Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Child's Child Review

Entertainment Weekly raved about this book, putting it in a recent "Must List", as well as giving it a stellar review. It sounded like the type of gothic novel that I like so I got into it pretty quickly. I've gotten in the habit of getting a sample of books and if I like it by the end of the sample, I'll go ahead and buy it, which is what I did here.

Anyway, The Child's Child is the story of Grace and Andrew, siblings in 2011 London, who inherit a sprawling house from their deceased grandmother. Being close, they decide to move into the house together, but divide up the space. This works for a bit, until Andrew falls in love with a young writer named James, who ends up taking residence with them. Grace and James dislike one another. Grace is working on her PhD, the thesis of which focuses on the treatment of young, unmarried mothers throughout the literature of 17 and 1800's. James is a passionate defender of gay rights and maintains that gay men throughout history and literature have had a much tougher time than single mothers, which Grace obviously does not agree with. One night James and Andrew witness the murder of one of their gay friends outside a club. The upcoming trial throws their lives in a tailspin. James is terrified about serving as a witness, which leads to a complicated encounter with Grace that further disrupts the lives of the trio.

Before all of this happens, Grace is given an unpublished manuscript called The Child's Child, written in the 1950's by a famous author whose wife made him promise never to release this novel to the public due to its sensitive plot. The story was apparently inspired by real life events that happened to a distant relative of James'. The manuscript contains a plot that parallels the events in Grace's world. As her relationship with her brother begins to fall apart, she loses herself within the novel.

I knew this book was a story within a story, but I thought the two plots would be more connected. Grace's storyline acts as a framing device to the real novel, The Child's Child. Starting in the 1920's, the story focuses on John, a teacher in London who also happens to be gay. Like many men during this time period, he is secretive and ashamed about his lifestyle. He is in a relationship with a man named Bertie, who doesn't have the same qualms that John does about their encounters. However, John is determined to be "a better man", one who doesn't engage in what was considered so vulgar and distasteful back then. He gets a job in a countryside school and prepares to move there to live a celibate life. However, he knows that women will pursue him or that he will face uncomfortable questions from townspeople, wondering why he was not settled down.

The second plot within this story is about Maud, John's 15 year old sister who finds herself pregnant after two encounters with her friend's older brother (if only it was so easy!). Her strict Methodist parents do not know what to do with her, but John sees an opportunity to help both of them. He convinces Maud to pose as his wife. Then she will be protected from the shame of being an unwed mother and he will avoid all those awkward questions. The siblings rent a cottage together near his school and everyone buys their story. John is still determined to focus on celibacy, while Maud is intent on mothering her child. However, Bertie soon reenters their lives, stirring up all kinds of trouble. Despite John's passionate love for him, it becomes clear that Bertie is not a good guy and he begins using John for financial support, which eventually leads to tragedy.

Eventually, Maud's storyline takes over. John was a good guy, but too blinded by his ill-fated romance to pay much attention to his sister or to notice that Bertie was using him for a while. When Maud becomes the protagonist, it becomes clear how unlikable she is. Sheltered for her entire life, even after becoming a mother, she has closed herself off from the world and spends all her time stewing over imaginary slights and problems of her own invention. She rather deserves her fate in the end, after which the novel returns to 2011 with the brief remainder of Grace's tale.

In the end, I found the story within a story more interesting that the original plot. I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that the framing story was too short and underdeveloped. The first eight or so chapters set up Grace's circumstances before shifting back in time, but then the last two chapters of the book, which went back to Grace, felt rushed. Also, I get that Grace was an academic, but I found her use of language stiff for a 28 year old. She seemed more like a spinstery 40-something from an earlier time period. I just didn't really connect with her. Actually I didn't really connect with any of the characters, but at least in the internal story, the language was simpler and the plot more fleshed out.

I would have liked a stronger connection between the two stories. If James' great-uncle or whatever was the inspiration for the plot of The Child's Child (the internal story), there should have been more build up between the stories. I expected there to be alternating chapters - one of Grace and one of Maud or John. I did get tied up in John and Maud's storyline enough that I forgot about Grace since the table of contents made it clear that most of the novel takes place within the unpublished manuscript. And if Grace and her tale are supposed to be meaningful, it should have been used more.

I guess the point is that the themes of love and violence were present both in Grace and John/Maud's storylines. Given the change in time periods, certain elements of Grace's story played out differently than John and Maud's, so I suppose the message is that "it gets better", as Dan Savage would say.

Finally, the word of the book was "opprobrium", which means harsh criticism or censure. This word shows up over and over in the novel so learn its meaning if you didn't know it already!

Anyway, solid book, interesting story, but not entirely what I was expecting. In the end, I liked it, even if the characters were intrinsically unlikable!

New York Times Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

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