Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elizabeth is Missing (Book Review)

Publication Information: HarperCollins hardcover, 2014
Genre: Contemporary fiction, set in England
Plot: Maud is an elderly woman losing her memory, devoted to her friend Elizabeth. Although confused by much of her daily life, she knows she hasn’t seen Elizabeth lately.  Convinced Elizabeth is missing, Maud is determined to find her. Memories in the distant past are more reliable than those in the present and as Maud becomes more and more disturbed about Elizabeth, she remembers the tragic disappearance of her sister Sukey during World War II, a mystery that was never solved, and the two disappearances become confused in her mind, with surprising results.

Audience: Although billed as a psychological mystery, I think the real audience is fiction readers, rather than suspense fans. The flashbacks to WWII reminded me a little of The Secret Keeper, although Maud’s adolescent cluelessness is very different from the energy and will to survive exhibited by characters in that book.   A better comparison is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
The UK cover is much more intriguing
What I liked: I delayed reading this because wasn’t sure about the topic but once I began, I couldn’t put it down and finished in a couple hours.  The depiction of Maud’s descent into dementia is heartbreaking as is the demeaning way she is treated by those around her (the condescension exhibited by the policeman to whom Maud keeps reporting Elizabeth’s disappearance is particularly distressing).  Healey’s ability to convey Maud’s memory loss and then switch convincingly from her point of view to that of Maud’s daughter and granddaughter is what makes the book so effective. Also very effective is Helen’s annoyance at the brother in Germany who is never there to assist with Maud and is more than useless on his rare visits.

“I’m not allowed to eat,” I say, picking up the phone. “That woman told me.”
“What woman?”
“The woman.” I say. God, I’m sick of explaining myself all the time.  “That woman who works here.” Is that right?  “She works here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know the one ... Yes you do.  She works here.  Always busy.  Always cross.  Always in a rush.”
“I think you mean me, Mum.”
“No,” I say.  “No.”  By maybe I do mean her.  “What’s your name?”
She makes a face at her pile of washing.  “I’m Helen,” she says.

What I disliked: This book made me feel so guilty for every time I ever snapped at my grandmother or fail to be sufficiently understanding when she loses her train of thought or exhibits signs of dementia. At 99, she has every right to be forgetful or confused.

Source: I received an advance reading copy from HarperCollins in return for an honest review.   I was captivated by this book and recommend it. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Outlander – Episode 1, Sassenach – Recap

As requested, I’ve gone back to the beginning of Outlander to recap the first episode.   For those who missed the 8-part series on Starz, it will probably be repeated in a marathon showing just before the second half of season 1 begins in April and is also going to be rerun on Christmas.  Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling historical fiction series.  As I have told many people, as I left Bantam Doubleday Dell in May of 1991, I helped myself to two advance reading copies (arcs) from a pile on the 22nd floor that looked appealing.  One was The Firm by John Grisham and the other was Outlander.  I often think about how BDD (now Random House) launched two incredible franchise authors that year.
 
Episode 1 begins with a voiceover from Claire, the heroine of the series, describing how people disappear every day.  Most such disappearance can be explained, but not all.  (If you need an explanation for time travel, this is the wrong show/series for you.)
Our first, long-awaited glimpse of Claire Randall: she is looking at an ordinary vase in a shop window, contemplating the fact that she’s never had a sufficiently settled home to own that sort of bric-a-brac.   It is six months after WWII and we see a flashback of Claire in action as a combat nurse.  It is clear she performs well and decisively in crisis situations.  However, she is affected by the suffering she has seen and can’t simply relax and celebrate VE Day, reminding me of Vera Brittain after WWI (fans of Testament of Youth will be interested to hear there is a movie coming in 2015).   

Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, are on a second honeymoon in Scotland, trying to get to know each other again after five years apart doing war work.  While Claire was overseas, Frank worked in Intelligence in London.   He is a history professor, eager to discourse about his interests at the drop of a hat, which would normally be quite embarrassing in a husband but Claire smiles fondly at him every time.   They check into a bed and breakfast in Inverness where Claire bounces on the creaky bed in their bedroom as a joke, coaxing Frank to join her.  The innkeeper smiles indulgently when the ceiling light fixture shakes back and forth.

