Friday, November 2, 2012

Tangled Ashes, Tattered Lives

Tangled Ashes
I have written many reviews, but after I had read this novel and then put it down again, I had nothing to say. This author used her tools well: vocabulary, similes, metaphors, and sentence construction—everything that comprises a good novel. That should have been enough, and for the publisher it was. But, for me something essential was missing. For some reason, nothing made the novel memorable.

I grasped for a reason, any reason, or some way to begin writing. I could place the novel into a genre and draw on the classics; that usually works for me. Perhaps I could call it a tale of two cities, one in the United States, one in France. No, this novel really only had one location: a castle in a small French town.  

Perhaps I could call it a tale of two lovers. No, there was no sensual love, only attraction and friendship. Perhaps it was historical fiction. The portion of the novel that took place in Vichy France was the best, but unfortunately it was also the smallest part of the book. Maybe it’s the tale of a place: the castle where most of the action happens. No, the castle was merely the stage for the drama that ensued.

Who was the principal actor in this drama? The one who had most of the page time?  That would be Marshall, the architect hired to restore the castle. Or was it the one who was the most interesting: Marie the French girl working for the Nazis when the castle was used as a lebensborn, a birthing place for Aryan babies? Or maybe it was Jade the nanny for the castle owner’s children, or Therese the interior decorator, or even the one who was most damaged, Jojo the hermit who lived on the castle grounds. That’s the primary cast of characters and you can take your pick. They all have secrets which are eventually revealed. In fact, there were so many secrets that the novel became a competition to discover whose secret was most noteworthy. This novel failed to move me, perhaps because the protagonist himself was never moved and simply seemed an actor on his castle stage.

Unveiling: A Novel

Unveiling by Suzanne M. Wolfe is another novel centered on a restoration, this time of a Triptych, a painting in three parts, located in Italy. Both Unveiling and Tangled Ashes were penned by writers who deftly manipulated the English language. Never a misplaced metaphor or simile, I would call both these books well-written. However, Unveiling was a compelling story of a damaged protagonist with enough demons of her own to fill a novel.  The restoration of the painting mirrored the restoration of her life. 

Tangled Ashes’ Marshall also carried sufficient angst to fill a novel, but his movements were muddled by the other characters’ complex lives. Marshall rarely seemed to act on his own or out of his own desires. He was pushed into the job by his partner. He was prodded into resolving his alcohol problem by Jade. Jojo pressed him to rescue Therese from the fire. And when his job ended, Marshall left France unchanged, his life unresolved. And he didn’t seem to have a care or regret about leaving: no promises to write, or call, or visit in the future.

Maybe that’s my problem with this novel. Perhaps I simply didn’t care enough about Marshall. I should have cared because I glimpsed myself in Marshall. Marshall retreated from people and tried to maintain a distance and so have I. Marshall had trouble communicating with children; so do I. Marshall focused on the job at hand to the exclusion of all as, as I do.   But unlike me, Marshall seemed at one moment obsessed, at the next ambivalent toward his work, just as he was both obsessed and ambivalent toward Jade. Maybe it was his equivocation that kept me from caring about him. Even when Marshall participated in two rescues late in the story, I didn’t care. He was only acting the part scripted for him.  I didn’t like Jane Austen’s Emma. Jane Austen, herself, described Emma as the character no one would like but the author. Only Tangled Ashes’ author could care enough about Marshall to like or dislike him. It’s the author’s job to make me care about her protagonist and this author failed.

I was provided a free review copy of Tangled Ashes by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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