Today is the US publication date of this novel, so I thought I'd repost this review so that those of you in the US will be encouraged to go out and buy this book...
The thinly-disguised story of Catherine Dickens, wife of the famous author, is at the heart of this unpretentious, unassuming novel.The celebrated author Alfred Gibson has died, leaving England in mourning. His estranged wife, Dorothy (or “Dodo”) sits at home as the funeral and reading of the will take place. As she sits, she looks back on her twenty-year-plus marriage to “the One and Only,” and “The Great Original.” An invitation to visit Queen Victoria, as well to her sister Sissy and the actress Wilhelmina Rickets, leads to another series of reflections on her marriage.
It’s a quiet novel, simple yet complicated in many ways. There’s not much action, certainly not in the present day, but there’s a certain gentleness of language that makes this book compellingly readable. Dodo, despite her shy, retiring ways, is a likeable heroine, strong in the ways a “typical” Victorian woman wasn’t supposed to be. In addition, I enjoyed the way the characters interacted with one another: Dodo’s daughter Kitty, the son-in-law who is obsessed with money; but most of all, Alfred Gibson himself: control freak, obsessed with keeping poverty at bay (even when he was in his most successful period), and eagerness to change the truth when it suits him. I get the feeling that Gibson isn’t supposed to be likeable, but he’s charismatic enough that the people around him tend to overlook his flaws. The only one who realizes who Gibson really was is, ironically, Dodo.
To the modern reader, the Victorian era is a strange place—all those customs regarding mourning, for example, are simply mind-boggling. Dorothy’s world is one that’s strictly defined by traditions and conventions, and Dodo’s story is that of a woman who isn’t afraid to bend the rules a bit. In all, an excellent novel, worthy of having been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I know that the price of this book is a little steep for a paperback, but add it to your wish list this holiday season. It's definitely a book that's worth it.