October 18, 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: Review

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Woo-hoo! Finally, I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I don't know how many times I started this book only to end up putting it aside. I guess it wasn't the right time then because this book...she is good.

Walter Hartright is an art teacher looking for a situation because art don't pay. A friend finds him a cozy job teaching drawing to two young ladies. While travelling to his destination, at night... alone, he stumbles upon a woman dressed (take a guess) in white. She's kind of freaky and after she scurries away, two guys take off after her, claiming she's escaped from a mental asylum.

Walter is shaken up and his curiosity peaked by the mysterious lady especially after he discovers how much the strange woman resembles one of his students, Miss Laura Fairlie. Laura is pretty, blond, quiet, useless and completely uninteresting- of course, he falls madly in love with her. But, alas! it's not to be! Laura is engaged to a baron and, even though she is miserable about it, must marry him because she told her dead father she would. Tears!

Walter travels to South America to mend his broken heart but Laura is now in the clutches of Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco. She is a helpless damsel in distress. What to do! Her sister Marian, a capable, mannish brunette (who nobody loves because who can love a brunette?), tries to protect her but how can she, a woman, save Laura from the fiendish plot that ensnares them all? Oh Walter, where are you?!

My mom is a serious soap opera fan so I grew up on the stuff. I'm pretty sure the plot of The Woman in White has been used a million times by soap opera writers. Sinister foreign dude? Check! Amnesia? Check! Twins? Sort of! Collins knew how to write a pot boiler with gothic elements and I ate the whole thing up. Even if the plot felt familiar, there were quite a few plot twists I did not see coming.

The Woman in White is a epistolary novel told through a series of letters, diaries and legal documents written by several of the characters, all documenting what happened to Laura and Anne Catherick. Walter starts things off by writing the events as he remembers them. He's a dog with a bone; that guy just doesn't give up. I admired Walter's ability to track down each clue to prove to the world that this crime actually occurred. The only thing I didn't like about Walter was his love for Laura. Seriously, this girl has all the personality of a chesterfield. She gets moved around like a pretty piece of furniture. But it's the Victorian era and that's how they like 'em. Docile and dumb. Interestingly, she takes no part in the narrative even though the story is all about her. The reader is only shown Laura through others' eyes.

Laura's one admirable quality is her devotion to Marian. Marian shares the diary she kept while Walter was in South America. She is all that stands between Laura and doooooom! In fact, the only way anyone can get the better of her is when she is incapacitated. Count Fosco even proclaims great esteem for her intellect. A final showdown between her and Fosco would have been exciting but when Walter returns she's relegated to little more than housekeeper. "Time to let the men do the dirty work, Marian, to the kitchen you go (pat, pat)." I liked Walter and Marian so much I wanted to rewrite the ending and have Walter grab her in his arms and declare, "It was you I loved all along, Marian!" But, no.

Count Fosco, to give you an idea of the kind of guy he is, is a lot like Stefano DiMera, the villain from Days of Our Lives, only much more flamboyant. The guy wears a cape and keeps his pet mice in his pocket. He's completely without any scruples and is the brains behind the Fiendish Plot. He definitely keeps things interesting.

The Woman in White isn't a book you're going to finish in a couple of days. It's a big book, about 500 pages, and the writing is full of detail. At times I just wanted Collins to get on with it, but the last couple hundred pages made my patience worth it. Plot twists aplenty! It's a perfect creepy read for Halloween.

Highly recommended.

22 comments :

  1. I read it a few years ago and loved it. The plot is so well crafted and there is so much suspense that it makes you keep reading despite some lengthy passages.

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  2. I've started this a couple of times and gotten side-tracked as well, but I think, too, it was only a question of timing, as it was for you: I'm really looking forward to sinking into it when the timing is right. It sounds creepishly delightful!

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  3. One I want to read sometime, I've heard a lot about it, though not much about the plot. I can see where it might get dull which is good to know beforehand, and interesting to hear the way it's been written!bin

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  4. I read this earlier this year and really enjoyed it. But I completely agree with you about Marian. She was my favorite character and by the end she was relegated to a background role. Boo. Other than that it was wonderful, a perfect October read.

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  5. You are absolutely right it reads a bit like a soap opera :D Like you I really enjoyed this book.

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  6. This book has always sounded great but I saw the size of it in a bookshop once and was completely put off (I know, I know) One day

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  7. I've never watched soap operas but I've been wanting to read this book ever since I read Drood.

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  8. I was surprised by how entertaining this one was!

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  9. This one wasn't my cup of tea, but I do have to say that Count Fosco was amazing! He was just such the perfect villain.

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  10. Em- I was surprised by so many things about it.

    Buried- I've done that with a few classics that I eventually ended up enjoying.

    Charlie- There's a lot of plot (and a lot of book) so it's a bit hard to explain.

    Avid Reader- Someone should write a series of Marian books!

    Zee- It was really good!

    Jessica- I know, the size is intimidating. I put it off for ages.

    Kathy- I have Drood here too. I really need to read it.

    Jill- It was fun!

    She- He is the perfect villain!

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  11. You're right, this book takes some effort. Definitely worth it!

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  12. This may be pot>kettle>black, but when I read that book, there was a "vibe" about it that almost seemed insane to me.

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  13. I've always heard that this is Collins' best novel, but I have never bit the bullet and picked it up. I really need to do so. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

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  14. I really liked it when I read it last year... never did I think I'd like a book like the woman in white! what a great surprise! Glad you too found it enjoyable!

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  15. Oh I love this post! What a way you have of writing about great books. I love your sarcasm.

    I really enjoyed the book,and yes, isn't the end wonderful? I think you're right though, it would have been awesome if Walter decided he loved Marian all along. I can't wait to reread this. So wonderful.

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  16. I have never even heard of this author OR book! Time to hit the classics, eh?

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  17. I LOVED this as well - though you are so right about about Laura. My edition had a VERY odd take on the ending...that it's actually supposed to represent a marital threesome - ewwww!

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  18. I absolutely loved this book, and you're right - it is perfect for Halloween!

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  19. I loved this book! I'm so glad to hear you liked it. You're so right about the soap opera thing. After reading some early gothic novels, I can definitely see how Collins took elements from them as well!

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  20. Stephanie- I was well worth it!

    Shelley- Some of the characters were a bit unbalances.

    Michelle- I could see you reading it, for sure.

    DesLily- I'll be reading more of Collins in the future.

    Rebecca- Obviously Walter had one shortcoming- he had bad taste in women.

    Christina- I hope you do!

    Lyndsey- Oh my! I never thought of that but it wouldn't surprise me. Collins was a bit of a ladies man.

    Swapna- I took it off the shelf for several Octobers but finally sat down and read it.

    Amanda- Yes, it's definitely in the gothic category.

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  21. I had really hoped to read this by now, but just haven't managed to work it in! I must make it a priority for next year!

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  22. FABULOUS review! I'm actually not quite done with it... WHATEVER am I doing here reading blogs - BAH. I'm going back to my reading now. I, too, am sad that Marian can only now wait for Walter to do stuff... drat. (I do LOVE this review!)

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