I will say that strange coincidences and strange combinations certainly come together in this book, although the coincidences had more to do with what I read last week than the writing itself, which is a good thing.
It just so happens that I read the story of the OED last week (well, two weeks ago) and one of the major contributors was a man who was in an insane asylum that also housed one of the first Ripper suspects (known as the Leather Apron). So, naturally, the characters investigating the Whitechapel murders felt the need to go visit the suspect to get an idea for the psychological profile of the murderer, even if it had become more than apparent that the Leather Apron was not the Whitechapel murderer. While there, the head of the institution felt that it would be of interest to the American psychologist to see a case where the avocation was therapy rather than destructive. Here enters Minor, the madman of chapter seven of The Meaning of Everything, last week’s book. Isn’t life wonderful? Isn’t literature just astonishing? It makes me want to break out into a rousing chorus of “It’s a Small World After All!” For the sake of my readers (and those around me as I type), I’ll refrain.
This past week’s book, What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen, was quite the engaging read. I finished it within 24 hours of starting it on Monday the 31st (clearly reviewing it has been another matter). While I’m hesitant to say I enjoyed the book–for reasons I’ll detail–I certainly engaged in it. The character combination of an author I was forced to read in college (and didn’t particularly enjoy) and a serial killer who has always fascinated me proved to be just the sort of mix that made for the type of read I could delve into.
I was impressed by the use of art in the novel, mostly because it so very well echoed James’ own use of art in his books. It was a subtle and very well-played device within both plot and style. Props to Cohen. Unfortunately, any examples would truly be spoilers, so I’ll have to just say: it was well done. Also, to those familiar with the Henry James canon, there were several echoes that were fun to recognize. For those who aren’t, the author does her best to point them out without stepping out of the narrative.
It was encouraging that the psychology used in the book wasn’t at all too modern, nor was it so antiquated that the reader was horrified. Certainly it displays many of the flaws of the early attempts at psychological understanding. One of the minor characters we meet is a man who comes from a different psychological school than William James (brother of Henry), and his marvelously narrow view is described thusly:
Henry Maudsley was a respected figure in the field of psychological research, someone allied with the materialist school, which believed that abnormal mental processes could be entirely explained by physical causes. Although William faulted the materialists for refusing to consider nonphysical aspects of mental illness, he valued their work for supporting the connection of mind and body, albeit from one direction only.
This sort of observations can only make me thankful that I live in the era that I do. For, while psychopharmocology is still more of an art than a science, it has progressed so far from these days.
I think, however, that the aspect I felt was most well done was the different mindsets of the Americans, British, and Americans-turned-British were distinct. I loved that. You could see the ideological struggles in Alice and James Henry, who were still Americans in many ways, though they had adopted England. William, who remained American to the core, finds himself similarly set against the British mindset (especially the one within the police). His conflicts are no less significant, though they span two people rather than the two mindsets in the one. For example, in the quote above, William is able to appreciate the other man’s work while disagreeing. It strikes a terrible blow to him that Maudsley is rather abrupt and critical of William’s work, rather than being similarly appreciative of the opportunity to work with another great psychologist. If I have one complaint, it is that the American’s prejudices tended to the specific (certain people or behaviors), while the British prejudices were so very general (the Jews or prostitutes as a whole). I do not believe this reflects the typical mindset, though the distinction was still there.
At one point in the book, I almost put it down. Here is this piece that beautifully echoes the feeling and time and soul of one of the most important American Realists and what felt like an entirely unnecessary sex scene was inserted. I will grant that I naturally dislike sex scenes as it is, but especially loathe ones that seem to have no purpose. However, I was determined to give the author a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I still feel like the scene was unnecessary, but it wasn’t a tawdry, bodice-ripping affair that felt like a cheap play to the audience, either. Ultimately, the characters don’t have sex, which felt much more true to form. I was very pleased.
There was a twist ending that leaves the reader with an answer as to who Jack the Ripper is, while still honoring the unsolved case. It comes together quickly, and many of the little pieces in the book that seem so insignificant at the time fall neatly into place. Perhaps too neatly.
Which brings us to the question, why didn’t I like it? Jack was tame! Jack the Ripper is not tame. He has become an iconic fear in the heart of society. He is all the terror of what mankind can do, not just to the strong, but to the weak. All on an individual level. At the end, despite Jack the Ripper being the man they are searching to find, I felt as if there had been no villain.
Also, in the book, there was this great deal made of the relationship between William and Alice. I didn’t see it. They were like any other siblings. And the “trifocal vision” of all the siblings (which is much of the premise of the book, that What Alice Knew was that only she and her brothers were most fit to solve the case, together) was dim and unfocused at best. I never felt like the three layers of knowledge and world perspective were so unique that only they could have solved the case.
Unfortunately, it was also obvious that the main man they concentrated on for most of the book was not the killer. I kept wondering why the author insisted on sending her characters after a creepy, but clearly innocent man. It felt like an insult to the intelligence of the reader, like Cohen HAD to spell out every reason why this man was innocent.
The romance budding between Alice and Sickert could have been realized more/better. Instead, it was a vague, passing fancy at best that Alice still reacted to with the frustration and vehemence of an fully realized and failed relationship. The reaction, for such a little thing, seemed over-wrought.
The end came together so fast and too neatly, as I mentioned. The epilogue was useless left as it was–leave it off or expand. In many ways, I feel like the author was using it to justify a plot point that wasn’t particularly necessary. In that case, the epilogue just stood out more like a sore thumb.
The police were incompetent at best and incredibly prejudicial but one man. It was a horrific stereotype! One that seems to persist no matter what genre or country or period of the book. Considering the intelligence of the book, and–make no mistake–is was incredibly intelligent, I expected more.
While none of these things had me hating the book, they were barriers to liking the book. I was intrigued throughout the entire story by the style and by the mystery of who the killer could possibly be. By the end, I even understood–sort of–why the author dwelled so long on a person so clearly not the killer. But it was disappointing all the same. I wish more could have been done so the reader did not have periods of boredom.