Claire was raised by an eccentric uncle who was an archeologist, so she grew up unconventionally at digs.  Her hobby is botany which keeps her busy while Frank pursues his interest in genealogy.  He is excited to visit a local point of interest, Castle Leoch, although only a ruin remains, because he knows his ancestor was in the area.  Claire seduces Frank in what’s left of the castle basement by revealing she is not wearing undergarments: I guess Claire really must be intrepid because the likelihood of vermin would have prevented me from entering the remains, and I would not have advised lingering for sexy time with Frank.  I suppose the producer is trying to show that there is chemistry between Frank and Claire, even if they don’t seem to have much in common.

Frank has a local acquaintance, Reverend Wakefield, who shares his love of Scottish lore.  Frank and Claire have been invited over to talk Jacobite history, and when Frank starts going on and on about his ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall again, Claire (indulgent but bored) is rescued by the housekeeper, who gives her tea in the kitchen and reads the tea leaves.  Claire jokes about the clich├ęd tall dark stranger usually promised in such fortunes but Mrs. Graham seems perplexed as she looks at Claire’s tea leaves and then at her hand.  She tells Claire her hand has a pattern she has never seen, that she is strong willed, passionate, and her marriage line is divided (which means two marriages) and forked.  Claire smiles but she is a bit weirded out.

Claire tells the men she is going to go back to the B&B and mentions she heard the barman call her Sassenach.  Reverend Wakefield says it means Englishman or Outlander, and she should not be offended.  Frank lingers at the vicarage and when he returns to the B&B, he sees a Scotsman in a kilt standing outside in the rain, watching Claire brush her hair through her window.  When he asks if he can help, the man disappears.  Frank is puzzled, and wonders if he had too much whisky at the vicarage (sounds like a book title).  He is also suspicious and shaken by the man’s seeming disappearance.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” says Claire.  He asks Claire if she nursed a lot of Scots during the war.  “Lots,” Claire says happily, until she realizes Frank is trying to imply something improper.  Frank says he thought the man must be a former patient come to reconnect with her, and that it wouldn’t be surprising if she had strayed while they were apart. Claire is furious that Frank thinks she was unfaithful (she obviously had chances but withstood temptation) to him.  Frank says it would make no difference: “I love you, and nothing you could ever do could stop my loving you.  Forgive me.” They make up passionately in bed but I am still offended on her behalf.  Claire’s voiceover observes that sex is their best way of communicating.   As Frank falls asleep, he tells Claire they are going to get up early to attend a pagan festival.  Good second honeymoon activity, right?

The festival is too dark to see but there are torches and pale faces moving about in strange patterns.  The vicar’s housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, is one of the participants.  At dawn, we see the standing stones, which Frank and Claire inspect with interest.  When one of the dancers returns to the stones, they retreat discreetly.

Claire decides to return the next morning in search of a blue flower she had noticed growing at the base of a standing stone, and leaves Frank asleep.  As she kneels by the stone, there is a strange roaring sound.  When she moves closer to the stone, she is snatched into complete darkness.  And here we go!

When Claire emerges from the darkness, she is still by the stones (and still wearing a very impractical white dress (a pity the Brits don’t celebrate Labor Day or perhaps she would have known better)).   As Claire points out, when confronted with the impossible the rational mind gropes for the logical.  Like all time travelers (say I knowledgeably), Claire wonders if she has wandered onto a movie set where a costume drama is being filmed.  She stumbles about in a bewildered way until she hears a gunshot and sees soldiers. CLUE!  Shocked, she loses her footing and rolls down the hill.   Fleeing from the live ammunition, she meanders through the woods where she comes upon an English soldier by a stream.  Stunned by the man’s resemblance to Frank, she stammers his name, but realizes right away he is not Frank.  “Who the bloody hell are you?” she demands.   He introduces himself as Jonathan Randall, Esquire, Captain of Dragoons, if you please.  Randall is the English commander of Fort William, with responsibility for keeping the local Scots in their place.    

Of course, Claire instantly recognizes the name as Frank’s ancestor, and instinctively tries to get away, saying her husband will be looking for her.   Suspicious, Randall pursues and easily captures her, demanding to know her husband’s name.   Realizing he will be even more suspicious if she says her name is Randall, she provides her maiden name of Beauchamp, but Randall is not mollified.  He suspects her of being a spy or a whore (which is worse?) and decides to rape her because he is that kind of guy.  This is the first of many sexual assaults on Claire.  
 

