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It’s time for another joint conversation about a book. We had a great time last time, and are hoping to have just as much fun again. These are the times this blog feels most like committee work, where we’re all at the table (metaphorically), and all ready to talk about the same book — but all coming with our own perspectives, our own perceptions of “literary” and “great” and “important”. We may not always agree, but we have the opportunity to really hear what we all have to say about a title. It’s in the conversation that a winner can be found. This time, we’re looking at a title that has had two starred reviews.
Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
Penguin, September 2017
Reviewed from all the versions
Joy: Okay, I was originally going to start my section by talking about my experience reading Jane, Unlimited but excuse me, two stars? Seriously? Maybe it’s too weird and experimental for folks or it’s possible that it seems light to some readers because of the “choose-your-own-adventure” style and rompiness. I’ll refrain from speculation though because I can only speak for myself. This may be a case of “right book, right time” for me alone and that’s okay too, because there’s a lot of craft that I admire in the writing.
I read Jane, Unlimited 100% cold. I knew that two librarian friends (okay, one of them was Karyn) had already read and loved it but I had no hint of what it was about, or even what kind of book it would be.
Me. Mind. Blown.
I loved Jane, Unlimited. The mystery of the first story instantly grabbed me and as that section wrapped up, I wondered where the narrative could possibly go. Then the bell rings and we’re swept into another version of the events we just witnessed. Yet the more that I talk to other folks who read finished, bound copies I’m starting to wonder if the novel only works for folks who are a) structure nerds, b) fans of Victorian gothic romances, or c) have no visual clues (e.g.: formatting) to understand what is happening.
Karyn: I’m with Joy that lack of formatting is totally to the benefit of this weird and wonderful book; I read the e-arc, which lacks ALL CLUES. So what I knew was: Kristin Cashore, not set in the same world as her Graceling trilogy. And when the bell rang the second time, I thought “is this a typo?” and kept reading, slightly puzzled, and then pennies starting dropping, metaphorically, and it was such a rush realizing that something totally unexpected was happening. I had this delicious bubbly laughter feeling as it all started to make sense (except it makes no sense at all, in the best way). Until the library chapter, anyway, which is not so much with the delight and more with the chills.
I think the best part of having no information was the slow realization that this is not our world. First there were frogs in the Vermeer, but I thought maybe I just didn’t know that painting. The Kiran said it was raining frogs, and I thought “weird expression” — I don’t think I realized until the fourth decision, when the first Mrs. Thrush talks about Kermit in the limited dimension that’s kind of awful and is also clearly what the reader would consider the “real world.”
Also umbrellas! Jane makes umbrellas. It’s so strange and yet suits her, and it’s such a lovely and unexpected metaphor.
Sarah: I read this in my usual way which is with very little direct information (why read a blurb, FRANCES), but starting and then stopping and then starting again then peaking at the back and catching part of the author’s note about CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE and basically I was a goner. I used to read choose your own adventures in page order rather than in “story makes sense” order because I wanted my brain to be able to do this. My brain never could make those gorgeous pictures, but when the different paths are kept in the narrative, our audience experience is fundamentally changed. We get a close look at all the elements of the story: you see all the parts, all the functionality, all the ways it works (what is that quote about design and visibility and elegance? Because it’s about bicycles and UMBRELLAS, OMG).
Um, but that is mostly just gushing, what works here and what doesn’t maybe some analysis? Ughhhhhhhhhhhh.
Fine. Let’s start with the atmosphere — it’s delicious here. I want to live at Tu Reviens, don’t you? It’s magical and dark and creepy and most of all intriguing. I want to explore the house, research all the history the walls hold, figure out a way to hold the house together without Charlotte consuming me — RUB YOUR EARS… There’s a lot of repeating elements (beyond the bell ringing) that keep adding to that sense of mystery and magic. Part of it is that slow reveal you mentioned, Karyn; everything is so close and yet so off, and we feel it.
(As a sidebar, let me just confess that all the Rebecca references were lost on me because I have never finished reading it. Someone who has should jump in with wisdom and insight here!)
Joy: I’ll admit, I haven’t read Rebecca but the movie is amazing and I definitely got the Rebecca vibes in Jane. For me, it’s mostly the housekeeper, Mrs. Vanders who had a Mrs. Danvers thing going on (when you make the character’s name an anagram of the character who inspired her, you’re basically shouting at the reader to notice the connection). That’s part of the fun of the novel. Gothic romance has trained us to distrust the housekeeper (a.k.a. secret-keepers) so we’re on high alert anytime Vanny is around. Kristin Cashore is playing with those expectations and subverts them whenever she can.
