Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Plague in the Mirror, by Deborah Noyes

Title: Plague in the Mirror
Author: Deborah Noyes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Year: 2013
Read: June 2013
Genre: YA-paranormal / YA-historical / YA-contemporary
Rating: **

The Quick and Dirty:

Decent premise of a ghostly figure trying to trap a girl (who may be imagining it all) in the hellish world of the Florentine plague; actually about an insipid girl who deserves to be trapped and a crazy ghost figure who would be my #1 target in an Inquisition.

The Wordy Version:

May is spending the summer in Florence to avoid the shakeup of her parents’ divorce under the guise of helping a family friend research a travel guide. What seems like an interminably scholarly trip turns life-threatening when a doppelgänger from 1348 starts to haunt May and offer her a portal to Florence of the Middle Ages. As much as May tries to get involved with her present life, she is preoccupied by the harm her historical twin may be doing in 1348, and wonders if being trapped in the midst of the Black Plague would be as bad as it seems.

Time travel has been done so often that characters crossing into a world that ended before they were born doesn’t seem unusual. What is peculiar in Plague in the Mirror is that there is almost no logical impetus to engage in the time travel. 1348 is approximately the worst time in the second millennium to travel to Florence. Almost thirty years after the death of Dante and thirty years before the birth of Brunelleschi (whose famous dome is the modern image of the city), the only thing 1348 Florence has of interest it is its newly created republican government ...and the Bubonic Plague.

Middle Ages scholars may disagree with me, but I cannot figure out what appeal there would be in visiting a medieval city during a health crisis. As a writing convenience, setting up 1348 Florence as a hell if May were trapped is a good idea because it ratchets up the stakes for her to avoid being there. During May’s first visit we see “a young man in formfitting—that is, bulging—tights and a short, stained tunic…leering into her face. He has winey breath, and his bad teeth are bared, his head tilted like a curious dog’s.” There are “sinister towers” and “diseased-looking sausage links and sides of ham, swathed in flies,” “beds of filthy straw.” Everything about these descriptions convinces me of the undesirability of being there.

I would say “job well done” for setting up the stakes, except that the main character, May, seems to ignore all of the bad stuff that she is observing in those scenes! May has the choice to visit 1348 or stay in the present, and after her first visit she continues to return. For May, 1348 Florence is a previously living hell that contains one artist apprentice, Marco, who is every sort of Italian artist sexy May can imagine. Her one encounter with Marco (which involves about three sentences of broken dialogue because THEY DON’T SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE) convinces her that she has found her true love on the other side of time, and that he feels the same way. Because May’s look-alike, Cristofana, knows May likes Marco, Cristofana uses him as bait and then as a hostage, and instead of May doing the logical thing of telling herself that none of this matters because they already died hundreds of years earlier, May lets this go to her head.

“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment,” says Mr. Darcy early in Pride and Prejudice. I am convinced that even the self-satisfied Darcy of that point of the novel would underestimate May’s ability to jump from admiration to married life seven centuries before her birth. It’s astounding that May has no friends or interests that convincingly ground her in the twenty-first century. It is equally baffling that May doesn’t consider the language and culture differences that would separate her from Marco if she stayed.

(On the subject of languages, I am mystified at Cristofana’s ability to converse with May. Cristofana, living in 1348, says her mother was English and taught her the language. A word of linguistic context here: in the fourteenth century, people in England spoke Middle English, which is very different from what speak today. As an example, the dialect that Chaucer uses in the Canterbury Tales is the most accessible form of Middle English ( and I would be exhausted trying to figure out a conversation carried out in that. And chances are that Cristofana’s English could not have been so Chaucerian since he was only born in 1343.

I understand arguments for not using Middle English for Cristofana’s dialogue, including that the unfamiliar language would have made May’s time travel choices even weirder. But it would have given clarity to May’s potential mental problems if her twin could not have conversed with everyone in modern Florence while they switched places. Apologies for the side-rant.)

May’s imagination is certainly vivid when it comes to relationships, but it’s not clear if that creativity carries over to other parts of her life. According to her childhood friend (potentially with benefits), “[May] always had to invent these worlds and assign everyone names and make costumes. It was freaking exhausting.” This same friend suggests that May’s time travel could be psychological, and that May could use some help. The potential for Plauge to turn into a psychological thriller makes the middle section of the novel more palatable to read.

Unfortunately the thrills fail to come. May never seems to fully connect with the reader (or even with her own life), and when she finally is in a potentially exciting position, all she can muster is passive acceptance. If you need one reason to read this book, page 254/255 is it. On a page that should be the culmination of many of May’s dreams, May could be replaced by a board, and you might not be able to notice the substitution. Ugh, I have so many problems with this page that the next few paragraphs will be SPOILERS.

He's so intense she doesn't know what to do...until she does. The sleeping child has the bed, so they kneel together in a crouch, settling on the floor among coils of rope and oily stains and splinters and sawdust and chicken feathers.

It's hard to look at him as he eases her down, his eyes urgent and sorrowful while he undresses and lowers himself over, pulling her middle close in rough, paint-smeared hands, smoothing the sides of her crimson gown up. So she meets the blank stare of an unfinished sculpture beyond them, until at last he starts kissing her again, and she kisses back, a little fiercely, rolling on top of him in a bliss of rising away and falling and sliding and biting her lip as he moves inside her, moves and moves, and it's like reeling or flying apart.

...May feels sore and ripe and real and wonders did she really lose her virginity with...what? A man who no longer exists? An afterimage? How could something that physical not be real? She isn't sorry or disappointed, not at all, but there's something bittersweet because of Liam. She wouldn't change anything, May thinks, meeting Marco's dark eyes, wouldn't give this back or undo it, but part of her feels like a thief.

This is without a doubt the most disturbing depiction of consensual sex I've ever read. May "meets the blank stare of a sculpture" instead of the urgent eyes of her sexual partner, and after they're done she asks with what she lost her virginity. And yet she doesn't sense that not being able to communicate with the guy she's sleeping with, and not being convinced of his humanity, are major problems. May has extremely unreliable birth control available to her, but wouldn't that be a normal college-bound girl's first thought the next day? A little, "Holy F***. What if I'm preggers?" would make this scene (slightly) more palatable.

(SPOILERS END) Another thing that could make it more to my taste would be any point of view other than the third person present. I took years to get used to first person present, but the buck stops there. NO THIRD PERSON PRESENT. PLEASE. Let this book be a lesson, and examine the effect of changing the verbs to past tense.

To be fair, this was simply not my book. Even if everything I wished different had changed, I might still not have been enamored...I would just be less able to pinpoint things that made it not my book.

1 comment:

Alyssa L. said...

The morbidly curious part of me kind of wants to read this one, but the
more pragmatic part of me thinks I should focus on the stack of other
ARCs that need to be read and reviewed. Damn you, pragmatism!!! :)

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