Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Canadian Historical Fiction Review: Conceit by Mary Novik

Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Pages: 402
Received: Borrowed from my local library

Release Date: August 8, 2007
Buy From Amazon.ca / Buy From Chapters.ca

Goodreads Synopsis:

It is the Great Fire of 1666. The imposing edifice of St. Paul's Cathedral, a landmark of London since the twelfth century, is being reduced to rubble by the flames that engulf the City.

In the holocaust, Pegge and a small group of men struggle to save the effigy of her father, John Donne, famous love poet and the great Dean of St. Paul's. Making their way through the heat and confusion of the streets, they arrive at Paul's wharf. Pegge's husband, William Bowles, anxiously scans the wretched scene, suddenly realizing why Pegge has asked him to meet her at this desperate spot.

The story behind this dramatic rescue begins forty years before the fire. Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father begins arranging marriages for his five daughters, including Pegge. Pegge, however, is desperate to taste the all-consuming desire that led to her parents' clandestine marriage, notorious throughout England for shattering social convention and for inspiring some of the most erotic and profound poetry ever written. She sets out to win the love of Izaak Walton, a man infatuated with her older sister.

Stung by Walton's rejection and jealous of her physically mature sisters, the boyish Pegge becomes convinced that it is her own father who knows the secret of love. She collects his poems, hoping to piece together her parents' history, searching for some connection to the mother she barely knew.

Intertwined with Pegge's compelling voice are those of Ann More and John Donne, telling us of the courtship that inspired some of the world's greatest poetry of love and physical longing. Donne's seduction leads Ann to abandon social convention, risk her father's certain wrath, and elope with Donne. It is the undoing of his career and the two are left to struggle in a marriage that leads to her death in her twelfth childbirth at age thirty-three.

In Donne's final days, Pegge tries, in ways that push the boundaries of daughterly behaviour, to discover the key to unlock her own sexuality. After his death, Pegge still struggles to free herself from an obsession that threatens to drive her beyond the bounds of reason. Even after she marries, she cannot suppress her independence or her desire to experience extraordinary love.

Conceit brings to life the teeming, bawdy streets of London, the intrigue-ridden court, and the lushness of the seventeenth-century English countryside. It is a story of many kinds of love — erotic, familial, unrequited, and obsessive — and the unpredictable workings of the human heart. With characters plucked from the pages of history, Mary Novik's debut novel is an elegant, fully-imagined story of lives you will find hard to leave behind.

My Review:

This book was on a list of recommended books from Random House of Canada and I will have to say that this is one of the books that took me the longest to get through, but it was really interesting. The book is long and very detailed but not in a way that distracts from the story. Every little thing adds to the story and I found that Mary Novik's writing made it easy to imagine the setting and the characters. She gives readers every little detail so that you can really see the characters for who they are.

The writing style of this book is very dark and gritty. I felt that it matched the story perfectly, making me feel like I was going through the same problems as Pegge. I was intrigued by Pegge's character throughout the entire book, she tried her hardest to make those around her happy and yet at the same time only wanted one thing for herself and that was to choose the person she would marry.

What was very interesting was how Novik inserts the voices of John Donne and Ann More into the story as well, telling the readers their courtship story. This added story really shows why Pegge is so interested in making her own life instead of having someone chosen for her. I did feel a little confused at one point of whose story I was following, but I eventually got used to the different voices.

As much as I loved Pegge, I found that at other times her character annoyed me, she would find things to complain about when she was given so much, she was still very much child-like even when she did grow up. I can see why she was so young at heart though, never really learning how to take care of a household because her sister always managed everything. Pegge's relationship with her father was the best part of the story for me, even after John Donne has passed away, Pegge just wants to preserve the love story between her parents and make it known, even though everyone else sees something else.

I really liked learning a little more about John Donne and his poetry in this book, Mary Novik really brings Donne to life and shows off the reactions to his poetry well. Especially how people saw him after his death, it was very interesting to say the least. This is definitely a historical fiction book that is very literary and you won't want to leave these characters.

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