Mar 10, 2010

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Set in 1906, A Gathering Light (titled A Northern Light in the US) is the story of sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, the oldest daughter of a farmer from upstate New York. Ever since her mother passed away, Mattie has been looking after her younger sisters and giving her father a hand with the farm—and all the while trying desperately to find time to study for her final high school examinations, to read Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, the Brontës, or Jane Austen, and to write her stories, which are her greatest passion.

Mattie’s teacher, Miss Wilcox, believes she has talent, and constantly encourages her to pursue her intellectual interests. Mattie’s greatest ambition is to go to New York City and attend university, but she knows that to do so she’ll have to leave everything and everyone she cares about behind. Mattie’s dilemma is only solved when her life gets wrapped up with Grace Brown’s, a young woman who’s found drowned in Big Moose Lake. As she begins make sense of the circumstances that led to Grace’s death, Mattie also gains a better understanding of the position she is in.

Many of you are likely familiar with Grace Brown’s real murder case. I wasn’t, though, and as Mattie read her letters (many of which Jennifer Donnelly actually includes in the novel), my heart broke for her. And also for Mattie herself: Mattie wants books and stories and words (she has the habit of learning a new word from the dictionary her mother left her every day). But she also wants love, intimacy, and yes, sex too. Which is both understandable and legitimate: she’s a teenage girl, she falls in love, and she has to try to balance the different directions in which her body, her heart and her mind pull her.

My favourite thing about A Gathering Light was that it didn’t make Mattie’s hesitation seem dumb—not in the least. It didn't portray her as weak for having doubts, for hesitating, for being unable to make up her mind. What it did was portray the position she’s in complexly and with complete respect, and by doing so it fully exposed its artificiality, its unfairness and its absurdity. Why does she have to choose at all? Why were women forced to pick between books or love; a home or a public life; a family or an education? A Gathering Light isn’t about right decisions versus wrong decisions; it isn’t about being independent or giving in, and it isn’t about an education being legitimate and love being silly, or the other way around. The point is that no matter what she decides, Mattie will have to give up things that are important to her. More than about her final decision, this is a story about why this should be so—it’s about a young girl’s realisation that the world she lives in puts all human beings of her gender in an extremely unfair position.

As you can probably tell by now, I loved A Gathering Light. I loved the fact that it’s full of references to other works of literature, and to the lives of women writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries (it’s funny how lately, having been thinking about the whole topic of literature as a conversation, I find examples everywhere). I loved the writing, which is insightful, subtle, graceful, and full of quiet power and beauty. I loved that this isn’t a book that points fingers at anyone in particular, but rather one that exposes injustice as a system to which even the most well-meaning people can contribute.

I also loved how in addition to gender, it deals with race, class, and many of the other reasons why people are put at a disadvantage. I loved the characterization—everyone in the novel feels like a real human being. I loved that this is a book that is not afraid to tackle the grimmer side of life. It’s a triumphant novel in some ways—full of life, courage, determination and idealism—but it's also not one that romanticizes life at the turn of the twentieth-century. Bad things happen to good people, as they did then and still do now.

Okay, long gushy paragraphs over. Let me just finish this by saying that it was really great for me to read this and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night in close succession. One is a classic mystery novel from the 1930’s; the other is a contemporary YA novel. Yet they deal with many of the same themes in an equally complex and satisfying manner, and each of them made me appreciate the other more. Don’t you love that kind of reading synchronicity?

Favourite passages:
Right now I want a word that describes the feeling you get—a cold, sick feeling deep down inside—when you know something is happening that will change you, and you don’t want it to, but you can’t stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will now be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again be quite the same person again.

Table eight was a single woman. She was sitting quietly, sipping lemonade and reading. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. “I’d kill for a dress like that,” Fran said as she passed by me. But it wasn’t her dress I wanted, it was her freedom. She could sit by a window and read, with nobody to say, “Are the chickens fed? What’s for supper? Have the pigs been slopped? The garden hoed? The cows milked? The stove blacked?” I thought she was the luckiest woman on the face of the earth.

