035 – The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell

The Vespertine cover It’s the summer of 1889, and Amelia van den Broek is new to Baltimore and eager to take in all the pleasures the city has to offer. But her gaiety is interrupted by disturbing, dreamlike visions she has only at sunset—visions that offer glimpses of the future. Soon, friends and strangers alike call on Amelia to hear her prophecies. However, a forbidden romance with Nathaniel, an artist, threatens the new life Amelia is building in Baltimore. This enigmatic young man is keeping secrets of his own—still, Amelia finds herself irrepressibly drawn to him.

When one of her darkest visions comes to pass, Amelia’s world is thrown into chaos. And those around her begin to wonder if she’s not the seer of dark portents, but the cause.
I have to start by saying The Vespertine is an incredibly beautifully-written novel. The words flow nicely (sentence structure is important, dammit), and the imagery Mitchell creates here is just gorgeous. Honestly, it’s rare that I’m able to so vividly picture scenes from a novel, and not only are The Vespertine‘s lovely, but the whole thing has a distinctly – I guess the term “Gothic” would be most appropriate – atmosphere that makes that imagery, and the story as a whole, even more intriguing and unique.

While lots of authors play at setting novels in a similar time period, Mitchell is one of the few I’ve read who really nails the narrative style and voice enough to make me believe that this book not only could possibly have been written in the time period it’s set, but that the main character is one who genuinely could have lived in it. Other reviews have mentioned that books set in this era tend to feature heroines with a 21st-Century mindset, and I’m inclined to agree – not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. 19th-Century heroines with modern sensibilities fulfill the desire I’m sure most of us have to give the middle finger to the society and conventions that repressed them in that era. But there’s something to be said for a novel featuring a more period-authentic heroine being…well, put through the runner.

Vespertine‘s first chapter is one of the most captivating I’ve read in a while. It begins with the heroine, Amelia, trapped in the attic of her brother’s home, following a catastrophic “ruination”. She’s damn near insane with grief over some vaguely-described pain she’s caused people she cares about. She contemplates suicide but can’t bring herself to follow through, and somewhat madly rambles about her supernatural ability to bring on visions during the twilight hours (“vespers” = evening prayers, “vespertine” = “something of, relating to, or occurring in the evening”).

After a few pages, her brother’s wife finally releases her from her imprisonment, and Amelia begins facing her prospects as a “ruined” woman. From there, the book rewinds a few months and chronicles Amelia’s first season in the city (Baltimore) with her cousins, as upper-Middle-Class young women whose sole goal at this stage in their lives is finding a respectable husband.

I have to say very quickly, I loved that Vespertine was catty bitch-free. In most books of…well, any time period really, if you have a main female character, she almost always has a rival who hates her because she’s prettier or has the attention of the love interest or IDK has a vagina or something. Not so here. In fact, Mitchell makes a point of saying when Amelia and her soon-to-be BFF cousin Zora meet:

At once, we both took an accounting. Her gown was more fashionable; my hair more intricately dressed. In stillness, she held her hands with grace, and I sprawled, ungainly, along the edge of the bed. In that moment, I supposed we could have decided to be rivals.

Instead, Zora took my hand and said, “We’re too grand to stay indoors today, I believe.”
What a rare occurrence, eh? Zora ended up being one of my favorite characters, and her and Amelia’s interaction was fun to read. Their banter was genuinely funny, and you really got a sense of how close they grew to one another, which made the ultimate tragedy Amelia feels in the flashbacks more believable. It actually came as a pleasant surprise that most of the characters here ended up going against-type – Zora’s mother lacks the cruelty towards Amelia you tend to expect from someone in her role; Zora’s father is kind and sarcastic rather than being cold and distant, and the two have what I’m assuming was a rare (for the era) love-based relationship. None of the girls in Zora’s circle were ever unduly cruel to Amelia for being different or more socially inexperienced, and the four actually formed what seemed to be a friendly, tightly-knit group. Only one character – well, two if you count Amelia’s one-dimensionally angry brother – disappointed me in his typical-ness, but we’ll get to that later.

