My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Rating – 2/2.5 stars.
Some loves are not meant to be. Or they are, but not in the way you think.
This is a difficult read for me to rate because this is a strange book that is about nothing and everything. It is heavily philosophical and the story is merely a vehicle for the theme, so much so that initially I was wondering if there would be a plot. The essence is life and fate, whether death is the end and most importantly for me, about moving on after loss. It is a very rare YA book that takes up this kind of thing, and even rarer for it to do it well. I think William’s recovery and growth was decently charted, if abrupt.
But before anything else, since the summary is so vague, I have to mention what the book is actually about. Annaleigh, the protagonist of the story, who is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, receives a proposal from her childhood friend-turned-love William. So they are engaged to be married and all is right with the world…or it seems. You see, Will’s sister Mary is psychic and can see ghosts. She also has prophetic visions and dreams and the future is not looking bright for Anna. Since I don’t really think I’m spoiling anything I will just go ahead and tell you that conveniently blond Anna dies on her wedding night. The rest of the story follows the three as they try to cope with the loss (Anna as a ghost) and move on.
Yes I know, it’s tragic. Terrible. All those adjectives which one would apply to feeling sad, which I would have if I actually cared about the characters at that point. It took me a while to understand the point of the book.
Today I thought I’d review it in Kotaku.com style and use their headings. Extra note: This book is set in what I would say is mid to late 19th century America, judging by the simultaneous existence of corsets and photography.
The Good – The writing
The writing style is fluid, graceful and mostly effortless. It matches the era and the inspiration, though it notably falls short of Poe’s atmospheric stories. I say mostly effortless because initially it seemed a bit forced, but it grows on you. I appreciate that there were interesting similes and there was no excessive detailing. That’s right, my purple prose alarm didn’t go off.
The Good – The main themes
Interesting themes, as mentioned before. Unusually heavy subject matter for the genre, which makes me wonder if this can really be classified as YA. I think anyone could read it as the age of the protagonist(s) doesn’t really make a difference. Their thoughts have nothing to do with their age. To pick up where I left off, the strength of this book is that it deals with loss and effectively encourages everyone to move on. It acknowledges the pain, the heartbreak but then says (rather like a magical girl anime!) “You’re not going to give up here, are you? I expected more of you.”
The Mixed – The length of the book and the plot
I am not really sure how to feel about this. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a well written anecdote. Sometimes it was a long short story (it is only 174 pages…). Sometimes it was Chicken Soup for the Whatever Soul. It is not possible to treat it as a novel, given its length, plot development and the ending. I thought a lot more time could have been spent on William’s later character development. His bouncing back from the depths of despair was only a couple of chapters at most, when it was the most interesting part. The beginning was too short for us to understand the characters and too long for anything of substance to happen later. In that case, why not spend more time on the core of the story? Or make the book longer as a whole.
The Mixed – The logic leaps
There are a bunch of odd things in the book that defy common sense, but it doesn’t mar the experience too much. A couple of them did make me incredulous, but it’s possible to shrug them off. Also beware of deus ex machina, especially toward the end as the author realised she was running out of pages/time. Mild spoiler warnings:
1. Annabel drowns in the lake next to the Calloway house, wearing an enormous white wedding dress. When her body is eventually found by the townsfolk, the friendly family doctor says that they saw her dress and investigated the lake.Ding! If the lake is deep enough to drown in and she drowned because of the weight of her dress (explicitly mentioned), how could they have possibly seen the dress? Anna mentions she and Will never found the bottom of the lake. The dress is wide and heavy, not long like a red carpet. Also, when everybody was gathering around the lake and heave ho-ing Anna’s body, why did no one inform Will, the master of the house? It’s his estate and his wife’s body. Even if the body had been someone else’s, they should have told him before trawling his lake, right?
2. Will, upon finding Anna is a spectre and is actually dead, throws the magic necklace of convenience into the woods, in despair. Mary, who knows already that Will cannot see Anna without the necklace, just sits back and watches him throw it. When he panics because he can’t see Anna any more, Mary has an “Oh, crap, the necklace!” moment. Will runs off to retrieve it, to find that it is hanging from a suspiciously convenient tree branch. I may not be an expert on projectile motion, but I’m pretty sure if you throw something while seated on the ground, it would not be lying on an empty tree branch, glinting in the light for you to find it again.
3. Anna’s supernatural abilities are inconsistent. At first she has difficulty catching hold of a book because it goes right through her fingers. But later, she narrowly manages to enter the house before the butler, who can’t see her, closes the door. This should not be a problem if she were insubstantial. Much later, she can, despite fading at an increasing rate, pull blankets and unlock a door for Mary. Make up your mind already.
4. And why is it that the servants of the house never notice Anna’s disappearance? Surely it looks strange when the master and his sister are talking into thin air.
5. Mary’s letter to Will. This has to be read to be believed. Mary noticeably writes sections in bold and Anna immediately deduces there’s a secret message. Will? He notices “the care she had taken with choosing her words.” Way to go with the irony, dude.
The Bad – The mysterious, pointless mother
Why is Sara roaming the halls of Calloway Manor? What relevance does she have to the plot? As far as I could see, the story would have functioned perfectly well without her. I understand bringing up story to highlight Will’s doubly tragic loss but don’t see the need to reanimate her and set her off like a clockwork doll to stalk him. This also begs the question, why isn’t she fading like Annabel? The protagonist who died less than a week ago is finding it harder and harder to hold on, but the mother who kicked the bucket five years ago is still hanging on like a refrigerator magnet? If this is due to sheer willpower, she could have lived. Let’s face it, her only role here is to be a spiritual mentor to Anna after she dies, which Mary could have easily done.
The Bad – The super slow beginning and the characterisation
It is very, very hard to become attached to the characters in this book. Both they and the plot, are, as Loki famously said in the Avengers movie, burdened with glorious purpose i.e. the theme. The problem here is that the theme is intrinsically linked to the humanity of the characters, so if you fail to make believable people out of them, it becomes difficult to digest the plot. And that, unfortunately, is the biggest flaw of this book. I didn’t care about these characters. I didn’t blink when Annabel died, was only mildly interested in Mary and for most of the book, wanted to replace Will with Gerard Butler so I’d at least have something to look at.
We are told that Anna is a perfect, wispy blonde with a lively temperament and cheerful outlook. So is Barbie.
Mary has been seeing ghosts since childhood and hiding this fact from everyone. This seems to have no more effect on her than the colour of her hair.
Will comes off as a spoilt rich boy with parental neglect issues. Not grateful for a strong, loving sister and a girl who loves him deeply, he insists on being useless.
All this, combined with the sluggish start where absolutely nothing of import happens, meant that I was on the verge of ditching this book. The ending just about redeemed it, but not enough, in my opinion.
In the end, Madly, Deeply comes off like the ghosts it features: there, but not there. A strange mix of The Corpse Bride, The Sixth Sense and Byron’s poetry, it doesn’t really manage to do anything all that well but tries so hard all the same, that it cannot be called bad.
*Quotes and details taken from an ARC provided by Netgalley. Many thanks to the publishers for allowing me to read this in exchange for an honest review.*