A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

2020 is almost over. What a dumpster fire the year has been! We are all sick of it. Good riddance! But do permit me to use some blogosphere space to detail one last disappointment. Yes, my most disappointing read of 2020.

Disclaimer: spoilers for the ending.

A Fine Balance, first published in 1995, remains a well-regarded and well-respected novel. Objectively, it is an accomplished work: big and sprawling yet readable. I would not hesitate to recommend it to general and literary readers alike. Despite being 600 pages, the stories are compulsive and the prose user-friendly. It was easy to just keep reading. There is a variety of characters for anyone to have favorites. There are meaty themes for literary readers to sink their teeth into. All my issues with the novel had to do with personal values.

A Fine Balance is a novel in the Dickensian tradition: sweeping and panoramic, consisting of an engaging plot, colorful characters, and both close-up and widescreen shots of a country over a period of time. The Dickensian formula covered the pains and injustices of the Victorian Era, and it is malleable to a variety of historical eras. Rohinton Mistry transported this structure to A Fine Balance. In doing so, he illustrated India during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi – a period rife with many controversies.

On a train journey to a big city by the sea, Maneck, a young student uprooted from his idyllic mountain town, meets two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. The rise of ready-made garments has dwindled their livelihoods and they want to try their luck in the city. The three become friendly and discover they are headed to the same destination: the house of Dina Dalal, a strong-willed widow constantly fighting to retain her independence. They are an unlikely foursome and over the course of the novel, we learn all about their pasts and their family histories while following their lives from the moment of their initial meeting.

I would argue that Indira Gandhi is the 5th principal character of A Fine Balance. She was never addressed by name, only referred to as the Prime Minister. Yet her presence loomed large. Her policies affected all the characters in thorough and poignant ways. The personal is political – and vice versa. In fact, I believe that “the political is personal” is the stronger adage. Politics affect everyone, including the politically illiterate – whether they like it or not.

After 200 pages, I was concerned about the characters Ishvar and Omprakash. Their lives are marked by unending misery. Born into an untouchable caste, their family history is littered with indignity after indignity. Their own lives are full of mistreatment, pain, and horror. The endless sadness of Ishvar and Omprakash’s lives reminded me of poor Victorian chimney sweeps. Not exactly praise. The pathos was ham-handed, histrionic, and lacked nuance.

As the novel went on, a squicky, uncomfortable feeling grew at the pit of my stomach. This is a despairing, hopeless, and nihilistic novel.

Spoiler alert: one of the four major characters committed suicide at the end.

Honestly, I could not fault the decision. After all, life in A Fine Balance is bleak – with no end in sight.

I tried not to balk too much. I admit to often feeling the same way. When all is said and done, life can be rather pointless. The joys you grasp are easily, unfairly, and whimsically superseded by the avalanche of factors out of your control. Sometimes the sad moments outweigh happiness. Sometimes the concept of justice is worthless in the face of life.

Ultimately, my biggest issue with A Fine Balance was how poorly personhood was treated. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Ishvar and Omprakash’s stories. Horrific, even sensationalist, tragedies keep happening to them. And it was relentless. Almost as if the point of A Fine Balance is to strip them both of all humanity and dignity until there was nothing left. You could argue that the novel realistically depicted how the existing system would treat Ishvar and Omprakash, but I am not convinced. Even if you are a writer and these are your creations, I felt something inherently disrespectful in how Ishvar and Omprakash were treated. Like mindless chess pieces with no agency, available only to be harmed and tortured with no regard for their hopes and yearnings. It wouldn’t matter how the characters screamed or prayed or begged. A Fine Balance is a novel that could make atheists out of readers.

Happy moments do exist, but they are so meager. They almost serve as a mockery. It was doubly heartcrushing to see Ishvar and Omprakash continue to carry on. Almost as though they did not understand what had happened to them. I read some reviews that interpreted it as humanity’s unending capacity for resilience and humor. I just saw it as cruelty. Your mileage may vary, of course.

In addition, the stories unintentionally reinforced, rather than subverted, the idea that human efforts to better their lives are pointless. Life is pointless and what we do is pointless so we all ought to stomach our lots in life. If Ishvar’s father didn’t try to fight caste and better his sons’ lives, his descendants might be better off. Again, my own personal reading and all, but I couldn’t help but perceive the novel’s final message as deeply conservative and even regressive.

Endless bleakness is not realism. It’s as implausible as a fairytale happy ending. My favorite book of the year is On Writing by Stephen King. King wrote and agreed that life is, at the end of the day, plotless. Plotless, yes. But plotless is not unending tragedy. I believe we do have some capacity to shape our lives. Yes, I’m quite a hopeful person. But without faith, what is the purpose of anything?

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

What a great opening line! Tells you all you need to you know about our narrator, Mr. Cheong. Like the wife he described, he himself is a man both mediocre and middling by choice and design. Like the sentence strongly implies, his feelings for his wife are flat and bloodless. Mr. Cheong’s life is disrupted when his wife Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat after she is tormented by vivid, bloody nightmares.

From throwing out all animal products, Yeong-hye proceeds to adhere to an extreme vegan diet. Then she abstains from sex, withdraws from conversation, grows alarmingly thin, and displays increasingly disturbed behavior.

The Vegetarian focuses on Yeong-hye’s family rather than Yeong-hye. The woman is almost an empty vessel and her vegetarianism purely a plot device. What we read is the reactions of those around her and we quickly get to see them for who they really are.

The Vegetarian is divided into 3 parts: “The Vegetarian”, where Yeong-hye first becomes vegetarian and is narrated from Mr. Cheong’s perspective, “Mongolian Mark”, when Yeong-hye’s lifestyle grows ever more extreme and her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, and “Flaming Trees”, where Yeong-hye’s sister is left to pick up the pieces of her life while managing Yeong-hye’s welfare.

While The Vegetarian is a novel that invites many interpretations, I see it as a portrayal of how fragile our place in society is. Our safety net of spouse and family all have their own individual lives and careers and worlds to attend to. Who gets to care for you if your mental state deteriorates?

I’m factoring in your family’s love for you. If you are married to a Mr. Cheong, spousal relationship isn’t marked by affection but by briskness and efficiency. Your chances of getting abandoned should you exhibit problematic behavior increases greatly. Better pray you have other people who love you.

In The Vegetarian, many of those around Yeong-hye are left looking callous. Yeong-hye’s sister, who tries the hardest, is left drained by her responsibilities for both her sister and her own family.

The mental disorder of a single person can create untold chaos on his/her circle. How loving and compassionate can we humans be until we grow weary and abandon those who are struggling? How kind are we, at the end of the day? Is unconditional love a lie?

I was enchanted by Han Kang’s writing style: fluid, effortless, and clean. Very compact yet clearly detailed. I’m always drawn to describing this particular crisp prose as “neat”. Like well-organized space, this writing style doesn’t take up more words and pages than it needs but everything you want and need are there anyway.

While the first portion “The Vegetarian” is nothing short of masterful, its following segments “Mongolian Mark” and “Flaming Trees” are not as good. “Mongolian Mark” is surreal in some parts, with a plot that seemed pointless at times – a complete change, and a downgrade in my opinion, from the dynamic realism of “The Vegetarian”. Both story and authenticity of feeling picked up again in “Flaming Trees” but never reached the sublime heights of simplicity and depth in “The Vegetarian”.

Double Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

These two books attracted plenty of attention when they were first published. When I read them individually, I thought there was no point in blogging about them because of the extensive responses they already engendered. But I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose them as they hit on common themes – even if they seem disparate at first glance:

  1. Fire and Fury is an account of Donald Trump’s first months in the White House as President of the USA. It launched a battery of reactions, including some colorful ones from Trump himself when the book was first published.
  2. Bad Blood is the book version of an investigative journalism piece by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, which itself arose from his suspicions about hyped medical-tech startup Theranos. The company’s claim to fame was being able to test hundreds of ailments from a drop of blood. Compared to other tests on the market, Theranos promised to be much more efficient, cost-effective, even revolutionary. It sounded too good to be true, and as Carreyrou would discover, it was too good to be true.

Both narratives have commonalities: bad management, office politics, and toxic environments. It’s no surprise that anywhere you go in life, these three elements are interrelated. Bad management breeds office politics. Together, they create toxic work environments. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t matter if you are central government administration or a Silicon Valley startup. Any organization is prone to such pitfalls.

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Because of how controversial the figures in Fire and Fury are, I view the book’s content as a possible version of the truth. I take every revelation about the Trump administration with a grain of salt, no matter how much I disagree with Trump’s words and actions. I am judging and reviewing characters as depicted in the book. How factual the portrayals are is something I cannot vouch for.

In Michael Wolff’s telling, the Trump administration was run (and maybe is still run) like a deranged startup. The retention rate of its staff, especially in 2017 when most of the book was set, was abysmal.

Flashback to 2017: certain names popped up often in news headlines when Trump began his first year as President. Bannon. Priebus. Ivanka. Kushner. Hope Hicks. Fast forward to 2020. Only Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are left standing from the list of Fire and Fury characters. Family’s near impossible to get rid of, after all. Heck, I forgot all about Reince Priebus until I was writing this blog post.

