Love is the best reason to live. We love our children, our pets, our partners, and love in its various forms has inspired poets and writers for centuries to do their best work. We hanker after romantic love because there’s nothing quite as exhilarating or fulfilling, so we pursue it, offer and accept it wherever we find it, and hope it will last. It’s exciting and resilient yet mercurial too, and just when we think we have a handle on it, it hides or turns into a shapeshifter.
Most emotions or states of being have a dark side, and love is no exception. Think Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tristan and Isolde: romantic love didn’t work out so well for them, and we need look no further than Cathy and Heathcliff to recognize love’s terrible twin, madness. Love and madness are an irresistible pair, so we’ve chosen them as this month’s theme, and with Valentine’s Day less than a month away, the timing is just right.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
Set in Kerala in the south of India, a woman in her early thirties returns to the ravaged house where she spent part of her childhood to meet her twin brother, whom she hasn’t seen for over twenty years. At the heart of the story lies the disintegration of a wealthy family, its erosion brought about by tragedy and scandal for which the twins, as children, and their mother, were punished. The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, capturing the twins’ wide eyed perspective, a view distorted by an innocence the author captures with acute sensitivity. What struck me most was Ms Roy’s dexterity with language and craft–the book begins where it ends, and throughout the reader must put together the puzzle pieces of each wrenching event. Although it won the Booker Prize, reviews were mixed, most either ecstatic or disgruntled. I was deeply moved by the prose and the non-linear path each character takes towards his or her inevitable demise, but what lingered for me was the forbidden love between the twins’ mother, Ammu and the Untouchable Velutha, a member of India’s lowest caste. There is madness in their love, which is doomed from the start: both of them know it, as does the reader.
This is not light reading because it demands emotional and intellectual investment; it’s a novel that belongs in a treasured collection, to be visited time and again just to absorb the majesty of the author’s writing.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Love and Madness… What a wicked, decadent combo, and one that attracts us like bees to nectar. Who can resist the thought that someone is madly in love with you? That he would kill for you? Do anything to win your love? And yet, the line separating love and madness is razor-sharp and can be dangerously twisted.
Best-selling author Gillian Flynn, in Gone Girl, takes this madness to a whole new level in her newest thriller; recently optioned by Hollywood and starring Ben Affleck as Nick. This dark tale of a marriage gone terribly wrong begins when Nick’s wife, Amy, vanishes from their home and Nick becomes the prime suspect. Of course, the husband always is. The novel has co-protagonists who also serve as the antagonists. This is a rarity in a story and the uniqueness of the writing alone sets it apart as an interesting read. The first part of the narrative alternates between Nick’s real-time accounting of both the backstory of their relationship and current events, and entries from Amy’s diary. It is divided into three books and eventually moves Amy into the present. It’s toxic, chilling and perverse, and takes the reader down some shady alleys with no hope of escape.
I tried not to like this book for a number of reasons. For a thriller, the beginning had very little plot and relied mostly on backstory and inner monologue which I found to be too slow for a crime novel. But the writing is superb, although the vile language can wear on you. Anyone who knows me will say that I’ve got quite the potty mouth myself and I don’t cringe at this type of language, but I felt it unnecessary for the most part, as if it was thrown in just for sensationalism. Sort of like someone throws in a sex scene just… well … because.
The reviews warned me about the horrible ending and many readers vehemently expressed their disappointment. I agree with their sentiments, but Ms. Flynn crafted it well and if nothing else it was different. When I posted my thoughts on the film Blue Jasmine I criticized Woody Allen for crafting a story with unlikeable characters who remained stagnant throughout the story. (Obviously, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disagrees with me!) The same holds true here. You feel the stirrings of empathy for these characters, but for the most part they are despicable and it’s hard to root for them. Nick even tells the reader at some point: “Now is the part where I have to tell you … and you stop liking me.” (I left out the spoiler part.)
I do recommend this book, but it’s not for the feint of heart. It’s a dark, depressing story, which might be just the thing on a cold, dank, winter day. Just stay away from the wine bottle. You might be temped to over-indulge to brighten your mood. On the other hand, your own relationships may suddenly look a lot better!
The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd
I decided that THE MADMAN’S DAUGHTER was the perfect book to read for this month’s theme. With a plot that features a daughter searching for her presumably mad scientist father and such an evocative tagline on the cover – “In the darkest places, even love is deadly” – how could it not be? I expected a deep, torturous exploration of Juliet (the daughter) who’s torn between loving her dad because he’s family and fearing him because he’s insane. Instead, there’s not much love lost, and Juliet pretty much always thinks he’s mad, finding him just confirms that. And though she worries about being crazy like dad, she never has anything to worry about because she doesn’t do anything crazy. Like that girl who complains about being ugly even though she’s beautiful. You just want to tell her to stuff it.
So, needless to say, I was disappointed. Amidst the 420 pages of this book, there is a plot that could be decent if it wasn’t buried under Juliet’s inner monologue – so much telling! Even when something is shown, Juliet still tells it to the reader, like, “Hey, did you get that? That’s what happened. And if you didn’t understand that I felt angry about it when I hit the table angrily, I’m going to tell you that I’m angry too.” Argh.
I wanted to love this book. Instead it drove me mad.
The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
I’d been wanting to read this book for some time and expected to find a steampunk story under the cover, perhaps the cogs on the book gave me that idea. Instead I found a gothic tale. The story starts as many other gothic books before it, with a young penniless orphan girl living off the mercy of her relations. Katharine Tulman has never met her late father’s eldest brother, nor journeyed to the moors to visit the ancestral home. But all that changes when her Aunt Alice, (wife of her father’s other brother) charges her with a loathsome task. She must visit her Uncle Tully and spend enough time in his company, to give testimony to his growing insanity. A quick commitment to an asylum is the only way Aunt Alice and her foul, dimwitted son Robert, can quickly inherit the estate, and hold their creditors at bay.
When Katharine arrives, she finds not only an uncle teetering on the brink of madness, but oddly a brilliant inventor of clockwork toys as well. He’s also surrounded by hundreds of adoring and loyal employees who know why Katharine is there and will do anything to stop her. They include a handsome servant named Lane, who Katharine feels drawn too, and Ben a young scholar studying her uncle’s inventions. Whereas Lane stirs her passion, Ben gives Katharine hope of escaping her aunt through a good marriage. When dark dreams invade Katharine’s sleep, she wakes to find herself covered in self-inflicted bite marks and suspects she is slipping into madness just like her uncle.
This book has all the elements to make it a ripping good story, dark setting, interesting characters, and the bones of a good plot, but they just took too long to come together for me. I found the first 200 pages slow. The climax wrapped up very quickly with an expected resolution, and was followed by a trailing ending to firm up the need for a sequel. I think if you love gothic stories you might like this book, but it’s not for people who want a book they just can’t put down.