Sarah: Yes, Mrs Vanders was captivating, I was riveted whenever she was on the page and ready for more information (secret keepers, eh?). Though, to be honest, I was annoyed by her lack of answers (oh, secret keepers).
Karyn: I have read Rebecca (although OMG so long ago) but the references that jumped out for me, other than the obvious in Mrs. Danvers/Vanders, were not Rebecca at all — the yellow wallpaper glimpsed in the attic, the madwoman/first wife in the attic (who turns out to be not even slightly confined in there, which is a play on inverting The Yellow Wallpaper AND Jane Eyre that I greatly appreciated — even more so when it turns out that there’s a dimension — ours — where things are not inverted). And of course Jane, the poor orphan, whisked off to the great house — there’s a riff on everyone’s favorite orphaned Jane happening there as well. Oh, and then we’ve got Pooh… basically, this is a bit of a scavenger hunt for the well read, and I don’t think the story requires that you get all the literary play, but it’s much more fun if you do.
Joy: That makes total sense to me, because honestly, one of the things that pulled me on board were the Doctor Who references early in the story. Jane and Ivy talk about their favorite companions–Jane has the correct answer for this, by the way–Ivy has a Doctor Who quote on her camera strap, and Jane wears Doctor Who pajamas. For a tv show to be so integral to early characterization in dialogue, it had to mean that the show would be a significant influence on the narrative. One only references a show like Doctor Who to a) signal a character’s geek cred or b) foreshadow some timey-wimey narrative fireworks* to come. Jane’s geekiness is an interesting trait but not essential to understanding her, so I was waiting for something science-fictiony to happen in the story. Which is interesting because it makes me wonder, are any of the characters written to serve the theme rather than the plot and structure?
Sarah: Overall, I thought the characterization was so heightened by the Choose Your Own Adventure style plot — it allowed many of them to feel complicated, interesting, and engaging. Think about Kiran (whom I love) — she’s depressed in this world, but ready to assist her brother at a moment’s notice. She’s basically kicking all ass in another world. All of those parts fit neatly together, really. Many of the characters are enhanced by their other world selves.
Buuuut…Jane never really gelled for me, she felt a bit like a cipher. Am I alone there?
Karyn: No, I am with you on Jane. Actually, I thought characterization wasn’t terribly deep for any of them. Ivy is geeky and builds boats and blurts scrabble words if she thinks you are cute — that’s some serious manic pixie quirk. Patrick is stoic and mysterious and slightly plagued by his love for Kiran. Kiran is the depressed, aimless socialite who lacks purpose; Ravi the playboy gaming the system. And Jane is a cipher, but I think she’s meant to be — she’s grieving and has spent her life with only one compass, Aunt Magnolia — she thinks of Aunt Magnolia every time she chooses a different direction — so without the compass she’s quite literally lost, and that’s why she doesn’t entirely fit together.
And look, everyone being a bit centrally cast isn’t always a bad thing; it means they don’t overshadow Jane, who isn’t very dynamic although there are these flashes, and I think the flashes are the real Jane, the one she might be if Aunt Magnolia didn’t cast a really too large shadow. (I have a LOT to say about Aunt Magnolia. Just wait.) That’s the Jane who has an opinion about Doctor Who and follows people and sticks her nose in places it doesn’t belong, and I quite like that Jane, and the way that aspect of Jane is what propels the various threads of plots.
Sarah: It is possible I simply need a Kiran Fan Club t-shirt and to move on with my life. *grin* So how about the melding of different genres within the narrative? Did that work for everyone?
Karyn: Yes… but also no? I loved that there was so much play with different genres, and I think several of them are very well written — there’s a staginess to the narrative style throughout, and everything is just a little extra in a really fantastic way. There’s one section where I have some major qualms, but I’ll let Sarah and Joy chime in before I talk about the issues.
Joy: Overall yes, but there’s a wide range in quality which may be why this one hasn’t connected with readers as widely as I anticipated. If you’re not into horror, that library section is not for you. If you’re not into sci-fi, the inter-dimensional travel is definitely not for you. For me, the last section is by far the weakest because fantasy isn’t my genre of choice and the world-building didn’t hit quickly enough to pull me in. And maybe that’s this book’s greatest weakness. Each genre needs to have wide enough appeal to keep every reader invested but it also needs to work well for the reader who loves that particular genre. One weak link can pull you out, especially since we experience the same chunk of time Groundhog Day-style.
