Monday, March 21, 2011


Eleanor won a prize from the public library, and with this prize, a gift certificate for Amazon, we ordered a book I'd read very good things about, Illyria, by Elizabeth Hand. I thought Eleanor would like it because it's about performing the play Twelfth Night.

But because Eleanor is rehearsing for the high school musical, submitting senior papers, preparing for band contest, and signing up for AP exams, she hasn't had time to read the book yet. So I picked up Illyria and read it first, and it wasn't what I expected.

The author says it's the fictionalized story of her first love/best friend, so perhaps there was more of a feeling of being bound by actual events than I might otherwise have expected from a novel, but what happens just seems wrong to me.  Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are in love with performing and with each other.  Rather than embracing the love and the boy's genius, the girl accepts the dictates of her family and leaves him to pursue her own career, one that turns out, not surprisingly, to be a pale version of what his could have been, had he received the same patronage and encouragement.

Aunt Kate, the relative who acts as a patron and gets the girl into her first acting school, says to her:
"talent--if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on a track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless."
But rather than rescue the boy, Rogan, who has shown his willingness to rebel against his non-artistic family, Aunt Kate (who he calls "Aunt Fate") decides to give only the girl, Maddy--whose family is more easily persuaded-- a start in the theater.  This is a betrayal of a sort, but worse is Maddy's betrayal. She doesn't even protest that Rogan should be included, but accepts her good fortune and leaves him to be berated and beaten by his father for the discovery of the condoms and blankets the two have been sharing.

Rogan is extraordinary in the central performance of Twelfth Night, and this is the way Maddy describes how he makes everyone feel:
"I've seen spectacular performances since then--Anthony Hopkins's Broadway debut in Equus, Kevin Kline in On the Twentieth Century, John Wood in The Invention of Love. Rogan's turn as the Clown rivaled all of them.
Everyone in that auditorium felt it: everyone was bewitched. I felt drugged, light-headed with desire and raw adrenaline. Whatever envy I had burned away at the expectation of sharing the stage with him. It was like sex--it was sex, magnified somehow and transformed into a vision we could all see, all share in; and there was Rogan, grinning and looking as happy as I'd ever seen him outside of the hidden space in his room."

But then Maddy goes off and leaves him, despite the way he begs her not to go:
"They can't make you," he said. "Not unless you let them. They can't force you to go."
"I know."
"I wouldn't go. If it was me....If they tried to make me go without you. I wouldn't do it."

And then, despite Maddy's betrayal, the story is not a tragedy. It's a mundane little story about a girl who went away to become an actress and spent her life playing small parts and a boy who never got that kind of opportunity and spent his life getting older.

I hated it. Perhaps Eleanor will like it better, because it does capture some of the pathos of what it is to be young and passionate about almost everything.  The ending, when Maddy and Rogan meet again, strikes me as pointless and disappointing.  He spent his life taking care of the house and the toy theater that meant so much to them. She came back for Aunt Kate's funeral and saw him only incidentally.

She was just a girl; she couldn't help it... I don't buy her story, the heartless bitch.


Amanda said...

I didn't hate this one, but I didn't really feel the magic in it the way it seems most people do.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

It sounds like the kind of book I would have loved when I was in high school but would hate now.

Anonymous said...

Sounds terrible!


Anonymous said...


Betty (Beth) said...

I didn't hate it, but I'm not sure I liked it. I think I'll have to read it again to make up my mind (at least it's a tiny book). :-)

Jenners said...

This sounds like a real downer of a book.

Trapunto said...

I see what you mean, but I didn't sympathize as deeply with Rogan, so it wasn't as painful for me. By my interpretation, Hand was saying something about the dignity of working at something you love, in this case being a "working actor." I saw Maddy's mediocre career as a triumph and a disappointment at the same, and I thought she did too. The idea being that not everyone can be a Rogan--even Rogan couldn't be a Rogan. The magic can't last forever because there's a seed of destruction in it--his isn't the kind of horse that can be taught to run on a track. I assumed Aunt Kate saw that with her artists' prophetic sixth sense, and that she was afraid Rogan was going to suck Maddy down with him. Which meant there couldn't be a happy ending for anyone, only the sort of glow from having touched the magic. The family dynamic was horrible, though. Ugh.

Have you read other books by Hand? There are common themes in them, I think, of loss being an inevitable result of magic/art, and regret, the need to save one's self as well as one can.

Jenny said...

Huh. So many people have said all these nice things about it. I wasn't crazy about the first few chapters of the book by Elizabeth Hand I started, but I thought it was just a bad mood and I'd love her later. Maybe not.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, for once it seems to me that we agree--I didn't exactly "hate" it either, but was disappointed because I read about magic in this novel but found the mundane.

Harriet, I think that's possible. I'll see if I can get Eleanor to comment after she's read it. She's so different from me, temperamentally.

Lemming, I'd say it's not your kind of novel. Or yours, ReadersGuide.

Betty, rereading it is probably a good idea; that way expectations don't get in the way as much.

Jenners, it was for me.

Trapunto, this is the first thing I'd read by Hand, and I think you're absolutely right about what happens in the novel. Thanks for that analysis! I can see it when you show it to me, and see why I missed it, too--it's not a theme I support in fiction or in life. I really don't believe that working hard at something you don't have a lot of talent for is worth the personal rewards and satisfaction.

I tend to be more on the side of supporting the magic for as long as it lasts, even if there is a seed of self-destruction in it. For one thing, that self-destruction is sometimes largely constructed by others out of jealousy--if an artist doesn't live a "regular" life, they think he's degenerate. For another thing, the glow is worth pursuing, even if it's ephemeral.

Also I really hate it when adults think they can look at a kid and make decisions about him, like that his horse can't be trained to run on a track. Who knows what a kid can do if you have some faith in him?

Jenny, I don't know if you might like it better; I tend to think younger people might. If you can stand the attitude Trapunto describes, give it a try; Nymeth liked it.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, the artist's life looking self-destructive to others includes the much-touted fact that Maddy and Rogan are cousins. I found that detail extraneous and think too much is made of it.

Jeanne said...

When I said "I hated it," that was meant to be the kind of statement where you show how engaged you were with the characters, and how much you were disappointed by what happened. I realize it looks like I'm contradicting myself, but what I'm doing is failing to get across my petulant, almost sarcastic tone.

FreshHell said...


Well, I can suggest a good book: Matthew Haig's The Dead Fathers Club. I'm listening to it now and like it a lot. It's not YA fiction but is read by an eleven year old boy and he's a fantastic narrator.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, it has a good title!

Trapunto said...

Yeah, in then end I felt the cousin thing was mainly there for titillation: the extra spice of panting young love that is also *old* love, with a greater depth of knowledge of one another's characters. Plus a semi-plausible reason for the family to be so horrible--at least in whatever year that was supposed to be?

I also hate it when adults do that thing of deciding for kids; it was one of the things that got me steamed at Arturo in Marcelo in the Real World. As to supporting the magic as long as it lasts: Hear, hear! And what an awesome attitude for a teacher; I envy your students! Obviously, what SHOULD have happened was for Rogan's education to be funded, so that he could find out on his own that his talent was too wild for the world, if that was indeed the case. Did you expect Rogan to find his own path to the theater in the last bit of the book? I did. I honestly thought that would be what Hand had up her sleeve for him: a brilliant, short, drug-crashed career on broadway. I expected Maddy to leave, and him to drift to New York, cream rising to the top. It's not like drama school is a direct pipeline to the profession anyway. Was the idea that he was just too crushed?

The whole thing about young loves parting and regretting it ever after is like hearing stories from the road less travelled; I'm rather trusting toward authors' reports. I don't have any young love to look back on and "what if" about myself, since my husband and I were each other's first loves--but I do know what a roller coaster ride it is to stay together during the phase of life Rogan and Maddy were embarking on, so I can take the impediments to their staying together seriously--cousinhood aside.

You're not regretting using the word "hate" right? Cause you know we love it when you hate stuff, in whatever tone!

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I did expect Rogan to do something, even if it was only to flame out spectacularly. I think that's why I said I hated the book--I'm not backpedaling, but trying to pay the author the backhanded compliment of saying that she made her characters so real that I really, really hated what she did with them.

I started to say something self-deprecating about it being a teacherly attitude when I wrote about supporting the magic while it lasts--and then didn't--but I'm interested that you picked it up anyway.

There are serious impediments to anyone staying together when they fall in love so young; it's true. I tend to be a cockeyed optimist... and come by it honestly. My parents knew each other 4 months before their wedding, and they've been together more than 50 years. My husband's parents knew each other their whole childhood and dated throughout high school.

I'm grinning that you love it when I hate stuff. It's like permission to indulge in literary rage, at least now and then.

Jenny said...

I read Mortal Love a while back and it had some of the same themes Trapunto mentions, of art eating you alive, loss and madness being an inevitable part of art/magic, the necessity to get out while you can, and so forth. My complaint about that novel was that there was way, way too much crammed into it, but it never went anywhere. The prose was pretty pedestrian, too. I had several people recommend Illyria since I wasn't nuts about Mortal Love, but I'm not sure I'd fall for this one, either.