Flash-forward aside, for quite a lot of it, The Vespertine reads like a historical fiction novel. More emphasis is placed on Amelia’s adjustment to the city, the relationship with her small group of friends, and of course, her search for a husband than her psychic ability, at least for the first three-quarters of it. A lot of attention is paid to the ridiculously delicate balance women of the time had to strike between acting the part of the charming young woman looking to wed, and maintaining the spotless reputation that made them marriage material. It was insanely hypocritical and confining, and Mitchell illustrates this quite well. She also does a good job of differentiating how each of the girls in Amelia’s circle reacted to it.

For example, Amelia’s feisty, beautiful cousin Sarah loudly asserts her intention to marry down, all the while refusing her longtime love’s advances out of a complex mix of guilt and rebellion. Their sweet, shy cousin Mattie goes for quantity over quality in her search. Zora finds joy in the slow, sweet courting game she and her suitor play, while our heroine Amelia relishes her love interest Nathanial’s more forward, socially improper means of conveying his affection.

I have to admit, I was kind of surprised by Nathanial’s rather typical characterization. I mean, I expected the Socially Unacceptable Match, but Nathanial managed to embody both the Starving Artist and Dark Supernatural Bad Boy tropes, though the latter was mildly toned down to be period-appropriate. He was provocative and mysterious, torturing the heroine with his blatant interest and attractiveness and their spark, and kept just out of the realm of feasibility by his DAMNABLE POVERTY! For a long while, Nathanial comes off as a thoughtless rogue leading Amelia down the road to impropriety, and I honestly thought that perhaps his ultimate role was just to play the cad who would love her and leave her. But towards the end of the story his character has this strange turn, and I can’t call it totally out-of-nowhere, but it comes in odd lurches.

In one encounter he’s flippantly, improperly flirtatious for no adequately explained reason, the next his poverty makes him vulnerable, and he’s on the verge of sharing all his secrets. Then it’s time for their big Relationship Turning Point and all of the sudden he is confessing everything and – finally – becomes concerned about the heroine’s reputation, but not enough to stop risking it. Way to be consistent, dude.

Okay, so we bitch a lot about insta!love on this blog, but here…I didn’t really read Nathanial and Amelia’s relationship as “love”. I mean, how could you ever really come to truly love someone so quickly in the kind of atmosphere that so tightly restricts social interaction? No, I read it more as a sort of infatuation – the first love that’s that much more intense because it’s ~forbidden~. I suppose that’s why that whole aspect didn’t really bother me as much, and I actually enjoyed watching Amelia be the flirtatious, rebellious, playful girl that pursuing Nathanial inspired her to be.

There was, however, a Romeo and Juliet aspect to their infatuation that bugged me. During a ~socially improper~ solo visit to Nathanial’s home, the two chase each other up a tower, and Nathanial backs Amelia to the almost totally unprotected edge. Then he wraps his arms around her and asks her to jump. And you know what? She jumps. She doesn’t even hesitate, she just jumps with him.

I’ll totally admit, I thought he was asking her to kill herself with him because there was just ~no way~ for them to be together and they loved each other so much, and fuck this world. Luckily it turns out he was simply illustrating his powers, so they didn’t die, but shit, she didn’t know that. I have no idea what the rationale behind that decision was except that she had (totally unfounded) “complete trust” in him, but still, it seems kinda, y’know, extreme. That was a total WTF moment for me, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s enough to bring it down a star or two for me.

Nathanial’s total lack of concern for Amelia’s reputation also bothered me a bit. I mean, yeah, the whole reputation thing is bullshit, but the fact that he put her in a position to be caught, the fact that it would so utterly “ruin” her, and the fact that he knew it would ruin her, troubled me. In that respect, I preferred Zora’s suitor, Thomas, much more. Sure, he was kind of quiet and personality-less, but you could see that he truly cared for Zora in the way he so steadfastly guarded her honor. Pursuing her wasn’t about his own selfish pleasure, and that’s how Nathanial came off a lot of the time.