The debacle of Anthony Scaramucci (remember him?) is covered in Fire and Fury. Man, I remember when his tenure as White House Director of Communications made headlines. It may have been the most entertaining/farcical political episode ever. Ever is a hyperbolic word, but Scaramucci’s rise and epic fail fall was just so surreal and unintentionally hilarious. It was like political satire on steroids. Something a drug-fueled author would invent. It sounded like something out of the Roman Empire. Yet it was real.

As news consumers, the numerous moves and exits by White House staff in 2017 seemed so frightening and unstable. Yet many of them are now largely forgotten. Steve Bannon is now in disgrace. Scaramucci has parlayed his short-lived infamy to now providing media commentary.

Fire and Fury focused on the chaotic mess inside. It was all very gossipy. Bannon swore a lot. Poor Priebus seemed well-intentioned but clueless and ineffective. Bannon fought a lot with Ivanka and Jared Kushner (let’s just call them Jarvanka). Jarvanka were snobbish but clueless as well. Hope Hicks was too young and inexperienced. Jarvanka and Bannon kept trying to one up the other, and would enlist more people to their sides in order to do so. In the middle of all the power struggles, no one seemed to have an idea of how to effectively govern.

Some found the revelations in Fire and Fury scandalous, and the prose could indeed get tabloidy, but to me, the story Wolff told was completely mundane.

What do I mean? At its core, Fire and Fury is the story of what happens when you are led by someone without a vision.

It’s a common story. Many families, organizations, and corporations are led by such figures – they are commonplace, after all. Men (and women) who know how to present themselves to their audience but have no vision, no strategy, no execution ability, and worst of all, no grace to handle responsibility. They cannot lead. The result is inevitably inefficiency, which leads to a leadership vacuum.

I think you know what happens next. Those who see themselves as capable of taking the reins would try to carve out more power for themselves. And that creates political factions, power struggles, backstabbing, etc. In a phrase: office politics. Who hasn’t had to deal with office politics?

Basically, Fire and Fury examines the office politics swarming around a leader who is out of his depth. It has been a while since I read Fire and Fury, but I remember the book focused on the people and factions around President Trump rather than the man himself. It could have been an accessibility issue. Wolff may not have had much direct access to Trump. But I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolff, as author and chronicler, found the characters surrounding Trump more interesting than the man at the center, even if those characters were pretty inept in the telling of Fire and Fury.

Really, I can’t think of a flattering portrait of anyone in Fire and Fury. Just a bunch of people taking advantage of the power vacuum in a firm. Same as in any office. So common is this story that sometimes I do wonder if Fire and Fury is mostly factual after all.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

If Fire and Fury is about the factions around a weak leader trying to control the show behind the scenes, Bad Blood is about an immature and unstable leader who cannot accept criticism and has created a bubble around herself. Dissenters are quashed, only lackeys need apply. “A Despotic Leader” is Bad Blood’s alternate title.

Just like Fire and Fury, this is a story of bad management, and there are enough similarities between them to make me pause. Though I suppose Fire and Fury is more about the team trying to monopolize its leader while Bad Blood is about a leader tyrannizing her team.

Like many startups, Theranos lived by the maxim “fake it till you make it”. They had no product that lived up to their claim, but they were hoping that with time, they would invent the breakthrough they dreamed of: a medical testing machine that could detect a myriad of health ailments from a small amount of patient blood.

Until they could discover such a breakthrough, they lied and frauded investors on what they could actually do. And what they could actually do was test blood samples on commercially available machines. Their own inventions were prototypical at best and woefully unstable at worst. The rate of mistaken results was unacceptably high and the machines constantly malfunctioned. Not only was the company practicing fraud, it was endangering people by partnering with Walgreens to actively test consumer blood without a viable product.

For a time, however, Theranos was the darling of tech startups. It garnered lots of venture capital and even respected advisors. Its valuation skyrocketed. Focus was always spotlighted on Theranos’s young founder Elizabeth Holmes. A dropout of Stanford University, she was determined, bright, and charismatic. She attracted the media because in a male-dominated world, she was a rare female founder.

Inside the company, Carreyrou found an unholy mess. Not only was Theranos built on lies and a malfunctioning prototype, any dissent was eliminated. Any competent and/or compassionate manager was summarily dismissed. Or they resigned in disgust. Holmes and her President & COO Sunny Balwani (also her boyfriend at the time) were jokes to their staff.

John Carreyrou (and Theranos ex-employees who tipped him off) displayed incredible courage in pursuing this story. The Theranos legal team threatened them with what was essentially mob tactics.

Bad Blood is certainly a pageturner. I read it during my summer holiday last year. Even against the breathtaking backdrop of the Amalfi Coast, I couldn’t stop reading. I can distinctly remember when I finished Bad Blood: on a bus ride between Amalfi and Ravello. What a whiplash to take in the gorgeous view while reading a page or two when the bus made rapid turns.

A photo I took of the Amalfi Coast to illustrate the point

Like Fire and Fury, there is something tabloidy about Bad Blood. It’s a very dramatic yarn, full of extreme bad behavior all around. Why do we read celeb gossip? Because scandals and vices are fun to leer at. Bad Blood hits at those buttons.

Like in Fire and Fury, the main character of Bad Blood feels distant and remote. For all the former employees and direct sources Carreyrou interviewed, I never felt like I truly grasped Holmes’s psyche. Did she believe in her cause? Was she greedy and immoral? Did she start as the former then morphed into the ugly latter?

Sunny was easier to understand. He was just a laughable bully. A bit disappointing to pick at. I wonder if Holmes too was just a garden-variety mess at the end of the day. If that’s the case, Holmes would hate such an assessment – that there was never anything impressive about her. She and Trump share a desire to awe people, it seems.

Of course, this narrative distance may have been caused by Holmes and Balwani’s refusal to see Carreyrou or provide any comment to him. And to be fair, Carreyrou is an investigative journalist, not a psychologist.

Still, Bad Blood left me feeling a bit hollow. Both books were not fully satisfying, to be honest. Maybe that was the unintended message. Don’t believe the hype in cult of personalities. Most of the time, the key figure involved is about as interesting as the coworker you try your best to avoid.

The actions described in Fire and Fury and Bad Blood don’t really interest me. I don’t need these books to tell me they are bad behavior. I think the whiff of scandal associated with these books masks what I’ve been banging on about so far: these are ordinary stories. You and I have had experience with them. I’m sure of it.

Earlier this year, I read The Laundromat, a non-fiction book about the Panama Papers and global tax evasion. Same. I was disappointed by how unmemorable its major characters were. They were just average greedy and amoral people. Nothing particularly interesting about them.

Now that time has elapsed, our attention has shifted away from Fire and Fury and Bad Blood. Every week, there are new gaffes made by the Trump administration, which will inevitably be followed by tut-tutting commentaries (most of the time, rightfully so).

Last year, the documentaries about Theranos seemed endless. But while the Theranos trial process is still ongoing, the story is past the news cycle.

It’s 2020. Covid dominates all.

Then again, this is a hallmark of the digital age. A fresh, slightly scandalous story receives attention. It is shared by many accounts on multiple platforms. Every website on the Internet wants the eyeballs viewing this story. Cue an avalanche of listicles like “Why It Matters That A Said B” and “5 Reasons We Should Be Outraged About X”. Then we hit saturation point and move on to the next big story. We’ll consume, pick apart, and analyze, Then get bored and move on.

Fire and Fury and Bad Blood have reminded me that the truths behind the headlines are usually timeless, universal, and even mundane. There’s not much point in getting hyped. Approach any new revelation with a sober mind.

Emma by Jane Austen, Part III

This is the final part of three blog posts about Emma by Jane Austen. Part I delved into the novel’s incredible narration and structure. Part II focused on its characters. Here, I will discuss the themes and values of Emma.

Disclaimer: Heavy spoilers. If you haven’t read Emma, you may not want to continue reading.

Emma, the themes

The impression a book makes on a bibliophile is twofold: technical and personal. Technically, Emma is a faultless novel. But ask any reader and you would find that their favorite books are ones that affect them emotionally, on a personal level. And what is more personal than your values?

Since the story of Emma revolves around Highbury and its social pecking order, it goes without saying that the prominence of social status is an important theme of the novel. Your socioeconomic class dictated the numerous laws and etiquette you must adhere to. Case in point, who the Coles could invite to dinner parties and how. Etiquette was different when inviting the Bateses (social inferiors) vs. the Woodhouses (class superiors).

Social status is also a major, if not the most crucial, factor in determining who you would marry.

All this is accurate to its time, but you would be a fool to think (at least some of) it doesn’t apply to contemporary times. The socioeconomic backgrounds we were born into shape a lot of our lives and identities.

