25 September 2009

Book Review: The Woman in White

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The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins

Back in July I came across Savidge Reads, a great blog all about great books. Written by Simon Savidge, the blog has a section that Savidge refers to as his Readers Table where he lists some of his favorite books. Among the titles listed there are some favorites of mine like Brideshead Revisited and On Chesil Beach but there are also lots of books I had never even heard of let alone read. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was one of the latter. In the ensuing weeks as I traveled around the blogosphere, I kept running across mentions of Collins and The Woman in White in particular. I began to feel like I might be missing out on something. So when I was online buying a book or two, I decided to add The Woman in White to the list.

When the 600+ page book showed up I thought “My, that will make a great door stop.” The thing was huge. When was I ever going to pick that baby up and read it? Somewhat to my surprise I picked it up last weekend. I had just finished two very slim volumes and for some reason six hundred pages of Wilkie Collins began whispering to me from my TBR pile. The introduction in my edition (Barnes & Noble Classics) and the two prefaces by Collins’ himself almost made me put the book back on the pile. Not that there was anything wrong with them, I just feel sometimes like prefatory remarks can suck the life out of the main event. So I skimmed and skipped forward to the actual text of the novel and within a page and a half I was hooked in a big, big way.

The Woman in White is pure plot, every page is a turner and every chapter is a cliffhanger. Not surprising then to find out that the book began life as a serial. Beginning in 1859, installments of The Woman in White appeared in Charles Dickens’ weekly publication All the Year Round in Britain and in the U.S. in Harper’s Weekly. The first installment ran in the same issue as the final installment of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (Dickens was a mentor of Collins and in 1860 Collins’ brother married Dickens’ daughter Kate.)

I have been accused from time to time of liking books without a whole lot of plot and that are very low on thrills and spills. In that regard The Woman in White is decidedly not a typical book for me. It is full of intrigue, mystery, and anxiety induced moments. A kind of whodunit, except often times the mystery at hand isn't who done it, but what "it" is in the first place. On the other hand, the period detail and the inclusion of letters, journal entries and other English bits and bobs put the book right up my alley.

I won’t even attempt to give a synopsis of the plot which is fabulously and plausibly implausible. It is way too complicated and too convoluted to make much sense of it here. It has lots of little peaks along the way with one or two big climaxes before you actually get to the final resolution. One could argue that some of the earlier plot climaxes could have easily, and perhaps appropriately, ended the book a couple of hundred pages sooner. But given that it was in Collins’ self-interest to stretch the serial out as long as possible, it is easy to understand why the book is as long as it is. But the book is interesting enough that you want it to last for 600 pages anyway.

Suffice it to say that The Woman in White is an entirely satisfying book. It is the kind of book that is hard to put down. The one that makes calling in sick worth it.

For other takes on The Woman in White check out these other blog posts on The Zen LeafA Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, The Critical Cynic, A Reader’s Journal.

Note on the cover image shown above.
A few editions of The Woman in White, as well as other novels use this striking image. It is James McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” painted in 1862. I have been lucky to see this painting in person many, many times since it lives at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington which is only about three miles from my house. And at almost 84 inches (213 cm) it is taller than my 6’2” frame. Pretty impressive. (The painting, not my frame.)

7 comments:

  1. I read The Woman in White last October and really enjoyed it. However, I love The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which I read a number of years ago; it is more crime novel than sensation but similar to The Woman in White with its multiple narratives and documented evidence.

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  2. do you think i would enjoy this novel?

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  3. PR: I was just thinking about the fact that Collins wrote 26 novels so I have a few more to look forward to. Good to know that Moonstone is your favorite, gives me a clue where to go next. Although after being in Collins' world for a few days, I definitely found the need to find something quiet and spare to read. So I will have to work up to cracking open another one.

    Deniz: Hard to say. But my guess is no. I think the old timey detail would drive you nuts.

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  4. Hooray for Wilkie Collins! I've read both the Woman in White and The Moonstone and last year I read Armadale. He is a favorite.

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  5. I read The Woman in White when I was 16 and I LOVED it! I'm so glad you liked it. There's nothing like a good page turner that's well written. I think that's why I like Sarah Waters so much.

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  6. The Woman in White is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the few I have ever reread. WW was my introduction to Wilkie Collins, now one of my favorite authors. In fact, your post is giving me the itch to take down my volume and give it another read.

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  7. Thank you for this review. Our book club is reading The Woman in White this month; it is my introduction to Wilkie Collins. He's a keeper, for sure. (My paperback version has 780 pgs., though. 600 would have seemed less daunting)
    I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.

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