Friday, March 26, 2010

Alice I Have Been - Melanie Benjamin

Title: Alice I Have Been
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 345 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: March 25, 2010
Finished: March 26, 2010

From the author's website:
Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Now, in this spellbinding historical novel, we meet the young girl whose bright spirit sent her on an unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole-and the grown woman whose story is no less enthralling.

But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?

Alice Liddell Hargreaves's life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she's experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only "Alice."

That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice—he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice's childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.

For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey.

A love story and a literary mystery, Alice I Have Been brilliantly blends fact and fiction to capture the passionate spirit of a woman who was truly worthy of her fictional alter ego, in a world as captivating as the Wonderland only she could inspire.

I have to admit I'm a sucker for Alice in Wonderland, it was one of my favourite stories as a kid. I also love the history behind the author and his inspiration for Alice, the real-life Alice Liddell, so picking this up was a no-brainer. Alice I Have Been is an historical fiction novel that tells the known facts of Alice Liddell's life and the author fills in the unknown portions with her own ideas. Anyone familiar with the history of Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson knows that one of his hobbies was taking photographs of young girls. Granted, perceptions and ideals change through time, so though we today might think his photos are provocative and verging on pedophilia, the Victorians had different ideas about what was tasteful and what crossed the line, so I can't judge something from over 150 years ago using the moral lens of today. But regardless, most people tend to think the relationship between the girl and the man crossed some lines, which is the same view the author takes. She begins with Alice Liddell's at the ages of 7-11 in Oxford and continues with her as a woman in her twenties, then her fifties, and lastly, her eighties. The first part on Alice's early childhood was actually difficult to read at times because it smacks of pedophilia. Though nothing actually happens, there's subtle things that leave little to the imagination. And the whole scene where Dodgson is taking the picture of Alice as the gypsy girl almost made me put the book down because it really led my mind into the gutter. Again, nothing actually happens in the novel; if the author makes Dodgson out to be a pedophile, he's a repressed one. The later sections of the book that deal with Alice's love for Prince Leopold and eventually her family life with her husband and sons are wonderful parts that show Alice trying to live beyond what Dodgson immortalized her as in Alice in Wonderland. She is also haunted by the circumstances that caused the sudden break between Dodgson and the Liddell family when she was 11. The author hints at what happened, but it isn't until the very end where Alice admits what happened and why it followed her throughout her life.

Annnnnd I'm going to spoil it so if you plan to read the book skip the next few sentences.

Alice admits that she herself kissed Dodgson when she was 11 because she thought herself a woman and loved how much power she knew she had over Dodgson. Okay. Number 1, I find it very hard to believe that an 11-year-old girl would kiss a grown man on the lips today, let alone in sexually-repressed Victorian times. Keep in mind, no historical record exists of anything happening, so this is purely author speculation. I don't know, it just seems like a big stretch to me, I'd just rather think that Alice's parents finally realized his interests in their daughters weren't exactly normal and cut all ties before anything scandalous happened. Aside from my issues with the first part of the book, the rest is wonderful, and the struggle that Alice goes through to come to terms with all that's happened in her life and move on is what takes precedence.

Again, kinda icky for the whole suggestive pedophilia thing, but if you can stomach that, the rest of the story is quite engrossing.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the shades of blue with the gold accents, and especially the addition of the inset images of Alice and the White Rabbit.

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