Emma is a novel preoccupied with who constituted your “equal”. Some examples below:

  • Mr. Knightley disliked the unequal friendship between Emma and Harriet. He accurately perceived that Harriet’s mildness and awe of Emma would flatter the latter and exacerbate her tendency towards self-indulgence.
  • Mr. Elton was outraged that Emma presumed Harriet to be an adequate romantic match for him.

Not only did the novel raise the question of social equals, it also asked, “who is your equal marriage partner?” I was delighted that the narrative took time to explore how equal was never just about social class and status. You want to spend your life with people who are your equal in wit, discernment, and character. Part of Emma Woodhouse’s journey in the novel was understanding the difference between surface and character.

And yet. I didn’t always like how the themes of class and status were handled in Emma. Sometimes the idea that equality came from character got muddled in the novel, at times the idea even lost out to the superficial – reestablishing the notion that that your “place” is defined by your birth. It didn’t sit right with me. The status you were born into should never eclipse your character as a person.

Nowhere was this most seen than in the disintegration of Emma and Harriet’s friendship near the novel’s end. Emma’s growing coldness was likely meant to show romantic jealousy rather than class-consciousness, but it made me sad that their friendship pretty much dissipated after they both got their romantic happy endings.

It’s not that I don’t understand how Emma and Harriet were actually ill-matched. Both are essentially good people with good hearts, but their traits blocked each other’s improvement. Harriet’s final match really was what was best for her.

Yet the marked distancing from Harriet in the novel’s final chapter, especially with Emma’s narration, was jarring. In the majority of the book, both girls were so warm and effusive in their affection towards each other.

It is difficult to believe that Jane Austen, with all her writing talent, subversive wit, and pointed commentary, didn’t mean at least some of this ‘Harriet married what was good for her. So did Emma. Let’s stop them intermingling now’ deliberately. It was compounded by the revelation of Harriet’s parentage in the final chapter, making Emma and Harriet’s connection even less desirable from a class standpoint.

Perhaps Austen was simply being a realist. Or I need to make more concessions to the mores of the time. But I myself am a product of my time and age, and this is the first time I felt uncomfortable with how certain ideas were expressed in an Austen novel. Normally I find her commentary fresh and timeless.

Emma the novel had some excellent passages on what makes a respectable person, but it didn’t always succeed.

It has been a few months since I read Emma. Despite being at times disappointed by it, it remains deeply memorable. It takes a special book to elicit all this writing!

Does my disagreement with certain authorial choices make me wish Emma was a different novel? I don’t think so, actually. On the one hand, you want the books you enjoy to be perfectly suited to your tastes. But I’m realistic enough to know the chances of that happening are slim. You would be indifferent to many of the books you read; that’s just the way it is. Anyway, you are not the author – no matter how well you get along or agree with her. That’s life.

After Emma, I’m only more determined to read more Austen rather than stop here. Funny how things work. I think I’ll pick up Northanger Abbey next. We need to read more cute and funny novels in the age of covid.

Emma by Jane Austen, Part II

In the previous post, I wrote about the structure, POV, and narration of Emma by Jane Austen. Part II is focused on the characters of the novel.

Disclaimer: Spoilers. If you haven’t read Emma, you may want to stop reading.

Emma, the character

Emma is Jane Austen’s only major novel titled after its main character, and it is easy to see why: Emma Woodhouse is its life and soul. There may be an ensemble cast of characters, but Emma is central to Highbury and is the center of the narrative.

The Queen Bee

Austen famously wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Not true, many bookworms have grown to adore Emma (myself included). She would not fit everyone’s taste, certainly, but her creator had severely underestimated Emma’s charm. Emma the novel would lose 95% of its sparkle without Emma the character.

So, how shall I describe Emma Woodhouse?

  1. She’s lively, cheerful, charming, delightful, and witty. TL;DR: she’s fun to be with. Odd, seeing how she grew up with a gloomy, always anxious father. Neither her sister nor her governess is a sparkling conversationalist. Mr. Knightley, while giving her the intellectual challenge she needed, is too sensible to engage in the whimsical play that witty banter requires.
  2. She loves her family dearly and takes care of her father to the best of her ability. It’s surprising how someone as lively and sociable as Emma had never been cross to her father, whose extreme worries had limited much of Emma’s life and movements. Yet Emma warmly accommodated all his whims.
  3. She tries her best to be a good friend. I do think despite Harriet being at the right place and the right time (by which I mean, if anyone other than Harriet had been available to befriend, Emma was likely to take the other person and be snobby to Harriet), Emma was a genuine friend to her – even though she had many limitations.
  4. There were clear instances where she was shown to be both compassionate and sensible.
  5. Despite her at times wicked humor, Emma is surprisingly conflict averse. She wanted everyone to get along, and to that end she always tried hard to be amiable and civil. She used her great social intuition to direct conversations away from topical minefields so everyone could have a great time without drawing attention to herself.

On the other hand:

  1. As mentioned in the first post, she’s indulged and a little lazy. All the resources at her disposal and she never maximized them to be someone as accomplished as she could be. Instead, she flitted from one interest to another. It was mentioned that she could have been an expert at drawing/music/whatever if only she really applied herself. Ha! I know people like this. Learning comes easily to them; they don’t have to work hard to grasp concepts. In a counterproductive way, their own natural intellect stood in the way.
  2. She’s totally a snob. I both wanted to laugh and roll my eyes when Emma waited for an invitation from the Coles, whom she considered her social inferiors, so she could reject it as propriety demanded. Then she became indignant when the invitation was slow in coming. Haha. Basically: ‘how dare they snub me by taking their time as I am about to snub them!’ Emma’s behavior was in accordance to the etiquette of the time but it wasn’t exactly endearing.
  3. The flip side of wit: Emma can be unnecessarily cutting and cruel with her words. Worse? She’s loose-lipped. It’s entertaining to the reader as she’s so fun and witty, but I wished she held her tongue at times. Witty people often cut deep. And the world is full of those who easily get butthurt.
  4. She’s prone to self-delusion and self-inflation (despite being aware of her own attempts at self-delusion). In one instance, she paints a flattering portrait of Harriet – adding a little extra height in her drawing. Emma is conscious of the artifice, even if everyone else (except Mr. Knightley) agree with her rendition.

Man, seeing the above makes me appreciate how despite Austen’s love for Emma, she never shied away from baldly displaying her worse traits.

If Emma is a mystery novel, Emma Woodhouse is our unreliable narrator. Her personality and her centrality in Highbury life created many blind spots. Sometimes the real action happened at the margins, yet those minor events held the key to solving the mysteries. Sometimes it was Emma herself who fogged things. LOL at her analysis of Jane Fairfax’s story. She concluded that Jane had torrid, romantic feelings for her best friend’s husband. Emma was right that something suspicious was going on, and when you think about it, she was on the right track – her takeaway was just too dramatic. Clearly, Emma had been reading too many overblown romances. Wonder if this was a reference to Northanger Abbey?

I know some readers doubt Emma’s intelligence. After all, how could she be smart when she got so much wrong? Well, yes. But I chalk that up to inexperience, which is different from lacking sense. Emma always had the sharp instinct to read between the lines, to know from a situation that something wasn’t right. She may have created the wrong conclusions, but her wits and intuition were sound.

Matchmaking was completely the wrong venture for Emma. Someone with no firsthand experience of romantic love had no business interfering in love affairs.

I suspect Emma was simply bored and stifled in Highbury, with no outlet for her creativity. Matchmaking was a misguided activity, but Emma needed something to occupy her time.

Emma is the star, but the novel has a cast of memorable side characters. Mr. Woodhouse, for one, reminds me of a dear, affable grandfather. When you think about the extent of his hypochondriac restrictions, he could easily veer into a tyrant type or an object of mockery. Yet he was somehow so likeable – a testament to Jane Austen’s characterization. I think Mr. Woodhouse was one of her great comic creations. Loveable and quirky enough for us to side with him, inane and ridiculous enough for us to laugh at him. It was a fine balance that Austen pulled off with aplomb, where the humor is perfectly good-natured.

I suspect Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s aunt, was based on a real person Austen had to suffer through during her lifetime. She was too annoying to be a product of writerly imagination. I felt trapped and exhausted reading 2 pages of her monologuing and going off tangents when just one sentence would do.

Every time Miss Bates opened her mouth, she reminded me of Genos from the Japanese manga One-Punch Man blathering about his convoluted origin story to Saitama.

This. 100%

As if to compensate for her aunt’s constant chatter, Jane Fairfax is reserved, almost boringly so in my opinion. Jane Fairfax is presented as Emma’s foil, an elegant and educated young lady who made full use of the opportunities available to her. For example, Jane was a better musician than Emma despite the time and resources at the latter’s disposal. It is implied that Emma was jealous of Jane’s accomplishments, even if she masked it by commenting on how cold and aloof Jane was.

Personally though, I found Jane’s parts a slog. Yes, the narrative is filtered through Emma’s biases, but I thought the only moments Jane could be made interesting were when Emma would snark and comment on her. I mean, Jane’s elegant – but so is vanilla pudding. To me, she never held a candle to the charming and mischievous Emma Woodhouse.

