Friday, July 13, 2018

Book Review - Rebecca Rosenberg's The Secret Life of Mrs. London

The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: January 30th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 348 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Charmain London loves her husband Jack, the famous author, but sometimes their marriage feels like a boxing match both literally and figuratively. He longs to be surrounded by his comrades and friends while he holds court at his agrarian utopia, Beauty Ranch, while Charmain, his Mate-Woman, longs to be alone with him. She longs to share the same bed, feel his arms around her, but instead he uses his mate as he sees fit, even if it's fodder for his new book, The Little Lady of the Big House. He seems to be pushing her into the arms of their friend Lawrence all for his narrative needs. But when Charmain finally succumbs their world comes crashing down. Because that's the night that she not only betrayed her husband, but the night Wolf House, Jack's dream home, the monument to his success, what they had scrimped and saved and slaved for for years burned to the ground. Did Jack set the fire himself realizing what he drove his wife to? Or did Lawrence set the fire because he knew Charmain would never be his for more than a few moments? All this and more hangs over the couple when someone new enters their life. One night they go to see Houdini perform in San Francisco and Charmain is brought on stage to assist Houdini and his with Bess with their "Metamorphosis" act. Afterwards the two couples go out for dinner and Charmain and Bessie form a friendship over the struggles of loving men who are larger than life. Their friendship just begun must soon be tried as Jack's ill health returns and Charmain decides to take him to Hawaii, where they were happiest. Hopefully the magic will return to their marriage. Only she can't help thinking of another magic man... Houdini has worked his way into her heart and he will be there for her when she needs him most. But is it right to fall for her friend's husband? And who is she without Jack?

There are certain shared experiences that everyone connects to. A historical event you remember, a book you read, a movie you saw. These events make up our collective unconscious. Let's take The Call of the Wild. Every schoolkid growing up in America has in all likelihood read Jack London's The Call of the Wild or White Fang. In fact they're probably the only books your teachers made you read that you rather enjoyed. For me it was The Call of the Wild in seventh grade and I can still remember Buck's journey as being an escape from the drudgery and crippling amount of schoolwork. We all have Jack London's second wife and subject of this book, Charmain London, to thank for championing him after his death and making sure he became a part of our collective unconscious. Though for most of us it's been years, perhaps decades since we read these books and therefore the power of Jack London's writing is forgotten amongst his narrative. Recently I was rewatching Northern Exposure and I was reliving my main obsession with the show, which was my love of the ex-con DJ Chris Stevens, when I had the delightful surprise of Chris reading from The Call of the Wild. During the season three episode, "The Three Amigos," the words of Jack London served as a counterpoint to Maurice and Holling journeying out into the wilderness to bury their friend. But what struck me was the lyricism and power of London's writing. Sometimes just reading a book doesn't give you the full experience, you have to hear it aloud to fully appreciate it.

This new appreciation of London's writing was one of the reasons I was drawn to The Secret Life of Mrs. London and signed up for this blog tour. Rebecca Rosenberg's book deepened my admiration of London as she has begun each chapter in the first two parts with a quote from London's writing, whether novel or letter. It's a bold choice for a first time author. Because no matter what, the reader is going to compare her writing to London's, whether that was the intent or not. Whether her writing holds up... that's another question. Rosenberg tells her story plainly and interestingly, but she never reaches the lyricism of London. Yet this works in her favor. London's writing, while beautiful, can be a bit inaccessible. Sometimes it's so dense that it takes several readings to understand what he's getting at. Whereas Rosenberg's writing is accessible. She never hides her story behind verbose verbiage. This helps to mirror and bring home to the reader the loving yet somewhat antagonistic relationship between Charmain and Jack. Charmain is so relatable and Jack is a bit enigmatic, his motives even questioned by his wife, so that as a reader you can't help but root for Charmain. She is our heroine. Whatever happens, wherever she goes, whatever decisions she makes, both sound and slightly insane, by using London's own words against him we modern readers will always side with Charmain. She is our avatar to this world of literary wonders and she's able to make it real in a way London's writing doesn't for today's audience. No matter how much he was trying to capture the real on the page.

While reading The Secret Life of Mrs. London one can't help but think of 2016's much talked about and lauded book about Beryl Markham by Paula McLain, Circling the Sun. These are both women who were true originals, they were free spirits that didn't quite feel of their time. Adventurers that broke with conventions. What I find interesting is that many great writers live within these bubbles that are out of sync with their times and embrace free love. While Kenya was the haven for this kind of bed-hopping behavior, any community of artists would come under this kind of scrutiny and notoriety. They were known for standing out from the crowd and throwing convention to the wind. Rosenberg does a good job though in grounding Charmain within this lifestyle. This solid footing makes Charmain far more sympathetic and her actions understandable, not a betrayal to her husband. Being raised by her Aunt Netta she was exposed to a lifestyle that was fluid when it came to love, as Netta had two men in her life. Therefore when Charmain became London's lover and subsequently his second wife she understood that he was liable to wander. Being a very sexual being herself she understood this, but her dalliance that commences the book almost seems indulged in because it's what Jack wanted. He was playing a game with his wife for his own literary means. Yet she heavily feels her betrayal and when he betrays her in return it's just pain heaped on pain. They are by no means a functional couple, but they have a symbiotic relationship. They need each other, but at the same time they need more.

What Charmain ends up needing is Houdini, her Magic Man. What is so interesting about The Secret Life of Mrs. London is that it shows how truly messy love is. Jack is everything to Charmain, her home was where he was, and yet, despite him saying that she was his everything in return, it was clear through his infidelities that she wasn't. You can spout free love, but the truth of it was, Charmain wanted to remain loyal to her husband but her heart and her needs took her elsewhere. I don't know if the same could be said of her husband. Because she was willing to give him all the he got elsewhere, yet he never compromised and gave her what she needed. I couldn't help thinking about Hamilton while reading this book. Their wives, despite not having perfect husbands, are the ones who carried on their legacies, told their stories. Would London and Hamilton be this well remembered to this day if not for their beleaguered spouses? To an extent even Bessie Houdini carried on her husband's torch, holding a seance for him yearly after his death, just as he requested. All this is so interesting to me in that it's all about these women whose lives were in the shadows, yet were remarkable in their own right. History is putting them rightly back in their places and examining what their impact was. Charmain was Jack's editor and typist for years, her thoughts, her ideas, spun into his stories, and yet she is only remembered as Mrs. London. Living her life through these great men while never really living a life of her own. The end of the book gives you hope, but at the same time, she still, to this day, is only known as Mrs. London. Hopefully this book will help redress this wrong.

But now I must nitpick... Writing historical fiction that actually includes real historical figures as your leads is tricky. You are fictionalizing their life, to an extent. You have to get in their head and tell the story you want to tell but within the framework of their life, and I'm not convinced that Rebecca Rosenberg fully succeeds. The biggest problem I have is moving the burning down of Wolf House, Jack London's dream domicile, two years into the future so that it happens at the same time as the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. You can not do that! These are very specific set events! It's like saying, hey can we just move the start of World War I so that it fits my narrative better? Your narrative has to fit events not the other way around. Rosenberg admits that she condensed the timeline to be two instead of five years, but from my point of view she really didn't need to do this. The narrative could have easily spanned more time. The only reason I can see that this was done was in order for Charmain to think she was pregnant, father unknown, when she met the Houdinis. Which was, in my mind, unnecessary. But I'm sure Rosenberg would justify this with comparing the once fertile Charmain with the childlike Bessie... But back to my main point, Rosenberg has lots of weird time anomalies, some of which, such as the burning down of Wolf House I previously mentioned, I'm pretty sure she's aware of, as well as certain Houdini stunts that were shifted, while others are "words from the future." Yes, she uses words that are anachronistic to the time. Guess what? Pheromones didn't exist as a word until 1959, four years after Charmain died. A good editor should have flagged this... but editors, and good ones, are a dying breed. So authors, if you don't want your audience being temporarily taken out of the narrative, double and triple check everything.


Newer Post Older Post Home