Tuesday, May 15, 2012

book review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The backstory: The Sealed Letter, originally published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, was released in the UK last year and was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Tracing the troubled marriage and divorce trial of the Codringtons, The Sealed Letter is the story of women's roles in marriage and life in 1860's England. Emily Faithfull, a first wave feminist belovedly referred to as Fido, is a dear friend of Mrs. Codrington and finds her personal and professional reputations compromised in the ensuing drama.

My thoughts: After reading and utterly adoring Room (my review), I was curious to read Emma Donoghue's historical fiction and see how it compared. I was immediately captivated by the setting, London in 1864, and with Fido. Donoghue is a wonderful writer of character descriptions: "What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her, somehow. The phrases are delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part." This friendship between Fido and Helen was utterly fascinating. There were certainly hints of it being more than a friendship, particularly for Fido, but there were also notions that their strong affections for one another fell short of love as neither truly respects the other. Donoghue writes about their friendship beautifully, and my perspective on it changed throughout the novel as she played with the customs of the times excusing or requiring particular behaviors.

Favorite passages: "That's a ghoulish anecdote, Helen, not a reasoned argument."

"Strange how a few years can reduce humiliation to an anecdote."

The verdict: The Sealed Letter is a fascinating glimpse at the plight of women in England in the 1860's. Donoghue's delivers a novel firmly based in historical fact that is engaging and enlightening. Although the action drags a bit in the middle, the novel as a whole is an emotionally satisfying read made more impressive with the ending author's note indicating how much was based on true events.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: September 22, 2008 
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Sealed Letter from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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13 comments:

  1. I happen to think that Donoghue is brilliant, and she is one of my very favorite authors, along with Lionel Shriver. I clearly need to read this book, and soon! It sounds excellent, and if you haven't read Slammerkin by Donoghue yet, I recommend it highly. It is also historical fiction...but with a bite.

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    1. Now that I've read two of Donoghue's books, I think it's clear she's one of my favorites too. (I adore Shriver too!) Slammerkin will definitely be my next Donoghue!

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  2. I adore Donoghue's hist fic so I'm super keen on this one -- I so expected to hate Room for its departure from her usual style -- but this one -- yum! I agree with Heather -- do try Slammerkin sometime!

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    1. I will definitely try Slammerkin soon!

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  3. Glad this one worked so well for you! I'm sure I'll try it sometime down the road since I enjoyed ROOM and Kissing the Witch.

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    1. I'll have to add Kissing the Witch to my list too!

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  4. I loved this one, Carrie! Loved it. Was sucked in and managed to finish in a sitting. However, I've been sitting on the review for a couple of weeks because I just didn't know what to say. Once again, you've managed to articulate it all perfectly! I was so pleasantly surprised to see such a huge difference between this and Room. I tried reading another of her novels but just couldn't get into it. I feel she incorporated the historical aspect without shoving it down your throat, building an authentic atmosphere. Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. I completely agree about incorporating the historical aspects without shoving it down your throat. I was amazed how truthful to the material she stayed after reading her author's note. I know so much more about U.S. suffragist history, so I was thrilled to see how much I actually learned about the British aspect beyond the Pankhursts, whom I adore.

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  5. It sounds like you liked this one a bit more than me. I thought the first half was slow but I did like the trial sections. I feel like Gillespie and I did a much better job with similar material.

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    1. I found myself comparing it to Gillespie at times too. While I suppose I enjoyed Gillespie more, I loved the legal and feminist history of this one so much.

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    2. I guess I really need to get moving on reading that one! I just received my copy in the mail and the cover art is GORGEOUS!

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  6. Huh, I hadn't heard of this one but it sounds good! I read and loved Slammerkin about 10 years ago and was going to give you the disclaimer that my reading taste was much different then so I couldn't totally vouch for it but based on what Heather said above I guess I can still trust my opinion from then on that one. =)

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    1. It's definitely next on my list. Everyone seems to rave about it too! Isn't it funny how our reading taste can change year to year?

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!