Thursday, November 29, 2007

Like A Box of Saltine Crackers

I just spent the last month working my way through Broken Bonds: The First Book of the Trevu Trilogy by FJ Warren. And like a box of saltine crackers, this book gave me something to chew on, but not a lot of the "nutrition" and flavor I'd like to get from my reading.

This book is the beginning of one of those sprawling "family" sagas that go through the experiences of several generations. In this case, the family is that of Captain Redvers Trevarthen, a mining magnate in Cornwall at the turn of the nineteenth century. This part of the saga picks up when Redvers' illegitimate son has been dropped on his doorstep. To make things interesting, the baby is mulatto, the result of Redvers' long-standing affair with an independent black woman in the nearby town. Despite the fact the baby was born in adultery, Redvers' wife insists that they keep him. The book then follows the developments of young Paul Trevarthen's life to the point where he becomes the master of Trevu (the family estate). This novel strongly reminds me of some of the "gothic" novels I read while growing up -- there's plenty of hob-nobbing in society, titillating action, illicit unions, forbidden love, and family secrets.

But maybe there's too much! You know you can choke on crackers if you shove too many in your mouth at once. The plot seems to meander along at times, with periods of intense action followed by equally-long description of the less exciting times of Paul's life. There's also a secondary plot concerning a young smuggler that is a little confusing because there's not a clear designation when the story switches from one plotline to the other. Clearly, this story is a setup for the rest of the trilogy in which events will be played out to a dramatic conclusion. I guess I'm wondering if it might have all fit in two books if some of the more mundane plot points had been left out. Maybe I'm becoming a child of the "instant gratification" society, but why should I have to munch through the whole box of dry cereal to get to the prize at the bottom of the box? (sorry for switching my analogy)

I wasn't really that enthralled with the main character, Paul; I thought he was spoiled and whiny. The smuggler, Joey Bolitho, was much more compelling to me. I found myself sort of attracted to him in a perverse way, despite the fact that he kills men with his bare hands. He's got a really interesting psyche, does Joey, but he doesn't get much time on the field in this story. I suppose he'll play a bigger role in the rest of the trilogy (because there are some pretty heavy-handed hints at the end of the story that Joey is more than he seems).

This book is Paul's story, though. I thought there was a missed opportunity to discuss the social consequences of being mulatto in the early 19th century. When Paul is a child, he faces discrimination for being dark-skinned; however, once he comes into young adulthood and is rich and good-looking, suddenly everyone (except the villain) seems to forget about it. I'm not so sure that's realistic. People might have been nice to him to his face, but I bet there would at least be some nasty remarks behind the closed doors of "withdrawing rooms." The same is true of his mother. At the time of Paul's birth, she is shunned by everyone in town (except Redvers' saintly wife). However, when Paul is grown, she comes back into his life as a respected and rich business owner. Everyone in town now treats her like anyone else. That just seems unrealistic to me. Then again, this book is not meaty social commentary; it is a family saga meant for entertainment and snacking.

I have to admit, one thing that made the book seem as dry to me as crackers was the "tell, not show" style in which it was written. Let me give an example. There is a scene where poor Joey is proposing to the woman he loves. Here's how it plays out in the book:

"Sitting quietly at the table with his beloved, he began to relate to her his wish to give up the smuggling, for he knew she detested it so. She made a favorable reply so he took a deep breath and proceeded to tell her that his circumstances were about to undergo a change. Explaining that if he accepted Barney's offer he would have to move away, he delicately informed her that he understood full well that she would not wish to leave her family during her father's sickness, but he would be quite prepared to wait for her until such time as it would be appropriate for her to do so."

No, no, no! I don't want you to tell me about that moment! I want to be able to experience it! I want to hear the words Joey says, to see his posture and the look on his face, to feel the earnestness with which he's making his plea. This is a very dramatic moment in the subplot -- play it up!

In all fairness to the author, there is another scene where Joey's beloved is once again turning down his marriage proposal, and it does a much better job of showing the action and allowing us to feel sympathy for both characters.

So, anyway, the box of crackers is finally all gone, and I'm ready to move on to something with a little more flavor and staying power.

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