Fiction: “The Sealed Letter” by Emma Donoghue

sealed letterSO CLOSE to the end of 2017, you guys!

Emma Donoghue also wrote Room, one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years, and aside from the time I forced myself to read a book in a single day, the quickest-read book in many years. At my last visit to the library in 2017, I saw this book on the shelf and the synopsis intrigued me enough to give it a chance.

Miss Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a “woman of business” and a spinster pioneer in the British women’s movement, independent of mind but naively trusting of heart. Distracted from her cause by the sudden return of her once-dear friend, the unhappily wed Helen Codrington, Fido is swept up in the intimate details of Helen’s failing marriage and obsessive affair with a young army officer. What begins as a loyal effort to help a friend explodes into a courtroom drama that rivals the Clinton affair —complete with stained clothing, accusations of adultery, counterclaims of rape, and a mysterious letter that could destroy more than one life. Based on a scandalous divorce case that gripped England in 1864, The Sealed Letter is a riveting, provocative drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian style. [inside jacket]

In other words, DRAMA

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(I swear to god, one of these days I’m going to binge the crap out of Riverdale. I started watching it about a month ago and then hit the pause button, and that was a MISTAKE. Rewatching Parks & Recreation for the fourth time, as soul-soothing as it is, isn’t putting me any farther ahead on my To Watch list.)

ANYWAY. The drama wasn’t as crazypants as I’d hoped, but good enough for me to keep my interest. I did not read it as quickly as I did Room, but that’s not marks against it. Let me recount some of the plot (or most of it – I took pretty good notes on this one) and see where this review takes us.

Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, who has made somewhat of a name for herself as the publisher of the Victoria Press, a weekly newspaper produced by women. She has made herself into a very progressive woman, after growing up in a very religious household. However, she can be extremely naïve and gullible, as we shall come to see.

One day, Fido is leaving the Press when she happens to run into her old bosom friend, Helen Codrington. When Helen was first married, Fido lived with Helen and Helen’s husband, Harry. Helen is accompanied by Col. David Anderson, a member of Harry’s company. Harry and Helen have just returned from a long period in Malta, and Helen is excited to be back in London. They walk together a ways, and then Helen spontaneously decides to ride the new Tube for a couple of stops. Unfortunately, Fido suffers a severe asthma attack on the Tube and has to leave the party early.

A couple of days after, Fido visits Helen at her house, where Helen confides that her marriage hasn’t been happy for a while. Even then, it takes a bit for Fido to realize that Helen has been having an affair with Col. Anderson on the regular. Knowing how faithful Fido is to her, Helen spins a yarn about needing to break the affair off with Col. Anderson, and could they meet in Fido’s apartment so she can break the news in private? Fido says sure! and leaves them alone in the living room. When thirty minutes goes by and Col. Anderson doesn’t run out of the rooms crying over losing Helen, Fido creeps back to the living room door and sure enough – Helen and the Colonel are screwing on Fido’s couch.

Nice. And the fact that Fido didn’t interrupt them and call them out on their clear jackassery shows how much Fido is faithful to Helen.

After another tryst at Fido’s apartment (because yeah, she lets it go on for a while, and yeah, I definitely got to a couple of points in the book where I’m yelling “Come on, Fido!” – it is hard to root for her), Helen and Anderson visit the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. On the way, Helen sends a telegram to her husband, saying that Fido invited her for dinner and dessert with Fido’s parents so she’ll be late coming home. Anderson drops her off much later after their assignation, where Helen learns that 1) one of her daughters has fallen very ill in her absence, and 2) Harry sent a response telegram back to Fido’s apartment instructing Helen to return immediately to take care of her daughter. So now, Helen has to come up with a lie about her late return.

(Luckily I can’t spoil you for that – I did not write that down in my notes.)

Harry talks to his friends the Watsons about his situation. Mr. Watson is a priest or some form of religious figure, and Mrs. Watson is a … *looks at notes* “a know-it-all Judgy McJudgerson.” Yeeeaaaah. She’s a bitch. She’d DEFINITELY call the cops on an 8-year-old girl selling water without a proper permit.

Mrs. Watson is super into the idea of catching Helen in flagrante delicto, and urges Harry to hire a private detective to follow Helen around. Harry waffles on it for a hot minute, but does hire someone, who happens to kind of stumble onto Helen and Anderson going into a hotel to enjoy some afternoon delight. When Harry learns that Helen is in fact cheating on him, Harry files for divorce.

Now, this was some SHIT back in the 1800s. Even though Henry VIII created a whole new church to allow himself to divorce Katherine of Aragon, it still wasn’t common practice for people to divorce. This whole thing went from DRAMA to Scandal!

scandal

Cut to: the divorce proceedings. So, in British divorce court back in the day, witnesses could only be called to the stand once. (I have no idea if that’s also true in American court. WHO KNOWS WHAT’S TRUE IN AMERICAN COURT, by the time I post this review we may have as a nation decided to chuck the Magna Carta and due process out with the immigrant babies’ bathwater because being “civil” to each other is what will make the abuses stop, apparently.