Thank goodness for Frank Churchill, who livened things up alongside Emma. Poor Emma for having to shoulder nearly all the charm of the novel!

It’s funny to read through other people’s comments about Emma the novel and Emma the character. Such a pastime is made especially easy with the recently released 2020 film adaptation. I can find anything from “Emma is snobby but has a good heart” to “Emma is a tone-deaf self-inflated mediocre woman who likes to poke her nose into other people’s business. The entire novel is a satire on how clueless and dimwitted the nobility is. Only Mr. Knightley is portrayed as respectable.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

I mean, LOL. Obviously, my thoughts are more aligned with the former. In fact, I must apologize for subjecting you to all this word vomit when one phrase would do. I may be more like Miss Bates than I’d like. Oh, the irony!!

So you’ve a masterful structure, witty writing, and lively characterization: all the hallmarks of a novel that stands the test of time. What else is there to talk about? Themes, of course. I will discuss those at the next and final installment of my Emma blog posts.

Emma by Jane Austen, Part 1

I recently uploaded a blog post about Pride and Prejudice. I had the same dilemma when writing about Emma. Namely, what is there to talk about? Surely we have exhausted every angle there is to write about when discussing Jane Austen novels.

I couldn’t help but feel I’m inundating the web with something people are already overfamiliar with. Jane Austen is part of the standard education curriculum in the West and the entertainment world can’t stop churning out adaptations of her work (not that I’m complaining). Just look at Emma. We’ve had a major film/TV adaptation of it in every decade.

And yet the final word count for this blog post is 4,100+ words. I decided to split it into three to make the content more readable. It says something that a novel published more than 2 centuries ago could still elicit such frenzy. Not just from me, but also readers, academics, and the entertainment industry.

Disclaimer: I discuss the plot of Emma extensively. As Jane Austen novels are so well-known and well-loved by bibliophiles around the world, uploading a general book review seemed redundant. If you haven’t read Emma and don’t want to spoil the experience, you may want to stop reading.

This is a thorough, if personal, dissection. I want to focus on three things:

  1. The novelistic structure of Emma,
  2. Emma the character, and
  3. The themes and values in Emma.

As in Pride and Prejudice, matrimony in Emma is only half the story. Stopping at the romance when assessing Austen’s fiction is reductive as Austen never forgot the big issues surrounding love and marriage. Money has always loomed large in her work. So did values and character. In Emma, the social status of potential love matches suffuses all discussions of romance.

The heroine of Emma is a snob. No adaptation can ignore this side of her – even if one wanted to make her more likeable. You just can’t. This is a novel obsessed with one’s standing in society, and as Queen Bee of its setting, Emma the character may be most obsessed of all.

From the very first sentence of Emma, readers are accosted by its titular character:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Such a strong introduction. And little wonder! Emma rules social life in her village Highbury. Part of the landed gentry and the second family of consequence in town, the Woodhouses are outranked only by their neighbor and close friend Mr. Knightley. Smarter than any of her family members, Emma is made spoiled and a little lazy by her natural cleverness, social instinct, status, and her family’s adoration of her. Only Mr. Knightley challenges her and provides her with constructive criticism.

When Miss Taylor, Emma’s live-in governess and dear companion since childhood, married Mr. Weston, a well-regarded widower of some success, a large hole is created in Emma’s day-to-day existence. Though Mr. Weston’s estate was very close to the Woodhouses’, Emma’s anxious and hypochondriac father is never keen on travel, no matter how short the distance. To cope, Emma began a fast friendship with Harriet Smith, a local student. Emma desired to make a good match for Harriet, and her misguided attempts along with the various romantic intrigue in Highbury fueled the storylines of the novel.

Emma, the novel

Prior to Emma, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; Emma is without a doubt the most technically accomplished of them all. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are fairly simple stories in comparison. Not that Emma’s plot is complicated, but its structure is masterful – aided by secondary characters more interesting and with richer stories than in, say, Pride and Prejudice (despite my undying love for it).

Emma is essentially a mystery novel where the resolution is finding the right romantic partner, not who committed the crime. A whoisit, not a whodunit. Some people may scoff at the “mystery” at the heart of Emma, but when you think about it, whether or not your love interest reciprocates your feelings is one of the biggest mysteries you will be most invested in during your lifetime.

So what mysteries are there in Emma?

  1. Emma Woodhouse’s big project, aka Harriet’s love life. Emma wanted to match her new friend with Mr. Elton, Highbury’s popular young vicar. Would Emma’s matchmaking efforts succeed? Were Mr. Elton and Harriet compatible in the first place?
  2. Frank Churchill’s visit: Frank is Mr. Weston’s son from his previous marriage and had been fostered by his very wealthy aunt and uncle since he was a small boy. Since then, Frank had never visited Highbury. Yet at the start of the novel, he indicated that he would soon visit. Why the sudden trip?
  3. Jane Fairfax’s return: beautiful, elegant, accomplished yet orphaned and poor, Jane is a local girl brought up away from Highbury with Colonel Campbell, her father’s former commander, his wife, and their daughter. She was given a good education by the Campbells, but they had no means to provide more so it was always expected that Jane would become a governess to fend for herself. Jane is dearly loved by the Campbells and vice versa, so why did she opt to return to Highbury when the Campbells had the opportunity to extend their last stretch of time with her? What caused her premature return?
  4. Emma herself: would she have a match of her own?

Remarkably for a novel of the time period, its POV, while not first person, is very much attached to Emma Woodhouse. We are privy to her thoughts, ideas, and discoveries – and little else. Readers have a limited viewpoint and scope, which restricts how much we know and creates something of a claustrophobic feeling.

Moreover, all significant plot strands are constrained within Highbury, a hierarchical village, and there is very little travel undertaken by Emma Woodhouse. In fact, it is revealed that she had never traveled outside Highbury all her life at the start of the novel. Her father, ever anxious, would not bear the health “risks”. There’s a feeling in Emma that life doesn’t really move forward without letters, news from a neighbor, or some gossip from the shopkeeper. Life feels stifled and inactive. Little wonder Emma was so enthusiastic about her matchmaking. She was probably bored out of her mind. And of course, all this amplified the claustrophobic feel of Emma the novel.

Because we are stuck with only Highbury as location and Emma’s perspective as viewpoint, Emma the novel is squarely about a local community, its diverse cast (we get to meet so many inhabitants of Highbury: from the apothecary to the boarding-school mistress to the rising merchant class), and Emma Woodhouse as our undisputed star – and I will explore more of her character in another post.

When it comes to writing and structure, every plot and subplot in Emma are tightly contained and perfectly executed. All plot threads culminate in Volume II, Chapter VIII of Emma.

I consider this chapter a literary masterpiece: it is compilation, set-up, and climax all at once. The mysteries have been properly established and here, Austen raised the stakes. Set in a party where many Highbury folks gathered, it is revealed that Jane Fairfax received a mystery gift of a pianoforte. Speculators pounced. Who was the anonymous giver?

The general assumption landed on the Campbells. In a gossipy chat, Mrs. Weston (née Miss Taylor) theorized to Emma: what if it was Mr. Knightley? He was, after all, fond of Jane. Emma had her own ideas.

But that was not the only fuel for the Highbury rumor mill in this soirée. Frank Churchill and Emma were visibly and obviously flirting. While we are closely following Emma throughout, the villagers were also invested in Highbury’s romantic intrigues. Emma’s own love life was a chief topic, despite Emma not always picking up on it when she conversed with others.

Volume II, Chapter VIII is a compilation of the major unresolved mysteries in the novel (excepting Mr. Elton and Harriet – which had been resolved but substituted with another conflict at that point), an introduction to more possibilities that either serve as clues or to lead us astray, and a climax gearing up for resolution. The setting of Emma may be domestic, but reading it felt as delightfully tense as reading a mystery novel at times. I wanted more hints and information.

Emma’s perfect structure is, of course, delivered with Austen’s signature sparkling wit. It’s Jane Austen, can you expect anything less?

In Emma, Austen found the perfect vehicle for her delightful dialogue in our titular heroine. Witness the scene where Harriet wondered why Emma had no marital interest of her own despite being so charming. Emma’s response?

“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming – one other person at least […]”

Reader, I laughed.

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want. I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”

I love the above statement. It’s witty and pointed while showing you that for all her faults, Emma is self-aware and cognizant of societal reality. She knows that her privilege of choice came from her wealth and the social status she was born into. She is also aware of standards in society, saying next that a spinster living in poverty is an object of ridicule, “but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable […]” With such luck, Emma could afford to try the road less taken. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Typical of Austen’s work, Emma is not only replete with arch wit, it is full of memorable comic scenes. Austen truly was the QUEEN of excruciating family meals. She loved the torment inherent in awkward society gatherings, but the ensuing hilarity is manna for readers! Remember Mr. Collins eating with the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice? (Also known as the “excellent boiled potatoes” scene in the 2005 film adaptation.) Well, dinner between the Woodhouses and the Knightleys in Volume I of Emma is even more awkward.