I suppose it’s hypocritical, applauding Amelia for endangering her reputation and condemning Nathanial for doing the same, but…well, I guess one is about rebellion, and the other is about a selfish lack of disregard. To me, anyway.

Moving on.

I really enjoyed the supernatural aspect of the story, although initially I wasn’t sure how important it’d end up being. As I mentioned before, for a lot of the book Amelia’s power, while important, doesn’t carry much weight. Spiritualists and psychics are fashionable, and Amelia and her friends treat her ability more like a parlor trick, using it to meet and entertain people higher on the social ladder. Unlike most YA heroines who discover they have powers, Amelia never dwells on the source of her gift, or angsts over how it inherently ostracizes her, and is never presented with a grand destiny. It’s all incredibly refreshing, and if Amelia accepts her gift a bit more casually than you’d expect, I’m okay with that because it so differs from the YA norm. The Vespertine is a very intimately-focused story, and I’m happy for a break from teenagers destined to SAVE THE WORLD.

Still, while not exactly shoehorned in, for a time the paranormal aspect does feel almost extraneous, and I worried that it might be one of those cases where the author felt compelled to add a dash of magic to comply with current trends. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The book’s conclusion brings the full weight of Amelia’s ability and actions to the forefront, in an incredibly dramatic chain of events.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the conclusion. On the one hand, I’ll admit the extreme actions, drastic consequences, and one-thing-after-another pacing was kind of abrupt after an entire book of leisurely floating from one moment to the next. The whole thing wraps in about fifty pages, and the “villain” got almost no build up. On the other hand, I really liked it. The book wasn’t designed to slowly hype a big finale fight with the big bad; it was a slowly-unfolding story brought to a sad end by a tragic act of violence. I’m not sure I bought the reasoning behind Sarah’s actions, but I sure as hell bought her beau’s.

SPOILERS

I suppose the final acts of Amelia’s cousins are supposed to demonstrate how fucked up the world was back then, as far as its expectations of women. The fact that Amelia was shipped off without a word to anyone for fucking kissing the guy she loved, was insane. The fact that it so “ruined” her reputation that her brother considered her unmarryable, that as far as society was concerned she was only good for a clerical or teaching position, is absolutely infuriating. The fact that Amelia was so conditioned to believe this that she felt irredeemably guilty for doing absolutely nothing wrong, that it – in addition to the major losses she suffered during the climax – almost inspired a mental breakdown, is frustrating as well. But I think that’s the point.

Amelia suffered one of the worst “disgraces” a woman of the time could face, and found freedom in it. Most, if not all of her happiness came from breaking the rules, and while not without consequences, a whole world of possibility that she would never have known before was opened up to her because she dared misbehave. I think that’s kind of awesome.

As far as the ending, I both liked and disliked Nathaniel’s resurrection. On the one hand, a permanent death would have added a lot of strength to Amelia’s character, being forced to go on without him, and I hate that she was so afraid and unsure until he showed up. On the other hand, I was happy that she got some semblance of joy to balance out the pain of her losses, and I’ll admit, Nathaniel’s opening line – “Could you have put more water between us?” – made me grin.

All in all, The Vespertine is an enthralling read. Sure, there are a few character issues, but overall it’s a beautifully written, enormously compelling read with a tragic but ultimately inspiring story. I eagerly await Mitchell’s follow-up, due out next year.

three stars


This book was provided to us as a free review galley from NetGalley.

 

2 Responses

  1. Gwen Lightburn

    April 18, 2011 4:00 pm, Reply

    “Mitchell is one of the few I’ve read who really nails the narrative style and voice enough to make me believe that this book not only could possibly have been written in the time period it’s set, but that the main character is one who genuinely could have lived in it.”

    Do you feel this way about the Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, etc.)?

    –Gwen L.
    parapseudo.blogspot.com

  2. April X

    June 20, 2011 10:54 pm, Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂 I have yet to read this book, but I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a while. I’m jealous of your guys’ ability to write long reviews lol XD

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