Saturday, November 15, 2008

Conceit by Mary Novik

"St Paul's cathedral stands like a cornered beast on Ludgate hill, taking deep breaths above the smoke. The fire has made terrifying progress in the night and is closing in on the ancient monument from three directions. Built of massive stones, the cathedral is held to be invincible, but suddenly Pegge sees what the flames covet: the two hundred and fifty feet of scaffolding erected around the broken tower. Once the flames have a foothold on the wooden scaffolds, they can jump to the lead roof, and once the timbers burn and the vaulting cracks, the cathedral will be toppled by its own mass, a royal bear brought down by common dogs." (p.9)

It is the Great Fire of 1666. The imposing edifice of St. Paul's Cathedral, a landmark of London since the twelfth century, is being reduced to rubble by the flames that engulf the City.

In the holocaust, Pegge and a small group of men struggle to save the effigy of her father, John Donne, famous love poet and the great Dean of St. Paul's. Making their way through the heat and confusion of the streets, they arrive at Paul's wharf. Pegge's husband, William Bowles, anxiously scans the wretched scene, suddenly realizing why Pegge has asked him to meet her at this desperate spot.

The story behind this dramatic rescue begins forty years before the fire. Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father begins arranging marriages for his five daughters, including Pegge. Pegge, however, is desperate to taste the all-consuming desire that led to her parents' clandestine marriage, notorious throughout England for shattering social convention and for inspiring some of the most erotic and profound poetry ever written. She sets out to win the love of Izaak Walton, a man infatuated with her older sister.

Stung by Walton's rejection and jealous of her physically mature sisters, the boyish Pegge becomes convinced that it is her own father who knows the secret of love. She collects his poems, hoping to piece together her parents' history, searching for some connection to the mother she barely knew.

Intertwined with Pegge's compelling voice are those of Ann More and John Donne, telling us of the courtship that inspired some of the world's greatest poetry of love and physical longing. Donne's seduction leads Ann to abandon social convention, risk her father's certain wrath, and elope with Donne. It is the undoing of his career and the two are left to struggle in a marriage that leads to her death in her twelfth childbirth at age thirty-three.

In Donne's final days, Pegge tries, in ways that push the boundaries of daughterly behaviour, to discover the key to unlock her own sexuality. After his death, Pegge still struggles to free herself from an obsession that threatens to drive her beyond the bounds of reason. Even after she marries, she cannot suppress her independence or her desire to experience extraordinary love.

Conceit brings to life the teeming, bawdy streets of London, the intrigue-ridden court, and the lushness of the seventeenth-century English countryside. It is a story of many kinds of love — erotic, familial, unrequited, and obsessive — and the unpredictable workings of the human heart. With characters plucked from the pages of history, Mary Novik's debut novel is an elegant, fully-imagined story of lives you will find hard to leave behind.
Well, I was on my way to bed when I happened to glance at my book pile in my bedroom and my eyes fell on this book. I forgot to review it! So, I headed back to my computer to remedy that. Conceit came to my attention last year because it was short-listed for the Giller Awards. Not surprisingly, I am still reading Giller nominees from last year this year. I should have got around to this book sooner because I must say, it was a very good read!

The problem with this review is that product description is rather long and detailed, so I don't really want to rehash what is already said above. I must say, I seem to be experiencing a theme where I read books with the main female character being rather eccentric. I read a lot of books where females are the main characters, and lately, they have been a rather interesting bunch. Pegge is just another working their way into that theme. I love her, though. She had a very engaging voice and you never knew quite what she was going to do next. The story follows her from her childhood to her older years when her children are all grown up, so you get a good taste of her as a person.

I am amazed that this is Novik's debut novel. Once upon a time it took Canadians so long to get recognized, and here she is writing this book and getting nominated for a Giller right away! Not to mention, I liked this book better than Late Nights on Air, the book that would go on to win the Giller, but I am sadly not one of the judges! Not to say that she would be my choice for the award, though, because I haven't read the rest of the books yet... In any case, this was a very strong debut novel. It had really interesting characters that I loved reading about! I look forward to what Novik comes out with next.

My thanks to Random House for sending me this book!

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I won a signed copy from John at Book Mine Set but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I am really looking forward to it.

    I loved Late Nights on Air! Too bad you didn't enjoy it as much as I did.


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