Sunday, February 22, 2009

The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff

So I finally get round to reviewing the latest Richard and Judy Challenge read which has only come in almost 4 days late… whoops. The thing is The 19th Wife is huge and actually didn’t take me as long as I thought it would but at the same time wasn’t as quick to read as I had thought it might be. Has that confused you yet?

When I opened this novel I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was thinking ‘wow a Mormon murder mystery how unusual’ and indeed it is an incredibly different novel. There are really two stories running through it. Firstly there is the tale of Jordan Scott a young man in his mid twenties who sees in the news that his mother has murdered his father. Jordan has seen neither of his parents for quite some time, in fact since his mother drove him into the desert and left him on the roadside ‘at God’s will’. Jordan’s parents are in fact part of the First of Latter Day Saints and his mother was one of many wives, in fact she was his 19th wife. Jordan decides that he will go back to his home town and try and help his mother meaning he has to look back at his past and face some of his demons.

The second story of the book is all about Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young the second Prophet of the Mormon Church, who in the late 1890’s leaves her village and sect and battles for freedom and an end to polygamy in the United States. Ann Eliza Young was in fact a real person, which I didn’t realise until I had read the authors notes at the end which everyone should do with this book, and to me this made her story all the more compelling. Ebershoff tells her tale both from his fictional reworking of her novel (which she actually did write) through Brigham Young’s diary, letters from her son and through Kelly Dee who is researching the life of Ann and the fact that the Mormon’s one time biggest enemy actually helped create the Mormon religion of now and made the break between them and the ‘Firsts’.

Now this sounds confusing and I am going to admit that in parts of the novel I was somewhat lost. Especially as thrown into Jordan’s narrative keep coming press cuttings and news reports from Ann Eliza’s tale and I thought they should have been in the other sections of the novel as they related to that. As an editor himself I am surprised that Ebershoff didn’t have them moved. I also thought in parts the book was a little too long and yet, I am going to sound very contrary, I wanted so much more of Ann’s tale as I found it fascinating. This is actually what was bizarre, at the start of the book I really wanted to read more of Jordan’s story and by the end I wasn’t so bothered about the Mormon murder and was much more interested in Ann.

I think this had to do with the character or Jordan and the way he spoke and the two people he became attached to. He kept speaking in slang, so for example instead of saying something was boring he would say ‘same old blog’ and while I understand he is meant to be a young man ‘of the now’ it annoyed me. When he then meets Tom I found their relationship far too convenient and also quite unrealistic. After going to the cinema once they seemed to be a married couple. Then one scene where they are on the true killers heels they spend several paragraphs checking if the dog’s have the right toys and blankets. I just found that all quite ridiculous. However what Jordan’s character was good for was his story of being gay and the effects that causes in the ‘Firsts’ sects interesting and heartbreaking especially when his mother leaves him. It also showed how in the 100+ years since polygamy was outlawed that it is still going on as it the rape and grooming of children in these sects which makes for quite difficult reading.

I think what Ebershoff has done over all is quite spectacular. I know I had a moan about some of the Jordan parts of the book but that part was still a very good murder mystery and really looked at how children are affected by polygamy. I think really this was two separate books in one which is quite some feat. What this book has done that no books have made me do for quite a while is research. I have been trawling the internet looking to find out more about Ann Eliza and Brigham Young, reading about all the incidents she depicts. I think her story really sang out of the book and in a way the book could have been solely about her and still have been great. I think in bringing in the second tale helped to show that in all this time nothing has hanged for the ‘Firsts’ and they are still a law unto themselves which is slightly shocking and worrying.

If your looking for a huge book that will really make you think about things and want an insight into the life of ‘Firsts’ not Mormons (as I have learnt thanks to Ebershoff there is quite a difference) then this is a fascinating, clever and extremely well written book. I really enjoyed it and have come away wanting to find out much more about a woman I didn’t even know existed, and thanks to the authors notes I now have a list of more books to find and read. As for another Ebershoff… would I read one? No question, I would and will be. I thought Ebershoff was a new author however this is his third, randomly I found a copy of his debut novel ‘The Danish Girl’ in one of my favourite charity shops for 50p. I will report back on it in due course.

5 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I found it really interesting that you didn't enjoy Ann's story at first, but grew to love it. Perhaps I just didn't give it a proper chance, as I was put off it in the beginning.

I agree that Jordan's character did a lot of annoying things, many of which didn't ring true. I thought this book was reasonably good (7/10) but I'm not going to rush out and buy any of his other books - unless you discover that they are outstanding!!

PS. Have you discovered any other bloggers reading all the Richard and Judy books yet?

Simon Savidge said...

No I havent I think they get looked down upon a little which is a shame as I think this year the standard is really high. Have you found any?

farmlanebooks said...

No, I've found lots of people who've read a few of the books, but when I question them it turns out they've just picked them up because they liked the look of them in a bookshop display!

Sarah said...

I've hesitated to this because of the length and mixed reviews, I can't say your experience will make me change that!

I don't know if you've read A Study in Scarlet by Conan Doyle? It's the first Sherlock Holmes book and a considerable part of it is set amongst the Mormons in Utah in the 1800's. It's ripping good read, and I think clearly influenced by the Ann Young's writing and lectures.

Simon Savidge said...

Oh thanks Sarah, I have a copy of The Study in Scarlett its the only one that I havent read of the Sherlock Holmes books!