Monday 15 May 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2022)

Historical fiction meets science fiction in the latest book I’m writing about as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (2022) is inspired by H.G. Wells’s classic tale of man playing God—The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).

Readers of the original novel will recognize some common elements—the mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, his alcoholic assistant Montgomery, and a host of Beast Folk (here, “hybrids”), the result of the scientist’s experiments. But there are significant departures too. While The Island of Doctor Moreau is set in the South Pacific, the action of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau takes place in a remote part of the Yucatán peninsula in nineteenth-century Mexico. And while our characters are isolated, they are not on an island—a backdrop of real political strife ups the stakes as the novel comes to its dramatic conclusion. Then too, there’s the daughter of the title. Carlota Moreau (the doctor’s illegitimate child) is one of our two point of view characters, along with Montgomery. There’s no straight man, like Edward Prendick, to mirror reader responses to the story—all the characters are implicated in the ethical questions at the novel’s heart, some in ways they don’t initially realize.

There’s lots to love here—a well-paced Gothic tale, a classic Victorian story in an unusual setting, and feminist commentary layered over the moral questions that Wells’s classic raises. I would have enjoyed a few more concrete descriptions of the hybrids, especially given the medical training Carlota receives from her father, to keep the novel more clearly in the realm of scientific speculation, rather than sheer fantasy. Another line Moreno-Garcia walks is in her depiction of the relationship between Montgomery and Carlota. While their age gap isn’t unusual for the period, she seems aware that modern readers may take issue with Montgomery’s attraction to a girl he first met as a child. As a result, the conclusion to the story between them seems a little non-committal, in a way that, for me, made the ending less satisfying. 

Did you read The Daughter of Doctor Moreau? I’d love to know what you thought of it. And do let me know which novel you’d like to see me review next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly updates about this blog and my writing straight to your email inbox? Sign up for my mailing list here

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (2019)

Gina Marie Guadagnino’s 2019 The Parting Glass has many of the elements I love to see in books I review for my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Not only does the story take place in the 1830s, but the location is New York City, our heroine is Irish, and the subject matter is forbidden love (including several lesbian romances). 

Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to society beauty Charlotte Wharton, whom she’s secretly and passionately in love with. But she’s already lost one life for having a sexual relationship with a woman and, what’s more, Charlotte is having sex with Mary’s twin brother Johnny, even though she’s meant to remain a virgin until marriage.

Guadagnino does a great job painting a picture of the upstairs/downstairs world of the Wharton household, and also the very different world Mary and Johnny inhabit on their nights off, drinking at an Irish bar with publican Dermot, who knows their past and their real names. Another bright spot is the character of Liddie, a half-Black sex worker Mary meets and develops a relationship with over the course of the novel. 

There’s plenty of action, the stakes are high, and the novel reaches a dramatic climax, which delivers on the marketing promise that, in The Parting Glass, “Downton Abbey meets Gangs of New York.” 

What was less clear to me was whether Mary is a character we’re supposed to relate to and sympathize with. Her sexual obsession with Charlotte, while realistic, has incestuous overtones, which some readers may find off-putting. I actually wish Guadagnino had leaned into this even more at the start of the novel, but given Mary a character arc, as she came to a new, mature understanding of romantic love thanks to her reciprocal relationship with Liddie. Instead (slight spoiler here!), I left the novel feeling that Mary had treated Liddie pretty poorly and disappointed that she was still putting Charlotte and her style of upper-class, White beauty on a pedestal. 

Have you read The Parting Glass? I’d love to hear what you thought of the novel. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.