Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Disappointment of Unfufilled Potential

I'm still plugging along with my A-Z reading challenge. I had reached "L," which was supposed to be Twain's Life on the Mississippi. But a couple of weeks ago when I was at the library with my kids, I saw an "L" book on the shelf that intrigued me - The Lace Dowry by Andrea Cheng. The story is about a young Hungarian girl whose mother had decided to commission a handmade lace tablecloth as a dowry.  According to the book cover, the conflict of the story centers around whether the mother and daughter who are working on the lace will be able to complete it, and the main character's attempts to help them be able to do it.

I was drawn to the idea of reading about a different culture that I don't know a lot about, and the book was set in 1933, which meant it is historical fiction. So, although I am actually eager to read Life on the Mississippi, I decided to suspend it in favor of The Lace Dowry.  While I'm not going to say that decision was a mistake, I will admit I was disappointed in The Lace Dowry.

The main problem is that it was so sketchy. It started off all right, setting up the character of Juli as a girl more interested in reading and in science than in getting things lined up for an acceptable marriage. The conflict between Juli and her mother is also set up; her mother is going to force Juli to go along with the dowry idea and with taking dancing lessons.  Finally, we get to meet Roza and her mother, who will be making the lace. We discover that lace-making is tedious and hard on the eyes, and that both Roza and her mother are suffering from eye strain.

All of that is a decent setup for a plot. But this book just doesn't deliver. (Spoilers ahead!) About halfway through the book, we are told that Roza's mother has gone blind and they aren't going to be able to finish the lace. At that point, Juli's mother sort of loses it. She gets a job and seems to be pulling away from Juli. Juli cooks up a plan to get jeweler's glasses that will help Roza and her mother be able to finish the lace. She lies to her parents and buys the glasses, but when she goes to Halas (the country town) alone to deliver them, no one is at Roza's house. So Juli takes the glasses and sticks them in a drawer. After talking to her father, Juli begins to see her mother in a different light and tries to make up with her. That seemed to have turned out to be the main plot - that Juli and her mother, though different, would come to peace with each other.  But then in the last chapter, Roza suddenly shows up at Juli's door with the completed lace, Juli gives Roza the glasses, the end.

After reading that, you may be wondering what my problem is. Sounds reasonable as a storyline, right? But it has so many holes and things that come together by what seems to be very convenient circumstances. For one thing, if Juli's future is so important to her mother that she's willing to invest a lot of money is a very expensive dowry, why does she suddenly just give up on trying to "improve" Juli once the dowry is in jeopardy? Is Juli worth something only if she can make a good marriage?  How did Roza (an uneducated country girl) find her way to Juli's apartment in Budapest? What happened about the lie Juli told her parents - they find out, they are mad, and then suddenly that's just dropped. But worst of all is the timing of the dowry showing up and the gift of the glasses. 

My understanding of how a plot should work is that the main character should be the one who effects the key change that happens. That's not to say that other forces -- possibly very powerful forces -- aren't at work as well.  But in order for the main character to be worthy of his/her status as the protagonist, he/she has to make some kind of decision that sets something in motion.  If outside forces create all the circumstances that shape the character's life, then he/she is passive. We as readers are denied the satisfaction of believing actions DO make a difference and that people CAN influence what happens in their lives - and isn't that part of the reason we read, to escape from the stuff we can't control in our own lives?  That's why we love Harry Potter - with everything against him, Harry still struggles on and manages to change his world for the better. I'm sure you can think of multitudes of other characters doing the same.

Given that theory, Juli should have been the one who made it possible for Roza and her mother to finish the lace. She should have had to make a real sacrifice to get the glasses (possibly the short-term sacrifice of having her parents be angry at her), and she should have delivered them at a point when the future of the lace was teetering on uncertainty. But as it turned out, Juli's efforts to get the glasses were for nothing. She lied to her parents and made a trip to Halas on her own, only to end up stuffing the glasses in a drawer. Roza finished the lace anyway, and then when Juli gives her the glasses, to me it felt like an afterthought: "Oh, yeah, I got these for you."

That's not the only thing I was disappointed about with the book (the writing style was rather stark and barren, I thought), but that's all I'm going to elaborate on since it's getting late and everyone else has gone to bed.  I just think it's a shame that a story that could have been fulfilling ended up leaving me wanting so much more.

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