possibly prophetic dream 4) a ghost and 5) a Big Revelation, but instead kept snapping back to talking about the war in Spain again, letting those plots fall half-formed from her mind, left to fend for themselves somehow. They are frustratingly glimpsed, even as they are resolved. Their resolutions are decidedly lacking in heart or ... Impact. (There's that word again.)
I often found myself wanting to read Veronica's tour de force, the "Brief History of Montmaray" of the title, instead of Sophie's diary. It is often referred to but never illuminated. Perhaps the two of them combined would've created something closer to what I have envisioned for this book and series.
Ultimately, while a good read, the story does an awful lot of teasing without truly satisfying. It never crossed the line from plain Fiction into true Literature. It feels extremely limited in scope when instead it had the potential to be so, so much greater. This is true of all the books, but is most damaging here in the first one. And rather than go on clumsily trying to dissect why, I'll just leave it at this, a plaintive, somewhat frustrated mourn that a good story could've been a great one.