Welcome to the first installment of a new series within the LA Book Examiner medley - Throwback Thursday reviews! Every Thursday, I'll be discussing a book published before 1990. Any time before 1990. We'll get some "golden oldies," maybe deal with those books that are more like those elderly relatives you sit patiently and vaguely listen to while they ramble on mostly incoherently. We'll touch on some stately classics, gawk at the founding members of literary trends, and maybe blow the dust off of some tombs hiding back in the darkness.
I think it'll be splendid.
So, for our first Throwback Thursday book, we've got The Story of Avis by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, published in 1877.
Now, I'm no stranger to Victorian literature. I've certainly read more pages of Victorian novels than textbooks, and piece-wise the amount of 19th century books I've stacked on my mental shelves in bulk rivals that of my favorite combo genre, sci-fi/fantasy. So, needless to say, I approached The Story of Avis with some expectations on framework and style in mind.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps completely blew them away. Her book held no quaint Dickensian word count-vomit or Wilkie Collins ceremonial stiffness. Phelps's prose is gorgeous. It's interesting, innovative without being unnecessarily complex, and undeniable beautiful without resorting to obscure word usage to attempt to be so.
Phelps's story has depth. The book chronicles the life of Avis, a young woman aspiring to be an artist who must battle between her love for a man and the damnation to self-erasing housewifery it would shackle on her and the rejection of a burgeoning desire in her in order to solidify her nature into a rock-hard resolve that will not consent to let an outer life destroy her inner artistic cravings. Essentially, the book is a work of art by a female literary artist about another female artist and the conflicts that arise from attempting to stay true to her works of art. What's more, Phelps uses the language of an artist to describe Avis and to generally narrate the work. The book is steeped in the meaning and thought of what it is to live as an artistic mind.
Phelps also does an astounding job at writing believable, fleshed-out characters. Avis and her literary colleagues are no mere mechanical analogs in a greater moral fable. Phelps writes about a problem of her time, yes, but she writes about that problem as it is for people, not idealist molds. Phelps is under no misconception that said dynamic of problem and people is completely black-and-white, either; no, Phelps uses the entire set of grey tones in her palette when casting her textual image.
Phelps's image is quite the masterpiece, too! Her novel equally breathes life into your soul and tears a cavern in it for the experiences of her characters. Multiple times, I had to stop mid-page so that I could share an awe-inspiringly good quote, or because I'd been too emotionally destabilized on behest of a character. Readers beware - opening this book is not merely an exercise for your mind; an exposed leaf becomes a socket that will hold fast to outlet plug extending from your soul.
To engage, however, is infinitely worth it.
You can purchase your own copy of The Story of Avis by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps here: