May 17, 2010

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Maddy and Rogan are first cousins, and they’re the youngest members of a decayed large family who descends from a successful actress, Madeleine Armin Tierney. Madeleine, their great-grandmother, abandoned the stage after she got married, and later in life mostly dedicated herself to business. In Maddy’s time, the Tierney family doesn’t look too kindly on the theatre and on artistic endeavours in general—with the exception of mysterious Aunt Kate, who takes Maddy and Rogan to New York to see stage shows and encourages their acting and singing talent. But her support comes at a price. Illyria is a story about first love, about loss and regret, about art, and about two forms of life that seem to conflict with one another; all wrapped up in subtle magic, intense passion, and a memorable high school production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Elizabeth Hand has done it again: She’s written a book so beautiful I both want to hug it (don't judge me! I know you do it too with books you really love) and lend it to all my friends, so that they too can experience the stunning writing, the delicate enchantment, and the passion and regret that permeate the whole story.

Illyria is a first-person narration told from Maddy’s point of view, and the bulk of the action takes place in the 1970’s. This means that the voice that is telling us the story is that of a middle-aged Maddy looking back on her teenage years. I thought this worked brilliantly—it absolutely doesn’t make the story feel removed, and it adds a faint shade of nostalgia and a heightened awareness of the preciousness of each moment and of each experience that Maddy wouldn’t have had at fifteen.

One of my favourite things about Illyria was how well it captured the intensity of first love. Yes, Maddy and Rogan are cousins, and no, that didn’t particularly bother me—though from what I gather, the taboo isn’t nearly as strong in my culture (marriages between first cousins are not common, but they’re legal and not unheard of) as it is in theirs. In any case, it doesn’t matter who they are; what matters is how well the prose conveys the frailty, the longing, the desire, the overwhelming intensity and the beauty of first sexual experiences. There aren’t many books that do this, are there? Especially not from the point of view of a girl. Maddy doesn’t once apologise for the desire she experiences. Illyria is one of the most passionate books I have ever read, and the funny thing is that it doesn’t actually have a single graphic scene. Instead we get glimpses of very specific moments between Maddy and Rogan, but they each tells us more than a whole sex scene ever could.

Another thing that I found interesting was the parallel Illyria makes between desire and art; between the longing you feel for someone you love and what a good theatre production, or a brilliant piece of writing, or a beautiful song can make you feel. It’s a very powerful feeling, and one that can add so much to one’s life. With the exception of Maddy and Rogan, the Tierney family seems to have forgotten this. They believe in practicalities, in business, in solid and concrete things, and they’re suspicious of anything they describe as “fey”.

This all ties with Illyria’s fantastic elements: with the haunting discovery Maddy and Rogan make in the attic of the house that belong to their great-grandmother; with the doubts about just what Rogan’s otherworldly beauty means; with the hints about who great-grandmother Madeleine really was, and of something not quite human in the family’s Irish past. These fantasy elements really are very subtle – they’re of the kind that people who dislike the term less than I do would probably describe as “magic realism” – but they’re there, and the lingering questions they raise add yet another layer to the story.

The ending of Illyria took me by surprise. I expected it to end in the past, but it goes all the way until the present, covering decades of a sort of puzzlement and vague disappointment that I suspect many people feel when they suddenly realise they’re middle-aged, or at least no longer young, and life hasn’t quite gone as they’d planned. How did this happen? How did we get here? What went wrong? But it’s not a bleak ending by any means. The final scene is breathtakingly beautiful, and it brings with it yet another realisation that often comes with age: life is not over until it’s over. The past will never come back, but there’s always the present to be made the most of.

I think that at this point it goes without saying that Young Adult novels are about more than experiences that are solely relevant to teenagers (whatever those may be). I suspect that anyone who adamantly maintains otherwise will be suspicious of me, as I’m someone who regularly and shamelessly finds emotional relevance and intellectual stimulation in novels for (horrors!) young people. But because I really wouldn’t want you to miss out on Illyria on account of the age group to which it’s being marketed, I’ll say it again: this is a beautiful, haunting story, and it’s about experiences that are absolutely ageless.

Favourite passages:
Endless longing; a face you’d known since childhood, since birth almost; a body that moved as though it were your own. These were things you never spoke of, things you never hoped for; things you could never admit to. Things you’d die for, and die of.
“Rogan,” I whispered.
“What?” He turned to me, and his eyes gleamed peacock-blue in the footlights. “Maddy? Why are you crying?”
“Nothing. Rogan.” He put his arms around me and I trembled. “Just you.”