Awkward conversations in awkward family dinners. Source.

Strong scenes and lively wit are propelled by great literary characters – of which Emma is filled to the brim. But none is as unforgettable as Emma Woodhouse, whose character I will delve deeper into in my next blog post.

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My copy of Little House in the Big Woods may be 20 years old now. I can’t remember exactly how long I’ve had it. I mean, look at this photo:

The pages of my copy have the yellow-brown tint of vintage (cough, old) books. It has begun to smell like something on my grandfather’s shelves, which are stocked with titles from the 60s and 70s.

My copy has also become delicate. Look! I chipped the lower left edge of its back cover.

The fabric tape with “Book #1” written on it remains sturdy to this day though.

Whenever I turn the pages of my Little House in the Big Woods, they make a concerning creaking noise so I was dainty in reading as I didn’t want the book to fall apart (and yet I still chipped that edge. Curses!)

I am deeply attached to my copy and will keep it as long as I can. Little House in the Big Woods and 3 subsequent books from the series were gifted to me by my aunt’s mother-in-law (whom I shall call Grandma R) when I was a young girl spending her holidays in Seattle.

My aunt married an American and they settled near Seattle for many years. My cousins were raised in Washington state and my family would visit as I was growing up. These visits exposed me to elements of American culture I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I remember going Halloween trick-or-treating one year.

Grandma R would visit my aunt and uncle’s Washington home too. During a visit when everyone converged (probably a Christmas holiday), Grandma R gave me the books. She must have chosen them because my aunt told her I was a little bookworm. I had zero life as a young girl: all I did was study, read, and write in diaries. Uh. To be fair, nothing has changed…

I remember Grandma R saying that she loved the books as a little girl and hoped I would too. I did not see her often and she has now sadly passed away. I treasure the remaining memories I have of her: how she wore pastel chunky sweaters, how she baked sugar cookies for me and my brother and my cousins using Pillsbury dough (is there a more American brand?), and how she loved collecting lighthouse-related paraphernalia from paintings to figurines. Most of all, I treasure these 4 Little House books. They are now my most tangible connections to her. Sometimes items outlive us, often they are less fleeting than memories. Sometimes, you live in the things you leave behind.

I remember loving the books as Grandma R hoped. On afternoons after school, I would devour them inside an air-conditioned car braving the notorious Jakarta traffic to get home. My body may be stuck in traffic congestion, but my imagination was absorbed by the wilderness of 19th century North America.

Rereading this at 30, I think some of the writing isn’t great: the prose doesn’t always flow well and the story is at times choppily presented. Little House in the Big Woods is slice of life – a year in the life, to be exact. It follows a year of life in the Wisconsin “Big Woods” for Laura’s family.

Life for little Laura and her family in their log house was isolated and subject to the seasons. They were hours away from the nearest town and hours away from other family members in their log houses in other areas of the “Big Woods” so they had to be self-sufficient.

We begin when winter was coming. Laura, her big sister Mary, Ma, and Pa had to cure meats to make sure they had enough food supply to last the winter. Winter was also for making maple sugar and maple syrup, spring was for making cheese, summer was for planting vegetables, and autumn was for harvest and storing food away for another winter.

Family members would visit each other for Christmas, dances, and to help each other with harvest crops. While families in the “Big Woods” were independent, there was still enough social interactions to nurture life.

As a child, I loved these descriptions of chores from a bygone era. Life, in Little House in the Big Woods, was very tactile. You churned your own butter, you made your own cheese, you created your survival. As a child getting her produce from supermarkets and her food cooked by others, there was something enchanting and exotic about Little House in the Big Woods.

As a 30-year-old, I see Little House in the Big Woods as a profoundly American product. The story it tells is the Puritan lifestyle: absolutely no work and no smiles on Sabbath day, strip yourself of all frivolity, rigid days of never-changing and never-ending chores, etc. Without this constant ethos of hard work, you would die. At times, I sensed a rejection of pleasure that I simultaneously admired and recoiled against.

This isn’t to say that life in Laura’s household was always po-faced. They had the simple joys of Pa playing his fiddle and telling stories. They sometimes went to the general store to buy pretty fabrics for dresses. They would go to grandma & grandpa’s for dances and delicious big family dinners. As an adult, however, it’s easy to see that Laura took so much pleasure in these trips because of how few and far between they were. Law of diminishing returns and all…

As a 30-year-old, Little House in the Big Woods does read like an instruction manual for the pioneer lifestyle and like an instruction manual to raise good little boys and girls. A bit didactic. At this point in my life, I prefer my stories to be subtler.

(Of course, I couldn’t help but smile a little. With all this manual labor, who’s got time to deal with an existential crisis?)

If I were to read Little House in the Big Woods for the first time as a 30-year-old, out of curiosity for this American children’s classic, I’d leave underwhelmed. I’d be glad to have checked it off the endless list of books I would like to read before I die but I wouldn’t seek out Little House on the Prairie, the next book in the series (and the one I remember as my favorite!).

But my relationship with Little House in the Big Woods is not purely about its content. In fact, its content matters little. The book no longer takes me to the woods of Wisconsin; it takes me to innocent childhood days of seeing firsthand life in the American suburbs, of baking Pillsbury cookies, of Grandma R’s sweaters and sweetness.

These books now embody Grandma R to me rather than a children’s story. Fiction evokes the emotional. No. Fiction is emotional.

Rereading Little House in the Big Woods also created a connection to my younger self. There were long descriptions of Pa making hunting bullets and cleaning his rifle that I forgot existed. Yet scenes and imagery of Mary churning butter and Laura’s palpable joy from receiving her first real doll for Christmas remain in my mind’s eye even to this day.

It made me smile. I was always a girly girl. Now I’m just a very feminine woman. Some things don’t change. I still had to force down boredom when reading passages about guns and hunting game. But I still devour pages about making homemade cheese and maple syrup with gusto.

It’s such a cliched takeaway, but our personal histories often eclipse the textual content of a book. The words in a book connect us to the wider world: they teach us about various fields and broaden our understanding of faraway places and people. But even without the words contained within, books embody things for us, connect us to precious memories, and become physical mementos of places and people and ourselves.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Disclaimer: I discuss the plot of Pride and Prejudice up to its ending. I figured giving a general book review with plot blurb and my thoughts would be redundant for a novel as well-loved as Pride and Prejudice. I mean, everyone and their mothers know that Pride and Prejudice is the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. But if you haven’t read the novel and don’t want to spoil the experience, you may not want to continue reading this blog post.

I reread Pride and Prejudice last year, during a really rough time. I needed relief and thought Pride and Prejudice would give it to me. It is one of my favorite books after all. And I could always count on Elizabeth Bennet’s charming wit to make me laugh and bring happy escapism.

You really do notice new details (or rather, you are faced with forgotten details) whenever you reread Pride and Prejudice. It is a classic novel that, I think, has suffered from what is perceived about it. Because Pride and Prejudice is so often referenced as the ultimate romantic comedy, or even as the genre’s progenitor, the novel can easily be dismissed as fantasy. But the story it tells is rooted in reality. It may be a hopeful reality, but it is one we can strive for. It isn’t based on luck or destiny. Turns out, it was the realism of Pride and Prejudice that made me feel better, not the fantasy. I got what I needed, not what I wanted.

Hilary Mantel once said that she loved Jane Austen “because she’s so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.” Ha! It’s funny because it’s true.

I was astounded by the endless, detailed conversations about money. Not just how much a man makes annually or the sum of his assets. The price of a chimneypiece was dissected with as much gusto as the birthday cake at an eight-year old’s party.

Don’t worry guys! Society has not become greedier with each generation. Rest assured that we have always been this materialistic.

Pride and Prejudice is completely open about its obsession with money. Its first pages (and the catalyst of the novel’s plot) revealed that an eligible wealthy bachelor has rented the manor near our protagonists, the Bennets. The Bennets’ financial situation was always shaky, and with five unmarried daughters, Mrs. Bennet saw potential in the young man. Never mind that she had yet to see him. Being available and rich sufficed.

This is a novel preoccupied with the struggle between idealism and prudence when it comes to marital bonds: an issue people grapple with to this day. We know that a comfortable household is a strong factor for happiness. How are you going to feed your family, let alone your future children, without financial security? It may sound mercenary, but it’s the truth: a lifetime of money struggles makes for a bleak existence.

Yet Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, was firm – she would only marry for love and for happiness.

(One constant whenever I reread Pride and Prejudice? I fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet all over again. Without fail. Is there a more charming heroine in fiction? The correct answer is NO.)

In the words of a lady I deeply admire, the late great Eleanor Roosevelt: “The only people who matter are the people who you value for themselves.” Not for the contents of their pocketbook, but for their character, their values, and their very being. Living in a fine house is nice. But having to listen to someone you detest blather on and on about the same repetitive anecdotes for 50 years also makes for a bleak existence. You’d also start having homicidal thoughts by year 5.

So, comfortable household or “superlatively stupid” company? Which poison to choose?

