Now answer me this: who in the world would have possibly imagined a period gothic romance between Edgar Allan Poe and Annabel Lee would end in a cliffhanger?
Having just stayed up til all hours of the night (don’t worry! No ravens were knocking, no buried hearts beating, no angels glowering) finishing Jessica Verday’s Of Monsters and Madness, I do have to stay this: the book’s a true page-turner, and a smooth read at that. It also breaks with what seems to be a trend in YA Lit: that all books be monster-sized or at least appear to be a palatable length but then have microscopic print.
As I’ve noted in previous posts, this is one of the books being released this fall that plays with the memory of Poe. The story follows Annabel Lee (yes, that Annabel Lee) as a young woman forced to leave Siam, where she’s been working with missionaries with her mother, to meet for the first time and live with her father in Philadelphia. Just as in any good crazy scientist story, her father is seemingly immeasurably wealthy (though I recall no suggestion as to how this money came to be) and very unfriendly. Annabel’s a winning personality, with a somewhat predictable mix of intelligence and education in places one would not expect along with an overly self-conscious bent.
From the minute she steps onto the docks, she is seemingly made aware of the fact that she is an outsider; she’s someone who doesn’t understand the people, the culture, the ways of the world. For the servants of the household, this is fine: they are at once helpful and (dare I say?) sympathetic to Annabel’s plight, though for reasons that are unclear. At the dock she meets Maddy, the woman who’s to be her dressing maid, as well as Allan Poe, her father’s assistant, to whom she feels a quick connection (possibly because he rescues her, but perhaps a little more than that).
The news in the air of Philadelphia is that there’s a murderer on the loose, committing heinous crimes about the city. It is with this backdrop that Annabel is greeted at home, where she realizes that her father is less than the kindly individual she had hoped for. However, his deficiencies are somewhat made up for by the friendly staff and her grandfather, who is nothing but kindness and patience to his only grandchild.
The longer Annabel remains in the house, though, the more aware she becomes of the secrets lining virtually every nook and cranny. She meets Edgar, her father’s “other” assistant, learns her father has his own laboratory in the basement and starts putting pieces of this puzzle together as she learns more and more about the people around her and the place she’s in.
The cliffhanger ending leads me to believe that this book is going to have a sequel of some sort in which the story is continued and in which we can perhaps see an answer to a number of the questions left open-ended here.
What I Liked About the Story:
Who doesn’t love a great Poe tale? Not only do his works make great and creative pieces to re-imagine, but the idea of including him as a character in and of himself adds an additional layer of intrigue. Also, unlike Kelly Creagh’s Nevermore series, I had no difficulty trying to conceptualize where Poe himself fell into the story, which is one of the issues I’ve had with Ms. Creagh’s work.
I appreciated the allusions to great gothic works: not just some of Poe’s most famous pieces (including “The Raven.” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and, of course, “Annabel Lee”), but also a heavy leaning on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Further, Ms. Verday does a laudable job of weaving them in through Allan, who seems immediately comfortable with sharing his labor of love (writing) with Annabel.
What’s more, I found this to be much better and more strongly narrated than the last period piece I picked up, The Madman’s Daughter, which became a frustrating tale to work through due to both a combination of laughable inconsistencies in the protagonist as well as poor editing. The editing in this book is generally well done, with few enough mistakes as to not make it distracting to the reader.
Finally, and this is going to sound gruesome but I’ll just go with it, I appreciated the fact that the author didn’t seem to shy away from the blood and guts that I think many YA authors get squeamish about. I find this difficult to understand, perhaps in light of what’s playing on television/in the movies that these same audiences watch. I have to assume that the mention of blood in a book isn’t going to cause nightmares. I’m not sure how reading about it to paint a picture with words is less appropriate than seeing the picture painted for you in all it’s gory detail on a screen.
What I Didn’t Like:
Though this is virtually never a complaint of mine as I prefer to be in the “now” of the story rather than thinking into the future of it, it was incredibly predictable. Within the first two chapters I was generally able to see what was going to happen and how the story would unfold, perhaps with the exception of how the book itself would end.
There are a lot of places where there’s a new mystery presented, but the mystery is never resolved. A few:
1. Annabel has significant scars from an infant surgery, but why? And why is her mother so convinced she needs to hide them at all costs? (And if she must, why not just have her wear high-necked dresses rather than a scarf, even in the summer?)
2. Annabel’s father abandoned her mother and his infant daughter. With suggestions reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Annabel and her mother have to flee England, resulting in their move to Siam. But why would he leave and abandon them? And why doesn’t Annabel fault her father for this as a young adult–for putting her and her mother in that position? And why would she then believe that he decided to invite her back into his life, out of nowhere?
3. Why won’t grandfather just shoot straight with Annabel about her dad? And why doesn’t she press him harder to learn the truth, when it’s repeatedly suggested that she knows she’s not being told everything?
4. Annabel spent most of her life in Siam, but her mother didn’t. While Siam in the early 1800’s may have run primarily on a barter system, England didn’t. Annabel’s mother knew they were (or at least Annabel was) headed to America–why would she not have at least attempted to teach Annabel basics like money, manners, dress, etc?
5. In one scene, Maddy is crying about her lost locket, yet she seems to completely forget about it within the next scene. By the end of the tale, it seems to have been accepted as lost and no longer cause for concern, yet Annabel knows where it is, but seems to make no attempt to retrieve it. I don’t know why this point bothered me so much, but it just really seemed out of character for both Annabel and Maddy.
6. Annabel herself is horribly conscientious about displeasing her father in some ways (her bow rather than a curtsy, her skin tone, not wasting his money at market, etc) but in other ways she willfully ignores that which he pointedly tells her not to do and that she can control (going into his lab, practicing medicine, sneaking around at night, etc). This is a frustrating contradiction, especially for a purportedly intelligent young woman.
7. The romantic aspect of the book is cute, but very sudden, with very little build up. It seems as though Annabel and Allan have spent maybe a grand total of 10 minutes or so together before he’s telling her that he’s “lost in [her],” which is both weird and a little creepy. Annabel also seems to decide propriety in matters of the heart unnecessary, and while she’s demure enough to request a chaperone for walks, she apparently has no issues with making out with a virtual stranger in the library. Hm.
8. Finally, the murder victims all seem to have one pretty obvious link (I’m trying not to spoil the whole book but it’s hard), yet despite this being the biggest news happening in Philadelphia, the police can’t figure this out?
On one last note, I have some difficulty understanding the cover. I have no idea how it relates to the story itself, as I recall no part of the story that this could potentially relate to. This is something of a shame, as I do think there are a number of other images that would have been just as creepy and allowed the author the opportunity to express her story better.
I actually enjoyed reading this book quite a bit because, despite some inconsistencies and a number of unanswered questions, I generally found the characters engaging, the plot fast-moving, and the question of what exactly’s going to happen next sufficient to keep me glued. I think this is a story wherein the author could have slowed the narrative a bit and lingered on exploring the details and building up the characters more (plus maybe slowing down the romantic aspect of this–it all seems so sudden, especially for 1820’s lifestyles). Yes, it is (even for me) pretty predictable and yes, there are a number of Huh? moments, but the story itself is good and the blend of telling stories within stories is fascinating, especially for gothic/Poe fans out there.
Anyone else had a chance to read this yet? Any big fans of Poe excited for the Poe-centric reads being released in YA Lit?