It was my first full-bore exposure to the virus that is theatre, not just watching a show but becoming a part of its chemistry, the intricate helices of desire and ambition and love and unrelenting effort involved in producing even a bad play. And we all knew, almost from the very beginning, that our Twelfth Night was going to be remarkable.

“Come on,” I said. “It’d be so great, Rogan, we’d be up there together; it would be like—”
I wanted to say, It would be like when we’re alone. Like when Rogan murmured, You can’t breathe, and I couldn’t breathe, because desire and arousal choked me, because I breathed nothing but him; he was my air, my element; everything.
But being onstage together wouldn’t be like that. How could it? Nothing would ever be like that.
Reviewed at:
Chasing Ray
Tempting Persephone

Book Notes at Largehearted Boy (I always so enjoy reading these.)

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I'll be glad to add your link.)


  1. Sounds like a book I'd enjoy, and as always, thanks so much for your lovely review, Ana! :)

  2. Oh this sounds like a beautiful book. I do love hints at love.

  3. This sounds beautiful, although I personally have problems with the relationship with the cousins. It wouldn't put me off reading it, I just get a bit squirmish with it.

  4. Thanks so much for such a beautifully wrought and insightful review — this is what makes writing worthwhile for me. You made my day!!!

    -- Liz Hand

  5. I never even consider reading this author and now, damn! another for the wish list!

  6. Beautiful review! Now the book will have a lot to do to measure up to your review :)

    I liked very much your observation : "Another thing that I found interesting was the parallel Illyria makes between desire and art; between the longing you feel for someone you love and what a good theatre production, or a brilliant piece of writing, or a beautiful song can make you feel." I think beautiful feelings of different kinds are similar at a deeper level.

    I also enjoyed reading the quote about the effort required in producing even a bad play. Very true.

  7. What?! Relevance and stimulation in novels for young people!! Horror! Hehe. I love novels for young people as well, and find them so relevant and to be great reads, so completely agree.

    I think I would be a little weirded out by the cousin thing but not enough to dislike the book for it. The book itself sounds wonderful, and I love how you mention the parallel between desire and art. I think that would be really great to read.

  8. Sounds beautiful. Lovely review, thanks!

    I find the sometimes-taboo of relationships between cousins interesting. Most if not all of us come from families where cousins married each other. In fact, once it was the absolute norm, especially for young ladies who rarely socialised outside the extended family. Although now the majority of us would never think about marrying our cousins, it does still happen, and perhaps we should not look on it with such horror, especially in literature?

  9. This sounds like an amazing read. It's weird how a review can sometimes convince you that you're absolutely going to love the book if you'll be able to read that. You managed to convince me of that.

  10. This sounds like a very interesting book. I often wonder about the fairly recent taboo on first cousin love. It seems like so much of our past - at least in literature - has cousins who marry. I wonder when we made the switch to taboo.

  11. And a beautiful cover! Ah! I love it. My husband's grandparents were first cousins - from Norway, so not as big a deal either. Yet another to add to my growing list...

  12. This book sounds amazing! First love is different and it's hard to capture why in words - I'm in awe of anyone who does it well.

  13. They were cousins in Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, another book that portrayed first love really intensely. I wonder what it is about cousin-love? Sweeps away some of the insecurity?

    I wasn't as big a fan of Mortal Love as you were, but I remember thinking I might be able to enjoy a book of hers more with a different main character. and I'm a sucker for theater in books. I'm going to look this one up!

  14. This sounds like a lovely and unusual coming of age tale infused with a little magical realism...just what I need right now! Thanks for sharing this awesome review!!

  15. Oh I just also read a book that featured "vague disappointment that I suspect many people feel when they suddenly realise they’re middle-aged, or at least no longer young, and life hasn’t quite gone as they’d planned." I'm still sad over it. One only gets one go-round, after all (or at least, one that we know of!). But if you still wanted to hug it, it must not have seemed too sad. But then, you are young, and haven't gotten to that point yet where you will relate to just that particular form of icky sadness.

  16. YOu had me at the cover, Ana. What I really need to do one of these years is just NOT sign up for any challenges and accept no review copies. I just need to read what you read. That would solve alot of my problems I think! Ha! It is not easy to replicate the feeling of first love. I'm not sure I could come up with even one or two books that have done it well. I NEED to read this.

