Madeline Usher is doomed.I probably tried to read The Fall of the House of Usher at some point – we all have an Edgar Allen Poe, phase, right? – but the memories are vague, so I went into The Fall, a retelling of that story, essentially blind. About a hundred pages from the end, I caved and read through a Wikipedia summary of the original. I was a little bored and wanted to know where this one was going, and I also hoped that maybe a basic understanding of the source material might help me get more out of it. And you know what? It did.
She has spent her life fighting fate, and she thought she was succeeding. Until she woke up in a coffin.
Ushers die young. Ushers are cursed. Ushers can never leave their house, a house that haunts and is haunted, a house that almost seems to have a mind of its own. Madeline’s life—revealed through short bursts of memory—has hinged around her desperate plan to escape, to save herself and her brother. Her only chance lies in destroying the house.
In the end, can Madeline keep her own sanity and bring the house down? The Fall is a literary psychological thriller, reimagining Edgar Allan Poe’s classic The Fall of the House of Usher.
I don’t know if I was just in exactly the right place for the book to click with me, or if I’d finally made it to the part where shit was getting real, or if realizing what a fucking sausage fest the original story is, and what a plot device original Madeleine is, gave me better insight into what Bethany Griffin was doing, but EITHER WAY, after reading that summary I warmed to this book considerably.
The GoodThe Fall is surprisingly, subtly feminist. Madeleine is a hell of a strong character, and in a refreshingly un-stabbity way. This girl has unbelievable mental fortitude, especially for someone who has a) had a house relentlessly trying to drive her insane for eighteen years, and b) been surrounded by men dehumanizing and invalidating her for just as long.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many men trying to chip away at Madeleine’s identity, or that their attacks come from so many familiar angles. Her brother loves her but dismisses her as superstitious and childish; the old doctors see her as a specimen instead of a person; the young Doctor Winston becomes romantically obsessed with her, but only as a symbol, not as herself. Even the House – characterized as the spirit of the man who built it – pushes its will on ‘its heirs’ betrothed’ worst of all, and essentially only wants Madeleine to propagate the Usher line.
Yet in the face of all of this external pressure, Madeleine is resolute. She doesn’t let any of these dudes’ abuse or dismissal or constant fucking gaslighting shake her belief in who she is or what she knows. She fights. Not physically, for the most part, but cleverly, subtly, and relentlessly. Most importantly, neither Madeleine nor the author ever surrender her agency.
It is Madeline’s actions that drive the narrative. Even when Roderick returns and the book moves into The Fall of the House of Usher proper, Madeline sets the original story’s events into motion, a carefully-devised plan to destroy the house and ensure the safety of her rapidly deteriorating brother.
It’s a heartening thing to read, and immediately gratifying when I realized what was going on. These are the kinds of Strong Female Characters and retellings that I want more of. Replace all ur old white favs with women doing shit and saving their asses 2kforever.
The Not-So-GoodThis thing is really long. I mean, it’s like standard book size but OH MY GOD it feels really long. I like where it ended up, obviously, and I think it picked up towards the end – and also once I realized what was going on – but there was a sizable chunk in the middle there where The Fall was extremely put down-able.
It’s not that it was ever explicitly boring, but it was very…same-y. The book tries to mix it up by chopping ten years of Madeleine’s life into a billion two-page-long chapters and hitting shuffle, but not to much effect. While I appreciated the illusion of speedy progression the short chapters provided, regardless of when things were happening, it all felt pretty much the same.
The writing is good, though. Everyone is well-characterized, Madeleine in particular, obviously, and it conjures an appropriately Gothic atmosphere, even if it’s never particularly scary.
So look, The Fall is long, slow, and can get a little dry, but Madeleine is a phenomenal lead character, and it accurately recreates the vibe of one of Poe’s tales while simultaneously reworking the original into something wonderful and relevant and necessary. I absolutely want more books that do this exact sort of thing…just, you know, maybe a little shorter. Read it!
THREE AND A HALF STARS