BUT PEOPLE WHO SIGN OFF ON CONCENTRATION CAMPS AND USE THEIR WEIRD MOUTHS TO SPEW PROPAGANDA ON THE DAILY SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO ENJOY THEIR FARM-TO-TABLE ROAST GROUSE IN PEACE, KAREN)

ANYWAY. Back in the day of British Divorce Court, judges typically sided with the men. (YEAH, NO SHIT) In order for Helen to keep at least some visitation rights to her children, she needs to make Harry seem like a worse person, so her cheating on him would be excused in the prim minds of society.

So Helen comes up with an idea.

the grinch

Back when Fido was living with the Codringtons, Helen would often sleep in the same room as Fido – ostensibly because of Fido’s asthma attacks, but really because Helen didn’t want to sleep with Harry. So Helen claims to her solicitor that one night, after Fido had taken laudanum to help her sleep, Harry snuck into the room and raped Fido.

Yeeeaaaaah. Helen’s an awesome friend, you guys.

What actually happened was Harry came in to stoke the fire in the bedroom for the ladies, and Fido is blind as a bat without her spectacles, and also, she was high on laudanum. Nothing actually happened that night. But Helen tricks Fido into swearing in an affidavit that Harry raped her, and now Fido’s going to be called to the witness stand to present her affidavit.

And here’s where the whole “sealed letter” comes into play, but I’m going to stop here so I don’t spoil everything for you.

The whole divorce thing is a mess. It’s tawdry, but also based on a true story. As the story continues on, I found myself not rooting for anyone in the entire plotline – I mean, Fido manages to get a bit of gumption up at the end there, but throughout the majority of the plot she’s just a poor girl caught in Helen’s crazy, manipulative wake. Even Harry does some awful things to save face.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the story. It kept me interested, but not interested enough to stay up until 1 in the morning reading (like I did with Room). At the end of the novel, Ms. Donoghue takes a few pages and gives the reader more of the documented story of the Codrington Divorce, and what happened to Fido, Helen, and all the rest.

The only other thing I have to mention about the book is a moment that made me stop biking at the gym long enough to take a picture of the page, because I couldn’t immediately write the quote down and I knew if I didn’t I’d forget:

“Miss Bessie Parkes is Madame’s chief acolyte and dearest friend, and set up the English Woman’s Journal, and edited it till her health obliged her to resign the job to Miss Davies – a new comrade, but awfully capable – so yes, I dare say Miss Parkes could be considered first among equals,” Fido admits. “My own efforts have focused on the press and SPEW – the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women –”

“What an unfortunate acronym,” cries Helen. [p. 26]

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Grade for The Sealed Letter: 3 stars

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Fiction: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

RoomThis year for Oscar!Watch, I decided to level up for some unknown reason – oh, wait, do you guys who follow my reading blog but not my movie blog even know about Oscar!Watch?

Every year, when the Oscar nominees get announced, I attempt to see every movie nominated for what I call the Big 8 categories: Best Picture, Best Director, the four Acting categories, and the two Writing categories. I even make a chart and everything to aid in my quest. And every year, I always miss about three or four movies that don’t make their way to Maine in the appropriate time period.

So this year, because Oscar!Watch isn’t hard enough, I guess, I decided to also read the books that were the source material for the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. I’m not sure why I made that decision; I think it was a combination of realizing that the nominees were all based on books that were readily available (as opposed to an obscure play), and those books were all available at My Local Library (well, almost all – the Yarmouth Library has a disheartening amount of Patricia Highsmith titles, so Carol or The Price of Salt remains elusive – I mean, they don’t even have Strangers on a Train, what’s with that?), and maybe there was also a part of me that, when looking at the titles, said to herself, “I might enjoy reading that anyway.”

I think there may have also been some thought about wanting to discover the One True Winner of this category, because I can guarantee that the Oscar voters don’t take the time to read the books the movies are based on, watch the movies, and then vote based on how well the original source material was adapted into the resulting film. I’m guessing that, when it comes to that category, the Academy members vote for the film they feel was the best written, and it just happens that the source material isn’t original. But I almost want them to vote the first way: see the source material, watch the resulting adaptation, and vote for the movie that accomplishes the best version of their source material.

But regardless of what my intentions were, it was a decision I made, and I was able to read four out of the five nominees. I kicked off the reading session with Room.

I didn’t really have any idea what Room was about when it first came out a few years ago. I know I saw it everywhere – especially Target; I seem to remember seeing a lot of it at Target – but I wasn’t interested enough to pick it up to read the back of the book. (It may have also been a situation like with Water for Elephants, where the back of the book is all blurbs and no plot description. Stop doing that, Publishers! I am not buying your book without knowing what it’s about [unless it’s an author I’m already familiar with]!) I also wasn’t entirely sure if it was fiction or non-fiction. Spoiler alert! It’s fiction.

