Sep 7, 2009

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

Falling Angels takes place between New Year’s Eve, 1900, and the time of King Edward’s death in 1910. It tells the story of two families, the Colemans and the Waterhouses, who live near Highgate Cemetery in London. The two families are very different: the Waterhouses are more traditional, holding on to waning Victorian ideologies and rites, and the Colemans are more progressive, embodying the spirit of the new Edwardian age.

Despite their differences, the families end up seeing a lot of each other because young Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse become best friends. The girls enjoy playing in the nearby cemetery, and befriend a boy named Simon who is an apprentice gravedigger. For years, their lives revolve around Highgate Cemetery, but things change for both families with Kitty Coleman, Maude’s mother, joins the Suffragist movement.

One of the most interesting things about Falling Angels was how it showed the contrast between Victorian and Edwardian traditions, especially those surrounding death. The book opens shortly before Queen Victoria’s death and closes right after King Edward’s, and the differences in the impact these two deaths had say a lot about how society had changed. Proper mourning etiquette goes from an obsession to an option, even for someone as melodramatic as Lavinia Waterhouse. This says nothing, of course, about how people privately experience grief, but it does say something about the social significance attributed to death. And in the yearly twentieth century, the Victorian cult of death was most definitely beginning to fade.

Another thing I was very interested in was the role the Suffragist Movement played in the story. I must say that I worry that the story told in Falling Angels may have the potential of being interpreted as a story about how the Suffragist Movement was all about women who didn’t necessarily care about political representation but didn’t know what else to do with their time, or about bored women who were looking for a bit of excitement. Not that I think this is what Tracy Chevalier was saying – not at all. Still, I worry that the potential for dismissing the whole movement is there.

I’m sure women joined the movement for all sorts of different reasons, including boredom and purposelessness. The thing is, this purposelessness – what Kitty Coleman calls the “dull despair” of her days – arises from the fact that intelligent adult women were being kept from participating in public live and in most intellectual endeavours simply because they were women. And that too is a feminist issue. Early in the novel, Kitty watches her husband leave for work and thinks:
I watched from the window as he walked away, and felt the same jealousy I had suffered when seeing my brother go off to school. When he had gone round the corner, I turned and looked at the still, quiet room, just on the edge of the city that is the centre of the world, and I began to cry. I was twenty years old, and my life had settled into a long, slow course over which I had no control.
Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of my all-time favourite books; that and the fact that I love this time period led me to have high expectations of Falling Angels. As much as I enjoyed it, they weren’t quite fulfilled, and I think that part of the reason why was the way the book is structured.

Falling Angels uses multiple points of view – almost every characters gets to narrate the story for a bit – and although I’ve read a few books recently that use this technique very successfully, this wasn't exactly one of them. More than the narrators, though, the problem was that the story is told in short episodes, taking place months or even years apart, and for this reason it felt a little rushed.

The book is 400 pages long, so it’s not by any means short, but it felt much shorter than it actually was. The reason is mostly that it could have been longer – I think that watching these same events unfold more slowly would have been a lot more satisfying. As it was, I felt a little distant from the story because it all happened too fast. But maybe the problem here is that I’m unconsciously using The Children’s Book as my model of what an Edwardian family saga should be. Falling Angels won’t be added to my list of favourites, but it was still a very good read.

Other Opinions:
Books and Other Stuff
Reading Adventures
The Literature Housewife Review
Bookalicious

(Did I miss yours?)

31 comments:

  1. I'm with you. This book was all right, but would have been better with a few less narrators. It's definitely been a few years since I've read it, and I still recall that the abundance of less than well-defined narrators kind of wrecked it for me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've heard The Girl with the Pearl Earring is fantastic, and it's currently sitting on my shelf. I need to read it. I'm glad to hear you praise it. Sorry this one wasn't as good. :/

    ReplyDelete
  3. :( Sorry this one let you down a bit.

