(I made a big mistake this week, in that I read Eleven on Top PRIOR to posting my blog about Guardian Angel. Needless to say, I think I've got the two a little mixed up, and am having to re-scan Guardian Angel to make sure I don't confuse the two. ;)
I chose Given Her History by Melissa Vanbeck to read along with Guardian Angel by Sara Paretsky for this week. Character development in both pieces was actually very similar. In both pieces, the reader is dropped into what seems to be "the middle of things" in the life of the main character. The author gives enough information about the main characters that I felt pretty comfortable with them right away. However, as the intricacies of their situations and relationships began to unfold, I wasn't certain that I fully understood these very complicated characters. The young orphan, April-May from Given Her History had a life riddled with pain and uncertainty. Vic Warshawski, the divorcee private investigator from Guardian Angel, also appeared to have a very complicated history. her strange assortment of friends and "family" really added to underscoring just how complicated V.I.'s relationships were. Both of the main characters seemed to work hard at being "tough" in order to hide their vulnerabilities and fears from the people in their lives.
The settings were different, in that one took place in Chicago, and the other in a small town. However, this was only a minor difference. In both cases, these ladies were surrounded by people who varied from friendly busy-bodies to just downright uncaring and mean. Both characters faced isolation and death, and involuntarily found that there were some people who would care about them, even in their damaged or weakened conditions. It was pretty clear that Warshawski was cared for by her neighbor, Mr. Contreras, as well as by Sergeant Rawlings, and even by her ex-husband, Dick. The young April-May was cared for by Juris, the man who found her the night of the fire, Mr. Clarke who tried to be a good foster parent, and by Vivian, the wealthy spinster who took her in when nobody else would have her. In both Vic and April-May, there was clearly an underlying vulnerability and justifiable fear of abandonment.
The novel held so many twists and turns, and had so many things that needed to be uncovered before the mystery could be solved, the length was necessary. The short story was cleanly told as April-May's memory, and would not have been made any fuller, or "better" had it been in a lengthier form.
I think if I had to choose a favorite between these two pieces, it would be Given Her History. I think I was drawn more to April-May, both due to her vulnerability and because of the interesting (psychologically damaging) memories that were intermittently revealed throughout the story. I felt a maternal need to take care of her, and was more sympathetic when she had moments of failure.
2. Author gender.
I thought having female authors for both pieces really made a difference, at least in my perceptions. I think I was a little put off by Warshawski's attitude a few times, but I was able to accept it more easily because I felt that having a female author meant that her weakness was more of a vulnerability than a character flaw. Had a man written in such weaknesses, I think I would have felt that her weakness was being flaunted or pointed out as "stupid".
3. The Short Story.
Given Her History is all about April-May, a young girl who finds herself orphaned and alone with the family dog as the only survivors of the fire that destroyed her home and the rest of her family. She suspects that her brother caused the fire, and is at large, but nobody is very open with her about it. She is found by Juris, a man who is apparently a fireman, or officer, and is handed over to Mrs. Clarke, a married teacher who is somewhat familiar with April through the school. Mr. and Mrs. Clarke do not have children of their own, and Mrs. Clarke seems dissatisified with having both the child and the dog in the home. Mr. Clarke is most attentive and seems to genuinely care about the young girl.
Through a very strange incident involving the heartattack and death of Mr. Clarke, April-May and her dog find themselves homeless again. They are taken in by a wealthy spinster who is somewhat eccentric and reclusive. Through the strange ways of both April and Vivian, a certain bond is built between the two, and they come to care about each other despite some very strange and possibly problematic issues. The story culminates with the return of the missing brother, who confirms that he did, indeed, intend on killing the family in the fire, and has returned for April-May. (I don't want to tell any more of the story...so it doesn't ruin it for those of you who still plan to read it!) I liked the ending, though. I felt it was wrapped up neatly.
I liked the idea that despite a very problematic and strange childhood, April-May does indeed find someone to care for her. I also thought the title was interesting, in that even after reading it, I'm not sure exactly WHOSE history it's indicating...April-May's or Vivian's. The mystery was not a "who-done-it", but rather was a suspenseful look at the child's existence in the aftermath of her family's crisis.
4. I haven't completed my online discussions on Guardian Angel yet, so I'm not sure what to say without possibly repeating. I did find that I was frustrated with Warshawski several times, which kind of made it hard to stay "tuned in" to the reading. I think what turned me off was her treatment of the neighbor with such coldness sometimes, and her apparent lack of planning or forethought about some of the things she did. I thought it made her seem a little too prideful.
I also thought the whole circle of events was a little too unbelievable. The downstairs neighbor, tied to his friend and their old workplace, tied to the ex-husband, tied to the mean neighbor, tied to the old lady neighbor, tied to the downstairs neighbor (via the dogs!). There were just too many coincidences for my taste, and it made me feel like the author really had to stretch to tie it all up at the end.
All in all, though, I thought this week was a good week of reading.