Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book Review - After Alice

Gregory Maguire's latest twist on classic literature comes in After Alice, the story of Alice in Wonderland from an entirely different point of view. In this book, Alice barely makes an appearance. Instead we get to see what happened up in Oxford during Alice's trip to Wonderland as well as a new perspective on Wonderland as Alice's minor friend Ada accidentally tumbles down the rabbit hole and spends her time trying to catch up with Alice.

Ada is a neighbor who lives down the lane from Alice and has been sent to take some marmalade to Alice's family and potentially spend time with Alice. Due to some physical limitations, Ada wears a back/body/leg brace to help her move about and she has been entrusted to a governess. In a bout of impatience and (seemingly) uncharacteristic impetuosity, Ada gets far ahead of her governess and ends up tumbling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Ada's governess, Miss Armstrong, frantically searches for Ada and meets up with Alice's teenage sister Lydia. Miss Armstrong and Lydia spend the day searching Oxford (both alone and occasionally paired up) for Ada and Alice...more on them in a moment.

As Ada is introduced and even more once she arrives in Wonderland, it is clear that where Alice is imagination and curiosity personified, Ada is Alice's grounded realist foil. Where Alice had stars in her eyes and her head in the clouds, Ada was more of a naturalist, taking the world at face value and seeking for understanding while straining to grow her youthful desire for playfulness. Ada seems to have a knowledge and a perceptiveness beyond her young years but is still a bit oblivious to the nature of the world around her. Her trip to Wonderland is suited to be a great opportunity for her to open her eyes to new increase her own imagination and cultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder. Initially she is sure she is falling into Hell, based partly on her recent glances at Dante's Inferno. This notion seems to stick in the back of her mind as we catch subtle references later on. As she progresses through Wonderland, meeting various inhabitants and experiencing some of its craziness she remains focused squarely on finding Alice. As such, her plentiful opportunities for imaginative growth seem to fall flat. And yet, she does have some insights into herself and her surroundings which have an impact on her and give some growth to her character. I was excited to see a wide variety of characters and experiences from Wonderland that strayed beyond the simple and most popular/famous elements known by casual readers. These were fun additions and made me want to re-read the original Alice books. Still, I was left a bit disappointed with the presentation of some of these characters. It felt like they were trying too hard to straddle the fence between their original self and the message that Maguire was trying to present and as a result they tripped and fell over that fence they were straddling.

Meanwhile, back up in Oxford we have an entirely different sort of story going on. Miss Armstrong is fretting as she wildly roams the houses and lanes trying to find Ada. Lydia is a sulky and sassy teenager who is pressed into service to find Alice, help Miss Armstrong find Ada as well as to help entertain or accompany some guests that are at her home for the day for a visit with her father. The prominent visitor is the famed Charles Darwin, now bitterly aged and thus accompanied by a younger (early 20s?) American, Mr. Winter who is also toting along his own ward, a young African boy named Siam who Mr. Winter recently helped escape the bonds of slavery. Maguire uses the plotline in Oxford to explore a variety of themes. Lydia is caught squarely in a "coming of age" scenario while also dealing with the recent death of her mother. She's a teenage girl in England struggling to mourn for her mother and figure out her womanly place in the future without any remaining role model. When Mr. Winter arrives on the scene we find her thrown into teenage swoons of romanticism. At the same time, we catch snippets of discussions on the arguments between religion and evolution based on the conversations between Darwin and Lydia's father. We also get commentary on slavery, the slave trade and concepts of racism. Maguire truly spreads his net wide and as a result I felt like the concepts were a bit muddled and I was left unsure as to the message being presented.

The juxtaposition of the Wonderland and Oxford stories was fun and interesting but they quickly became imbalanced. I found myself much more interested and intrigued by the world of Oxford than the fantastical world of Wonderland. The imaginative Wonderland had fun and whimsy but it felt forced and in the end fell flat. Unfortunately even though the world of Oxford was vibrant and more fully fleshed out, it was overwhelmed with too many themes fighting for attention and never fully satisfied either.

Overall I was really excited for this idea. I really enjoyed the original Alice stories and I was genuinely interested to see a compelling tale from an alternate point of view. Sadly, I felt like the Wonderland scenes suffered from too little development and the Oxford scenes suffered from too much. Maguire's language and writing style is rich and full and in some ways reminiscent of Carroll's style in the original Alice but his heightened vocabulary and some of the humor ended up a bit too stilted for Wonderland and the imbalance was unsettling. I finished the book with a thoughtfulness that I appreciated but also with a hollow, incomplete feeling. Perhaps if I had a more recent reading of the original Alice tales I might have greater appreciation for Maguire's treatment of the Wonderland sequences but I'm unsure how much (or if) that would help. In the end, I wanted more from the book than it was able to deliver.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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