(“Superlatively stupid” is a phrase lifted from Pride and Prejudice. True story. I totally want to insert it into casual conversations now. I’ll let you know if I succeed.)

What makes a happy marriage? To Austen, the answer is compatibility between participants. Elizabeth was sure her elder sister Jane would be happy together with Mr. Bingley not only because he is handsome and rich, but because he and Jane had compatible tastes, temperaments, and personalities. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were vastly different people compared to Jane and Mr. Bingley, but they worked because they were compatible with each other.

More broadly, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about happiness and our pursuit of it. The chase for happiness is always shadowed by anxiety (Will we actually be happy one day?) Two centuries ago, a woman’s best shot at happiness and ridding herself of financial, social, and mental anxiety was by marrying well. Folks, this is why the chase for eligible bachelors in Pride and Prejudice is nigh histrionic.

What makes a person happy? Austen was wise enough to show how it depends on an individual’s values. Elizabeth Bennet had her own standards on what would make her happy. What’s more, happiness was her end game. She is an idealist, as articulated below:

“I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”

Despite her idealism, no one in Pride and Prejudice was more aware of the conflict between idealism and money in marriage than Elizabeth. Certain traits of Elizabeth really stood out on this reread, including (a) idealistic yet realistic about her prospects. More importantly, (b) she was active in her romantic journey.

Forget the image of a passive heroine waiting for fate to bring her and her true love together! Elizabeth was, at one point, open to Colonel Fitzwilliam (Mr. Darcy’s cousin) as a potential love interest. It wasn’t blatant, but they were flirty and Elizabeth was open should they be compatible. In yet another reminder of how money matters dominate Pride and Prejudice, Colonel Fitzwilliam told Elizabeth that nothing could come out of their relationship but platonic friendship; he needed to marry for money.

Elizabeth’s decisions showed me that she wasn’t idle. She was active: insistent on love yet open to her options of love. I find that wonderful.

Someone else who was one of Elizabeth’s romantic options?

Haha, because the plot of Pride and Prejudice is a truth universally acknowledged (see what I did there?) and because it is taken for granted that this is a novel about Elizabeth and Darcy, I always forget that Elizabeth had a SERIOUS crush on Mr. Wickham. I only remember on each reread.

Yes, that Mr. Wickham. The bad guy.

Jane Austen wrote about Elizabeth’s crush explicitly. At a ball in Meryton, she keenly anticipated Wickham’s arrival and was disappointed that he did not show – a blatant hint.

When it was clear that Mr. Wickham was pursuing wealthy heiress Mary King, Elizabeth reassured her aunt Mrs. Gardiner that she was not in love with Wickham, because she realized that she would have been far less reasonable and rational about the courtship if she was. Instead, she was understanding. She knew Wickham needed financial security. That the discussion happened at all showed that there were at least some romantic feelings involved on Elizabeth’s part, even if it wasn’t true love.

Contrast the above with Elizabeth SOBBING for half an hour after she rejected Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal. It was the first hint that indifference and contempt were not the only reactions she had for the filthy rich and socially incompetent Darcy. There was an unexpected violence of emotion, even if its exact nature was not yet certain. Elizabeth’s sobbing was yet another detail I missed or forgot from Pride and Prejudice.

This time around, I got the vibe that Austen had the time of her life writing Pride and Prejudice. Every page (especially the dialogue) drips with pure joy. Ask any writer and they will tell you that certain pieces are a pain to perfect, but the end result will be something particularly accomplished within their oeuvre. On the flip side, some content flows so easily and effortlessly that writers feel like the writing wrote itself. You are just the happy fortunate vessel chosen to bring a great story to life. This second category is exactly what Pride and Prejudice feels like.

Time to get to my observations about the couple we care about, aka Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. HAHAHA. Forget the preconceived image of Elizabeth and Darcy as a grand romantic couple! They are such dorks. I couldn’t help sniggering at points when reading scenes of their interactions. They were so cute and awkward. In fact, adorkable is a good blanket descriptor for their relationship.

Some time after Darcy’s epic fail of a first marriage proposal, Elizabeth vacationed with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, to Derbyshire. The area is where Darcy’s estate is located, and there they crossed paths (so okay, some writerly plot coincidences did take place). Elizabeth angsted and puzzled over whether Darcy still had feelings for her.

Dude, he clearly did! It was why Darcy tried so hard to get along with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and later introduced Elizabeth to his sister. It was obvious to anyone with common sense that Darcy was attempting to court Elizabeth, only properly and courteously this time.

It was hilarious. Love truly does make your observations and objectivity go haywire. In fact, were Elizabeth to observe such behavior from another couple, she would laugh and make playful, biting remarks. Proof that those in love are indeed “superlatively stupid”.

Elizabeth’s trip to Derbyshire was the point when her dynamics with Darcy changed. For one, Elizabeth became appreciative of Darcy’s better qualities. It was also when readers would realize that Mr. Darcy had the character to give Elizabeth the happy marriage that was her goal.

The witty banter the couple is famous for would only take them so far in a marriage. We know of Elizabeth’s excellent qualities because Pride and Prejudice’s narration closely follows the Bennet family to the exclusion of other characters. In this instance, we could see that Darcy is steadfast and enduring – two covetable qualities in a husband.

Elizabeth may be well-known to the general reading public as a quick wit, but she had good reflective skills and she used them to evaluate her changing feelings for Darcy. She knew that she had grown to respect and esteem him. She was grateful he had the heart to forgive when she was harsh, and she felt genuine concern for his welfare.

The introspection showed that Elizabeth had the capability and grace to admit wrongdoings: another essential ingredient in a marriage. And the addition of respect boded well. Other than compatibility, Austen depicted mutual respect as a crucial ingredient in a happy marriage.

(How amusing was it to see how quickly Mrs. Gardiner became suspicious of the exact nature of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship? Oh Lizzie, whatever happened to your sharp instincts?)

Let’s skip ahead. Far ahead. Ahead to the novel’s ending. Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister, has eloped with Mr. Wickham. They had a patched-up wedding, one where Mr. Darcy secretly gave monetary motivations for Wickham to do so. Lydia has blabbed about Mr. Darcy’s involvement to Elizabeth, and now Mr. Darcy himself has arrived in the Bennet household.

It was comical to watch the socially dexterous and sensible Elizabeth veer from awkward to overdramatic and back again when they were walking together in a group:

“If he doesn’t talk to me, I will give him up forever.”


“She was in no humour for conversation with anyone but himself; and to him she had hardly courage to speak.”

LOL. Luckily, Elizabeth proceeded by castigating herself for being so silly.

Pride and Prejudice may be fluffy romantic fantasy to some, but I think it really got the awkwardness of being in love. In particular, the “too nervous to hope but delighting and second-guessing when your love interest is looking your way” feeling.

Here’s the thing: Elizabeth has fantastic observation and judgment. Not flawless (see: Wickham). But now that she was in love with Darcy, she was in the uncharted territory where she was accurate as always, that Darcy did so much for the Lydia affair for her sake, but she was overthinking it and was worried that she was too biased/emotionally invested to see clearly, and so she discounted the truth. The paranoia and fear that she “fancied too much” were thick.

All that overthinking led to another overdramatic and uncharacteristic thought from Elizabeth, that “it was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried”.

When it came down to it though, Elizabeth was brave. It was she, who determined upon a resolution, spoke first and expressed her gratitude regarding the Lydia affair to Mr. Darcy. It was a small, everyday decision – yet a striking decision.

In matters of communication, even the most sensible characters are just doing their best. There is so much we want to say, to express. Yet decorum, fear, and the wish not to hurt someone dear, or worse, ourselves, make us censor our words. And guess what? That’s real life. No one goes up to a love interest and says without preamble, “I love you. Do you love me?” There’s too much at stake. Especially if this is someone truly dear to us. As Mr. Knightley from another one of Jane Austen’s novels Emma said, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

We also censor ourselves because we only know what we see and what we observe. There is an entire universe with its wealth of thoughts and feelings that we don’t know. Even if we are clear-eyed and are privy to factual information, the motivations and feelings of others cannot be completely unmasked without their consent – unless you can read minds, of course.

Despite fear, uncertainty, and the possibility that everything might go wrong, both Elizabeth and Darcy were brave enough to take the plunge. They had the conversation that cleared the air and mended their relationship to its complete transformation. The romance genre is fond of destined lovers and fated encounters, but watching Elizabeth and Darcy actively forging their romance forward is more satisfying to read. This is a quiet, domestic sort of bravery – but it is bravery, nonetheless. It is the type of bravery I relate to.

I love the 2005 film version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as much as any girl born in the 90s, and the scene of Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy walking across a lush open field in early-morning fog accompanied by Dario Marianelli’s exquisite score before talking to Elizabeth is a great cinematic moment. So great that I forgot the book version, which certainly lacks visual pizazz: just a group of people walking and talking. But the film version erased the mountain of fear that Elizabeth had to scale in order to start talking to Darcy, along with the emotional tension of having feelings so enormous she wanted to burst, while fearing that speaking up would ruin things. It was an active decision: take the plunge and risk heartbreak, or keep silent and risk regrets.

