There have been several attempts at the What-If notion about characters coming out of books or readers popping in. And while I have only read a few of them, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is now my gold standard.
The trick is that Parry manages to excel on three levels simultaneously. Character, Plot, and Theme.
There are multiple pov characters: Rob, Charley, Millie, and Lydia; in about that order of frequency. Rob is not only the older brother of Charley, the brilliant literary scholar who can pull characters out of books, but he’s also a colossal asshole, and that’s the point of him. I had to frequently remind myself that this is how character arcs work. People learn and grow, often more slowly than you’d like.
During the puzzle and adventure of a plot about a mysterious summoner, Rob’s relationship with Charley brings us the theme of how we are all stories and we are all shaped by the narratives told to us by those we trust and admire. What we say matters. People use each other as mirrors to shape self-esteem and learn what’s possible.
And then there’s the brilliant underlying notion that not every reader interprets a book the same way. We know this, but we lose sight of it in our social discourse and cognitive bias (and I’m not just talking about books, now). Parry shows how ignoring this can lead to villainy and strife. Plus, this gives her the opportunity to get in some magnificent, nerdy literature critique. It made me wish I were pursuing a Lit degree. And, it definitely made me want to read Dickens.
Unlike the above, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, does require you to have foreknowledge of the classics in question (and some historical info). While there are neatly placed summaries for the uninitiated, the ending won’t have the same clever impact without a little bit of an investment in Jane Eyre’s love life.
The parallel plot point of Rochester and Thursday Next’s marital woes is good, but I struggled with the “rules” of the book magic. There’s a lot of authorial handwavium, and that would work fine if the sentence structure didn’t take itself so damn seriously. As it is, the sentences yawn and plod. Even the action scenes read like scenery.
I also noticed a lack of real stakes. It’s all well and good for the fictional world to rise up at the theft of an original manuscript, but why? How does changing the literature actually matter? Without that explanation, I just never really cared about any of it – which in some ways makes the humor work better, I suppose. Her father’s appearances were my favorite part, followed closely by her uncle and aunt.
The puns and names and pets and strange alternate histories in The Eyre Affair make up for the other issues I have with the overall writing. The ending is solid and satisfying, which is a huge bonus. The trick for me was sticking with the pages long enough to get to the end.
Thanks for reading!
If you enjoy my book reviews, you might like my Patreon. Supporters get fun stuff in the mail!