Tuesday, March 23, 2010

REVIEW: Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. Published 2009 by Delacorte Press. Fiction.

Alice in Wonderland is everywhere these days- at the movies, in stores (the other day I saw Alice pillowcases online at Urban Outfitters), in restaurants (Manhattan's delightful Alice's Tea Cup restaurant)- and on the bookshelves. There's a new illustrated version of the book and it's even shown up on TV- a recent episode of ABC's hit show LOST prominently featured The Annotated Alice, a beautiful version published by W.W. Norton.

No surprise then that there should be interest in Melanie Benjamin's intriguing novel Alice I Have Been, a fictionalized account of the life story of Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves, the woman on whom the famous Alice was based. Hargreaves was the daughter of a Dean of Oxford and was brought up in a privileged, intellectual atmosphere among scholars, students and the upper crust of British society. She had a love affair with a prince, married well and slid into obscurity, until a time in her later years when she became famous for her association with the by-then very famous book written by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, a mathematics professor and friend of her family.

The book is divided roughly into thirds, representing three phases of her life and the three men who did the most to shape it- Dodgson, her friend Prince Leopold and her husband. Of the three it's pretty plain who had the most influence. Hargreaves' association with Dodgson and his book is portrayed as coloring almost every aspect of her relationships, especially with men. Her mother, a woman deeply invested in propriety, feels that her daughter's reputation has been sullied and tries to dissuade her relationship with Prince Leopold, who eventually comes to feel that he cannot marry her. She settles for Reginald Hargreaves and tries to make herself a happy life with him and their sons but their family life founders and it is not until later in her life that she can make peace with all that's gone before.

Of the three sections, the first, about her relationship with Dodgson, is the most compelling. His interest in her, including the time spent photographing her, struck me as plain creepy- not at all like a romance but as the daydreams of a child and the unhealthy fixation of an adult, which combine to create a friendship deeply delusional on both sides. Benjamin beautifully evokes the pastoral, idealized childhood enjoyed by the children of this wealthy and revered family, with just this hint of menace around the edges. Eventually, something, no one really knows what, happened between young Alice and Dodgson that caused him to leave the family's circle; the echo of this event haunts the rest of the book. The explanation that Benjamin provides late in the book left me unsatisfied but at least it was something.

Alice I Have Been is not an easy book to classify. It would appeal to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the nineteenth century and England but in terms of the style it's somewhere in between literary and lighter fiction. The first section still seems to me to be the best; the second, about her relationship with Leopold, was rather more melodramatic and the third fell a little flat for me as I found I didn't like her very much as she got older, and the storytelling didn't have the same verve as it did at the beginning. Obviously anyone interested in Hargreaves' story or the story behind Alice in Wonderland has to read it, along with historical fiction fans, and I think it would appeal to a lot of other general fiction readers as well. It's well written and will keep you turning the pages, and in the end it was a satisfying fictionalized exploration of the woman and the friendship behind one of the best-loved children's books of all time.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

15 comments:

jewwishes said...

This is an excellent and forthright review, and that is one of the reasons why I like and respect you so much...you don't sweeten your reviews.

Library Cat said...

I am certain that I did not know there was a real Alice - I feel so uninformed. Based on your review, I am not sure this book is the best way to learn more. Thank you for your honest review.

Heidi Estrin said...

I bought this book to add to my Alice collection (I collect different illustrated versions, translations, and other Alice-related works) and I really enjoyed it. It was like a fleshed out version of the movie Dreamchild. While I'd agree with your assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, I got a frisson from the combination of real history with speculation and with echoes of the Carroll books. I also happen to have a thing for novels that deepen well-known children's stories. So for me it was a very satisfying read.

Zibilee said...

I have read a lot of reviews of this book, but yours was by far the most thoughtful and informative. I have to admit that I have been bitten by the Alice bug and have been hoping to read this book. Your review really solidified that for me. I think that I am going to try to grab a copy for myself and see what I think of it. Excellent review, Marie!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

Great review Marie. I have been watching the reviews if this one with some interest and I am starting to feel like this is one that I can wait a bit to read.

bermudaonion said...

I was hoping you would love this one!

lilly said...

Loved your review, it's very exhaustive! I really enjoyed this novel and it's funny how we actually liked different parts, I liked the first part the least and the last one the most. This just shows how there are so many opinions on books as many readers.

Darlene said...

Nice review Marie. I really found this book good especially as I had never realized Alice had been a real person.

I did find the adult/child relationship creepy and I'm glad it wasn't elaborated on at all. I, like you though, wonder ultimately what did happen that caused the family to stop associating with Dodgson altogether. I guess back then though it wouldn't take much - even the two together at all would create more scandal.

Alexia561 said...

I've been curious about this book, so appreciate your honest and thoughtful review. You explained everything well, so think maybe this one isn't for me. Thanks for helping me make up my mind!

Beth F said...

I have this in print and on audio -- not sure which way I'm going to read it, but perhaps print will be better in case the final section fall flat for me as well.

S. Krishna said...

I loved this book, I'm sad you didn't! Thanks for the honest review though.

Amy said...

Good review! I only disagree a little bit with your take on the last section. I found Alice to be more introspective and human in that section and not as cold as she was in the others.

-Amy
Life by Candlelight

Pam said...

I read this book recently and I enjoyed. I think what I liked most was learning the story behind the story of Alice and Wonderland. And I agree the first third was creepy and it was disconcerting not to know exactly what happened. And like one of your other commenters said, I didn't realize there was a realy girl behind Alice (or a real boy behind Peter Pan, for that matter. Also mentioned in the book). Great review.

Anna said...

I still haven't decided whether I really want to read this. It does sound interesting, though. Thanks for the honest assessment.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Melissa said...

I really enjoyed Alice, and I liked it even more as I thought back on it. I agree that her relationship with Dodgson was creepy!