Wednesday 14 July 2021

Among the Beautiful Beasts by Lori McMullen

shortlisted for Book of the Month

Amazon US
Amazon CA (not found)
Amazon AU (not found)

Fictional Biography
Florida / Paris

"Set in the early 1900s, Among the Beautiful Beasts is the untold story of the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, known in her later years as a tireless activist for the Florida Everglades. After a childhood spent in New England estranged from her father and bewildered by her mother, who fades into madness, Marjory marries a swindler thirty years her senior. The marriage nearly destroys her, but Marjory finds the courage to move to Miami, where she is reunited with her father and begins a new life as a journalist in that bustling, booming frontier town. Buoyed by a growing sense of independence and an affair with a rival journalist, Marjory embraces a life lived at the intersection of the untamed Everglades and the rapacious urban development that threatens it. When the demands of a man once again begin to swallow Marjory's own desires and dreams, she sees herself in the vulnerable, inimitable Everglades and is forced to decide whether to commit to a life of subjugation or leap into the wild unknown."

I have to confess that I had not heard of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and, as there is nothing in the file I was sent to indicate otherwise, I assumed that this novel was entirely a work of fiction. That fact will have a bearing on some of my thoughts about the book.

The novel begins with Marjory as a very small child, and straight away I was struck by how beautifully Ms McMullen writes. She has Marjory talking of evening strolls with her mother, where they 'walked past the school, past my bedtime.' Marjory's words one night become 'sluggish with yawns'. She speaks very much like a child in these chapters, telling us how she had to wear glasses to 'stop my left eye from watching my nose'. Reading aloud with her father, when she still can't see or read very well, she tells us that when it came to her turn, the story 'revealed itself almost in hiccups.'

Particularly well-crafted was the scene where Marjory's maiden aunt is buttoning up the child's dress when her niece asks an innocent question about the aunt's life. Marjory tells us that 'those buttons must have been really stubborn' because suddenly the aunt is tugging on them. Here we see what the child does not: she has touched a raw nerve with the aunt who feels her life has been wasted.

Marjory's mother is mentally ill and we are told that she is sent away to be fixed by strangers who 'glued her together but could only guess what the original should look like.'

I found this section of the book incredibly moving, and when, as Marjory goes off to college and her grandmother metaphorically takes the blanket of responsibility from her shoulders, I actually cried for this poor young woman.

There is an astuteness in the portrayal of Marjory's journey to adulthood, and when she returns from college she talks of how the house has changed, but also not changed, while she's been away. Of course we understand that it is she who has changed, but at the time, Marjory cannot see it.

The middle section of the book, which deals with Marjory's marriage, somehow jarred with the earlier part and didn't ring quite true (see my comment above - I had no idea that this was a true story and, actually, in terms of her husbands' duplicity, it seems to have been played down. It really is a remarkable story and the plot device used to move the story on, which I noted as being 'very clever', was also true). The storyline felt a little implausible and now I understand why, but I also lost any sense of historical setting in this portion. With talk of phones, and wearing heels, a hat, and carrying a purse, it could have been anytime in the 20th or 21st century. I wonder now if the author was also struggling to make an astounding episode ring true.

Of course, any young woman born in the late 19th century will have lived through WWI. Here, deep emotion is described in succinct phrases. Marjory speaks of the 'purgatory of farewell' - that long moment of goodbye while you are trying to recall every detail of the last meeting - and asks 'was there ever a lonelier sound than the silence that followed a waning train blast?' In this, as in so many other parts of the book, the author really gets inside Marjory's head and heart.

In Paris at the latter stages of the war, Marjory has a reunion and finds herself chattering too much. Haven't we all done that? She mimics someone they both knew and then tells us about the 'echo of her preposterous accent' hanging around. The embarrassment is keenly shown, and felt by the reader. We are also reminded that those who experienced such times could not simply leave it behind with the armistice: 'War was most senseless at the moment it ended.' 

It's clear that the author has studied creative writing,  but luckily her lyrical style always stops short of being cloyingly descriptive or overly 'show-offy'. She has a pithy way of describing characters. One, the botanist Fairchild,  exists in 'a constant state of rearranging'  - in other words he's a fidget. I loved these tight summings-up of characters, but would have preferred Marjory's best friend Carolyn to have been a more rounded figure; we didn't seem to see her tics and foibles in quite the same way.  

There were some odd continuity errors, specifically with names. A young woman, Frances, often became Francis, switching several times between the two and sometimes even on the same page. Joe Cotten also at some point became Joe Cotton. Since I read this a few months before publication, I'm assuming that we were sent an ARC and these small proofreading issues will by now have been ironed out.

I must reiterate that I read this as if it were complete fiction, and thus needed to think about the overall shape of the book and the themes. On that basis, does it work as a novel? Yes, because the very separate threads of Marjory's life come together and show how the needs of others threatened to suffocate her, but I also got the sense that her life seems to have served as a metaphor for what was happening, not just in the US but to the wider world. Technology, development, emancipation: all of these affect the people in the book, including Grandmother Florence who wants so much to vote, just once, before she dies.

Ms McMullen has taken a true life story and turned it into a very readable novel. She imbues Marjory with many qualities, all of them likeable. The only thing that was perhaps missing was that, whilst Marjory mentions often that she is a writer of fiction, we don't see her success in that field. I looked her up after I'd read the book and was staggered by how many of the details of her life the author has managed to slot into the novel, seamlessly. I suspect though that at least one major character is completely fictional, and it would have been enlightening to have some author's notes at the end, firstly to explain to those like me who had not heard of Marjory, and secondly to point out which aspects of her life had been fictionalised. 

It would seem that this is Ms McMullen's first book. As a work of fiction, it is sublime. As a retelling of a true story, it is wonderful. As a debut novel, it's a triumph.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

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