Friday, March 13, 2015

In which Mr. March is as big of a dick as we always suspected.

Little Women is one of my favorite books, but I never really warmed to Mr. March.  I thought he was a tyrant in a gentle disguise, the way he wouldn't let Marmee lose her temper and enjoined the girls to be his "little women."  Still, when I heard about March, by Geraldine Brooks, I had to add it to my book list. March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and tells the story of Peter March, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy's father in Little Women.



The novel takes place during March's stint as a Civil War chaplain, with flashbacks to his early adulthood.  We hear about his life as a traveling peddler, in which he's a guest for a while at a Virginia plantation and befriends Grace, one of the slaves.  Events later in the novel revolve around his time at the plantation and relationship with Grace.  We see how he meets and marries Marmee, and the early life of affluence hinted at in Little Women. (They lose all their money because March "invested" it in John Brown.)  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are mostly only mentioned in passing.  Between flashbacks, we see what's happening in the present, with March working as a teacher on a captured plantation in the deep south, his illness and his time in the hospital in Washington and Marmee coming to nurse him there.

This book was sadly disappointing. Brooks' Peter March is even more insufferable than Louisa May Alcott's.  I guess he's supposed to be a good person.  He holds all the liberal ideals of the modern thinking person; racial equality, feminism, environmentalism, and yet he is a seriously irritating person.  Example: he's invited to stay at a plantation to which he had just wandered as a traveling peddler.  Dinner is served.  These are Peter March's thoughts:

A Negro glided in with a silver salver, upon which stood a slab of sanguinary beef swaddled in a blanket of glistening yellow fat.  The drippings from this joint had contaminated the potatoes so as to render them inedible to me.  Next, he proffered a dish of greens, and I accepted a liberal serving. But as I brought a forkful to my mouth I caught the stench of pork grease and had to lay it down.

In eighteen-fucking-forty, he expects the world to accommodate his vegetarianism?   Is this Concord or is it Portlandia? He nobly assures us that the conversation was as fulfilling as the meal would have been.  Now we know who invented the humble brag.

Petty things aside, March's well-intentioned but thoughtless behavior causes grievous harm to the very people he wants to help.  Even more frustrating, these same people praise him as a good and kind man.  Grace, the slave with whom he has a semi-illicit relationship, is a pretty impressive person, but to me, she's also suspect because she staunchly defends this weak, ineffectual, whining man.  It's like the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry has a great girlfriend and then finds out she dated Newman.

Marmee narrates the chapter in which March is ill, and my irritation turned to rage. Like her husband, she's whiny and entitled.  When she and Brook are trying to find lodging in DC, she tells us that any "covered corner" will do, but once she's actually installed in a bed, she's pissed because she can hear the bargemens' yells from the canal. At the hospital, Marmee isn't happy with the care her husband is getting and confronts a nurse, who is hostile and tells Marmee she has been busy with other patients.  Marmee sees this as justification to throw a bowl of soup into the nurse's face.  Of course the nurse is described as fat and beady-eyed, and it turns out she wasn't really busy with other patients, but makes the convalescents do all the work for her.  I ought to know better than to take fiction so personally, but I was really angry about this scene.  As a nurse, I often found myself juggling more patients than I could handle and family members who were annoyed because they had to wait for non-urgent things.

With the exception of Nabakov, I don't think I've ever developed a personal dislike for a writer based on his or her fiction, but I found myself thinking that Geraldine Brooks is not someone I'd want to spend any time with. I don't understand her intention.  Are March and Marmee supposed to be sympathetic characters, or did she intend that we despise them?  I read a snippet of an interview with her, in which she says she wanted to explore taking an idealistic person like March and testing him with the realities of war.  That doesn't tell me what I want to know: did she deliberately portray these two people as assholes or not?

Then there's the language.  March and Marmee both speak with the fulsome language of their time, but it reads as a trite re-hash of every B-class Victorian novel you've ever read, with references to "snowy linen," "simple repasts,""unseemly behavior," and other phrases of that ilk.  I'm just not seeing how March managed to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Have you read March?  What did you think?


14 comments:

  1. I started March but couldn't finish it because it was so boring. Apparently I should have read on just for the dinner scene. I think she's just a boring writer in general -- Year of Wonders was a yawner and Caleb's Crossing was another one I couldn't stay awake to finish.

    The only author I've taken a personal dislike to based on her fiction is the insufferable Barbara Kingsolver.

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    1. I have an unfortunate association with Barbara Kingsolver too. I read The Poisonwood Bible one summer when I was really sick with something that it took months to recover from and The Poisonwood Bible made me feel even sicker.

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  2. I read it a long time ago, close to when it came out. I remember enjoying it, but it's been at least 8 years and the hundreds of intervening books have made me forget the specifics of why. I do remember, though, that I read two of her other books - Year of Wonders and People of the Book - and thought they were both better than March. People of the Book in particular is more structurally interesting than straight historical fiction (it follows the lives of people who have touched/owned an ancient Hebrew text throughout the book's thousands of years of existence). Anyway. I have enjoyed all three, so I obviously like her writing style, but we are all well aware that people have individual preferences for these things.

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    1. I read a blurb about Year of Wonders and it sounds interesting.

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  3. Anytime a writer picks up another writer's iconic characters, it tends to not fare well. I remember hearing much fanfare about this book, but it never entirely appealed to me.

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    1. One book that I thought did it well is Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, but maybe that was because she made Bertha sympathetic.

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    2. I agree, Becky, but I also agree with Not Beehive and Tracey. Wide Sargasso Sea is the exception to this rule.

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  4. I haven't like Mr. March as a person ever since I read how he used to "teach" his daughters obedience and delayed gratification by tempting them with an apple left somewhere and seeing whether or not they would take it. They were treated to long lectures on not giving in to their desire for the apple. I think they were aged 3-5 at the time. He always sounded like an idealistic snot who did not love his girls as human beings but as experiments in human nature.

    And I, too, LOVE Little Women.

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    1. How do I not remember that apple scene? It's been a long time since I read LW. When I was a kid, I was really puzzled over why the girls seemed to love him so much.

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  5. I read it and enjoyed it somewhat, but it didn't stick (I don't remember much about it . . .). I second Not Beehive's thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea. THAT one stuck.

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    1. Yup--I'm another fan of Wide Sargasso Sea! :)

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  6. Oh, I LOVED this book--and then I read "Year of Wonders" which I loved even more! We don't often part ways on literary opinion, but we did this time! Even so, it was fun reading your review, a totally different perspective.

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    1. LOL, we will have to agree to disagree about this one.

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  7. From your description, I don't want to read this book at all. First of all, Mr. March support John Brown? Maybe it's the amount of Civil War history I've consumed, but that guy was nuts and the standoff in Harper's Ferry was awful. Secondly, my husband was a nurse for 22 years, so I don't take kindly to anyone mistreating nurses. And thirdly, Mr. March's response to hospitality given... Portlandia! (Your comparison made me laugh but didn't make me want to read what was meant to be a serious book.)
    I'm not trying to recall if I've read People of the Book (if I did, I didn't love it) but I have read something by Ms. Brooks' husband, Tony Horwitz, who is also an author. As someone raised in the Pacific NW but living in Virginia at the time, I really appreciated Confederates in the Attic. It was an interesting book to discuss in my book group of southern women!

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