At a con last year, coffeeandink
handed me the Joan Aiken book she'd been reading on the way down there, remarked that it had not been her favorite Aiken, and asked if I wanted to read it on the way back anyway.
I said all right, because mediocre Aiken is still usually bound to have its redeeming qualities, and then forgot about it until just recently when I was feeling in the mood for a.) Aiken and b.) Gothics.Morningquest
is not really quite a Gothic, as it turns out, though a girl definitely does meet a house in it. I don't really know what it is. It begins when Our Heroine Pandora Crumbe is introduced by her mother -- a very quiet and self-contained person with an unhappy marriage and a quiet, narrow life -- to the wealthy, talented and eccentric Morningquest family.
On their first visit, Pandora's mother keels over of a heart attack at the dinner table!
Thus, Pandora is sort of accidentally bequeathed to the Morningquests, who include:
GIDEON MORNINGQUEST, a tremendously successful conductor with a moderately limited interest in his children
MARIANA MORNINGQUEST, a beautiful and famous soprano who has a mysterious connection to Pandora's mother (subtext: they were probably in love), with whom Pandora falls promptly also in love
and the Morningquest children
DAN, possibly a musical genius, definitely a smug asshole with no morals
BARNEY, the good-looking brilliant one, who leaves behind him a trail of abandoned girlfriends and cats (all named Mog)
TOBY, the sweet scientifically brilliant one who only really talks to his sister Selene
DOLLY, the passive-aggressive and mildly toxic one who is, alas, not really brilliant at all
SELENE, the reclusive one who only really talks to her brother Tony
ELLY AND ALLY, chaotic neutral telepathic twin geniuses
plus assorted household extras
UNCLE GRISCH, an artist, former dancer, and gay Holocaust survivor who is busy rewriting great works of English literature
TANTE LULIE, a Jewish refugee relative of Gideon's first wife, who makes all Mariana's clothes and keeps the household fiscally solvent
DAVE, a useless American that nobody likes
The rest of the book sort of weaves through Pandora's interactions with various Morningquests, her development as an artist, and her search to find out more about her mother.
Along the way, there are various plot threads that spring up involving baby theft and attempted murder and incest and the aforementioned telepathy and drug smuggling and secret underground tunnels and surprise marriages, but, like. Most of these .... don't actually turn out to be all that significant to the shape of the book? Not in a dropped plot-thread way, exactly; more in a 'life just sort of goes on' way. The woman whose baby is stolen in chapter five or so is obviously really devastated, and eventually ends up leaving town, and by the end of the book she's remarried and has another baby, and eventually towards the end of the book a working theory emerges about what the hell was
going on with the baby theft, but by that point it's too late to do anything about it, so ...
What actually is
significant to the shape of the books? Families, I guess, and a sense of home, definitely, and what home means for refugees, immigrants, people whose past has been lost -- Tante Lulie and Uncle Grisch are the most constant and stable presences in Pandora's life, Pandora's non-Morningquest love interest is a Czech filmmaker-in-exile, Mariana's a possibly-Jewish refugee from Europe, and eventually Pandora finds out that her mother was Jewish too. Which is a surprise to her, but it wasn't a surprise to me.
Because the thing is, the whole Bohemian intellectual cobbled-together family of refugees full of complicated backstory revelations feels -- well, kind of seventies, sure, but one hundred percent real to me. My grandmother and grandfather were both Jewish refugees -- he German, she Czech -- who met and married in the UK in the 1940s. My grandmother was one of a handful of women in her Cambridge med school graduating class
. I never met her, but by all accounts she was a wildly brilliant and charismatic person whom everybody fell in love with, who had a habit of picking up lost people and installing them in her house. On my shelf, I have a photocopied book of the letters that she wrote to her long-term lover, who lived in Israel, which his wife sent to my aunts after my grandmother died. My mom and her sisters had a very Morningquest childhood. I'm still finding out things that I never knew, and so, I think, are they.
And, I mean, I NEVER expect to walk out of a Joan Aiken book going 'wow, such realism! what a true portrait!' ESPECIALLY GIVEN the telepathy and the baby theft and all the rest, but there we are.
(And maybe I would have been less punched in the chest by refugee feelings had I read this a different week than this week that we are in right now. There's that too.)This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from http://skygiants.dreamwidth.org/442413.html. Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comments on Dreamwidth.