Author: Sharon Dogar
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Biographical novel
Publisher: Andersen Press
Publication date: 2019
I was first introduced to Mary Shelley in school, when I came across her most famous novel, Frankenstein. Her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote a poem that was a part of my English textbook, and the first time I was taught the concept of ‘onomatopoeia’. I think it’s been more than ten years since I read either work, and have very little recollection of how I felt about them, other than the light bulb moment I had when I realised that Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley were, in fact, married.
Coming to this particular book – I’ve had this book in my library for a year and half now, and recently decided to read through all my hardbound books first, in order to reduce the space being occupied by my bedside table. I’d read a few pages when I’d first received the book, but closed it almost immediately, realising it would be a long read, and I hadn’t the time back then.
This book follows the life of Mary Shelley née Wollstonecraft Godwin, from the age of 16, and starts some time before her fateful meeting with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man she – along with her stepsister Jane (later Claire) – runs away with. The narrative follows their trials, their ideals and philosophies, and their struggle to live their authentic lives, their truths, all the while battling the rigid standards and expectations of society.
I’m past the 200 page mark in this 451 page novel, and there are parts of this novel I like, and others that I don’t. So let’s talk a bit about both.
Coming to the parts that I like: This book has an excellent narrative, that carries you from once incident to the next. The pacing takes its time to accommodate all the situations that Mary, Percy and Jane/Claire go through, and brings the story to the reader from different perspectives.
Another thing that I really like that is the characters are kept authentic and complex – they don’t have a sudden realisation of their foibles or become self-aware. The narrative isn’t biased in any one way, neither on the part of the author, nor on the part of the characters. Everyone in the story does as they please, without the subconscious knowledge of how their actions affect others – as they would in real life. Although the characters’ lives revolve around Mary and Percy’s actions, everyone – including Mary and Percy – maintain their individuality and their ego.
And that very ego is what I, ironically enough, did not like about the story as well.
Nobody in this story seems to stop to think about the consequences of their actions on themselves, or on those dependent on them – Percy doesn’t think about Harriet, his first wife, his children from that marriage, or even Mary and Claire, the people he runs away with; Mary, during her declaration against sugar and while sticking to her ideals, doesn’t think about the effect it has towards her growing unborn child; Claire, thankfully, doesn’t have anyone dependent on her to consider, but her disregard for the mother who loved her dearly is quite dismaying.
Everyone wants to be living for their ideals, but nobody seems to be able to accept what it means to live for one ideals until the consequences are thrust upon them – being ostracized, being penniless, starving and living from meal to meal. And no two people can agree on what these ‘universal’ ideals are supposed to be, since everyone interprets them for their own benefit. Percy, who got Mary and Claire to run away with him, cannot understand Mary’s views nor can he accept Claire’s interpretation on the ideals they wish to spread throughout society, which makes me, as the reader, really confused.
Another thing that I didn’t like about this book – which mildly irked me throughout the 200 odd pages I’ve read – is how the story is more of these ideals, and less of what is happening. I do understand how this book – and these characters – is/are driven by ideals, but when a third of what I’ve read so far feels more like a treatise and less of a story, I find it difficult to concentrate and to nog feel like I’m having all these ideas thrust upon me.
The last thing – or person – I didn’t like was Mary herself. It’s easy to understand where she’s coming from, and even sympathise or empathise with her – but it’s difficult to like her. Maybe that’s how she was, or that’s how she was intended to be, but it’s honestly quite annoying, after a point, to have her seethe, moan, snap, fume, and generally be a brat to the people around her, just because they don’t fit her ideals by way of thought or action. She is self-absorbed, expects the world to revolve around her and fall into place based on her ever-changing likes and dislikes, and when that doesn’t happen, takes her anger out on the few people who try to be good to her.
Her present is overpowered by her past – her mother’s death after her birth, her inability to accept her stepmother as a person in her own right and instead making her into a monster who stole her father, and her father’s own absolute rejection of her – and her inability to accept things and difficulty in letting go of her idea of what people should be like make it near impossible to root for her. Liking someone without character development over the 200+ pages that I’ve read becomes difficult, but then I remind myself – she’s a 16 year old kid who ran away with a good looking older man because she was seduced by his ideals, and became pregnant while dealing with the most hardship she’s ever dealt with, both in terms of her circumstances, and the man that she married.
As far as Percy is concerned, I’d like to quote Mary’s father here –
“… How can you be so sure he respects you and will go on doing so when he shows so little respect to his current wife and child?”
Thus summing up the brunt of Percy’s relationship with the women in his life – being Harriet, Mary and Claire, so far. He likes women, but more than that, lives for the singular attention he receives from the women he ‘rescues’ from a life of servitude, but cannot bear his women to shift their attention from him to his own children. Frankly, dude’s an A-grade ass.
This book is more like real life, with its complexities, intricacies and the fact that no one is obligated to like you just because you’re the main character of your book. And honestly, I salute the real Mary Shelley, for being able to live life the way she wanted to – authentically and fully – and serving as an example of a woman who was way too ahead of her time. Even two centuries later, we as a society still fail to live up to her ideals, but not for a lack of trying.
Would I recommend this book? I don’t really know, to be frank. This book is honest, and doesn’t care if you like it or not, because it will narrate the story it has come here to narrate, and that’s exactly what it does. In order to determine whether I like this book or not, I’ll keep reading on.
First Impressions: Excellent narration. Mary isn’t here to play nice. Really good philosophical arguments, but soon begin to grow repetitive.
My recommendation: If you’re into slow paced narratives, then this book will keep you hooked. If you want to know specifically about Mary Shelley’s life and don’t have a lot of patience or time, then you can read up about it by googling it.