  17. Love the cover! And I have a special place in my heart for Twelfth Night - my mother rented us the film (with Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, if I'm remembering it right) when I was eight or nine, and it was my first experience of Shakespeare. I remember my sisters and I thought that we weren't going to like it because Shakespeare talked fancy, and my mother said good actors can get the sense across, and lo, they could! So Illyria sounds like an excellent book for me. :)

  18. This book sounds like a wonderful read. Myself, I'm not a fan of cousins marrying, but I realize that is more of a cultural bias than anything else, and as long as romance in any book is treated with respect, then I have no problems reading about it.
    Thank you for the excellent review!!!

  19. What an excellent cover! And a great review. I have Mortal Love in my Bookcloseouts shopping cart- I just haven't pressed "purchase" for about three months now. I really like that this book uses "magical realism" in a way that appears to put it in the "forbidden" box- just like the relationship between the first cousins and the pull of the stage. So many things about growing up have to do with the realization that sometimes what is "forbidden" isn't necessarily bad, and I LOVE that this book seems to tie that all together with magic.

  20. I've been known to hug some of my books too ;o) Isn't it nice to have something that we can enjoy so much?

  21. I admit I hug books too! Thanks for such a lovely review about a book I haven't heard about at all.

  22. I remember your review for Mortal Love, which I still haven't read but is still on my wish list. Darn, just too many books and not enough time. And, guess what? Yes, I'm adding this one to the list. You make it sound so wonderful how can I not!

  23. I do understand the need to hug a book (I've hugged and kissed my fair share) and so that really is saying a lot about this one. Sounds like a wonderful read!

  24. I hug my favorites, too! (I just gave the Mary Russell book I'm reading a big hug last night for including what I believe to be an oblique reference to Lord Peter Wimsey.)

  25. Great review!

    There's an award waiting for you at

    Happy Monday!

  26. I thought this one was amazing also - it has to be one of the most intense books (YA or otherwise) I've read in a long long time. And the ending just slayed me.

  27. It's funny — the whole relationship between the cousins didn't seem like a big deal to me; it was more like it held a symbolic (and Shakespearean) weight, and I honestly didn't their relationship was THAT weird. In Europe and other parts of the world, marriage between cousins isn't that uncommon (something like one-tenth of the world's population is married to someone who's a first or second cousin, I think). Mostly I just wanted Maddy & Rogan to represent a belated, last flowering of the talent of their acting dynasty.

  28. Well, since you're already used to me admitting my ridiculous "reading fears" I might as well admit that despite how absolutely amazing Mortal Love sounded to me, I've been afraid to try it. But this one, ooooh, I'm feeling no fear at all! It sounds incredible. All of it! But you particularly got me excited talking about the parallels between desire and art. It's something that is so real, and yet has always left me at a loss for words to explain these feelings. Thanks, Ana, for another lovely, lovely review that was a pure delight to read. :)

  29. I saw this mentioned at Chasing Ray and I'm soooo interested to see how differently their relationship is received in the US from the way it will be received in the UK (cousins, who cares? but who would really want to).

  30. This sounds like such a beautiful book, plus the cover is really beautiful, too. I love books that have different periods of time, too. The parallel between desire and art is something I can relate to, and I would love to read on it. I guess I'll have to add this one to my wishlist too.

  31. Melody: You're welcome! I hope you do enjoy it if you pick it up.

    Zee: It's amazing how something that's hinted at can be so much more powerful than seeing the whole thing, isn't it?

    Vivienne: I remember that you enjoyed How I Live Now overall, and this isn't any more graphic than that, so hopefully it'll be okay for you.

    Liz Hand: Thank *you* for the lovely, lovely books! Those stats about 1/10th of the world population being married to a relative are so interesting. I didn't think that Maddy and Rogan being cousins was a big deal at all, and I really hope nobody will avoid the book on that account.

    Valentina, you need to! I think you'd love her.

    Vishy: They are, aren't they? For me it's all about feeling passion and enthusiasm - what *causes* you to feel it is really secondary.

    Amy: heh ;) I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to give it a try. As for them being cousins, it seems that it really varies from culture to culture. Over here it really isn't much of a big deal.

    Mariel: Very true about it once having been the norm - in Victorian novels it happens all the time!

    Iris: I'm glad to hear it, and I hope you do love it!

    Amanda: Yes! One example that comes to mind is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, but I know that there are lots more. I wonder when it happened too.

    Elisabeth: I absolutely agree; the cover is stunning! And I have the vague idea that I have a story like that in my family too - like I said, it's not a huge deal here.

    Kathy: So am I!

