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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague Paperback – April 30, 2002
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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From The New Yorker
In 1665, the intense young pastor of a plague-stricken Derbyshire village persuades his parish to quarantine itself from the outside world. This selfless decision leads to the deaths of two-thirds of the inhabitants but saves the surrounding towns, as it did in the case of the historical village that inspired the tale. The novel glitters with careful research into such arcana as seventeenth-century lead-mining, sheep-farming, and, of course, medicine, but its true strength is a deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe. Fear and despair fan the usual petty rivalries of village life into murderous hatreds, and the community fragments just when it should be pulling together. A rare few—including the narrator, a young widow who is a servant of the pastor—discover new strengths and abilities. When the epidemic is over, a year later, the survivors are too weary, damaged, and numb to rejoice.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
"The novel glitters . . . A deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe." —The New Yorker
"Year of Wonders is a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair." —O, The Oprah Magazine
"Brooks proves a gifted storyteller as she subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus. . . . Year of Wonders is itself a wonder." —People
"A glimpse into the strangeness of history that simultaneously enables us to see a reflection of ourselves." —The New York Times Book Review
"Elegant and engaging." —Arthur Golden
"Year of Wonders has it all: strong characters, a trememdous sense of time and place, a clearly defined heroine and a dastardly villain." —The Denver Post
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This book is set in 1665; its heroine is Anna Frith, an 18 year old widow with two young sons. It is soon revealed that her husband was a miner killed in a mining accident. Anna is a servant in the household of the local Anglican priest and his wife, Elinor.
As the book opens, it is clear that a) the "year of wonders" is almost over and b) Elinor is dead. Careful readers will learn in this chapter that Anna and Elinor were the bestest of friends and that Anna, despite the fact that she's a peasant in a remote English village, not only reads, but understands Latin. At this point, alarm bells started going off in my head. I'm always deeply suspicious of books that try too hard to make their historical heroines, well, heroic. Make the heroine smart, sure. Even let her have learned how to read on her own, fine - though it's unlikely that a young 17th century mother would have the time to learn and the ready access to books. But please don't make her an overevolved Rhodes scholar with modern sensibilities. Please. My pleas were not answered.
Anyway, as the book progresses, it's clear that Brooks is imposing 21st century values on her characters. In addition, some very unwelcome Oprah-ization slinks in, mainly in the discussion of Anna's family, where it is revealed that Anna has an abusive father (with zero redeeming qualities) who is married to a woman, Aphra, who turns out to be bitchy, unloving, and also into witchcraft (?).
On the other hand, Elinor is just as perfect as can be. She doesn't believe in social divisions. She literally looks like an angel, all wispy and with silvery hair and whatnot. She teaches Anna how to read and write and read great scholarly volumes. Apparently, Anna has plenty of time to indulge in all these scholarly pursuits. Anna, as I'll discuss later, also turns out to be pretty perfect herself. I actually laughed during Elinor's faux deathbed scene when Elinor basically congratulates both herself and Anna on becoming ever so wonderful.
(The priest, Mompellion, is your average tortured artiste type. He is supposed to have chemistry with Anna. Scandalous!)
Anyway, even though this is a novel of the plague, there isn't really THAT much about how horrible the plague is. Mompellion visits plague families. There's an interlude in which Anna and Elinor pluckily mine a vein so that a little Quaker orphan girl can keep the claim to the vein (Elinor and Anna are easily able to get beyond those silly 17th century prejudices about Quakers.) Anna's half-sister, Faith, is mentioned in passing about 300 pages into the book. Then she dies. Anys, a saucy herbalist chick, is hanged by panicked villagers. Boy, is Mompellion mad about that! (By the way, Anna is totally cool with Anys sleeping around, because she's moderne like that.) There are other random mentions of the village being deserted and various coping mechanism employed by the distraught villagers, but Brooks never really sells the reader on how horrible the Year of Wonders is. Rather, the Year of Wonders is more like a prep course to make Anna even more exceptional.
Anna not only becomes an ace scholar, but she also becomes a terrific midwife in less than a year. After a very brief indulgence, she has the moral rectitude to primly burn Anys' poppy stash when she finds it, becuase opium is BAD. Her horrible father and horrible stepmother die horribly. Oh, she also learns to tame Mompellion's stallion, because she is just that good.
Mompellion is written as an amalgamation of nobility and unexpected nuttiness. His abstinence from Elinor really doesn't make much sense, but it does mean that Anna can sleep with him without much guilt after Elinor dies.
Anyway, Anna takes off at the end of the book. At this point, it seemed to me like the author sat around and thought "Hmm. I want my main character to continue her scholarly pursuits in medicine. Where can she do that? I know! Morocco!" Yes, Anna abruptly ends up as the wife to a well-regarded Arab doctor at the end of the book, where she studies in Arabic and raises her children (her new kids - her sons having died in the plague.) Wow, did that come out of nowhere.
Brooks has clearly done a lot of research and the book is quite readable. But I found Anna and her friends to be too modern and too perfect, much like the protagonist of Pope Joan (another disappointing historical novel) or, dare I say it? Jean Auel's Ayla, the most perfect woman ever to exist in all prehistory.) If you want to read some decent fiction set in this period, I can recommend Slammerkin. The only diseases in that novel are venereal, though.
Among the many perceptive reviewers, I would like to thank:
marcinetta "marcinetta" (NYC)
Pied Piper "lm14431oberon" (Cullowhee, N.C. United States) -
Loraine (Lamar, Colorado)
C. C. "Traveler" (Traveler) - See all my reviews
M. J Leonard "MikeonAlpha" (Silver Lake, Los Angeles, CA
A Jaded Reader(Ocean, NJ)
Minnesota mom (Rochester, MN)
L. Merrick "lvmerrick"
Andrew Mayer "ajax_816" (Portola Valley, CA USA)
Keep up the good work, folks. You are being read!
Because the majority of this book was so well written, I was quite disappointed in the ending which seemed rushed and contrived, almost as if the publisher had grown impatient and directed Brooks to wrap it up by the end of the day. I won't spoil the ending, but readers of Albert Camus' novel on the same subject will groan inwardly at Brooks' little joke in her placement of the final scene.
Despite the ending, I recommend this book highly for its clear, concise style, vivid imagery, and realistic portrayal of human beings immersed in a long and tragic fight for survival and search for meaning.