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The Passion Paperback – August 7, 1997
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In 1985 Jeanette Winterson won the Whitbread Award for best first fiction for the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an often wry exploration of lesbian possibility bumping up against evangelical fanaticism. She was 25. Two years later, The Passion, her third novel, appeared, the fantastical tale of Henri--Napoleon's cook--and Villanelle, a Venetian gondolier's daughter who has webbed feet (previously an all-male attribute), works as a croupier, picks pockets, cross-dresses, and literally loses her heart to a beautiful woman. Written in a lyrical and jolting combination of fairy tale diction and rhythm and the staccato, the book would be a risky proposition in lesser hands. Winterson has said that she wanted to look at people's need to worship and examine what happens to young men in militaristic societies. The question was, how to do so without being polemical and didactic? Only she could have come up with such an exquisite answer. In the end, Henri, incarcerated on an island of madmen, becomes aware that his passion, "even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. The one is about you, the other about someone else."
Recalls Garcia Marquez magical touches dance like highlights over the brilliance of this fairy tale about passion, gambling, madness, and androgynous ecstasy.” Edmund White
A historical novel quite different from any other it is written with a living passion, an eyewitness immediacy .Winterson is a master of her material, a writer in whom great talent deeply abides.” Vanity Fair
The overwhelming impression of her work is one of remarkable self-confidence, and she evidently thrives on risk .As good as Poe: it dares you to laugh and stares you down.” The New York Review of Books
The book has the enchanted pessimism of the best fairy tales. The Passion is a love story, a meditation on pleasure and its limits, a poetic novel written in a style that is wholly original.” Interview
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Henri, a poor country boy joins the French military to follow his passion: Bonaparte. His tour of duty takes him on Napoleon's marches, and one is treated to an inside of look at being a soldier in Bonaparte's army. Napoleon's passion for fighting has him take his armies into Moscow. Concurrently, a woman gives birth to a child in Venice. The child's father is a Boatman, and those children, according to legend, can walk on water. The child turns out to be a girl, but is nonetheless a Boatman's Daughter. She has a passion for gambling, and meets the love of her life and finds another passion, in the process losing her heart. After her heart has been broken, she marries a cruel, fat Frenchman and exults in his passion for debasing her. Her destiny takes her to Moscow, where she meets Henri. Henri's passion for the Boatman's daughter proves to be no small thing in his own destiny.
Set in magical, eternal cities, encompassing a time which captivates the imagination, and written in beautiful prose, this work is emminently readable, and entirely riveting. There are beautiful heart-stopping phrases worth quoting on every page -- words which, by their beauty, make this spellbinding tale a lyrical journey of discovery. There are many kinds of passions in this piece, and following each to its end, and savoring each as it comes, is a bittersweet and very poignant experience. Do it! Highly Recommended!
It kinda falls short of true, "Wow!" though. I think that part of that is the fact that like many writers, she has fallen into the trap of over processing emotion in order to make it beautiful. In doing so she looses emotion's raw edge. She becomes detached from it. When the characters talk about love and passion and pain you understand it, but you don't feel it. It's beautiful, but not evocative.
Something else I realized that bothered me about this book. The author keeps referring to how happy country people are because they are "simple" with simple lives. Being raised in a township of less than a thousand people, I can honestly say that that is not the case. Just because one does not work in an office and change jobs every three years that does not mean their lives are more "simple". I can tell you that all the facets of human relationships are just as prevelant in the rural areas as they are in town. The only difference is the older generations don't talk about it the way city folk do. I can also point to the fact that while many of the older generation (born at the beginning of the 20th century) may not have had beyond a 9th grade education, most of them continued to read and educate themselves their entire lives. Some of them are more well read than people that claim to be among the literati. The only difference is they have not a professor telling them how to interpret what they read, so often you end up having some very interesting discussions with them.
So maybe the author should not be trying to speak for country people and the beauty of their "simple lives" because I think I can guarantee as far back as the 19th century, they probably were not that simple. It actually kind of smacks of the "noble savage" condescension.
But still, worth a read even if that isn't your sort of thing. This was really not my sort of thing, but I am glad I read it.