Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller (1879) is a short novel about a young American woman traveling in Europe. Daisy is enjoying her new experiences as she travels, and her priorities are her own pleasure and amusement. Unlike those around her, Daisy tells the truth rather than calculating to move up the social ladder.

Frederick Winterbourne meets Daisy in Vevey, Switzerland and is instantly intrigued by her and her fresh nature. He is protective of Daisy and sees that she is breaking unspoken social rules. Frederick thinks that Daisy blunders innocently and without awareness, and it never occurs to him that she is deliberately being rebellious in refusing to conform to the norms of society.

Winterbourne pursues Daisy, but when his aunt refuses to meet her, Daisy realizes that his family does not consider her to be a social equal. Before Winterbourne leaves Vevey for Geneva, he agrees to meet Daisy in Rome later that year.

When he arrives in Rome, Daisy is being gossiped about by those who think she is being too familiar with Italian men. In particular, Daisy is involved with a man named Giovanelli, and she refuses to tell Winterbourne if she is engaged to him or not. Daisy is gradually excluded by other Americans because of her behavior. One night, Winterbourne sees Daisy with Giovanelli at the Colosseum, and he is angry with Giovanelli for taking her there because of the risk of catching Roman fever.

Sadly, soon after, Daisy contracts Roman fever and dies. After her death, Winterbourne belatedly receives a letter from Daisy. In her letter, she explains that she was never engaged and that she remembered their time together in Geneva fondly.

Henry James wrote this novella in third person, leaving the reader without a complete understanding of Daisy. The reader’s view of Daisy is mainly filtered through Winterbourne’s perspective. Is Daisy ignorantly blundering, or is she purposefully striving for freedom?

In spite of seeming to understand Daisy’s letter and her need for respect, Winterbourne returns to his old ways at the story’s end. He is apparently unaffected by Daisy’s presence in his life. Meanwhile, the reader is left wondering whether Winterbourne understood Daisy at all.

Related Review:
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

Daisy Miller by Henry James The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Golden Bowl by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl (1947) by John Steinbeck weaves a story of good, evil, events, and their consequences. Based in part on a Mexican folk tale, this novella has beauty in its simplicity.

The story is set in La Paz, Mexico, where Kino and his wife Juana have an infant son Coyotito. Kino works to gather pearls from the Gulf of Mexico. Their meager life is challenged when they are shamed by a doctor who refuses to treat their son Coyotito after he is bit by a scorpion.

Wishing and praying for change, Kino finds "The Pearl of the World," a pearl the size of a sea gull’s egg. He sees promises in the pearl. Kino plans to marry Juana in a church, wants to buy a rifle and some new clothes, and aims to send his son to school.

After Kino and Juana find the pearl, the social order of their town transforms. The idyllic setting changes to one filled with mistrust, greed, betrayal, and murder. For instance, once the doctor hears of their wealth, he poisons Coyotito and then deceives Kino and Juana into believing that he cured their son. Coyotito was actually saved by Juana’s quick care.

Kino attempts to sell the pearl, but becomes hardened when he is offered an unfair price. Later, Kino and Juana’s home and most prized possession (their boat) are destroyed by people trying to steal the pearl. The music of the pearl counters the “Song of the Family” in Kino’s ears. As Kino clings to the pearl’s promises, his satisfaction with his humble life falls apart. Juana pleas for Kino to throw the pearl away or destroy it, but Kino refuses. Juana then tries to throw the pearl into the sea on her own, but Kino attacks her, becoming a man who is “half insane and half god.” Later, Kino murders a thief who attempts to steal the pearl. This event leads the family to depart from their home.

On their way to the capital, Kino believes that sheep trackers are on their trail, though it is never clear whether this is the case. Perceiving that they are hunted and tracked like animals, Kino becomes more like an animal himself. He resorts to murder, but ironically his son Coyotito is also killed when mistaken for a coyote. Kino’s choices and insistence on keeping the pearl eventually led him to murder four men and result in the death of Coyotito.

The Pearl is a tragedy. Instead of bringing good fortune to Kino’s family, the pearl was a curse that destroyed their unity and brought evil into their home.

Purchase and read books by John Steinbeck:

The Pearl by John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck East of Eden by John Steinbeck Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck


Saturday, September 6, 2003

Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elise Juska

Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elise Juska

Getting Over Jack Wagner (2003) is a novel by Elise Juska about a 26-year-old woman named Eliza Simon. As an avid viewer of General Hospital in the 1980s, the title of the novel caught my attention. Jack Wagner, an actor and musician, played Frisco Jones on the long-running soap opera.

The novel begins with lines of dialogue from General Hospital:

Frisco: Once upon a time there was a rock star who met a princess...
Robin: Did they live happily ever after?
Frisco: Isn’t that how all good stories end?

At age 10, Eliza had a crush on Jack Wagner. Now at age 26, she is still looking for love by dating “rock stars” in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, these musicians never meet her expectations of what a rock star should be. Eliza works as a copywriter for a travel agency where she must convince others to take vacations to destinations that she has never visited herself. She is unhappy with her work as well as with being dissatisfied with her love life. After each “rock star” bites the dust, Eliza’s best friends, Hannah and Andrew, are there to support her. Hannah and Andrew are both in happy relationships, and they are likeable, though poorly developed. Throughout the story, Eliza could analyze why she is so critical of others and why she wants her relationships to fail. Unfortunately, she seems happier to wallow in her self-defeating cycle.

The best parts of the story are the 80s and early 90s references to song titles at the start of each chapter and the nostalgic references to television shows of that era. Eliza reminisces about 1984, saying:

"The beauty of eighties music was this: rock stars weren't afraid to speak their feelings. Back then, it wasn't corny. It wasn't suspicious. It wasn't desperate. They could spill their guts in a flood of synthesizers, cymbals, A-B-A-B rhyme schemes and long notes high as women's…As a grown-up, I find that kind of openness terrifying. But in 1984, it was acceptable, even desirable, and it was the way I loved Jack Wagner: with confidence, fearlessness, and a T-shirt bearing a steam-ironed decal of his sultry face."

At the end of the novel, Eliza reaches a surprise resolution and feels she can express unashamed, honest, and fearless love once again. The ending was possibly a twist to avoid the “chick lit” cliche of a man solving a woman’s problems and providing her with happiness. Additionally, it may have aimed to make an unsympathetic character more likeable. Still, the ending felt forced and the novel lacked a real resolution. Eliza came across as self-defeating, whiny, and pathetic throughout. It was nearly impossible to believe that she would change, and as a reader, I was left not caring much if she does change or not.

Purchase and read books by Elise Juska:

Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elise Juska One for Sorrow, Two for Joy by Elise Juska