Luckily, in the nick of time, she is rescued by a mysterious stranger and carried away on his horse.   For all Claire knows, he could be equally as vile as Captain Randall but, in fact, her savior is Murtagh, part of a group of somewhat uncouth Highlanders who know and dislike Randall.  The men cackle at her skimpy clothing but their leader says they’ll deal with her later.   He is concerned about the condition of Jamie, one of his men.  Although wondering how to escape and knowing she should keep a low profile, Claire can’t help intervening when the men are about to apply some rough cure to young Jamie.   Recognizing that his shoulder is separated, she insists on popping it back into the joint herself.   Our long-awaited glimpse of Jamie is in the half-light of the fire but he looks appealing from the first, even in acute pain.   “Thank ‘ee,” he gasps.  Despite the practical nature of her assistance, there is opportunity for them to gaze into each other’s eyes and special music begins playing not-so-subtly.   Claire gives him sensible, nurse-like advice about his recovery, which Jamie will not have the luxury of following because they set forth on horseback at once.   First, however, Claire looks about and can’t see the lights of Inverness in the distance.  Jamie says she’s looking straight at Inverness.   That is when Claire realizes she is no longer in the 20th century, although she doesn't immediately know it is 1743.  The Highland chief threatens to kill her if she makes a sound and boosts her up in front of Jamie, who gallantly wraps his plaid around her, telling her they’ll be riding all night.

As dawn breaks, Claire recognizes a rock (cliff) that Frank had told her the English used for ambushes and tells Jamie.  Taking her seriously, Jamie passes along her warning to the chief. He is skeptical of her knowledge but doesn’t want to take any chances in case the English are waiting.   The men prepare for battle and Claire is dumped unceremoniously off Jamie’s horse.  She tries to escape through the woods although she has no idea where she is going but Jamie finds her after the fight.  He is covered with blood and looks very dangerous, although he says the blood isn’t his.  He drags Claire along with him saying, “Dougal and the others are waiting.”  When they rejoin the group, Dougal says he doesn’t know how she knew about the ambush, but the men are glad to have won the skirmish with the English and pass around a flask.   Jamie politely offers Claire the flask, saying it will help her forget she is hungry.   

They continue to ride through the night until Jamie collapses, falling off his horse.  Claire calls for help and tends to Jamie’s gunshot wound, asking the men for something to disinfect the wound.  “Disinfect? Germs? Iodine?” the men echo blankly.  In desperation, she asks for alcohol and they sigh with relief – finally, something they understand although they doubtless feel it’s a waste to pour it on Jamie’s wound.  Claire has picked up some expressive curses while nursing and the Scots are shocked by her outspokenness.   She tells Dougal that Jamie needs to rest but he says they must be off soon. “Thank you, Sassenach,” Jamie says, using the epithet for the first time.     Jamie explains that Captain Randall will be after them and Claire is surprised Jamie knows the English officer.  She gets back on the horse and as the sun comes up she sees Castle Leoch in its magnificence, not the ruin she saw in the 20th century with Frank. 
The episode ends with another voiceover from Claire, “So far I’ve been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped, and nearly raped.  And somehow I knew my journey had just begun.”

What’s Important About This Episode:

  • Catriona Balfe, the actress who won the part of Claire Randall, didn’t initially seem like my vision of Claire – she seemed too thin and not sufficiently sarcastic, but she grew on me as the season went on and now I am completely convinced she was the right choice.
  • The series is scored by a musician named Bear McCreary.  I had never heard of him but he apparently worked on Battlestar Galactica with producer Ron Moore.  The music was delightful and, for the most part, unobtrusive.  It is jazzy and mid-20th-sounding century when Claire is in the present or when there are flashbacks, but haunting and Celtic in the 18th century.
  • A lot happened in the first episode so there wasn’t much time to sit back and enjoy the scenery but it was amazing.  I watched Episode 1 again with my mother and yearned to visit Scotland (and Scotland's tourism board is eager to welcome us all).
  • I have reread the book many times since the first time more than 20 years ago and the adaptation is very faithful.  It is very exciting to see/hear it all come to life, and must be beyond amazing for Diana Gabaldon.
  • I wondered if those watching who hadn’t read the books expected Claire’s rescuer from Randall’s assault to be the hero instead of dour Murtagh.  It seemed as if we waited a long time into the episode for Jamie to appear but they packed a lot into one hour!  I can’t imagine anyone could have been dissatisfied with the first episode (except my brother who was startled by the explicit sex and said, “You let Mother read these books?”).
Images copyright to Starz