The story of Room is told by Jack, and we meet Jack and his Ma on his fifth birthday. Jack is our narrator, and Jack and Ma live together in Room. Jack spends his day doing chores, running “track” back and forth across Room, playing “Scream,” a game where he and Ma scream up at the skylight of Room, and watching TV. Jack believes that what he sees in TV isn’t Real, but everything that happens in Room is real.

After Jack goes to bed at night, Ma is visited by Old Nick, who brings them groceries, clothes, and Sunday-Treat: a special object every Sunday, be it candy or a new toy. But Old Nick only visits after Jack is hidden in his wardrobe bed; Jack has never seen Old Nick’s face.

Because the story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, there are a lot of jumps the reader has to make to understand what’s really happening. For instance, when Old Nick is visiting Ma, Jack can hear them making the bed’s mattress creak. Jack thinks they’re just pushing the mattress up and down (which seems like an odd game to Jack), but the reader can read between the lines to recognize what’s actually happening.

The reality that Ma has shielded Jack from for the previous five years is this: Ma was a college student and was tricked by Old Nick one day.  Old Nick kidnapped her and locked her in this Room, which turns out to be a soundproofed shed he keeps in his backyard – hence, playing “Scream” in the hopes of being heard: Ma has turned a hope of rescue into a game. Old Nick repeatedly rapes Ma, and Jack is the product of one of those rapes. Ma has done all in her power to enforce healthy habits with what she’s given: because they can’t leave Room, Jack and Ma move the bed around and do aerobics and “run track,” which is just back and forth the length of the room to keep their strength up. They bathe as much as possible, and she makes sure Jack brushes his teeth after every meal. She makes up a grocery list for Old Nick, and she always requests food with good nutritional value.

Ma couldn’t tell Jack the entire scope of their situation, because he was too young to understand. I mean, if you’re a five-year-old who’s been raised to not realize that there’s an Outside, you never want to go Outside. If you think cars that you see on TV aren’t real, then you won’t ask why we don’t have a car, why can’t we go anywhere. It was a coping mechanism for Ma, but also for Jack – he can’t feel bad about their situation if he doesn’t really know what their situation is.

Shortly after Jack’s birthday, Old Nick tells Ma that he’s been unemployed for six months, and the house may get foreclosed upon if he can’t get work. Jack, our narrator, doesn’t understand what that means, but Ma certainly does. If the house is foreclosed upon, Old Nick won’t just let them go – he’s going to kill them. So Ma spends a couple of days to come up with a plan; when she does, she realizes the most important thing is also the hardest: she has to tell Jack about the outside world.

In a harrowing sequence, Jack is able to be smuggled out of Room and is able to jump out of Old Nick’s pickup truck and give a message to some neighbors. The police get involved, and they are able to find Ma’s location and rescue her. Ma is relieved, but Jack doesn’t understand that he’s never going to go back to Room – it’s the only home he’s ever known, what do you mean they’re never going back? What about all the toys and mementos from his childhood?

The rest of the book shows how traumatizing it can be for someone to get integrated into the world when they’ve been isolated for their entire life. Jack struggles a lot to reconcile what he’s only known to the reality: that there are a lot of experiences he’s missed out on, like grandparents, and dogs, and making friends, and cousins, and paying for things at a store.

Ma – or Joy, as we find out her name once she’s released from Room – also has a hard time reintegrating into her world. In the seven years that she’s been missing, her parents have divorced. Her father thought she was dead, and he can’t quite come to terms with the fact that not only is Joy not dead, but she was repeatedly raped, and also, her son is a reminder of his failings as a father: he was unable to protect his little girl. Her mother has remarried, and now Joy has to be nice to a person who has usurped her father’s role as head of the family. Joy also has to alleviate her guilt that she now feels about being too gullible or stupid to have fallen for Old Nick’s trick in the first place.

There’s a lot of emotions going on in the book, and it’s very interesting because again, the entire book is written from Jack’s perspective. Once I knew what the book was about (because yes, I totally read the synopsis on Wikipedia before getting too far into it – I am Harry Burns, after all), I was worried that I’d put it down or the writing style would make it difficult for me to get through.

I read the dang book in three days. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so quickly. I started reading it on a Thursday night – I think it was a Thursday night; maybe it was Friday. Anyway, I started reading it around 11 so I could fall asleep; fast-forward to two hours later, and I’ve read ninety pages and I’m still wide awake. (I think it was a Friday night, because if it was a Thursday I would have been pissed about losing sleep before a workday.) And I was finished with it by that Monday.

How did it compare to the film? I thought the film adaptation was very close to the book. Obviously, it cut some things out, but what they cut out didn’t impact the plot at all. As this was the first book I read in the Level Up project, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but I thought the adapting of the book to the film was very well-done.

(Then I remembered that the author herself wrote the screenplay; so, duh. That makes total sense.)

Also, Brie Larson was totally deserving of her Best Actress Oscar. And I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again: it’s a fucking shame that Jacob Tremblay wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for playing Jack, because a) he was phenomenal and b) he acted fucking circles around Leonardo Di-fucking-Caprio. Goddammit.

Grade for Room: 4 stars