Tuesday, February 19, 2008

REVIEW: The Moon in the Mango Tree by Pamela Binnings Ewen

The Moon in the Mango Tree, by Pamela Binnings Ewen. Published 2008 by B&H Books. Advance Reader Copy read as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Fiction.

The Moon in the Mango Tree is based on the story of the author's grandmother, who married a doctor and lived for many years in Thailand (here called Siam) and Europe, and based in part on her letters and journals. I really wanted to like what I hoped would be a colorful story of travel, adventure and a woman's search for meaning, but what I found was a very dull novel about some very dull people.

Set in the Roaring Twenties, Barbara Perkins lives a privileged life and is happy to marry herself a handsome young doctor. She is a talented singer, and her teacher offers her the opportunity to go to Chicago to train to be a professional, but, as her upbringing has taught her, she abandons her ambitions to live at her husband's side as he works as a missionary doctor in rural Thailand. A former suffragette, Barbara (or "Babs," her husband Harvey's annoying nickname for her), doesn't fit in the with the uptight missionaries and misses her music and her family. They return to America briefly, then return to Thailand where Harvey works in a large Bangkok hospital and ministers to the king. City life is more to her liking but eventually Barbara needs more, and decides to go to Europe. Her choices are fairly predictable from here and the ending is neat and tidy.

What stands out the most about the book is Ewen's vivid descriptions of place. The Moon in the Mango Tree would be a great book for the armchair traveler, or the reader who loves books with specific and beautifully-rendered settings. Nan, the rural Thai village in which they first live, Bangkok, Paris and Rome are intricately and vividly described- they are almost characters in and of themselves. Ewen manages to capture the spirit of the places, as well as their distinctive physical features. I felt like I was meandering streets of Rome along with her, or rushing through a Paris rainstorm, or negotiating all those jungle trails on horseback, and these rich passages make pretty good reading.

Unfortunately Ewen's characters lack the depth and richness of her settings. Barbara is an empty shell. I know a lot about what she does, but little about how she feels, apart from her constant self-pity. And she doesn't do much. She's not much of a partner in missionary work- while in Nan, she does little besides decorate her home and feel sorry for herself. She's not much of a mother- she leaves her daughters to babysitters and boarding schools while she parties, flirts and takes her singing lessons. And she's not much of a wife- not that Harvey is much of a husband.

Their relationship reminds me of the way Prince Charles once described his love for his first wife, Princess Diana- yes, he said, he was in love with her, "whatever that means." Harvey and Barbara's marriage struck me as cool and distant. They claim to love each other but they do not treat or talk to each other with respect or compassion, each apparently too enmeshed in his or her own needs to notice that the other person just might have thoughts and feelings of his or her own. He doesn't listen to her, shows little interest in her concerns and trivializes her feelings. She complains of his indifference but relies on him to bankroll her "independence". She blames him bitterly for abandoning her during a monsoon, then almost doesn't want to hear the very good explanation. Where Harvey is equal parts saint, doormat and cipher, most of the other characters, apart from the cartoonishly evil Mr. Breeden and his equally cartoonish, frigid wife, are indistinguishable and unremarkable.

This book also represents my first real foray into the genre of "Christian fiction," although I'm not exactly sure what to make of that distinction. Certainly The Moon in the Mango Tree is a clean-as-a-whistle marital love story, whose protagonist only experiments with stepping outside the lines (and is ultimately guided back by a Catholic priest) but I think my main gripe with the book is Barbara's limited grasp of the possibilities of life. It's all or nothing- either she can study music or she can be a dutiful wife. There's no middle ground. Ewen sets up Barbara's choices so starkly that there's no real choice at all, and I was continually frustrated with her lack of imagination. Why not make it possible for Barbara to find a satisfying compromise? And don't tell me, because Ewen's grandmother didn't. Ewen chose to write fiction, not a biography, and could have given her heroine any number of outcomes. As it is, Barbara's conclusions left me disappointed and wondering why she goes to all that trouble in the first place. Overlong, overdone and ultimately a let-down, The Moon in the Mango Tree simply wasn't for me.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from LibraryThing.com.