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31 July 2015

[book review] Viper Wine

"Venetia Stanley was the great beauty of her day, so dazzling she inspired Ben Jonson to poetry and Van Dyck to painting. But now she is married, the adoration to which she has become accustomed has curdled to scrutiny, and she fears her powers are waning. Her devoted husband, Sir Kenelm Digby—explorer, diplomat, philosopher, alchemist— refuses to prepare a beauty tonic for her, insisting on her continued perfection.

Venetia, growing desperate, secretly engages an apothecary to sell her “viper wine”—a strange potion said to bolster the blood and invigorate the skin.  The results are instant, glorious, and addictive, and soon the ladies of the court of Charles I are looking unnaturally youthful. But there is a terrible price to be paid, as science clashes with magic, puritans rebel against the decadent monarchy, and England slides into civil war.

Based on real events and written with anachronistic verve, Viper Wine is an intoxicating brew of love, longing and vanity, where the 17th and 21st centuries mix and mingle in the most enchanting and mind-bending ways."

This book has the potential to address the ways vanity and the exultation of youth corrupt the human mind and rot our social structures from inside the individuals. - 12 May 2015

Clearly, it took me a loooooong time to get through halfway through this book.
I'm still not done with it, really. I've written my review based on what I've read so far, and I feel free now to read it at a more leisurely pace.

More leisurely than taking two months to read 200 75 pages? Yes.

I haven't been able to read much this summer, and this book takes more energy than I've had anyway. It's not for the lighthearted.

You may have noticed that I haven't written much either.

I took a hiatus from my computer.

I'm probably back. Mostly.


My review of Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre follows:

My first thought, after reading the description of the book, was that Viper Wine had the potential to make a powerful statement about the social and psychological damage done by the beauty standard. The false value of aesthetic beauty, the judgment of worth by beauty, the patriarchal grading of women by their relative beauty, the competition that arises and demands unnatural measures to achieve "beauty" - all of these damage ourselves and our society, and this book could show us how.
 I looked at the table of contents. The chapter titles sounded like short stories ("A Discourse Between Brothers") or poems ("Moonbeams Are Cold and Moist"). The include modern pop culture references ("Fame" and "Yellow Submarine"). Together, they hinted at a poetic, ornate, satirically flowery style of writing. They were right.

 There is a prologue, and Epilogue, and 38 chapters. There are about 400 pages of text. Large pages. There is also a Bibliography (selected), and a list of illustrations. This surprised me. I mean, yeah, it says it's based on real events, but that phrase gets tossed about quite a lot with very little research to back it up. Not so in this case. Perhaps it's because this novel, this fictionalization, was written by a journalist. But frankly, calling Hermione Eyre (surely that's a pen name?) a journalist after reading any of this book at all, feels so incomplete as to be false. This woman is an Author. She has crafted what is perhaps a masterpiece.

 I took a peek at the author photo on the back flap, curious about the face that made Viper Wine. The woman in the photo challenges the viewer and does not seem above leaping out of the photo for a fist fight - if only to place bets on the winner.

 I wondered, before beginning the journey that has been Reading The Book, whether there could be a connection between the ornate writing style and the theme of social beauty concepts, especially in the damage those concepts do; is the writing style another layer of satire? Now that I'm halfway into the book, I feel it must be intentional. Whatever the case, it works.

 Seriously, don't let the ornate style turn you away before giving this book a try. It isn't over the top, and somehow it manages to not be pretentious. The story is woven by its prose. Every thread is important. Every word addresses the characters in the most human terms and stabs at the modern feminist's foes. The text describes the patriarchy without subscribing to it. If nothing else, this story is a feminist victory.

In the end, I ranked this book at four stars instead of five only because it is not broadly accessible; the average reader will have difficulty with some of the style devices - both the overall ornateness and the insertion of radio static (no really; I don't know how else to describe it), which is original and interesting, but hard to 'get' at first. 

(I ranked the back cover copy fairly low because books that only list their praise on the back annoy me. Give me a reason to open it, not sound bites.)