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on July 8, 2000
Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life. Only a drama will do and while the fireworks last the sky is a different colour. -Jeanette Winterson
* * *
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!
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Jeanette Winterson's short novel, THE PASSION, is not as simple as its plot suggests. Henri, a Frenchman who has dedicated his young life to Bonaparte falls in love with Villanelle, a Venetian woman who cannot love him because her heart belongs to another woman. In her clear but poetic language, Winterson delves deeper - into the issues of the soul and the heart, of knowing when to cast aside passion and when to embrace it, of the heartless of both war and love. As she does so, she takes the reader through her own kind of passion play, where web-footed Villanelle can walk across water and a prophet with green slime in her hair speaks the truth. A defrocked priest, able to see across miles and into houses, is destroyed by "the spirits" - alcohol, to be precise - and in his death gives Henri a miracle. Bonaparte becomes the people's "little Lord in his simple uniform" who convinces thousands of men to follow him to their deaths. The question arises, what is evil and what is saintly? Where is the salvation in all the heartlessness? That these character can find any peace at all in the midst of chaos is the novel's final miracle, though it might not be the calm readers expect.
Despite the rampant symbolism and religious references, Winterson's grasp of language, imagery, and rhythm gives this a lighter touch than might be expected. After all, both Henri and Villanelle readily confess to "telling stories." And how can one take seriously a fat cook who, after passing out in a drunken stupor just before Napoleon arrives to inspect the kitchen, is rigged to an upright position by Henri and a friend? Who cannot laugh at Villanelle donning a codpiece to protect herself from lascivious men? But Winterson also adds the mysterious stranger who asks a rich Venetian man to gamble not only his life but the manner of this death, possibly the most chilling scene in the book. After all, Winterson writes, "Venice, the city of Satan," and we learn how easily it can be to become lost in its maze.
THE PASSION is my first Winterson book, and this virtuoso performance ensures that it won't be my last. I highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction, particularly those in love with language, and for readers in search of a very different and original fiction.
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on July 1, 1999
Having now read this book 14 times, I am still in awe of JW's understanding of the vulnerability of men and women in love. Every time I read this book I learn something new. This is the one book I always give as a gift and use quotes from frequently. The prose of this novel is simply the most beautiful and poetic I have ever read... and that's saying something coming from a man who is sometimes intimidated by feminist literature. The story of Henri and Villanelle will surely touch any one with a heart especially the line that reads, ' when I lie in her arms no dark days appear... and I truly believe our children will change the world.' For all those who have read The Passion, I highly recommend "Written on the Body". Heartfelt thanks to JW for writing such an incredible story!!!
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on August 5, 1999
"Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life. Only a drama will do and while the fireworks last the sky is a different colour." -Jeanette Winterson
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!
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on January 26, 2006
The Passion is one of Jeanette Winterson's most acclaimed works, and is the first of her novels I've read. It is a slim volume, its cover peppered with accolades and glowing reviews. Words like "magical," "fairy tale," and "ecstasy" are the most common in these literary tributes. I found each and every one of them to be true, and yet in the end the novel was a strong disappointment. I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, and Cormac McCarthy; indeed, they are some of my favorite authors. While I found that her artful mastery of prose and her ability to deftly express the inner workings of the heart and mind to be similar to these authors, I found the story itself and its characters to be inconsistent, simplistic, occasionally weak, and even at times cliche.

The novel is set during Napoleon's reign, and the narrative alternates between the perspectives of Henri, a country-boy-turned-soldier in the French army, and Villanelle, a Venetian boatman's daughter and a worker in a casino. The novel begins very strongly in Henri's voice, but when the transition is made to Villanelle, I found the prose to be much weaker and the narrator's voice less distinct. When the two characters finally meet in Russia during the failed Napoleonic invasion, I felt their union to be anticlimactic and disappointing in its forced nature. Winterson's quest myth-like tale is severely undermined by the rushed nature of the book's progression, and the characters seem underdeveloped as a consequence. One of my greatest complaints, is that the narrative voices of Henri and Villanelle are too similar; they are not distinct enough to carry the reader through Villanelle's segments. I simply didn't care about her as much as I did about Henri.

Winterson's writing is gorgeous if occasionally flawed by inconsistency. She has a great ability to portray emotion and, yes, passion, and her characters' treatment of the heart's philosophy is reminiscent of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Much of what she writes about Napoleon and war are very strong and powerful, and one cannot help but wish that she had focused more on Henri's character for that reason. Her treatment of Villanelle is much weaker in my opinion, and it is in these passages that her prose includes the most awkward or cliche phrasing. The inclusion of Villanelle's female lover also weakens her eventual union with Henri for me; I feel that she failed to give any of these complex relationships enough of a treatment on their own, so that when they interact they begin to fall apart. In all, it is as if Winterson is uncertain herself as to what kind of book she wants this to be (historical fiction or magical realism) and who's tale it really is.

In spite of my dissatisfaction with the plot and the occasional eye-rolling at certain choices of language ("there is no pawn-shop of the heart" comes to mind), I will reiterate that the writing propelled my interest even when the characters were at times not able to. For this reason, I give the book three stars out of five; her excellent writing and musings on the nature of desire, madness, the archetypal home, and both figurative and literal gambling are on par with any of the great modern writers. In spite of her abilities, I was left disatisfied with what I felt could have been a much more mature (in the sense of growth, not attitude) and developed work. It is a quick read, however, and is a worthy investment if only for its thought-provoking passages and often gorgeous prose. Those seeking entertainment or escapism should look elsewhere.

~ Jacquelyn Gill
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on April 26, 2004
That's sort of the theme of this story- the characters live the rest of their lives worshipping their first Passion forever. It is beautiful and the descriptions of Venice will make you want to book a flight there immediately.
Incidentally, something most reviewers seem to have missed here is that Henri's story and Vilanelle's story are both taken from the real life of French author Stendhal (aka Henri Marie Beyle, the 19th century author of The Red and The Black), who really was a cook for Napoleon and really did have unrequited love for a noble lady, Mathilde Viscontini Dembowski. Read Stendhal's "Love" for more on that particular episode.
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on October 31, 2000
There is only one way to give this novel the praise it deserves: buy it, and then read it again and again and again. ...
THE PASSION, in my opinion, is Winterson's most accomplished novel, for in it she intertwines the fantasies of a French peasant and the tale of a Venetian woman--without missing a beat. She experiments with this polyrhythmic structure in other novels--SEXING THE CHERRY and ART & LIES--but not with so much ease. One will not bore of the prose, either, or of Winterson's tight, matter-of-fact style of describing even the most violent and bizarre moments of her characters' lives.
THE PASSION resembles a poem as well. Many "lines" appear throughout the text. Among them: "I'm telling you stories. Trust me." and "You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play."
Storytelling and gambling....what more do we need?
As another reviewer rightly points out, every paragraph offers wisdom--so much wisdom, in fact, that I frequently stopped reading to lift my eyes and contemplate precisely what she "means." Winterson writes delicious fiction for the consumer of words. She writes dark moments; she writes light moments. But always, she writes with a peculiar comic and poetic grace found nowhere else. Unlike many writers of the day, but like Stein, Pound and Co., Winterson pushes against conventions to tell enduring tales.
THE PASSION is her most enduring tale to date, and should not be neglected by serious lovers of literature.
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on March 6, 2000
This book is one of the most amazingly spell-binding books ever written. On the surface it is a fairy tale but like a fairy tale it is so multilayered that it must be re-read. It is poetic, gripping, and truly passionate! This book is definitely in my top ten books of the century. Time will really be the one to judge this book, already her influence on other writers is obvious (I am thinking here of Geoffrey B. Cain, the author of "The Wards of St. Dymphna), and that is the true judge of great writing; the art that is created in response to great art.
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on October 22, 1996
I think this is an often overlooked book among Jeanette Winterson's masterpieces. (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry are generally the ones people have read). As in her other novels, Winterson blurrs the lines of the everything we take as "fact" or "true" and in the process challenges are notions of history, time, gender and language. Henri, one of NApolean's chef, falls in love with Vilanelle, a near-mythical gondolier from Venice. Together they explore the boundaries of passion, love and history in a way that makes you rethink everything you have ever assumed about gender and society. I think Winterson is a master at what she writes -- truly turning upside down any preconceived notions the reader may have and allowing us to enter a world that resembles are own in many ways, but is not the world we know. Anyone familiar with feminist theory would be particularly interested in the way that Winterson manipulates her tale and her words
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on August 18, 2001
This book opened a whole new world to me. I was especially fond of it because of the way the author described Venice, the city I adore. The characters are well developed yet they all have something misterious about them. I think this novel demonstrates the perfect ballance of reality and fantasy. Reading it allows a person to enter into oneself and to discover that the most hidden thoughts and feelings are also familiar to other people. It is a very intimate novel which easily enters a person' s thoughts until you feel lost within yourself...
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