Double Feature: a drama queen and a gothic heroine (sort of)

Lisa Mantchev.  Eyes Like Stars.  New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2009.  356 pgs.

I’m counting this in the Fantasy category of “Quest the second,” in the Once Upon a Time challenge.

SETTING:           The Théâtre Illuminata, where all the plays ever written are performed not by actors, but by the living, breathing characters themselves.

PEOPLE:     Bertie (short for Beatrice Shakespeare Smith) – a 17-year-old.  As far as she knows, she’s lived at the Théâtreall her life.  Her room is literally onstage.  She has trouble with the concept of “self-restraint.”

Bertie’s friends:

Nate – a pirate from The Little Mermaid.  Very protective of Bertie. Also quite attractive.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and Moth – four fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Cheeky, irreverent, and lots of fun.  Except when they’re making a mess of things.

Mrs. Edith – Wardrobe Mistress.  Mother-figure to Bertie.  Tries to keep her in line.

Bertie’s enemies:

The Stage Manager      – is constantly annoyed by Bertie’s antics.

The Theater Manager – reprimands Bertie whenever said antics get out of hand.  Is hiding something.

Other:

Ariel – an air spirit from The Tempest.  A tempter.  He is unpredictable, and potentially dangerous, and Bertie is supposed to stay away from him.

CONFLICT:   Bertie’s right to stay at the theater is suddenly threatened.  Unless she can prove herself an invaluable part of the company, she’ll be sent away.  But in her attempt to contribute to the Théâtre, she may inadvertently endanger its very existence.

What I liked:

  • The concept of the Théâtre, the idea of characters who can exist apart from their literary sources (a kind of Stranger Than Fiction quality – were they created by the writers, or did they already exist?), the theme of written words having real power…
  • The flashbacks written in the form of a play script.  I could easily imagine these scenes in my head – it’s like watching a Scrubs episode, when it suddenly transitions into one of J.D.’s daydreams/hallucinations.
  • Bertie’s playful/sassy attitude, her not-so-successfully repressed feelings for Nate and Ariel, her attempts to be more mature, her desperation to stay in the only place that feels like home, all made her a believable and relatable character.
  • Ariel described thus:  “Even as she fanned her face with an extra programme, the temperature in the corridor dropped.  Bertie’s breath formed ice crystals in air that carried with it the perfume of the aurora borealis.”  (page 310)

What I didn’t:

Excerpts from Nerija’s interior commentary while reading the story (sufficiently vague-ified to avoid spoilers):

  • If [noun] is so concerned that Bertie is going to wreck things, why isn’t [pronoun] supervising her while she [verb]?
  • Hold on, if [noun] really contains [nouns] how could [Proper Noun] possibly [verb] so quickly?  And how could [Other Proper Noun] possibly [verb] in just [unrealistically short period of time]?
  • Why don’t [noun] and [noun] hear this chaos that’s happening?  Why aren’t they rushing in to see what’s going on?
  • Are they all seriously still focused on [noun] when there are much more serious problems to address?
  • Huh, this [collective noun] is taking this huge change of plans rather calmly.
  • Oh, come on!  [Pronoun] just made [pronoun]self forget?  That’s way too easy!

In other words,

1)  There are some logic/believability issues.    And,

2)  after all that build-up from the first half, the plot just gets tangled up – the various plot arcs start tripping over each other – and drifts off in a weak To Be Continued way.  As one Goodreads user says, “the necessity of a sequel was very in-your-face.”

What I … uh … ?

Excerpt from a conversation between Bertie and Ariel:

“This song comes from the center,” he said.  “So we’ll move the center first.”

“The center of what?”  The butterflies drifted out of his hair as he leaned over her.  They fluttered through Bertie’s already swimming head, brushed over something dark and sleeping, and roused it from slumber.

Ariel tapped her lightly on the small of her back.  “The center of you.”

“My cream filling?” she suggested.

There was a moment of complete stillness and silent contemplation before Ariel smiled.  “Yes, Bertie.  Move your cream filling first, and your feet will follow.”[1]

   . . . Cream filling?

Overall:

A very cool premise and setting, interesting characters, pretty good build-up, and then a confusing and sloppy follow-through.

Part of me was curious about how certain unresolved issues will play out in the sequels.  But just today, while returning Eyes Like Stars to the library, I read the jacket summary of Perchance to Dream.

It’s mainly about the Love Triangle.

Although… that first paragraph, in which the fairies are inserting pie into various literary quotes…is pretty funny.

Jane Austen.  Northanger Abbey.  New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000.  239 pgs.

I can just see Austen smirking as she wrote this mock-gothic romance.  What else would a gothic novel have at this point? she thinks.  Oh yes!  Some ominous foreshadowing.  …  And now I need to wrap everything up very neatly, but oh dear, I seem to have introduced a new character.  How can I contrive it so I can say he was kind of mentioned earlier?

But even beyond its parody-ness, Northanger Abbey is a pretty solid story.  From what I had heard before, I expected Catherine Morland to be annoyingly silly and obsessive about gothic novels.  But she’s actually a very interesting, fairly intelligent, and relatable character.

What I liked:

As Austen-the-narrator tells and shows us, Catherine is a mock-heroine because she’s ordinary.  She’s not born with bewitching, nymph-like beauty; she doesn’t have any astounding natural talents; her family is neither rich, nor poor.  She gets bored of piano lessons and loves rolling down the hill behind her house.

But she’s also not two-dimensionally ordinary, or an Every Girl.  She’s a sheltered 17-year-old who grew up in a small, very quiet environment and is now exposed to a larger, more city-based society for the first time.  She’s not a sugary, humble Nice Girl; she’s just understandably naïve when she first gets to Bath.  She assumes that most people say exactly what they mean, and that the true villains are easy to recognize, just like in stories.

All this builds up to her stay at Northanger Abbey, but even then it’s not so much the mock-gothic-horror-story angle that interests me as much as the Catherine-learning-to-see-beyond-surfaces theme.  And the Catherine/Henry arc, of course.

What I didn’t:

Although Catherine is a fairly strong character by herself, the women overall are portrayed much more negatively than the men.  They’re silly, naïve, conniving, or overly submissive.  It was especially sad to see how easily Eleanor Tilney could be intimidated and ordered around by her father.

And Catherine’s mother, the few times she’s actively present, is kind of a jerk.  Her highest compliment to Catherine is that she’s “almost pretty,” and her way of recommending Catherine to a suitor is to say that she “‘would make a sad, heedless young housekeeper, to be sure.’ … but quick was the consolation of there being nothing like practice.”[2]

Then again, by describing Catherine that way, Austen is again poking fun at the typical gothic romance heroine, who, among all her other perfections, would obviously be the perfect housewife.

Overall:

Northanger works well as both a parody and as an independent story.  That is, while some stories only work because you’re not supposed to take them seriously – stories like The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, which would seem ridiculously melodramatic, unrealistic, and just plain confusing if you didn’t know it was making fun of itself – Northanger Abbey would be enjoyable even without the satirical elements.  It’s not just a mock-gothic romance, but also a good coming-of-age story.

P.S.  Of course there’s a graphic novel 🙂


[1] Eyes Like Stars, pg 178

[2] Northanger Abbey, pg 236

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