Sep 24, 2009

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

(As per Eva, Heather and Maree’s order, I’m starting this post with: ZOMG THIS BOOK IS AWESOME GGGAHFFR!!1@ READ IT NOW@! There. It felt good to get that out of the way.)

In the Victorian Age, an American illustrator by the name of Radborne Comstock moves to London. There he meets a member of the Folk-Lore Society, a doctor who offers him a job at an insane asylum in Cornwall. He accepts the offers, and later meets one of the patients, a beautiful woman who paints herself, and who is often visited by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and by poet Algernon Swinburne.

In our age, a young man named Valentine Comstock grows up in an old house in Maine which is described as “Manderley on bad acid”. There he discovers some of his grandfather’s paintings, as well as a hidden talent within himself. Things become complicated, however, when in his early teens he begins to have strange visions. And in modern-day London, American journalist Daniel Rowland is attempting to write a book called Mortal Love, a study of the legend of Tristan and Iseult through the ages. Until, that is, his musician friend Nick Hayward introduces him to a mysterious woman who changes the direction of his research (among other things).

Don’t you love parallel storylines? I do, especially when they come together as beautifully as these do. I want to climb onto a rooftop and shout about how everyone should read this book right now. However, I realize that part of my enthusiasm has to do with the fact that Mortal Love is so very me: Victorian London, Cornwall, Pre-Raphaelite artists, lost paintings, folklore and mythology, references to Goblin Market, The Mabinogion, The Owl Service, a scene with Lady Wilde, and so on. If you love these things too, then I’ll predict you’ll also find yourself fighting the urge to climb onto the nearest rooftop to shout about this book.

But you know what, even if you don’t, there’s plenty to love here: the lovely writing, the wonderful atmosphere, the subtle and tasteful eroticism, all the references to art history, the characters, the exciting plot, and the very universal themes it deals with: love, obsession and its dangers, passion and longing, losing something or someone and learning how to let go, and the relationship between beauty and mortality and art.

I confess that I’ve always been a bit sceptic about the association between artistic genius, melancholy and madness, and Mortal Love touches on that. But I really like the way this was dealt with here: it’s not superficial, and it goes beyond Romantic stereotypes about art and those who create it. What it does is deal with the very human urge to create, and how it can consume us; with how art is often related to our knowledge that beauty—that life itself—is ephemeral, that time is always passing, that there's no escaping loss. And believe me, it does this very well.

Then there’s the fact that it goes back to the roots of myth and fairy lore: there’s nothing about Mortal Love that is tame or cute. What it is is mysterious, dark, ambiguous, sensual and frightening. Reading it reminded me of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless, of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers (minus the complicated mythology), of The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. And it’s not that it resembles any of these books—to be honest, it resembles nothing I’ve read before. It's just that some of the things I loved about them can also be found in Mortal Love. Ah, I just want to hug this book.

Pan and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones
Pan and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones

Memorable passages:
When I was a kid, Red gave me a book that contained images of Louis Wain’s schizophrenic fractal cats. I recognized in them the pattern that my grandfather’s late painting followed, nearly photorealistic detail giving way to fancy and, in the end, ferociously fragmented, almost purely geometric images, like the endlessly replicating honeycombs traced across your eyelids during an acid trip.

In real life Goldengrove was creepy as shit, especially the yews that shadowed the house’s entrance like thunderheads. My grandfather had planted them over a century before. He loved to pain trees, and he had a knack for growing real ones that looked positively demonic. The gardens were filled with them: melancholy crabapples, wind-savaged poplars, stands of birches cancerous with peeling bark.
None were as disturbing as the yews, great tortured-looking trees with red berries that glistened like eyes and blackish needles thatched with spiderwebs. Their branches blocked the sun from my bedroom and knocked ceaselessly against the glass if there was the slightest wind at night.

“What you feel for her, Daniel,” she whispered, and her hands rested upon his shoulders, light as leaves falling. “That desire for something hopeless, for what is already gone, for what can never be yours—we, too, know that. Every time we touch you, we taste your mortality. It is the closest we come to understanding what it is like for you: to live knowing that you will die.”
Other Opinions:
A Book a Week
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Also, you can read a wonderful interview with Elizabeth Hand by Cheryl Morgan at Strange Horizons.


  1. Great review, Nymeth! Now I'll have to check it out, as it does sound like I book that I would enjoy!

  2. Wait - you've read The Stress of Her Regard? I LOVE THAT BOOK!!!!
    Um ... I mean ... gosh, Mortal Love sounds like something I would like.
    And yay for flailing. :D

  3. I love parallel stories too! And thanks to the art history challenge, I'm enjoying those books more and more. And I love Byatt and Jonathan Strange and Lud-in-the-Mist! So this one's going towards the top of the TBR list. :D

    And I haven't heard of The Stress of Her Regard, but that's going on as well.

