Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review - Suzanne Fagence Cooper's Effie

Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: May 1st, 2010
Format: Paperback, 288 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

"Years and years ago, my grandmother took me to an off-off-Broadway play about Effie Ruskin’s love affair with John Everett Millais. It was rather odd viewing for a ten year old, but it stuck with me somehow. I can still remember the red plush seats of the theatre and the Victorian parlor set on stage.

I hadn’t realized quite how much it had stuck with me until my editor asked me, after The Ashford Affair, what the next book was going to be, and I found myself burbling, “I want to write a book about a love affair between an unhappily married Victorian woman and a Preraphaelite artist.” My heroine is very different from Effie—and my hero, Gavin Thorne, was based more on William Holman Hunt than on Millais—but Ruskin was certainly a major influence on the character of my heroine’s husband." - Lauren Willig

Effie Grey thought that in marrying the erudite author and art critic John Ruskin that she was entering a life of parties and soirees peopled by the elite of London. Instead this young Scotch girl entered a loveless marriage where she was repeatedly berated and belittled not just by her husband but by her in-laws as well. She suffered through six years of daily horrors but was willing to accept her fate because it was the life she had chosen. But then John Everett Millais showed up in her life. They had once met at a dance years ago, before their lives took different paths, a meeting Millais remembered well. Those paths would converge when Ruskin took Millais under his wing. The two men working together and even vacationing together meant the young Effie and Everett where often thrown together, perhaps by Ruskin's doing, and love soon stirred in their hearts. Effie had the grounds to do something unheard of in Victorian England. Effie could leave Ruskin because their marriage was unconsummated and therefore was not a real marriage at all. With Everett's encouragement, she took this unheard of step to reclaim her life. But in trading one man for another, was Effie able to get what she wanted or was she stifled yet again? 

There are two ways in which this biography could have worked. One would have been to write more in the style of Philippa Gregory and make it a fictionalized biography though as thoroughly based in fact as possible. The other would have been to go more scholarly and linger on details and events. Instead Effie is a book that leaves you wondering why you are reading a book obviously dumbed down for the masses. At times the writing style shifts into a conversational conspiratorial style only to be followed up with dull facts and figures. I just wanted to shake the author and tell her to pick a style, any style. This mishmash of styles gave me extreme dissatisfaction and at times annoyed me to the point of wanting to throw the book. I've read my fair share of art history books and biographies but I don't think I've ever been this bored and frustrated by a book that combines two passions of mine.

At a little over two hundred pages, minus all the appendices, Suzanne Fagence Cooper has written little more then a fleshed out outline for a book. I got no sense of the three people one who this book hinges. In fact, Ruskin, Millais, and Effie, seemed nothing more then cardboard cut outs that occasionally mimicked Victorian stereotypes, but usually remained two dimensional. I'm sorry but two dimensional characters can not, by definition, have passion, so right there the title of the book is wrong. There's a part of me that just wishes to rewrite this whole book. Cooper had unheard of access to documents that have never been seen and the soapy miniseries Desperate Romantics did a better job of making these people flesh and blood in their minimal screen time then a scholar whose life is the Pre-Raphaelites. The fact that the secondary family members and friends were far more interesting then the subjects of the book is a sign that your book isn't working, just so you know for future reference.

But it's not just the writing style that is irksome. The structure of the book is such that I have a feeling I plot out my book reviews more then the author did this book. She relied too much on the gimmickry of using Millais artwork as chapter headings, work that is not included in the book, but more on that later, then bothering to realize her timeline was fucked. There is no way to capture her structure then by saying it's wibbly wobbly timey wimey. I get why Cooper starts out with a little flash forward to Effie leaving Ruskin, because it gives the beginning of the book a thrust, an event, a crisis we are building to. We only cover twenty-seven years in the first eight chapters, most of those concentrating on the six to seven years of Ruskin and Effie together, leaving us five chapters to cover the remaining forty-two years of her life, of which two chapters don't even deal with Effie, the supposed topic of this book. And it's these remaining five chapters I have the most issue with. They jump around and go forwards and backwards over events from different points of view and at different times. I have no freakin' idea of a coherent timeline of events in Effie's life other then she had tons of children. If there was just some through line, some way to sort things out into order instead of writing in such a way that it feels like Cooper forgot to tell part of her story and instead of going back and adding it in in the appropriate spot, she just wrote it into the section of the book she was on even if it made no sense, then I might have at least come to grips with the book.

Adding to the issues of the book making no sense is the fact that Effie and Millais really had too many children, and Effie too many siblings, and couple that with the propensity for using the same names in different branches of the family and you are at sea. Not to mention all the children had nicknames and while Cooper claims she will use the same naming conventions throughout the book, she does not, not that this is a surprise given the grammatical errors and the abysmal mess that is the appendices. I hope she knows there are standards for appendices, you can't sight something differently each time... which ties back in with the naming issues. Effie's eldest daughter is Effie... yep, this wasn't fun, because Cooper would quite often forget to say Effie the younger and so, who knows which Effie was which. There reached a point pretty early on when I realized I didn't care. Also, the multiple Everetts, the eldest son's nickname being Evie, which, when you are reading fast, as you do with books you are growing more and more in hate with and longing for the time when you can write a scathing review, well, it too reads like Effie. But again, what does this all matter. All these people, all their lives, I couldn't care less about any of them as they are portrayed by Cooper.

Now I must finally vent on a personal pet peeve. Graphics! I'll first just state I hate this cover with a passion. You have one of the greatest painters of ALL TIME as your subject and he painted his wife quite often and you have a crappy stock photo of a girl with ill fitting gloves. If there's one thing I learned, Effie loved her clothes and those gloves wouldn't do. Are you trying to appeal to the common demographic who you might lure to see the upcoming movie by making it look not about art? Cause right there, you're pissing me off with underestimating me, but then again, the book was written at such a basic level, perhaps the people who this book appeals to will find it fascinating, ie, not me. Yet this little cover rant isn't my main issue. My main issue is that when you have a book about artwork you MUST include pictures of ALL THE WORK! Yes, there are some pieces featured, but Cooper goes into great detail annoyingly waxing her own views on Millais' work only to not have the work included in the book. You talk about it, we have the right to see it. You can't get printing rights or some other snafu that doesn't let you include the art, you omit that section wherein you tried to color my views of the work with yours. Here's an idea lady, you go off and write your bland pap for the unwashed masses who hope to seem educated in picking up this paltry tome, and I'll avoid you and read fascinating works by real scholars.


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