    Trapunto: You know, I actually thought of that! Meg Rosoff also captures the intensity of first love brilliantly, and it got me wondering what the deal with cousin-love is, yes :P I think that in this case it could be that Maddy and Rogan were more comfortable with each other, but in How I Live Now they had just met, so it wouldn't be that, I don't think. Probably a coincidence anyway :P I hope you enjoy this more than Mortal Love if you decide to give it a chance :)

    Zibilee: You're most welcome! I love your description of it - it's better than mine and you haven't even read it; not fair ;)

    Jill: I haven't, but (and I have no doubt this will sound silly) the feeling the characters experienced in the book reminded me a little of what I felt when I realised that my teen years were gone for good and there were so many things I hadn't done. Not as serious as a mid-life crisis, I know, but I do know the feeling of a quarter-life one :P

  32. Ana, this sounds like a great book! *sigh* I can't remember the last time I read a book that was filled with the passion that you described between the characters. Great review!

  33. Now that I think about it, yes, I do hug books.

  34. This is the first I'm hearing about this book, but this sounds wonderful... and the cover is absolutely gorgeous!

  35. I still haven't gotten round to reading any more of her books, but I must. Especially as this sounds amazing too!

  36. I still haven't read Mortal Love (which I own), but this one is going on the wish list too! Great review.

  37. What beautiful passages. It is amazing to me that people don't realize how much YA novels can offer all of us. It is a shame that books have to be put into categories at all.

  38. I really like the passages that you've shared here. YA novels are great stuff and while I get looks for browsing at that section in bookstores, they don't know the satisfaction I get from reading them. Anyway, this is a great review (As always! We're talking about Nymeth here, OK?)!

  39. Lovely review, Ana. It sounds like a great read.

  40. Sandy: lol! I feel honoured by the mere fact that you'd consider that possibility :P And I agree; it's not an easy feeling to capture at all.

    Jenny: I think I've seen bits of that version in one of my Shakespeare classes, but never the whole thing. But anyway, yes, good actors really can get the sense across regardless of language. Sounds like a lovely introduction to Shakespeare :)

    Emily: There's nothing but complete respect and seriousness is how their love affair is described, so I think you'd enjoy it even with the cultural bias. I hope you do anyway :)

    Aarti: You need to click purchase asap! What if it sells out? :P Also, I LOVE how you worded that, about forbidden experiences &c. I wish I'd thought of it ;)

    Terri B and Marieke: I *knew* I wouldn't be alone :P

    Iliana: I really hope you'll enjoy them both :) Books vs time is the eternal battle, isn't it?

    Staci: I do it almost without noticing, which can be awkward when I happen to be in public :P

    Teresa: A reference to Lord Peter! It earned its hug, I see ;)

    Kate, thank you again for including me :)

    Colleen: Intense is the perfect word for it, yes.

    Debi: There is nothing at all scary about Mortal Love! If I remember correctly you really liked a description of a tree I included in my review, right? You'd love her writing. Just read them both kthxbai :P

    Jodie: Yeah, over here it's about the same :P I look forward to reading more US reviews and seeing how different people react to it.

    Kay: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :) The cover is really beautiful, and I think it captures the mood of the book very well.

    Vasilly: That kind of passion isn't very common, or not often written about. I love that this book got it absolutely right.

    J.T. Oldfield: I knew it :P

    Fyrefly: It really is!

    Sakura: It is amazing - I'm beginning to believe that Elizabeth Hand can do no wrong.

    Avi: Thank you! I hope you enjoy them both.

    Kathleen: It's amazing to me too - and while I understand why those categories can be useful when organizing a bookshop, I worry they do more harm than good. I also worry that sometimes the mere fact that a book is YA makes adult readers refuse to take it seriously at all.

    Alice: Ha, I know those looks very well. Their loss, right?

    Rebecca, thank you! :)

  41. You really must stop calling me Avi! (It's Avis...) :) Enjoy your blogging break, by the way!

  42. Avis: Argh! I am a moron :S Believe it or not, I actually hesitate and thought to myself, "Okay, I always got it wrong before when I said "Avis" because it's "Avi", right?" It won't happen again :P

  43. Hee-hee, that's funny! As my mum likes to say, you had a 50% chance of getting it wrong! (She says it about herself.)

  44. What a fantastic cover! I really need to read Elizabeth Hand. I keep taking books out by her from the library and then not reading them!

  45. I didn't see the magic in this one, and felt kind of bad about it. Trapunto pointed out why, which makes me feel a little better.


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