Helen Fielding, Arturo Pérez-Reverte (trans. Sonia Soto), Stendhal (trans. Richard Howard), Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, Kate Ross, Diana Wynne Jones

The following books were read from January to March 2006.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding: I’ve seen Bridget Jones referenced obliquely so many times—in magazine articles, in the Very Secret Diaries, in passing conversations—that reading the actual book was somewhat of an anticlimax. I suppose it also didn’t help that I had watched the movie with Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth before I ever read the book. It was a light-hearted and enjoyable read but somehow unexciting. I suppose the problem is that I don’t think—or write—like Bridget at all, so the book’s appeal to me was more a matter of anthropological curiosity than any sense of identification.

The Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (trans. Sonia Soto): Sometimes a book is so perfectly fitted to one’s tastes that discovering it feels almost like an astrological convergence, an incredible coincidence and yet also an act of fate. Excuse my melodrama. I came across this book while combing the fiction shelves of the small bookstore at LAX, where I had been waiting several hours for my flight back to Boston. (I arrived at the airport at half past two in the afternoon, and the flight was scheduled for nine that evening.) I wonder if I would have ever come across the book otherwise and am thankful that I did. How could there be a book more custom-tailored to my guilty pleasures? The combination of Dumas and The Three Musketeers (a book that I had near memorized when I was ten), neurotic bibliophiles and book-forgers, an intriguing mystery with a cynical sleuth, occult rituals, a suspenseful plot, an unreliable and probably egomaniacal narrator…what more could I ask for? In fact, the neurotic bibliophilia alone would have been enough to appeal to me; in the end, this book for me was a book about the inseparable dangers and pleasures of reading. I am still not sure what exactly the girl was supposed to be—I suspect Pérez-Reverte may have been a little too ambitious in his storytelling since that plotline was resolved rather sloppily—but I adored the major plot twist in the book and the fanaticism of the characters. To love a book is to let it possess you.

The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal (trans. Richard Howard): There are two elements to The Charterhouse of Parma that make it such an enjoyable book. First, of course, is the romance. Not only romance in the sense of the forbidden love affair that is the crux of the story, but also the romance of youthful and impetuous idealism, a rosy-colored vision of the world where men are brave and gallant, love is always true, and heroes and heroines remain picturesque even in tragedy. Think Italy. Think Napoleon. The other element of course, which makes this novel something more than a romance, is Stendhal’s French skepticism and deft ironic commentary on the story. Against Fabrizio’s dreams of valiant battle, you have the absurd reality of getting lost in the middle of the battle and being taken for an enemy by the very soldiers he came to aid. Side by side with Fabrizio’s amorous adventures in Parma, you have Count Mosca and Duchess Sanseverina maneuvering for for political dominance at the Prince’s court, an exercise that revolves around the careful flattery of the monarch’s ego. Stendhal is not contemptuous but he does write condescendingly of the Italians, who are quick to emotion and far too caught up in their romanticism. (The French of course are too cynical and sophisticated to embarrass themselves in such a fashion.) His narrative voice is essential to this novel; ironically, it makes Fabrizio and Clelia’s love story seem more poignant and pure.

The Grand Tour, or The Purloined Coronation Regalia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer: I think the letter format in Sorcery and Cecelia was more engaging than the diary entries and testimony in this sequel. But it was charming to see the four interacting. There is less prickliness and almost a sort of sweetness between Kate and Thomas…Cecelia however retains a matter-of-fact pragmatism. I read a review of the first book that criticized the two authors for giving their narrators such similar voices, and I have to acknowledge that the two are much more distinguishable in the sequel than they were before. Kate is more obviously insecure, while Cecelia is confident about everything. I must admit that I had no idea which author had written which character until I read this book.

The Devil in Music, by Kate Ross: Maybe it’s because I read this last book a month later than the first three, or perhaps it’s a function of the setting, but The Devil in Music seems to stand apart from the rest of the series. We are given more to the story and yet not enough, we hear more about Julian’s past than ever before, there are politics and music involved, and most of all, Julian is in Italy, not England. I’m glad I read The Charterhouse of Parma before this book because I had a better sense for the passions of the place. Julian falls in love more intensely than he does in previous novels (which may be why the emotion seems more convincing). The novel is more interesting for the music (and the Carbonaro conspiracies) than the mystery itself. All the new characters are vivid and fascinating, and I was particularly moved by the story of Valeriano, the castrato singer.

Conrad’s Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones: Chrestomanci is such an insufferable teenager, but he is still my favorite part of this book. I don’t know whether it was because I was reading the text on-screen rather than in print, but I found the pacing more uneven than usual. The usual untangling of the plot as all is revealed at the end felt more rushed than ever, and truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested by Conrad as a character. He was a bit nebulous, I thought. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say the book was unsatisfying, but it felt like a permutation of previous storylines, which I found odd because DWJ likes to try out new things. The real highlight of the book was seeing Christopher before he actually became Chrestomanci and also getting a glimpse of his relationship with Millie. Prior to this book, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to attempt Chrestomanci fanfiction, but now I have a better handle on his character.