As I tried to figure out what I could say—to find words that weren’t a lie but weren’t quite the truth, either—I thought that madness wasn’t quite like they tell it in books. It isn’t Miss Havisham sitting in the ruins of her mansion, all vicious and majestic. And it isn’t like in Jane Eyre, either, with Rochester’s wife banging around in the attic, shrieking and carrying on and frightening the help. When your mind goes, it’s not castles and cobwebs and silver candelabra. It’s dirty sheets and sour milk and dog shit on the floor. It’s Emmie cowering under her bed, crying and singing while her kids try to make soup from seed potatoes.
Other opinions:
Read Warbler, Leafing Through Life, Valentina’s Room, At Home With Books, The Written World, Mari Reads, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Bonnie’s Books

(Did I miss yours?)

44 comments:

  1. My favourite book of last year and I'm so pleased that you clearly loved it as much as I did. Mine was a library copy so I really need to buy my own as I know I'll want to read it again at some stage. Wonderful review, Nymeth.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You've made me so glad this book is actually on my TBR! Unfortunately it's in the US half of it - I hadn't heard all that much about it, so brought more "urgent" reads - but it's definitely going to come back with me next time.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was such a beautiful read I remember. I wonder if she's written any others *goes to check*

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes - she has - The tea rose, and it's on the shelf at my local library where I'm heading at lunchtime ;)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I loved this when I read it (especially that Miss Havisham/Bertha Mason quote) a few years ago. This was the book that convinced me that YA literature had just as much merit and could be enjoyed as much as adult fiction and that thinking otherwise was snobbery.

    I'm excited to read Verity's comment that Donnelly has another book.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm always fascinated at how you can resume a book (I'm rubbish at it) and then present some very interesting points.

    I read this book a few years ago and loved it too, however it was before I took reading notes so that I don't remember much about it. Should read it again... but then I do also have The Tea Rose waiting, and its sequel The Winter Rose.

    You are so right in underlining the fact that whatever Mattie decides, she will have to give up something. This is still the case in our time, to a certain extend. No wonder she hesitates!

    ReplyDelete
  7. thanks to Cath this is in my tbr pile.. thanks to you i am sure it will get pushed up near the top!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm so glad you loved it. I still think about it when I'm reminded of Mattie's great habit of learning one word a day. I often think I should do the same but I've never actually done it:P

    ReplyDelete
  9. This sounds amazing, I'm definitely going to read it. Your post reminded me of my grandmother who had to give up schooling to look after her family and how she was always so desperate to study (I couldn't really understand it then as I was young and school was somewhere where we were expected to go whether we liked it or not.)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love that last paragraph you quoted - so true! I think that's why books like Jane Eyre have so much appeal though - perhaps one likes to imagine oneself as having less quotidian chains so they seem more justifiable, in a way.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Where has this book been? I do believe this is the first I've heard of it but your description sounds beautiful! A must read for me. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  12. This sounds really good, and although I am familiar with the author this title is new to me; thanks for the great review.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The first time I ever saw this book, I picked up at random and then discovered it was based on the same crime case as An American Tragedy by Theodore Drieser (like I was saying on Twitter the other day). I was actually rereading An American Tragedy at the time, and I checked this one out, but after I was done, I didn't want to go into this book and change my feelings on the classic. I worried that reading the two so close to each other would hurt something. Either I'd grow less fond of the Dreiser, or I'd dislike A Northern Light by comparison.

    In the summer, I bought myself a copy of the book from a thrift shop, and it's still waiting for me to read. I guess the same feeling still holds - I worry that my love for Dreiser will taint this book in some way instead of enhance it. But I really do want to read it! I will get to it someday. I will! :D

    ReplyDelete
  14. This was such an insightful review. Truly. I have picked this book up over and over again and then put it down. Must pick it up and read it soon. You made it come alive through your words.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm not familiar with Grace Brown's murder case, but this book sounds just fascinating to me.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I also really loved this book, and therefore love seeing reviews continue to pop up about it. Nice review! You really hit on nice points about the novel.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Is this the same Donnelly who wrote that book The Tea Rose? Or was that someone with the last name Connelly? I don't remember, but I remember that book was massive! I haven't ever heard of this book, but it sounds like it made quite an impact on you- I love books that do that :-)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Wow! I've been wanting to read this book for a while now...but it turns out I was really clueless as to what the book was even like. I just knew about the mystery/crime aspect. Now I'm more excited than ever.

    And that synchronicity thing...yeah, I so love that!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I am intrigued by Grace Brown's murder case now. You stopped me in my tracks when you said it was real. I shall have to look it up.

    The cover of this book is absolutely gorgeous and just so haunting.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm American, I live in Upstate NY and I've never heard of the Grace Brown murder case. Oh and did I mention I majored in History Education. #historyfail right there.

    I am dying to read A Northern Light, so many of my dear goodreads friends love this book. Your review was glowing. But alas, my review book pile still needs some trimming. Perhaps I shall pick this up next week when I'm all caught up. I'm looking at my copy on the bookshelf now, and I swear it's calling to me.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I can already tell that I would totally sympathize with Mattie's character.

    And I love reading synchronicity! :)

    ReplyDelete
  22. Ooooo ... I love it when that happens -- reading synchronicity. Looks like you had two books that, by reading them near in time, made the whole reading experience even richer. Love the "literature as conversation" idea too.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I can't believe you only read this now! I just assumed you read it ages ago. It's the only book I have read by her so far... I read it so long ago I hardly remember it, though. Maybe time for a reread! Thanks for the review!

    ReplyDelete
  24. You make this novel sound so compelling! And yes, I do love that kind of synchronicity.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great review, as always! :)
    This book has been sitting on my pile for ages and after reading your lovely review, I can't wait to read it!

    ReplyDelete
  26. I really loved this one too! I've recommended it to several 8th grade girls and each one has enjoyed it! A wonderful read to be sure!

    ReplyDelete
  27. I really, really love Jennifer Donnelly's Victorian sagas, so I am anxiously waiting for the third book in that trilogy, but before that there is a new YA novel - time travel to the French Revolution I believe...and I can't wait!

    ReplyDelete
  28. I so enjoy literary references in books. Just a note. :)

    ReplyDelete
  29. I really like the quotes you picked from this book. They really me want to pick it up, as does your discussion of why it has to be one or the other - education, or love. Have you seen 'An Education' yet? It looks at the same kind of themes.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I wonder if I'd have liked this one better if I hadn't gone into it expecting a murder mystery. I do really like Donnelly's adult fiction, and I should have liked this one better than I did... but I suspect it was a case of the wrong expectations leading to disappointment.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I loved Maddie's passionate voice and character in this book. There were so many great passages, and it really was a fabulous book.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I read this a long time ago and enjoyed it! I wish I could remember it better though. Your review has convinced me to pick it up and read it again!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Cath: Thank you! It's definitely one worth owning. It was thanks to you that I bumped it up the pile, so many thanks for that.

    Meghan: Do bring it next time! I think you'd like it a lot.

    Verity: I hope they're as good as this!

    Claire: I couldn't agree more about YA :)

    Veronique: Funnily enough, the plot summary is what I struggle the most with when writing my posts :P It often takes me twice as much as the rest of the plots combined. And yeah, you're right that this issue isn't limited to the past. A lot of women both work and have family, but then they're made to feel guilty about it, and then ones who DON'T work are often made to feel guilty as well...it's complicated.

    DesLily: I hope you enjoy it as much as Cath and I did!

    Valentina: lol, I should too - but probably never will :P

    Chasingbawa: It's easy to forget how much of a privilege education was for women - I've been certainly guilty of taking it completely for granted.

    Jill, I completely agree. There's so much to be said about the portrayal of madness in fiction, especially back then.

    Elisabeth, you're most welcome! Fingers crossed that you enjoy it.

    Diane: You're welcome! Did you read any of her others?

