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.