Year of Wonders – A Novel of the Plague

Last year, I sort of combined two different reading challenges  – one from Emily, encouraging us to read through several select books  from our to be read piles and one from Andi, called the Reading in Order challenge, which encouraged us to order our to be read piles in such a way as to just start tackling them, whether it was by bookshelf, by room, by nightstand…anyway, I brought these two challenges together, referred to them as my From the Stacks Challenge, and commenced reading.  I didn’t spend the year solely reading from my own stacks…I alternated between the challenge, checking out books from the library and purchasing new books but even with that approach, I managed to make a sizable dent in my to be read pile and decided to continue the challenge this year, which brings me to Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

I know I ordered this book some time ago based on a book blogger’s review – sadly, I can’t remember which blogger recommended it (if it was you, please take credit)! I have to admit, when it came time for me to tackle Year of Wonders I found myself a bit nervous…I had already quit one book this year (more on that, later) and I somehow managed to convince myself that Brook’s novel would be dull and fail to keep my admittedly (these days) scattered attention. Still, in the interest of fairness to the challenge, I cracked the cover, and I am so glad I did. I can’t recommend Year of Wonders highly enough.

The idea for the book is inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in England, that was decimated in 1666 by the plague. The story is narrated by the character Anna, who tells the story of the plague year as her fellow villagers, convinced by their town minister, elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease.   Anna works in the rectory, waiting on the minister and his wife, Elinor, and as the plague moves through the village she narrates the events and the reactions of her townspeople even as her own character strengthens and grows in the face of  overwhelming tragedy. 

With its evocation of Puritan times and threads of witch craft woven throughout, this book reminded me ever-so-slightly of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, one of my favorite plays of all time (I once played Elizabeth Proctor – one of my favorite parts of all time, too).  I thought the evolution of Anna’s character was exceptionally well done, and I was especially impressed with how well-drawn her relationship to the minister and his wife was – Brooks did a wonderful job of describing the intimacies, jealousies and other complexities that can crop up in friendships. I don’t want to give the ending away but for me it was particularly wonderful, a magical-but-believable conclusion to a year of wonders.

Here is a short excerpt from the book  – I have a question about one of the upcoming books in my From the Stacks challenge that I will pose at the conclusion of this post.

I was used to being shocked by Anys, but this time she had managed to outdo even herself, delivering t wo scandalizing thoughts in a single utterance.  The first shock was her frank blasphemy. The second was the familiarity with which she referred to Mr. Viccars, whom I had never yet called by his first name.  On what terms of intimacy had they been, that she should call him so? My suspicions were only heightneend when, after rummaging through the whisket in which he kept his work, we foudn the dress he made for her. For all the years of my childhood, when the Puritans held sway here, we wore for our outer garments only what they called the Sadd Colors – black for preference, or the dark brown called dying Leaf.  Since the return of the the king, brighter hues had crept back to most wardrobes, but long habit still constrained the choices of most of us. Not Anys.  She had bespoke a gown of a scarlet so vivid it almost hurt my eyes…

“Mr. Viccars told me to burn his work for fear of spreading his contagion,” I said, swallong hard to ease the tightness in my throat.

“You shall do no such thing!” she exclaimed, and I f oresaw in her dismay the difficulty I would have with his clients.

And now for my question…I generally have trouble getting excited about the books in my TBR piles – I am guessing this is because they don’t seem as shinyand new as books I could purchase or check out from the library…instead of being “whim” readings they just hang around, reminders of old inspiration or desire.  One of the books that is coming up fairly quickly is The French Lieutenant’s Woman…I bought it at a library sale in my hometown YEARS ago upon the advice of an old history teacher who I ran into at the sale.  I probably should have just started it without reading anything about it but now that I have read some about it, well…I find it daunting. Anyone with any experience with this book? Is it a must-read? Or should I skip it and donate it to one of the many books sales we have in my work place? The whole idea of the author interrupting his own work has me put off, I must admit…thoughts?

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6 Responses to Year of Wonders – A Novel of the Plague

  1. shoreacres says:

    I started The French Lieutenant’s Woman years ago, in the days when I didn’t write and didn’t “read” but would pick up books for airline flights and such. Everything was fine until I got to the complexities at the end.

    For some reason, I really resented the shenanigans. I felt as though Fowles was amusing himself, saying all the while, “See how clever I am?” I never finished the book. 😉

  2. litlove says:

    Oh, I adored The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and actually loved the ending.It was one of my best books in the year that I read it. I also mean to read Geraldine Brooks as I’ve heard only good things about her (including your wonderful review here). I have her other novel to read, whose name of course escapes me now while I am typing. Oh is it Book of Wonders? Something like that, anyway. Must get to it!

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    I read the Fowles novel in grad school and I liked it. It’s not a book to be intimidated by; mostly it’s just a good story. I read the Brooks novel and really liked it too; I thought I might have posted on it, but I can’t the post if I did!

  4. Shoreacres – it’s definitely the shenangians I am mostly concerned about – I wish I just would have dived into the book without reading about it first!

    Litlove – I think her new book is Book of People? I just read a review and it sounds amazing…added to the tbr list. And I have loved every book you have ever recommended that I’ve read so I am not going to fear the French Lieutenant’s Woman!

    Dorothy – thanks for the thoughts. I will definitely be tackling it this year and will blog about it either way. Scarily enough, I have two Franzen novels before it’s Fowle’s turn…

  5. smithereens says:

    I loved Geraldine Brooks’ novel (would also recommend her “March”) and of course loved the French Lieutnant’s movie years ago (but I was scared by the book). Enjoy!

  6. Emily Barton says:

    I’ve never read The French Liutenant’s Woman, so I can’t recommend one way or the other, although my guess (like yours) is that if Litlove loved it, it’s probably well worth reading. I haven’t read any Geraldine Brooks, either, although I’ve been wanting to read both March and People of the Book for a long time. I guess now I also need to add Year of Wonders. Oh well, with so many, that means I’m bound to find at least one of hers on the shelf next time I’m at the library, right?

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