  4. Yay, you did do it!! See, that wasn't so bad. :)

    This was a fantastic review Ana. I want to go grab it up right now and go sit in my cozy little chair in the corner and devour it. It sounds like it is right up my alley.

  5. I have to admit, I'm not at all sceptic about he association between artistic genius, melancholy and madness. I don't think it's ALWAYS there or anything, but I know of so many authors and artists who suffer(ed), and know, I could get into a really long drawn out comment about this and probably shouldn't. Not in your comments section. :D However, one day if I'm ever in Portugal, this would be a good thing to sit down and have hot chocolate over while we talk. :D

  6. I love parallel stories too if done well.

    You don't have to shout from the Rooftop, you just have to say "Read it" and it goes on my wishlist :)

  7. oh geez, yet another book to research because it sounds so good!!! argh! lol great review Ana

  8. I'm putting it on my Wish List as soon as I finish this post. Great review.

  9. I bought this book years ago. It's one of my favorites and now I have to reread. This book is also ME. And you just reminded me of why I wanted to write a novel called The Goblin Market. LOL! I need to find that book. It's in some drawer...

    Wonderful review and post.

  10. Andreea: Thanks! I think you would, yes!

    Maree: I read it for RIP last year and I really enjoyed it! And yay indeed...flailing is fun :D

    Eva, I think you'll really like this! The Stress of Her Regard is about Romantic poets and vampires (not sparkly!) and art and the nineteenth-century and stuff :D It has one of the most complicated plots I've ever come across, to be honest, but somehow it works. The only problem is that, like many fictionalized accounts of the lives of the Romantic poets, there's too much Percy and Byron and not enough Mary! She was the coolest of them all :P

    Heather, I think you'd like it! :D It's a great book to curl up with.

    Amanda: I guess uncertain would have been a better word than sceptic! I mean, I know that (sadly) suicide rates are higher among artists than among the rest of the population, but what I'm not sure about is the idea that you have to be "unbalanced" or eccentric or whatever to create good art, or that great art is only inspired by negative emotions. I'm not an artist, but I don't see why happiness wouldn't be just as inspiring as sadness :P But anyway, this would definitely be a great topic to discuss at length over hot chocolate!

    Violet: I really appreciate your trust! :D

    Deslily: lol, sorry! :P

    Verbatim: Thank you! And I'm glad to hear you're planing to read it :)

    Janie H. Harrison: A novel called The Goblin Market! Would it be based on the poem? I hope you write it, because I'd love to read it :D

  11. Fantastic review! That cover I believe is also a cover for one of Miles' books in her Tristan and Isolde trilogy. That's what drew me and then to read that T&I are involved...very cool.
    SOunds like a great story. The Romantics were so passinate, almost to the point of madness.

  12. All right, all right. It's going on the list. But only because you said ZOMG READ THIS BOOK!!! :)

  13. Ooooh!...Now I am hugging myself for chancing on this book in a booksale bin, after reading your great review. (Saw your link on the RIP IV Challenge review list) It's been a month on my TBR pile; maybe I should move this up.
    Glad to have stumbled on your post 'cause it seems I've got a delicious novel to savor.

  14. Nymeth, I think you need to put a warning sign on your blog as it is such a danger to book bloggers TBR pile.

    I was completely taken by the cover, before I read a word. It has just a wonderful feel to it. I want it now.

  15. I really enjoy stories with parallel storylines in them, though it is so hard to do them intelligently and have them come together in the end.

    I don't know much about art history, but I still think this would be one worth checking out. After all, it's a real treat when you find a book that you want to clasp to your chest and hug!

  16. ok, ok, twist my arm, I'll order it! :-)

  17. Oh my, this review made me smile so much!!! It wasn't really the book. But it was the joy that I could see that this book brought you. Yes, yes, yes...THAT makes me happy!

    That said, I will add this to the wish list--for someday :( Even if your absolute delight in this book hadn't totally sold me, that passage about the trees definitely would have.

  18. I generally don't like parallel storylines, but this sounds lovely! I have The Stress of Her Regard on my shelf. I have heard so much about it and it seems so exactly up my alley, set in Regency England, that I don't know why I haven't picked it up... but I will. After Fingersmith. Which I will read ASAP after getting through the ARC I have waiting for me!

  19. I was reading your review and thinking "wow this looks great" when the author's name poked into my head and I said..."wait where have I heard this name before?" and then I realized I did a WoW post about her upcoming YA novel WONDERWALL. Oh yeah!

