Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper

The youngest of five, the only daughter at a time when a woman's role was confined to the domestic sphere, and ailing or invalid much of her life, Alice James is not the James family member that history celebrates and reveres. That honor goes to her better known brothers, William and Henry. But she was a formidable intellect herself, often acknowledged by these famous brothers as the wit of the family. When her diaries were posthumously published, they received wonderful reviews for their thoughtful stance on social issues, her educated yet accessible style, and her incisive insights. Not bad for a woman overshadowed by her brothers by dint of her sex, her constitution, and social conventions. Judith Hooper's novel, Alice in Bed, imagines this witty, smart, unconventional woman, bringing her to life and examining not only her later years, spent entirely inside in bed, but also her life growing up with a famous father and then even more famous brothers.

Opening with Alice confined to her rooms, unable to walk, having frequent "going off" spells, and suffering from a feeling of snakes in the pit of her stomach, the novel moves back and forth from her long term sick bed to her younger years and back again. Via Alice's own narration, the reader feels the unhappiness and disappointment when she is denied the same sorts of freedoms and education that her brothers receive, even as it is clear that Alice idolizes William and Henry. When she does get a boon that she has envied from afar, like going to Europe, it has conditions and strictures that it never had for her brothers. Alice chafes at the bonds of womanhood but she is generally dutiful, even as she rails privately that no one understands her. Only in her choice of love does she embrace the unconventional,  that choice remaining mostly secret. Outwardly compliant, Alice is actually rebellious at her core and when sparks of her rebellion bubble to the surface, it alarms her family, but it animates the story. Between her bouts of illness, Alice is quite funny and perceptive. Her poking fun at the pomposity of those around her, mainly those of the Boston elite literati, is sly and on target. Her understanding of social conventions is fascinating to read as she seems oblivious to the effect of her own forthrightness. She is an opinionated and brilliant woman indeed although she is no Angel in the House.

Hooper intersperses snippets from James family letters and excerpts from Alice's own diary into the novel, allowing the real Alice James to blend with her fictional counterpart and to highlight different members of the family's feelings and concerns about her well being and prospects. The author shows the toll that physical and mental illness took on the family as a whole, with Alice not the only chronic sufferer. And she captures the high-toned, interesting, debates between and differing beliefs of family members, especially Alice, on social issues like women's rights and the plight of the poor. Although Alice's outside experiences eventually ceased during her many years of mysterious, undiagnosed illness, she never gave up her curiousity or interest in the world outside her door. The novel is well written and thoughtful, almost entirely character driven. The pacing is slow and deliberate. The cast of characters is not large, as Alice's own world was not large and in fact grew smaller by the year. Readers with an interest in American literature, Boston in the mid to late 1800s, or in the frustrations of such a constrained life for an intelligent woman of the time period will find this an intriguing read.

For more information about Judith Hooper, take a look at her website or follow her on Twitter.. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

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