Saturday, September 25, 2010
Alice I Have Been - Melanie Benjamin
Title: Alice I have Been
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Genre: Fiction (Literary/Historical)
Did I finish?: In record time!
One-sentence summary: The fictionalized life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, whose life was bigger than but constantly affected by her relationship with Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.
Why did I get this book?: Accidental mix-up with the title!
Challenges: Support Your Local Library
Do you like the cover?: Yes, it's quite perfect for the story.
First line from book: But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland.
Did... I find Benjamin's handling of Alice and Dogdson's 'relationship' to be nuanced and deft?: YES. She articulates, without judgment (or permission), the possible reality of what occurred between them, allowing the reader to formulate their own opinion.
Did... I shed tears once I finished this book?: YES. Ohemgee, the entire book has this sort of bittersweet note to it, but the end, the end! Perfection!
Did... I wish, for a moment, Benjamin would fudge history and give Alice the ending she should have had?: YES. I don't mean to be vague, but you want to talk about heartbreaking?!
Review: I picked up this book by accident; I had intended to get What Alice Knew and didn't look closely at the title. However, I'm pleased about the mistake: I opened the book last evening and was hooked by the very first line. Benjamin fleshes out the Liddells quickly but easily, and paints the world that Alice -- the daughter of a dean at Oxford -- grew up in.
Then there is Charles Dodgson, the man who would eventually publish Alice in Wonderland. Personally I have always found Dodgson to be a creepy person, but Benjamin's characterization allows space for discomfort and understanding. The story is told mostly chronologically, beginning with seven-year old Alice, and through her eyes, we watch her burgeoning crush on Charles Dogdson, her sister's crush, and his odd but appealing-to-Alice behavior. Because of that, there's space, in some ways, for sympathy and understanding.
Of course, as Dogdson's behavior comes to negatively affect Alice's life, I couldn't help but feel a kind of anger toward him -- but also toward the other men in Alice's life, such as John Ruskin and Prince Leopold. Their selfish desires and unfair expectations of Alice and women like her -- innocence, purity, virginity, adult desire hidden in child bodies -- cause heartbreak, anxiety, misery, and alienation. Benjamin again expresses these moments -- and Alice's feelings about them -- in a way I found to be very authentic. Her frustration wasn't modern or anachronistic and it took her a lifetime to articulate: Why, then, did I always feel as if his happiness was my responsibility? It wasn't fair for him to burden me with that. It had never been fair.
In the end, Dodgson's "gift" essentially cursed Alice her entire life; and yet, this isn't a story of rancor or bitterness. Over and over I was struck by Benjamin's skill in portraying Alice so fully, so compassionately, and so poignantly.