Since becoming an e-reader user a few years back, I’ve realized just what a big role book covers and synopses play not only in my choosing a book, but also in maintaining my interest. There really is something about the cover art, the font chosen, the texture of the pages, that gives off cues about the kind of book we’re reading, and I miss those cues when I’m using the e-reader. For instance, I really liked the cover art of my most recently finished novel, The Death of the Heart:
It tells you a lot about the book. The black dress indicates mourning, and the beautiful door shows that the girl lives in some degree of wealth. The girl has an open, intelligent, and somewhat expectant expression, as if she has asked a question she is waiting for you to answer. This all fits the character of Portia Quayne as we come to know her. Plus… it’s pretty. :)
And then the synopsis on the back of the book leads us strangely astray:
While her novels masquerade as witty comedies of manners, set in the lavish country houses of the Anglo-Irish or in elegant London homes, they mine the depths of private tragedy with a subtle ferocity and psychological complexity reminiscent of Henry James. The Death of the Heart, a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence, is perhaps Bowen’s best-known book. When sixteen-year-old Portia, recently orphaned, arrives in London and falls for an attractive cad — a seemingly carefree young man who is as much an outsider in the sophisticated and politely treacherous world of 1930s drawing rooms as she is — their collision threatens to shatter the carefully built illusions of everyone around them. As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sharp sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations.
So then I read the book and was like, “Whut. That description reminds me of the time in 5th grade I submitted a report on Mozart entirely based on watching the movie Amadeus.” In other words, it sounds like a description of the parallel-universe version of the same book.
Here, friends, is my Honest Plot Synopsis of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart:
In this angry-as-hell book that doesn’t even try to masquerade as a witty comedy of manners, Elizabeth Bowen skewers a bunch of pretentious assholes with all the insight and none of the light-handedness of Jane Austen. This girl Portia, who is only 16, has just lost her mother after a childhood of moving from hotel to hotel and not really having any stability or friends, and now she has to go live with her half-brother, Thomas, who feels awkward about her because she was born of their father’s extramarital affair. Even though none of that is Portia’s fault, Thomas has to be guilted into allowing her to stay with him and his wife for a year in their London home.
Meanwhile, his vain and insecure wife, Anna, reads Portia’s diary and gets all offended because Portia sees through everyone’s fakery. Instead of being a freaking adult and deciding that oh, maybe she shouldn’t read other people’s freaking diaries, Anna walks around huffy for the rest of the book. Oh, and she’s also pissed because one of her boy-toys that she likes to keep dangling just to get the attention? Decides he’s going to pay attention to Portia instead.
This boy-toy is Eddie, the “attractive cad” who is creepy as fuck because he is 23 and trying to hang with a 16 year old! And Anna and Thomas continually comment on how this is kind of weird and yet at no point do they shut that shit down and protect Portia like, you know, responsible adults would. Meanwhile, poor love-starved Portia goes Teen Beat levels of crazy for Eddie, and he has some fun jerking her around but also gets angry with her for being so trusting, because that forces him to confront the fact that he is a flat-out asshole. I wouldn’t call their relationship a “collision” so much as an unfortunate instance of contact, like when you accidentally brush against someone sweaty on public transit.
Her only real friend is the cranky maid, who at least makes sure she has some warm cardigans to wear.
This book will piss you off and make you think about when you were a teenager and adults were frickin’ phonies, and how dammit, they still are, Holden Caulfield was right, but dude, doesn’t a buttered scone with some strong black tea sound fantastic right now?