Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

So who could have predicted that after expressing what bugged me the most about this book I'd lose interest in it and never finish the proper review? But well, after a solid week or two of procrastination, here I am, returned to both Wilkie Collins and this poor neglected blog. And I've come back to tell you that I really didn't like The Woman in White that much. 

Now, I am not a fan of mystery novels in general. When I read mystery, I have one of two reactions to it. The first is boredom. I wish I could say I am one of those astute readers that figure everything out from page two and then spend the rest of the book yelling at the characters to smarten up. I am not. I never figure anything out, but I just don't care. I just wish the mystery plot would go away and the characters would do something interesting for a change. (Which is precisely why four-year-old me was bored to tears by the whole catching-villains part of Scooby-Doo, but got reasonably invested in the idea Fred and Daphne were meant for each other. And by "reasonably invested" I mean I would have written fan fiction of it, had I known fan fiction existed.)  

But sometimes, with some books, I get a totally different reaction and I am afraid that reaction is best described as complete mental unraveling. I am not made for suspense. If I'm really invested in a book, don't know where it is going, but do know that it might end badly, I won't enjoy it. I will just get sick to my stomach. (Which, by the way, is why spoilers are good.) This is usually the case with books that feature some great injustice done to the characters. No amount of happy resolutions can make up for the agony of my reading experience. So you see, between "Meh." and "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME, J. McAuthor?",  I really don't have a lot of things to look forward to from mystery novels and I usually avoid them.

Mistaken First Impressions? 

The reason I told you all this was not, contrary to all appearances, because I wanted to confess to shipping Scooby-Doo characters. It was because I wanted my bias to be clear when it came to this book. The Woman in White did not start with the best chances. I am afraid its first section did nothing to improve those chances either. It had some bad, bad writing. Until I got to the second section and realized that the clich├ęd writing had been a feature, not a bug; that it had reflected the writing skills of the character narrating that part of the story and not Collins' own abilities, I doubted my wisdom in choosing this book. But then things started to look up. 

The multiple narrators are this book's best feature. The fact that Collins can play with Walter's romantic and affected prose, with Marian's direct and compelling style and with the distinct voices of so many secondary characters is, hands down, an achievement. The high point of the entire book for me was Mr. Fairlie's section. His self-absorbed, whiny tone managed to be entertaining, even though I knew that his comical selfishness was actually putting his nieces' lives in danger.

Not only that Collins created an unique voice and background for each character, but, in the first part, he managed to do so without any costs to the plot or the pacing of the story. There were no elements extraneous to the plot and little overlapping between the sections narrated by each character. So it moved briskly along, and I was charmed. I was even briefly sucked into the story and started the dreaded complete mental unraveling spiral. I suffered along with Marian and wished the villains punished. If things had continued this way, I would have loved this book (and probably gotten sick to my stomach from the suspense too). But they didn't.

The Disappointing Second Half

Everything that was good in the first half was undone in the second. The problems all stemmed from the fact that once Walter returned and saved the two sisters, there was basically nothing at stake anymore. We knew what happened. We knew the villains' plan and its outcome. All that was left was to a. figure out all the details of the villains' motivations and b. force society to acknowledge a story that we, as readers, already knew. Neither objective is too fascinating to watch unfold. As a result, there is hardly any tension to the second part, especially once it becomes clear that the story is rapidly moving toward a happy ending.

Unfortunately, this also means that the perfect synchrony between the narrating voices and the plot breaks down. You get characters repeating parts of the story we already heard and it's dragging the pace down. Fosco's confession is close to useless in the story's economy. There is no reason to have it in full, because at this point in the story the readers either knew or guessed most of the things in it. The character himself is on his way out and has been absent for hundreds of pages, so a focus on his characterization is also a little misplaced. The whole thing is just anti-climactic, the way the villains' punishments were anti-climactic too. 

The Bottom Line

I wouldn't call this a bad book, but I can't in all honesty say it was a particularly good book either. Even working past my dislike for the genre, The Woman in White disappointed me. I would normally give it 2 out of 5 stars, but since it provided me with a good chance to rant about gender roles and some things to ponder in the future, I will give it 3 stars.

8 comments:

  1. Finally someone who didn't enjoy "The Woman in White"! I didn't like it that much either. I mean, the characters were quite "plain" (I liked Marian, though), and the plot... the novel was too long. And I think it was very obvious that the novel was published by parts in a magazine or something like that, after finishing a chapter I always felt like at the end of a soap opera, when there's some kind of tragic background music, the characters frantically staring at each other, a fade to black and "to be continued".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know, I hadn't thought of that before, but it makes a lot of sense. Serialization probably contributed to the way the story lost steam, too. Thanks for your comment! (And since I have you here, I must say that I follow your blog and really like it. I can never comment there though, b/c I can read Spanish but can't really write in it.)

      Delete
    2. Thanks! I just had this feeling and checked Wikipedia and it said the book was serialized before published as a whole novel, and it quite fitted the pattern of the chapters.
      I've been wanting to do a version of the blog in English, but I know I wouldn't be able to keep it that way for long. The 'translate' option offered by google is tempting but... I know it wouldn't be quite accurate.

      Delete
  2. Hmm..I'm a mystery lover, so I'm curious about this book. So far I met people who adored this book, but here finally I found that you dislike it. But I like to read reviews from those who dislike a book (while everyone else like it), because it gives me two points of view of a book, and it provides me for a better judgement.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's why I tried to give my background first. Because chances are that if you love mystery novels, you will like this book. There's plenty of good stuff in it :)

      Delete
  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your description of the second half. I have never been so utterly brokenheartedly disappointed with a story. As my friend and I discussed, its almost as if the author gave up in the second half. Like...he wasnt quite sure what to do anymore. Then suddenly everyone dies in sudden and completely lame ways. And the good characters inexplicably lose their personalities and act so different in the face of walter. It's absolutely absurd.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I agree. I thought this might have been a problem of writing the story in installments and losing focus, but it seems it wasn't so:

      http://www.web40571.clarahost.co.uk/wilkie/biography/Collins1887.htm

      Delete
    2. Ah, I am so upset. I really loved the second epoch with Fosco and Percival, I thought them brilliant characters until the end when they all suddenly change.
      Ah well, thankyou for the article. Just goes to show he planned that bad ending from the start

      Delete