Set in Stone by Linda Newbery

28 Feb

535646Title: Set in Stone
Author: Linda Newbery
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Genre: Historic Fiction/Gothic
Page Count: 368

The poster is almost obscured by the press of people in the gallery.

The year is 1898, and Samuel Godwin is a naive young artist who has been plucked out of a London art academy by the wealthy Mr. Farrow to tutor his daughters in art. From the moment he first sees Fourwinds, the Farrows’ sprawling country home, he is captivated by it, and by the three young women who live there: Marianne, young and kind of bonkers but totally bangin; Juliana, passive, reserved, and a bit on the melancholy side; and Charlotte, the governess, who basically tells nobody anything about herself, ever. As time unfolds, Samuel (of course) begins to realize that things are not as they seem, and at the heart of Fourwinds lies a web of scandal and lies more ghastly than he could imagine.

First sentence rating: weak sauce.

OK, so I’ll start by saying that I only read this book because I came across it as I was weeding my teen fiction collection at work. It hadn’t gone out very much so was destined for the chopping block, but when I looked at the blurb and read reviews I thought, by golly, I want to read it! One reviewer even said it was for fans of Brontës. And I mean, I am a fan of Emily AND Charlotte Brontë! Sign me up!

Alas, this book did not live up to the good reviews (yet again!) nor to my love of all things Brontë. It actually reminded me much more of a romance a la Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, only nowhere near as sweet as that dish of a book. My first issue with Set in Stone was that, while she did a pretty good job of capturing the voice of that time (I’ve read a lot of Victorian lit in my day, so I know what that shit reads like), it just wasn’t quite…right. Perhaps it’s because this book was written for a teen audience, and there isn’t really a Victorian YA equivalent to compare it to. I don’t know. POINT BEING: It read like a person from our time trying to sound Victorian, and I couldn’t get past the linguistic counterfeit of it. I find that when contemporary writers try to mimic the voice of a bygone era, unless they get it absolutely right it just ends up being kind of annoying. If you want an example of this technique done well, try M.T. Anderson‘s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor of the Nation books or Terry Pratchett‘s Dodger (I haven’t read the latter, but I’ve heard it’s positively delicious in its Dickensness.).

(Also, I should have been suspicious when one reviewer said that she captured the nineteenth century voice a la the Brontës and Austen, seeing as the Brontës and Jane Austen don’t have much in common other than writing within fifty years of each other. /former English major rant.)

Second, the mental illness. Oy vey. The whole Marianne running around in the middle of the night harping on about the west wind felt horribly contrived – I never got the feeling that she was actually mentally unwell, more just an overgrown child (who of course is a total fox) with a wild imagination. I guess that would be a form of mental illness in a young adult, but I’m pretty sure I did the exact same thing as child running around playing Unico by myself so I just couldn’t take it very seriously. There’s some half-baked allusion to her having psychic abilities that may or may not be true, and then, poof! Once the mystery of the whole book is solved, suddenly she isn’t mentally ill anymore and as an adult she’s just a free-spirited artist. DUHSKI.

I will admit that there is some serious juice (incest! rape! bastards! murder! suicide!) in the last third of the book, all of which I read in one day’s worth of commuting via public transit. However, all that juice at the end doesn’t make up for the fact that not a hell of a lot happens in the first 2/3 of the book, so that it ends up feeling quite unbalanced. The careful unfolding of secrets lasts so long that it totally throws the pacing off, so that it felt more like Newbery saved everything for the grand finale at the end.

So, point being, I don’t recommend this book. I kind of enjoyed it while I was reading it, but I never got invested in any of the characters and I know that I will probably forget all about it in about a year’s time.

That said, I would pair this book with Rasputina’s “Secret Message.” I feel like maybe I’ve already paired something with that song, but I hope that, if I did, it was so long ago that none of you will remember it. Anyways, this book is all about secrets and scandal and more secrets, and this song has always had a sense of haunting sorrow to it, perfect for this weird, weird story.

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