Scene from the 2005 film version. Source: here

Beautiful as the film version is, it leaned into the romantic trope of fate and beautiful backgrounds – and in doing so diluted the best part of Pride and Prejudice (in my opinion): the actions people have to actively take to make a love story happen.

On this reread, I found the scene of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth discussing Mr. Darcy’s second marriage proposal to be especially heartwarming. Mr. Bennet may be deeply flawed as a father, but I truly believed him when, after pointing out his misgivings, he said, “[…] this would be nothing if you really liked him”. Then he begged Elizabeth to choose wisely as it would grieve him to see Elizabeth unable to respect her “partner in life”.

“Partner in life” – three words that concisely and perfectly encapsulate how your entire lifetime will play out in a marriage. If your bride or groom isn’t a “partner in life”, you are doomed. Doomed to a life of tedium, of resentment, of passive aggressiveness, of holding in all your frustration when all you want to do is shriek. Honestly? All the anxiety and frenzy involved when choosing the right husband or wife is completely justified.

Mr. Bennet was, of course, advising from experience. The scene confirmed what was heavily implied throughout. He is one of the people unable to respect his partner in life. His flaws have been amplified because his chosen wife was never a partner in their life journey. Sure, the undoing was mainly his responsibility. He never argued what really needed to be argued with his wife and instead, chose to feel better about himself by continually making sharp, backhanded comments to her – knowing full well that she was too dull-witted to understand let alone counter his sarcasm. In fact, it was plain that Mr. Bennet has checked out of his family, preferring to be left alone in the home library.

Yep, he was always like this. Source: here

We readers know such a situation would not repeat itself with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. We understand from their conversations that they are two strong personalities who can hold their own with each other. Despite their socioeconomic disparity, they are intellectual equals. Elizabeth and Darcy don’t have to hold back with each other; they are frank about the other’s flaws. More than that, they respect each other. It is likely that their marriage would be a catalyst for learning, improvement, quality conversations, and most of all, joy.

I saw the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice differently this time around. On previous reads, it was all a bit too much. Sometimes even mildly distasteful. One too many egg in the pudding, to borrow a British idiom. This time, I saw that the chapter had an important purpose.

The final chapter details what came after the happy ending between Jane and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. What was life after happily ever after? Jane and Elizabeth, always close, got to live within thirty miles of each other when Mr. Bingley bought an estate that neighbored Derbyshire. Even more happiness! Are you puking rainbows yet?

What motivated the real-estate purchase? Answer: Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters were too annoying for Bingley and Jane to stay long-term in Netherfield. The move close to Derbyshire was to solve the problem. Yes, there are still problems even in a happy marriage.

The futures of the younger Bennet sisters were revealed in the last chapter. The blank-canvas sisters, Mary and Kitty, got positive improvement, while flippant and ridiculous Lydia got what she deserved. Their ultimate fates were not serendipitous; they were the results of processes. For Kitty to be better-behaved and better-minded, Jane and Elizabeth had to allocate time for her. They had to model an example for her. Mr. Bennet too, no longer stood idly by. He rejected Lydia’s invitations to Kitty in order to discourage further bad influence.

It took much effort and delicacy on Elizabeth’s (and Jane’s) part to deal with Lydia over the long-term. They frequently sent money in small doses, they tended to Lydia and Wickham’s bills, etc. Mr. Darcy took steps for familial duty too: assisting Mr. Wickham with his career and occasionally inviting Lydia over to Derbyshire when her husband was absent. Lydia’s effect on Jane and Bingley was described in half a sentence – more than enough space to show the deep irritation she sowed on Bingley, the most even-tempered man in fiction.

Then there was the disapproving in-law Elizabeth and Darcy had to deal with…

What I once saw as an overly saccharine epilogue was appreciated anew. Austen did not erase life’s annoyances and problems simply because you found your romantic happy ending. That’s life. Life may be happier, more hopeful, and more pleasant to navigate with your “partner in life”, someone whom you respect and respects you in turn. But life is life, always full of ups and downs. Having a partner to share the burdens and the joys of life eases the journey, but it doesn’t eliminate the journey each individual must walk through.

Jane Austen may have written about a gentrified milieu, and always with romance at the heart of her plots. Yet her work remains utterly relevant. To me, the big issue tackled in Pride and Prejudice is: I want to be happy. Will I be? You will. Keep learning and improving. You will be wrong at times. Have a sense of humor about things. Most of all, be active in the journey. Take a few risks.

I’d say that’s the most universal story of all. One that would especially resonate now, when we live in a world obsessed with the aspirational.

Three Straightforward Reviews

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is loosely based on Sophocles’s play Antigone, its basic plot transplanted to contemporary life for British Muslims. The story is narrated from 5 POVs, 3 of them are the Pasha siblings: elder sister Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Isma raised the twins following their parents’ death. Their father left a legacy of disappearing to fight the jihadi cause. At the start of the novel, Isma has arrived in the USA to pursue higher learning and Aneeka has begun university. Parvaiz, adrift and feeling left out, was easily persuaded to follow in his father’s footsteps and join ISIS. In the aftermath, the Pasha sisters became connected to a father-and-son duo (the 2 remaining POVs): Karamat Lone – UK’s Home Secretary – and his son, Eamonn.

Home Fire is a short novel, too short to do its plot points and interesting ideas justice. As characters, the twins were underdeveloped. Aneeka is a loose cannon, making one reckless and unreasonable move after another. Parvaiz’s story could be an entire novel on its own, but we only got 2 chapters: one on ISIS indoctrination and a very brief sketch of life as an ISIS recruit. Which was a shame. The topic is fertile source material, but because Parvaiz’s plotline was so rushed, I didn’t feel any sympathy; I just thought he was stupid.

I am OVER the mythologizing of twins in fiction: it’s beginning to be used to explain away illogical decisions. Aneeka deeply grieved for Parvaiz and created a dramatic spectacle because of…. special twin connection. No, not convincing enough. 

It was a relief to get to Isma and Karamat Lone’s POVs. In another book, Isma would have been a dull character – responsible and homely. But she was a refreshing contrast to Aneeka, Parvaiz, and Eamonn’s navel-gazing. Karamat Lone, as a rightwing British politician of Muslim heritage, was unbending and flawed. His POV was the most energetic and compelling of the 5.

What I did enjoy about Home Fire was its commentary on the weight of expectations and gender roles. Boys struggle with the burden of expectations: how do they match, let alone surpass, their fathers? How do they become their own men without disappointing their fathers? Eamonn’s and Parvaiz’s POVs played with this in different ways. Girls, meanwhile, struggle to carve out a path for themselves. They are burdened with lack of expectations (and subsequently, lack of resources). If there are default expectations for women, it’s for them to support family and community. The needs of others often leave them unfocused, and almost too willing to sacrifice their hopes and dreams, as seen in Isma’s POV.

If anyone knows of other novels that portray this theme well, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

A very short collection, this book comprises 6 stories and totals only 120+ pages. The word “Rashomon” would most likely conjure to mind the famous film directed by Akira Kurosawa, which I have not had the pleasure of viewing. To be honest, all of Kurosawa’s films seem interesting, but I have only watched Throne of Blood, a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It isn’t my favorite Macbeth film adaptation, but Throne of Blood was directed in such a way that renders its scenes both refined (to the point of severe – which I think is meant to align with Japanese aesthetics) and lush. Its climax scene for the Macbeth character was also very striking.

Anyway, back to books – my days as a movie buff is long behind me. A fellow book blogger once told me that Rashomon the Kurosawa film was adapted from two of Akutagawa’s short stories: “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”. Reading this collection, it made sense. They were the best stories curated here. Akutagawa’s writing style has a very modern edge despite having been written in the early 1900s. His voice is deeply cynical; all 6 stories in this collection are bleak, almost nihilistic.

“Rashomon” is a punchy and concise story about a lowly retainer in old dilapidated Kyoto who has fallen on hard times and is contemplating survival. Akutagawa, in the span of 10 pages, mocked everything he could: noble ideals, the retainer himself, and even the idea of fellow man.

Pervasive bleakness permeated every story and had the unfortunate effect of making the collection monotonous. “Kesa and Morita” is an unwelcome entry as it explored a very similar idea against the more famous “In a Grove”. In both stories, multiple characters recount an event from their perspectives. Each telling was so different from the others and so self-serving that it was clear all the storytellers (and by indictment, all of humanity) were lying to save their skin or for self-interested purposes.

Final story “The Dragon” provided a bit of relief. Tonally it isn’t as hopeless and is more comedic. The voice of its Buddhist-priest narrator is perfectly whiny and pompous.

The relentless lack of faith in humanity in Rashomon and Other Stories made it a surprisingly dull read. There was no light to cut through the darkness. The lack of nuance frustrated and bored me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber

This is one of Michel Faber’s earliest works, and while he has made a name for himself in the literary world, no one really talks about this novella anymore. I can see why. A week after I finished reading, I struggled to recall its plot for this review. Certain phrases felt show-offy, like Faber was trying hard to make an impression on you.

