On 31 Bond Street

I read Ellen Horan’s novel 31 Bond Street (Harper, and now in paperback from Harper Perennial) last spring with the idea of reviewing it, but the review just never really came together. However, that being said, I still think the book warrants some comment and I’d like to use this space to give more of a free form appraisal. My main difficulty in reviewing the novel is my inexperience with commercial fiction. (I’m not the type of writer/critic who really gets into “guilty pleasure” reads. Usually I’m so far behind on things I’ve promised to read that there isn’t really time for it. Plus, I really enjoy bad, bad movies–and bad baseball teams for that matter, see kcroyals.com for evidence–so there isn’t much room for more guilty pleasures anyway.) Whenever I thought of 31 Bond Street as a work of literature, I kept trying to fit it into the kinds of rubrics I’d normally use to analyze a book, i.e. high literary forms. But, as 31 Bond Street isn’t a literary novel, it didn’t quite seem fair to appraise it as such, just as it wouldn’t be to judge Pynchon’s novels as to how light and easy to read they are. It’s the basic rule of good reviewing, I think, that the reviewer must judge the book based on its own terms, not some outside criteria imposed upon it. After a while, I just wasn’t sure that I was the best person to review the book. So I didn’t.

This being said, I did kind of like the book, and it provoked some thoughts that I feel are worth sharing–particularly as this is a web site at least partially concerned with the writing of historical fiction. Here’s my thoughts:

-An antebellum New York murder mystery, 31 Bond Street is a lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting, and it’s highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. The book follows what was the first real media frenzy over a murder in American history, as well-known socialite and dentist Harvey Burdell was found brutally murdered, stabbed and nearly decapitated, in his home. There are no witnesses, no clues, but everyone assumes that his house mistress, Emma Cunningham, is guilty of the crime. A nice premise for an Eighteenth Century police/legal procedural.

-However, by page 65 we’ve already been told that Emma Cunningham is the “perfect scapegoat” and there’s really no doubt that she’s innocent. It’s just a matter of finding out who really committed the murder, of course, although that is put off until the final pages of the novel in what feels like a tacked on ending. The point of view in the initial scenes sets us up against Emma, she’s the only one with access to the room, she has a motive—but then the flashback scenes work to show her side of the story.

-I wondered throughout, who is telling the story? There are many POVs at work here, one close to Emma, another attached to her attorney, and a formal one detached from any one character. It’s almost too simple how the story is told, the POV changing as any scene requires, and it leaves opportunities for voice untapped, the plot often driftless and unfocused. It seemed to me that the history was followed too closely here–without knowing the actual history well–in this way. Horan sometimes spreads the narrative thin by trying to explain too much of the history at once. I haven’t read much commercial historical fiction, though, so that may be an acceptable digression of the form. It’s a hard balance to strike between character, plot, and giving just the right amount of lush historical setting. It’s something I struggle with a lot, so I don’t mean to be a harsh arbiter here.

-Moreover, there’s an intertwined plot in which Horan builds context for the larger plot, taking us on digressions and day trips to survey real estate. But toward what conclusion is all this work done? It’s often an odd strategy that draws attention away from the things that make the novel interesting. Horan’s strength is in the bigger fantastic scenes, in portraying egotistical cops and reporters, and less so in the small psychological details that might make her historical characters become real. I think these kinds of choices are hard for writers to make. Should she have just stuck to what she was good at and ran with that? Or, should she push harder at the techniques and scenes that she’s weaker at, in order to attempt a well-rounded book? I’m not really sure there’s a right answer to this. Usually I try to put my strengths out in my public work, and keep my weaknesses private, in the office or workshop, until they’re stronger. But, of course, nobody gave me a seven-figure advance to write a first novel, so my toiling in obscurity isn’t really a choice I made either.

-One of the better aspects of the books is Horan’s use of historical artifacts, in the form of period newspaper clippings and lithographs, to frame the story she’s telling. (And I think it was this idea that led to her getting that huge advance, if memory serves.) The use of historical artifact as a framing device, or packaging, is not exactly a new idea. It’s somewhat similar to what Aleksandar Hemon does in The Lazarus Project, although not as well integrated into what Hemon was trying to do with his prose. Printing clips from actual period newspapers seems like something that might be gimmicky, but I like how the material is used in 31 Bond Street, and thought that more could have been made of it. It’s almost a deconstruction of the historical novel, printing a source within the novel’s very text, laying bare the process of inspiration and its associated dramatization. After all, we know that a historical novelist pulls their material from somewhere, through research of source material or by examining photographs or interviews, so why not own the process by allowing the reader to indulge in these artifacts as well, sans the droll, and perhaps odiferous, hours spent in the microfilm room of a public library. After all, isn’t it the thrill of discovery that drives historical fiction, if not all literature? The idea of finding something vital and interesting that has existed under our noses for our entire lives? If yes, then go for it. Share this thrill! This would have made for an awesome multimedia project.

-In sum, 31 Bond Street is a good read, one I don’t feel “guilty” having read, although I think it falls short of being a good book. There are a lot of nice things working here, but, as I mention above a few times, the opportunities didn’t seem to fulfill their potential. Particularly with the packaging, but also in terms of suspense and characterization.

A lot has been made of in the past few years of all the huge advances first-time novelists received in the last decade, money which has since dried up, we’re told. The school of thought is that it’s a very bad thing for a writer, or any artist, to get too rich, too quick. That you need to grow slowly, in obscure poverty, perfecting craft, finding a sure, mature voice, or else you will flame out. (Dani Shapiro wrote an awesome essay on this for the LA Times that you should definitely check out: “A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale.”) There are many examples that bear this out, and I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon hurt 31 Bond Street in the end. It was such a promoted advance–awarded before the novel was written, of course–that it would be hard for the book to live up to such billing, particularly when written on deadline, as the author’s first book. To me, that just seems like an impossible way to write a book.