As with many books, there were things I liked very much about this novel, and other things I didn’t care for at all. The strength of this novel is in its passion, not just of the characters for one another but of the narrator with language. The prose borders on purple at times, but it has an unrepentant sensuality that charms with its sincerity.
The main character is a burn victim who was recently a porn star. In the burn unit, he meets a magic manic pixie girl named Marianne who claims to have met him when she was a nun in a 13th century German convent named Engelthal. They never use the word “reincarnate” nor do they use the word “immortal” but Marianne lays hints that she is who she says she is. She has artifacts from the stories she tells.
One of the fascinating things about this novel was in its research. For example, Davidson describes the main character’s burns, as well as his recovery in horrific detail. The nurses and psychiatrists and physical therapists and other doctors feel like real people. While originally resistant to Marianne’s visits (she acts like a crazy person, and has been diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia) eventually Marianne woos them over.
She woos the protagonist over as well (was his name ever mentioned? I don’t think so) and he eventually falls in love with her. This is the crux of the book, that this former porn star, the scion of smut and hollow lust should fall in love with a woman once he’s no longer beautiful and bereft of a penis. I didn’t have a problem with this part of the love story.
What I had a problem with were the other love stories. Interspaced with the tales of “how we met” that Marianne tells the protagonist are stories of undying love with tragic endings. In one, a Japanese maid becomes a nun and then lets herself be buried alive rather than marry someone other than the boy she loves. In another, a widow whose husband is lost at sea pines for him for decades until she drowns and joins him. In another, a man whose wife contracts the plague deliberately infects himself and then asks a neighbor to kill him. Marianne, and presumably the author, hold these up as ideals of love. The protagonist also doesn’t originally think that the first story is very romantic, but as his heart is moved, he comes to think as she does. True love means having a soul mate, and knowing that death is better than ever forgetting the one you fell in love with.
I think this is a crock of shit. This is a definition of love that is plausible only to someone who hasn’t had a relationship that lasted more than a year. Pining for your lost husband and spending every waking hour staring out to sea as if longing for the day you can join him in his watery grave isn’t romantic, its pathological. This is a teenage, Bella Swan view of love that is neither realistic nor healthy.
I like fantasy, but this book isn’t really fantasy because in fantasy the pieces generally fit together. This is more like Twin Peaks, that TV show from the 90s where there are a lot of cool bits but they don’t really make sense, and they keep going on not making sense, and you get to the end and they never make sense. Book clubs will love this book, because the story has so many holes in it, you could spend hours discussing it. Where did the arrows of fire come from in the beginning? Why did Marianne have extra hearts? Why was he not supposed to ask her to come back? Why did she leave? I hated this part of it. I felt like they had set up this bizarre premise and never fully explained it in a way that I felt satisfied with. In case you couldn’t tell, I also hated Twin Peaks.
What I also disliked was the religious aspect of it. I think martyrdom and suffering to get closer to God are both unhealthy and creepy and generally barbaric. I didn’t feel that the main character was especially “redeemed” because I don’t really think that being a porn star is something you have to seek forgiveness for. That was something I found unrealistic; the main character seems to have a Byronic “I’m such a bad boy and I’m going to hell” attitude about his former profession, but he claimed to be an atheist. He didn’t read like an athiest, he read like a not-very-lapsed Catholic. I didn’t think he needed to go to church, I thought he needed to come to terms with his sexual and moral hang ups.
If you don’t demand that your stories make sense, you may like this book. If you like extremely descriptive passages, and tragedy and romance of gothic proportions, you may like this book. If Christianity and pointless suffering both squick you out, you’ll probably be wondering why this was on the bestseller list.