    I'm not sure why, but that quote really hit me. I mean, it's not, of course, like I hadn't known that girls were kept from going to school. In fact, that girls still are kept from going to school in many places. Yet still, for some reason, that fact hit me like a punch to the gut when I read that quote. It's just one of the saddest things I can imagine...

    ReplyDelete
  4. That quote from Kitty was so sad! I know how you feel about having expectations from a particular author and feeling so let down. It has happened to me a number of times and somehow it is worse than just reading a so-so book by someone you don't know!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Megan: It was really too bad. I liked the story and the writing, but the structure made it too...diffuse? for me. That's probably not the right word, but you know what I mean :P

    Amanda: I've had a few friends I recommended it to not like it, but I think it's just wonderful! Very subtle, and I love that.

    Debi: It made me very sad too :(

    Jill: I know! And if I hadn't read Chevalier before, I'd probably have finished this and thought, "oh, that was a good book". But because I was expecting to be blown away, I felt a bit meh.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have a friend who absolutely adores Tracey Chevalier and has been nagging me for ages to read her books. I like the sound of this one. Highgate Cemetary is of personal interest to me ( that probably sounds really weird) my grandparents are buried there and my family lived there before I was born. Carl over at Stainless Steel Dropping mentioned that Highgate Cemetary is featured quite heavily in Her Fearful Symmetry, so I might try and read this around the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This sounds fascinating to me since I know next to nothing about the differences between Victorian and Edwardian traditions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have this in audio. I wonder if the multiple POVs will work better or worse in that medium? When I get around to listening, you'll hear my opinion!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Interesting. I have not read much about the suffragettes since I left school, though I think about them often. It frustrates me when people, especially women, do not vote in elections, when these women gave up so much to earn our freedom and rights. Great review, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I remember reading this book a couple of years ago. I don't remember much of it, so your review refreshed my memory. I do remember that it wasn't a favorite, and thought that things weren't really explored in the depth that I would have liked. I guess my memory it has faded over time, but I don't remember particularly disliking it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I enjoyed this novel. It was different than anything I had read before. There were a lot of narrators, though. I don't remember it being long, but it's been almost two years since I read it.

    Great and thorough review!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I read this one years ago, and I liked it but did not love it. I agree that Girl With a Pearl Earring is a much better read! I also remember this book feeling short even though it is on the longish side.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I could've sworn I read this but after reading your thoughts I realize that I missed this one. I loved Girl and her book about the tapestries. I guess I have something to look forward to from her!!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I read this book awhile back and really enjoyed it. The narration style could be a bit confusing at times, but overall I found that it was a nice change. Good review!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you for your review, Nymeth. I haven't read anything by this author before. The time period definitely is an interesting one and so I will probably give this a try. Maybe I should read Girl with a Pearl Earring first though?

    ReplyDelete
  16. The story line sounds interesting, but I'm with you, sometimes the changing of narrators can be problematic for a story. Half of the time I skip over the narratives of the characters I don't like. Probably not a good thing, haha.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I am intrigued by the elements you pointed out as most interesting- the contrast between Victorian and Edwardian, the Suffragist movement, the multiple narrators (that of course can always be a blessing or a curse).

    The one thing I am hesitant about is the one thing you'd probably guess I am hesitant about- the 400 pages. Whew. But then again, I did tackle The Tale of Genji and got through half of it for 500 some pages, so maybe I can do it. Those were broken up into shorter stories which helped so maybe the transfer of narrator in the book will help in the same way.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I meant to also include that it is hard to try out a book that is 400 pages when you aren't certain you will find it worth it, like in your case.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I’ve heard so many good things about The Girl with the Pearl Earring, so I will check it out. I am sorry to hear that this one didn’t meet your expectations. Thanks for your honest review.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I liked this book too - well, actually, it broke my heart, but still... - although I do agree with you that The Girl with the Pearl Earring was much better.