    Amanda: I think it might actually not affect your enjoyment of the book that much, since Grace Brown's story is very much in the background. It's mostly Mattie who takes the centre stage.

    Kay, thank you so much for the kind words!

    Kathy: Whenever I don't know something about American history, I assume it's just because I'm not American :P But it happened so long ago that it makes sense it's no longer well-known today.

    Becky, thank you so much! I also love seeing reviews of old favourites of mine pop up :D

    Aarti: Same Donnelly, yes, though I wasn't familiar with those two. I wonder if they're good?

    Debi, I think you're LOVE it. The crime is mostly in the background and it isn't presented as a mystery, but it turns out to be really relevant for the decision Mattie has to face.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Vivienne: It broke my heart to know it was real, and that the letters she includes in the novel were real. Poor girl :\ And yes - I completely agree about the cover!

    April: I had no idea whether or not it was well-known, but I tend to assume that when I don't know something, it's because I'm not American :P

    Heidenkind: I did too - she was great, and so real.

    Terri B. Exactly! I really love it when that happens.

    Kailana: I don't know what took me so long! At least I've finally read it :P

    Stephanie, I really think you'd enjoy it :)

    Melody: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Staci: I can see myself one day in the future putting this on the hands of teen girls :D

    Marg: Ah, so her other books are Victorian sagas? I want them! And the new YA one sounds very exciting too.

    Trisha, me too!

    Jodie: I haven't yet, but I'm dying to. Not only do the themes appeal to me, but also script by Nick Hornby = love :P

    Fyrefly: Expectations can really ruin things sometimes :\

    Alyce: I know! Her voice was wonderful, and I so loved the writing.

    Andrea: No doubt I'll be revisiting it too in a few years.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I read this several years ago, before I read American Tragedy, and I liked it much better! I loved how it ended up. A great feminist novel for YAs.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I had not heard of this novel, but it does sound very interesting and complex, so perhaps I should try it out. My daughter might get a lot out of it as well. Thanks for the awesome review, I can tell this was a great read for you!

    ReplyDelete
  37. I had this one at the top of my pile, not that long ago, but it somehow managed to sink to the bottom and move into a cabinet. Funny how books do that. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. The Tea Rose is good. It isn't a favorite of mine -- I did pass my copy on -- but I thought it was very good.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I had previously dismissed this one because I thought it sounded dull, but you've really changed my mind. I hadn't heard of Grace Brown, but I now think this book sounds fascinating and I love the fact that the author included some of Grace's own letters. Thanks for a great post.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Oh, I love this book! I recommended it to a book club that meets at the library where I work, after they told me that they were interested in reading the occasional YA novel, and it was a huge hit. I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  40. this sounds very good. I like that theres references to other works of literature and lives of women writers.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  41. Karen: Agreed!

    Zibilee: I hope both you and your daughter enjoy it!

    Nancy: lol, it IS funny :P That's one of the things I miss about having a tiny tbr pile back on my pre-blogging days. Normally I'd get to a book before I forgot why I wanted to read it iin the first place.

    Lauren, it's not one bit dull! It's a quiet sort of book, yes, but it moves surprisingly fast.

    Darla: This is definitely one of those books that will make people see the merits of YA. I can definitely see myself recommending it in the future.

    Naida: I think you'd particularly like all the references to Emily Dickinson - and there are many!

    ReplyDelete
  42. This sounds wonderful! And bonus, it has a beautiful cover...I'm adding it to my list.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I loved this too! Oddly, because it was such a different style of book, I kept comparing Mattie to Anne Shirley. Both were so beautifully mentored. It made me think about the difference between writing back to a time, and writing out of it. It must also make a difference that the farm families on PE Island and in upstate NY (was that the location?) were in different social classes. Much the same landscape, though.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I'm reading this now (because I really loved Revolution) and I am finding it...kind of thin. I'm having a hard time engaging with Mattie, although I do love the conceit of beginning each chapter with her "word of the day." Great review, though - I liked that first passage you quoted too.

    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.