  20. Without in any way giving rise to the suggestion that I have a one-track mind - how was the scene with Lady Wilde? I'm just curious! I would totally read this anyway, because of the other things you listed. :P

  21. Jenny Girl: I've been meaning to read that Rosalind Miles trilogy for years! And you're right about the Romantics :) This is set a bit later, but I think the Pre-Raphaelites followed in their footsteps.

    Daphne: lol, I'm glad it worked :P

    Josbookshelf: How fantastic that you grabbed it at a sale! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Vivienne: To be fair, ALL book blogs should come with a warning like that :P

    Steph: They are hard to do well, yes, but Elizabeth Hand managed!

    Joanna: yay!

    Debi: lol, your frown made me laugh :P That sounds horrible, but I mean it NICELY! I just know exactly how it is to find a book that sounds good and at the same time going, "argh, not another one!" And isn't the tree passage AWESOME?

    Aarti: I think The Stress of Her Regard is a love it or hate it kind of book, but fortunately I fell in the love it field. Fingersmith, on the other hand, is love it or love it :D

    Lenore: I didn't know she had a YA novel coming out soon! Art and time travel? I want it!!

  22. Jenny: lol! Radborne Comstock goes to a Folk-lore Society meeting in London, and he talks to her briefly there. She's presented as intense, a bit eccentric, and very knowledgeable. Then he asks the doctor who took him there who she is, and he mentions her son the writer. But very briefly, I'm afraid :P

  23. Hooray!!! I bought this book a few weeks ago while I was on vacation because it looked teh awesome. It just got move closer to the top of my TBR pile. ;)

  24. What a great review. I love parallel in history storylines (one of the few types of historical fiction I read!). And those yew trees sound very creepy.

  25. Ok, you totally sold me on this book. Your review was great, very powerful and persuasive, and it makes me come to the conclusion that I really need to read this book. And once again, I just have to mention that you seem to read only the cream of the crop in books. Ahh, I love it here.

  26. I have had this for ages but not yet got around to reading it; thanks for the review Nymeth, this may just float it's way to the top of the reading list!

  27. The Stress of Her Regard just went on my TBR list because of a recent review at Shelf Monkey. Now this one must go on as well.

  28. I love your enthusiasm for this book! I do love parallel storylines and these sound intriguing.

  29. OMG I AM SOO READING THIS %$#@$#@%#!!!!!!


    haha, felt good to get that out of the way, too.

    - Aimee

  30. You ZOMG'ed! Next thing you know, your posts will be full of "dude, read this shit" and LOL cats.


    And the "Manderley on bad acid" line reminds me I must read Rebecca!

  31. Oh, I definitely hear you, Nymeth!! :P

    OK, onto the wishlist it goes, hmph, LOL.

  32. Sorry, I've been knee-deep in Book Fair pooh, so I have resorted to keeping up with posts at atypical hours. OK, normally I would take one look at this book and walk the other way. I really don't know why...I love parallel stories, I like the whole Victorian thing. It just is not necessarily my genre of choice. But to sing from the rooftops? I know how that feels, and it doesn't happen often. I'm going to blindly trust you on this one. It is going on the list.

  33. Oh! I would certainly agree with you that one doesn't HAVE to be unbalanced to create art. I also don't believe negative emotions or problems create art. Coming from someone who DOES write and who writes better when her bipolar disorder is controlled, I definitely don't think you have to be depressed or crazy to create. However, I do think that often artists are often prone to become crazy, or that people who are crazy are more prone to become artists. Does that make sense? I think there is a relationship between the two states, but not a necessary one.

    PS. I want hot chocolate now...

  34. I put this on hold for me at the library... :) Not sure if it is me, but I am going to find out!

  35. Another Victorian book! Lol. This one sounds really neat-- I really like the topic of mental illness and creativity, but I can understand why you're skeptical about it. Mental asylums are always fun to read about, too. Maybe fun isn't the right word. . .

  36. OMG, I'm going to add this to my "books to look for" list. Art? yes. Victorian era? yes. Edward Burnes-Jones? I read about him (many years ago) in the book "Victorian Sisters" by Ina Taylor. I think it be out of print, but may be worth looking for. It's about the MacDonald sisters; one married Burnes-Jones, one married Rudyard Kipling, one was married to another painter (I forget who) and one was the mother of a prime minister of England.

  37. You love Goblin Market, Nymeth?! I LOVE Goblin MArket! It's one of my very most favorites. Okay, so, I'm going to fly to, say, the Azores, that's like halfway, right? And you meet me there, and we're going to read the whoel thing out loud, and talk about the home for fallen women, and draw pictures of 'like two birds in one nest' and we're going to read the whole thing again, and stay up until 2 in the morning reading and eating quinces and burberries and other obscure but delectably named fruits. I LOVE this poem! How did I now know you liked it too? Yay!