However, it was fun, enjoyable, and funny: a quick, refreshing gulp of a read. There were self-aware and deprecating jokes of the Gothic aplenty. The prose was excellent; it led you on nimbly and never dragged. And while certain phrases felt too try-hard, others were successfully witty and clever.

Our heroine Sian is part of an archeological dig at Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, England. She’s a woman with a past and is harboring secrets. In Whitby, she’s haunted by routine nightmares of beheading. Then she meets a handsome man who offers her a centuries-old murder mystery in a bottle. Throughout all this, Whitby Abbey is always in the background.

(LOL, somewhere a Victorian lit professor is looking at these tropes and thinking, “tick, tick, and tick.”)

So yes, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is a Gothic mystery/romance. It’s tightly plotted and tightly written. Faber covers his story quickly to keep it readable and compelling, but keeps his pace controlled enough so that it never moves too fast or stops being enjoyable.

I think the ending is divisive. There were a few loose threads, ignored or left incomplete – and some would complain that the conclusion sputters: the novella promised lots of melodrama but did not deliver. Instead, it stops with a subdued, bittersweet, and slightly aimless closure. I like it though. The obvious ending would have been too unrealistic for me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was first published in 2001. It’s told from a woman’s perspective but was written by a man. In our current zeitgeist, publishers would be wary of launching fiction like this. There are pros and cons associated with that, right? Hopefully writers and publishers would treat women-centered stories more responsibly and sensitively. At the same time, it would be a shame to see writers not taking risks.

Did Faber succeed in writing a believable woman narrator? A few thoughts skewed too teenage girl, but others were convincing and funny and authentic. I think Faber has a strong eye for detail regarding feminine habits, which makes me excited for the last book by him that is still unread on my bookshelf: The Crimson Petal and the White. Why haven’t I gotten to it? Oh, it’s 860+ pages. Although I suppose a door-stopper novel is perfect for these social-distancing times.

Balancing Acts

The end of February and the start of Lent have come and gone. 2020 feels like the quickest year I’ve ever lived. It was Chinese New Year barely after New Year’s Day. Before you knew it, it was Valentine’s Day. Soon it will be Easter. Does anyone else feel like 2020 is running faster than Usain Bolt? Or do years just accelerate as you grow older?

I’ve been keeping busy: with work, with making sure I have ambitious yet realistic plans for the rest of 2020, and with trying my best to maximize life in general. Certain activities have kept me balanced in the middle of all this.

Lent Resolutions

I wrote down the following resolutions for Lent:

  • Dietary change: resist junk food as best as you can. Eat more healthily and more plant-based foods.
  • No shopping, except for replacements and gifts. Books are excluded, but there’s no book currently on my wishlist anyway.

Note that neither point is excessive. It’s “resist […] as best as you can”, not “completely eliminate”. I’m using Lent not to deprive, but to balance. I’ve known for a long time that whenever I eat healthy, my body benefits – I feel good and have more energy. I’m also very aware that less healthy food tastes amazing and that it’s OK to have them – but don’t have them too often. During Lent, I just want to have them from time to time.

Same with shopping. I’ve had good self-control since I was a kid so I would never buy things I can’t afford. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t love shopping. I love clothes, jewelry, and beauty. I do think that I’ve accumulated a lot of new stuff over the past few years though. Lent provides a good time to slow down. Excess is never good for anyone. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean you should, need to, or even want to.

(I hope this more balanced outlook can extend beyond Lent, but I reserve the right to indulge in something nice the day after Easter Sunday.)


Obviously, reading is always a comfort to turn to. I wanted to sink into something juicy, approaching guilty pleasure. Enter The Drowning King by Emily Holleman, a fictionalized account of the Ptolemaic dynasty upon and immediately after the death of Ptolemy XII the Piper, father of Cleopatra. If you know history, you know what that means – all the royal children start squabbling and scrambling for the throne. The novel is told in linear fashion, from the POVs of Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII, 2 of Cleopatra’s younger siblings.

Question: is unicorn latte art a sign from the universe that one day you shall have a minimum value of USD 1 billion?

When my brother saw me reading The Drowning King, he said, “Haven’t you read every book about Cleopatra there is already?” I answered, “Yeah, probably.” Fun fact about me: I’ve been obsessed with Cleopatra ever since I was 7 and received a picture book on her life as a gift. Stacy Schiff’s 2010 biography was a disappointment to me as I knew its contents already. Even the title The Drowning King immediately pinpointed to me a major plot point the author would incorporate.

As a kid, my love was simple. Cleopatra was the first woman I encountered who was described as both powerful and womanly, and this duality was never judged in my picture book as something negative. I grew up in the era of the tomboy. I vividly remember the prominence of Hilary Clinton, Disney’s Mulan, and Tamora Pierce novels. I never begrudged this. In fact, as a young girl, I wished to have more masculine traits: better at sports, more visibly assertive, owning tougher edges. Yet I was always too girly for it to work. Cleopatra was the first figure I encountered who was presented as an ideal because of, not in spite of, her glamor and feminine appeal – not even necessarily because of physical beauty; many historians are unsure on whether she would fit conventional beauty standards.

As a grown up, I find it remarkable that her power and her femininity make up a whole, but each element is not dependent on the other. Without her seduction of Caesar and Antony, she’d still be powerful, rich, and intelligent. She was Queen of Egypt after all. Yet without her famed glamor and charm, she would not be the historical character who continues to fascinate us, more than 2 millenniums after her death.

I have finished reading The Drowning King and here are some thoughts:

  • It was exactly what I wanted: a fast-paced escapist read, though the pace became noticeably speedier during the novel’s second half. It was fine if a little jarring.
  • I’m not too fond of the POVs, which is understandable. I wanted more Cleopatra and this novel puts the focus elsewhere. This is Arsinoe’s story, so it was inevitable – even understandable – that she would be rendered more likeable and Cleopatra less likeable. Yet I found Arsinoe so lacking in charisma that whenever I got to her POV, I would think ‘I hope this is a short chapter.’ I enjoyed Ptolemy’s POV more, watching him flop about ineffectually is at least entertaining.
  • I’m surprised to read this portrayal of Cleopatra. She was rendered as capricious and a little random, when I consider her very pragmatic despite being a huge risk-taker. It could be caused by intentional narrative distance – this story isn’t told by Cleopatra, and her siblings are portrayed here as idealists, which would make Cleopatra incomprehensible from their perspective.
  • It amused me to see the impact of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire even here. A birthday was referred to as “name day”. Certain phrases like “japes” and “curdled lies” recall Westeros very strongly. Crass language regarding sex is spoken even by aristocrats – something I’m not sure is historically accurate. Surely the highborn would think coarse language beneath them.

Cooking & Baking

I get sporadic phases where I would want to cook all the time. The bug hit hard in February. It has dimmed but has not vanished – very helpful for my Lent resolution. Not all the food I prepared were healthy, but I enjoyed the process of making them. Some photographic evidence:

I love this idiot-proof chocolate cookie recipe by Ruby Tandoh. Over the years, I’ve changed the measurements a bit to suit my taste, but everything else remain the same. It’s what I make when I want to bake yet am too lazy to do anything strenuous or risk a failed experiment.

You know you’ve reached peak millennial when you have perfected avo toast. This version was avocado + lime juice + salt + spring onions + cherry tomatoes, topped with a sunny side up egg and more spring onions.

I made another version that was even lazier: mashed avo + feta cheese + lime juice. Pro tip: yes, you do need sourdough or an equivalent crusty bread – other breads can’t hold up the mashed avocado.

This is a curry based on one of Nigella Lawson’s older recipes. I can vouch that it tastes great and is easy to make. I even like it more as leftovers since the pumpkin continues to soften as it keeps and creates a thicker curry consistency. It’s listed as a Thai curry, but I was reminded of a regional dish called bubur Manado. As a fan of the cuisine (my grandmother is Manadonese), I’m very happy about this.


The brutal rainfall brought unprecedented flooding to Jakarta on New Year’s Day. Flooding continued to regularly hit areas of the city in February. I’m very fortunate that I wasn’t much affected. Now that we’ve entered March, the skies are still gray and gloomy.

Gray skies are good motivators to read and cook, not so much when you need to go out and be productive. Adding some color livens up my mood. When you’re a girly girl, nothing is easier to lift the spirit than color and bling.

The lighting is too warm, but surely it shows my maximalist taste

I have accumulated a lot of jewelry. My biggest addiction is earrings. The more intricate, the more I love them. Earrings are one of the reasons why I’m trying to hit the brakes on spending. I just have so many now, and over the past week, it has been lovely to plunder my collection and rediscover the ones I already have rather than seeking new ones.

What I like about these hobbies are that they feel productive (and they are, to an extent). They provide ways to unwind but aren’t necessarily frivolous. In fact, I must be cautious not to let these activities take over the time and energy I need for actual work.