    ReplyDelete
  21. This book looks interesting, although the thing about the Suffragette movement resulting from boredom kind of worries me. I'm sure wealthy women were bored (god knows I would be), but I doubt that had anything to do with joining the movement. They could always just have affairs or clean house or go shopping, for god's sake; they didn't to stir things up by joining the Suffragette movement. I know you mentioned you don't think it was the author's intention to imply that, but that's the sort of thing that would kind of set me off (as you can probably tell by this comment ~_^).

    ReplyDelete
  22. This is not the type of books I'd read but still, you gave an objective review. Thanks, Ana!

    ReplyDelete
  23. I probably won't read this one, but I'm intrigued by the idea of a story that puts the Victorian and Edwardian eras side by side. That part would be of interest to me.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Girl With a Pearl Earring is also one of my all-time favorite books but I have read a few others by Chevalier and have been a bit disappointed by them. They all have interesting premises but somehow just don't meet my expectations. I have this one because I want to give her another chance and plus I love the victorian period but I am trying to keep my expectations a bit lower - hopefully that will make the book more enjoyable!

    ReplyDelete
  25. I completely agree with your review. I had high expectations for this book because of Girl With a Pearl Earring. While this book was good, my expectations weren't fulfilled. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Vivienne: It doesn't sound weird at all! That's actually one of the (many!) reasons why I'm so looking forward to Her Fearful Symmetry. Highgate Cemetery sounds like such an interesting place.

    Bermudaonion: I learned a lot!

    Beth F: I hope it does! Let me know.

    Mariel: It frustrates me too. Too many people just take democracy for granted these days.

    Zibilee: I didn't dislike it either, but it definitely lacked a little depth.

    Literate Housewife: That's the thing - it felt MUCH shorter than it was! :P It was still enjoyable, but I wanted more.

    Heather: I'm glad I wasn't the only one to feel this way!

    Staci: The Lady and the Unicorn, right? I haven't read that one yet, but I've heard good things.

    Lola: I did enjoy it too, but I don't know, something about the narration didn't quite work for me.

    Wendy: I'd say yes, but maybe Girl with the Pearl Earring will make you have high expectations for this one like it did me :P Both are good books, though, and very much worth reading.

    ReplyDelete
  27. She: There weren't any narrators I really disliked, but because there were so many I felt like I never got to know any, you know?

    She: It honestly reads like it's only 200 pages, though. The sections are short, so it just flies by.

    Andreea: I hope you enjoy Girl with the Pearl Earring! It's a beautiful book.

    Alessandra: It broke my heart too, especially what happened to one of the characters...it was so unexpected :( (I'm sure you know which one I mean)

    heidenkind: lol, I can tell :P It's the sort of thing that annoys me too. In this case, the despair and entrapment that led Kitty to join the movement were portrayed well - it wasn't dismissive or anything. But I wish there had also been some focus on the politics of it all, or else there's the risk it will feed stereotypes about women not actually caring about politics and all that :/

    Alice, you're welcome!

    Terri: That was definitely very interesting, and it made me realize things about the two periods I hadn't before.

    Iliana: It's too bad her others aren't as good :( I have hopes for her new one, though. It's called Remarkable Creatures and it's about Victorian fossil collectors!

    S. Krishna: Thanks! It was too bad...I was expecting a new favourite.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Funny how we all have differing opinions. Of all Chevalier's books Falling Angels is by far my favourite. I nearly wept for Kitty and that's unusual for me. I must read it again sometime.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great review! Very thorough in your likes and dis-likes to really help your readers decide to read it or not.

    I think I would like to read it if only for the differences between Victorian and Edwardian traditions.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Cath: Kitty really broke my heart too :( Even though I had a little trouble with the structure, I can definitely see the book's strengths.

    Teddy Rose: I really do think it's worth reading!

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've had Falling Angels in my stacks for ages but still haven't read it. I got it after reading and enjoying both Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. If I remember correctly, TLATU was told from multiple points of view and I seem to remember having some similar problems with it. Reading it just before I went to Paris where I saw the actual tapestries for myself completely redeemed the book for me though. :)
    One of these days I'll get to this one.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.