    Oh, and this book sounds real-real good...

  38. OK, so I've collected myself now. I just wanted to say, that I *Do* really want to read this book, now. As long as the woman isn't a vampire, I hope? I'm kind of avoiding vampires, these days... not snobbery, just self-protection.

  39. Wow, what a great review. Not only have you made me want to read this book, you've also made me interested in everything you've compared it to! I read Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon years ago and absolutely loved it. She writes such beautiful and evocative prose. I've been too scared to read anything else by her just in case it wasn't as good (I know, it doesn't make much sense), but you've changed my mind.

  40. wow, what a great recommendation! :-)

  41. She was intense and eccentric, and I kinda wish she featured in more books, because I think she's hilarious. Her name before marrying was Jane Frances Elgee, but she became convinced that "Elgee" was a corruption of "Alighieri" and that she was descended from Dante; so she changed her middle name to Francesca. Very much Oscar Wilde's mum, no?

  42. What cave do I live in that I've never heard of this author before?? Haha. I think I want to read this now too.. as it also sounds very ME! THanks!!!!

  43. Very well! I will drink this kool-aid. You and Eva are my combined-Oprah, after all. Also, Victorian = awesome.

  44. Hi - this has gone straight onto my wishlist - an irresistible combination of things I like in a book. Thank you for the review.

  45. I've read Stress of Her Regard too! Years ago....I've always loved the Pre-Raphaelites, and Tim Powers. I need to reread it soon; have you read On Stranger Tides by him? That has zombies, pirates, and love :-D
    I keep thinking I've read Mortal Love, but your review is about a book I've never read, so it's something else by her I read a few years ago. This one is to the top of my list, since you've named almost everything I love (minus the Victorians)!
    Really, really good review, Nymeth. I still don't know how you review a book so thoroughly and give nothing away about it! I so love it.

  46. OK. That's it. Based on that opening line alone, I'm going to get the book. Thanks, Ana!

  47. What a beautiful review! And the reference to Louis Wain's cats hooked me. :-)

  48. Heidenkind: It was teh awesome! Enjoy :D

    Belle: I loved that description so much!

    Zibilee: There's a dud every now and then (like Cemetery stories :P), but I'm having a great reading year!

    brideogthebookgod: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Jeanne: They're both fantastic reads!

    Kathy: it feels good to gush freely every now and then :P

    Aimee: lol! :D

    softdrink: I already post lolcats; the "dude, read this shit" will makes its appearance before long ;)

    Melody: No hmphing :P

    Sandy: nothing to apologize for! You know, I think this is one of those books that would make a perfect introduction to fantasy for readers who don't read it very often.

    Amanda: That definitely does make sense! And the numbers alone show that there's a connection there. But yes, I don't think it's a necessary one.

    Kailana: I think it will be you!

    She: Are you implying I'm obsessed with the Victorians? ME?! :P And yes, there IS something about mental asylums that makes them interesting.

    Valerie: The book actually mentions the MacDonald sisters! Victorian Sisters sounds absolutely fascinating. It's too bad it's out of print, but I'm adding it to my Bookmooch wishlist. Maybe I'll get lucky.

    Jason: :D I always did want to go to the Azores, so perfect plan! I love Christina Rossetti! And nope...not a vampire. She IS something, can guess what from reading between the lines of my review :P And I completely understand being tired of vampires.

    chasingbawa: I completely agree about her writing! Before Mortal Love, the only then of hers I'd read was a short story. But now I want to read all her novels!

    Marie, it's a fantastic book :)

    Jenny: lol, very Oscar Wilde's mom, yes.

    Claire, I think you'd enjoy it! Sadly it seems that she doesn't get the attention she deserves.

    Raych: I hope you like it!

    Annabel: I love that she managed to combine so many great things in a single book :)

    Susan: I haven't read On Stranger Tides yet, but did you hear the recent news? Apparently Disney bought the rights to make another Pirates of the Caribbean book based on it. The result will probably be a mess, but it might lead new readers to the book, which is always a good thing! Was it Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand that you read? I have the impression we talked about it once, but I'm not sure!

    Alice: I think I should ZOMG more often :P

    Laughing Stars: I LOVE Wain's cats! They're so wonderful and unsettling and strange.

  49. your posts and all the comments are a hoot to read!

  50. Dude, I kind of want to stand up on a rooftop and shout just from reading your review. This sounds awesome. Plus, ZOMG!-worthy.

  51. Wow, how can I not look for this book! I just looked for it on my public library's database and have put a hold on it!


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.