Sarah: Yes, I can see that, Joy. I generally like all the genre stuff, so probably my bias is showing, but I appreciated all the different elements crammed in there. It felt, to use a movie metaphor, like I was able to see the feature film and also/simultaneously see the DVD extras that gave me some insight into the building of this story and all the directions it ended up being able to go. But that very feel could also pull other readers out.
Strangely, as an overall NOT lover of horror, the library section was my favorite part — it was so tightly constructed, it pulled everything together so beautifully, it was completely chilling… I loved it.
As an admitted genre person, I liked the way they all flowed from one to the next; it helped show all the bedrock elements stories can share while giving the reader peeks into the varying choices authors can make in crafting their fiction. So for me, it just kept pulling me in more and more; I wanted to see just how many permutations we could get. This is more about my appreciating the structure of the story rather than the finished product as a whole, though, I do realize that.
Karyn: Before I go back to the thing I think shoudl probably sink this in an awards conversation, a resounding YES: that sense of having an idea of what’s happening in the background, but not really because each choice Jane makes changes all those other moments too — so good. There’s a lot of really strong writing here and I loved the different genres, although I thought there was a momentum loss — the earlier sections were strong, the harder core genre sections were weaker.
I’m going to say something pretty ballsy here: Kristin Cashore is a kickbutt storyteller and her ideas are brilliant and she writes characters I care about — cipherish Jane, even the slightly centrally cast supporting characters all were people I enjoyed and wanted to see succeed. But Cashore is actually a weak fantasy author. Her worlds are always wooden, and Zorstedd is kind of cheesy and nonsensical. In short, I have so much beef with the final section. Settle in because I’m not handing the keyboard back for a few minutes.
First, it’s just not a very well-constructed world. There are several fantasy tropes on display plus some ecological messaging, but it didn’t read as a cohesive whole. Why does the Duchess have to support unpeopled strayhounds, if strayhounds can have jobs? Why do people look different when they cross the portal if they are still themselves? Why are people and dogs telepathically linked in ordained pairs? It’s a lot of detail but the big picture is still missing. Also the sacred human-talking dog bond felt very middle grade, after a lot of very mature writing and plotting, which was perhaps fitting because:
Jane takes five different paths in this book. Each leads to a different genre, which is awesome — fun and kind of audacious and have we ever seen this before? It highlights some seriously versatile writing and a massive amount of technical skill and genre and literature knowledge on Cashore’s part. Each choice also leads to a different set of experiences, which change Jane; we see how her decisions affect who she can become. She arrives at Tu Reviens limited — by her grief, by her inability to let go — and each choice opens her, moving her towards the titular unlimited self. Except that the last chapter, the fantasy in which she rediscovers Aunt Magnolia, takes that journey and re-limits it, despite the fact that it’s one of two adventures with magic — meaning it proves that their world is an unlimited dimension (per the first Mrs. Thrush). Jane is moving through her grief and beyond what seems like an awfully co-dependent relationship with her powerful, dynamic aunt — and then the book concludes by putting her back into that relationship and undoing the journey she has been taking, or at least rendering it partially void. And yes, there’s still new things happening — she’s going to take Ivy into Zorstedd — but she’s also going to forgive the betrayal Aunt Magnolia perpetrated and it’s hard to see how going to world where she can’t tell people the truth about her will help her break the codependency that has been one of the major limiters for Jane up until now. I wonder at the choice to have Magnolia still be alive at all; it moves the story backwards, changes the dynamic and the journey. This may be fully intentional, but it unbalances the novel.
And yet! This is audacious and daring, and it breaks all the rules and it mostly works, and I think this belongs in any conversation about the most noteworthy books of the year. It’s dizzyingly literary in some ways, and just plain dizzying in others.
So there you have it — ambitious, compelling, and straddling some line between dazzling and dizzying. What do you all think? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.
*Joy: For non-Whovians, over its 54 year history, Doctor Who has dipped into every narrative genre possible. It’s primarily a science fiction tv show about a time traveling alien but it’s also been a fairy tale, a western, drama, romance, comedy, horror, and everything in between.
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