skip navigation
Support KUOW
Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 6/6/2009

Dave Beck

Our book reviewer Nancy Pearl says the new novel 'The Sealed Letter' is a vivid reminder that Victorian Era England was every bit as scandalous as Clinton Era Washington DC. It's also a novel about the staggering costs of remaining true to one's beliefs. KUOW's Dave Beck speaks with author and radio librarian Nancy Pearl.

Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter (Harcourt, 2008) is a "ripped from the headlines" re–imagining of an actual 1864 lawsuit. While her novel illuminates the place of women, the state of marriage, and the hypocrisies of Victorian England; at its heart it's about the painful and sometimes staggering costs of remaining true to your beliefs. The two main characters are unlikely friends: staunch feminist and spinster Emily "Fido" Faithfull (readers will discover that her name is quite apt), who is known in London circles as the publisher of such pro–women periodicals of the period as English Woman's Journal and Victoria Magazine; and the beautiful Helen, unhappily married to Vice–Admiral Henry Codrington. Indulging in a series of love affairs with her husband's junior officers during the family's seven year posting in Malta, Helen continues to flaunt convention even after the Codringtons move back to England. When the two old friends meet by chance (or is it chance?) on a London street, Helen begs Fido to help her secretly spend time with the young army officer with whom she's currently infatuated. Fido is torn between her love for Helen and her knowledge that what her friend is asking of her is wrong. When Codrington finally reaches the end of his patience with his wife's behavior and sues for divorce, there ensues a courtroom drama that rivals television's "Divorce Court" for its display of all aspects of human behavior — from the most noble to the rankest, from a semen–stained dress to a betrayal of friendship to doing the right thing at whatever cost. What Donoghue excels at is a richly descriptive writing style. Here is Fido, thinking about the city she loves: "The fact is that for all its infinite varieties of filth, London is the thumping heart of everything that interests her, the only place she can imagine living." Donoghue also opens up the past to us — she has the ability to make a contemporary reader understand the behaviors and beliefs of an age supposedly quite different from our own. Ah, you will ask yourself when you finish this intriguing historical novel, but has human nature changed over the intervening years?

Antonya Nelson's splendid short story collection, Nothing Right (Bloomsbury, 2009), gives you a complete picture of her particular writerly talents: a sense of the absurd, a deep respect for her characters, and the skill to bring those characters to vivid life. Two of Nelson's great strengths are her astonishing insights into human behavior and her remarkable talent for giving us three–dimensional characters in just a sentence or two. Both are on full display in every story in this collection. I think we know nearly everything there is to know about Sadie, the main character in the story "DWI," from this: "As was the case with most new experiences, therapy ended up resembling school: vocabulary, irksome effort, anxiety, tests, and failure. Would anything ever not seem like some new set of lessons Sadie would neglect to learn?" In "Or Else," she describes Telluride, Colorado this way: "At night, the stars devastated the clear, clear sky." I was simply stunned by how perfect the verb in that sentence is. Everyone will have a particular story, or two, or three that most appeals — but I would definitely recommend the title story, about a teenage father and his divorced mother; "Kansas;" and "Falsetto." Fans of Lorrie Moore's short stories will not want to miss getting acquainted with Nelson's fiction, both short and long. And don't miss Nelson's older but still wonderful Living to Tell, one of my favorite character–driven novels.

Nancy Pearl Contacts
email icon kuowpresents at kuow dot org