Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was a literary genius. I was already pretty convinced of that after reading The Moonstone a few years ago, but now after reading his other great novel, it's been solidified for me. In The Moonstone, he invented the mystery novel, and obviously was a great influence on Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Woman in White, he invents the thriller. Oh, and he pioneered the multiple-narrator style as well. (A lawyer by trade, he thought that a trial - with its multiple witnesses who each know their segment of the overall story - was the only perfect way to tell a story fully.)

The Woman in White is sometimes called a mystery, but it isn't really, any more than a John Grisham is a mystery. Yes, there is a Secret and we don't find out what it is until the end, and there is a Bad Guy (well, two really) and we also don't know how our hero will outwit them and make it so they are no longer a danger to our victim until the end, but there's no real mystery. We know who the bad guys are pretty early on, we know the secret exists early on and also who knows it. It's a story of bad things happening, racing to find out the secret, and hiding from the bad guys and their thugs. It is long, but it's also relatively fast-paced.

Walter, an art teacher, falls in love with the beautiful Laura but sadly she is already engaged to Sir Percival. Walter has been warned by the mysterious woman in white (aka Anne) that Sir Percival is a bad guy and that Anne shouldn't marry him but she sticks to her word and does so. After the honeymoon, Sir Percival shows his true colors and things start to go very bad, very fast. Her devoted and practical sister Marian tries to look out for her to no avail, Sir Percival's flamboyant and sneaky friend Count Fosco foils plans, and Anne, who knows a big bad secret about Sir Percival disappears before she can tell Laura.

Each section of the book being told by a different narrator doesn't always work, but here it truly shows Collins's brilliance as you can feel the change in tone and voice within just a couple of lines. He switches from the middle-class art teacher to the fussy hypochondriac uncle to a housekeeper to the Count without losing a beat - each voice is truly the character's own, even minor and brief narrators, they are three-dimensional and make it so simple to picture the people. I also love reading older books because I don't have to worry about anachronisms such as when a character says, "Drop it!" to someone belaboring a point. If this book hadn't been published in 1860, I would never have believed that such a modern-sounding phrase wasn't an authorial error. Yet it must have been in use then and that is such a neat thing to learn.

While I didn't whip through the book, it was very easy to pick right up where I'd left off even after a couple of days. The book wasn't hard to get into or follow, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I only wish I'd read it years ago! I highly recommend it.

I won this book from a fellow book blogger's drawing.


Laura Kozy Lanik said...

I have had this book on my TBR list forever. I soooo new to read it.

Rebecca Chapman said...

Sounds perfect. I can't wait to get stuck into Wilike Collins. I am aprticularly excited to read The Moonstone after recently reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. This one sounds great too