Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

I will tell you a secret. Up until Alice I Have Been appeared on the horizon, I had no idea that there really was a girl named Alice and that Lewis Carroll (Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) had known her in real life before he decided to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I also didn't know that Mr. Dodgson was a photographer who primarily took pictures of young girls. I guess it's just one more example of why reading is so important and how it's never too late to learn something new. When the opportunity to read Melanie Benjamin's fictionalized story about Alice Pleasance Lidell presented itself, I took it and ran with it.

Alice I Have Been is a novel recounting the life of real Alice as it might have been. It is told by Alice herself, who is now eighty eight years old with a baggage of experiences that shaped her whole life. The author takes us through the childhood years when Alice, together with her two sisters lived in Oxford in the second half of 19th century. Alice was a wild, nonconformist child who preferred spending afternoons with beloved Mr. Dodgson to sitting quietly and learning the etiquette of young girls. Alice's childhood is privileged and mostly happy until things get out of control, until tragedy strikes and one life comes to an end as another begins. We accompany Alice on her real adventures as she innocently contends with her older sister Ina for the affection of Mr. Dodgson, as she is being loved and courted by a member of royal family, and as she finally gets to live away from her critical mother and from the illusion of dubious fame as Alice in Wonderland.

This a picture of Alice taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll when Alice was seven years old.

I really had mixed feelings while reading the book. I admit, I was caught under the spell of Ms. Benjamin's writing. I think she truly captured the life Alice may have lived, at least I didn't once question it and that's about as much as you can do in judging the authenticity in historical fiction. Most of the characters were real, most of events in Alice's life were also real and by the end of the book I felt that real Alice had a lot richer life than what Lewis Carroll imagined for her. What caused me to feel ambivalent in the end was that my image of Lewis Carroll as this innocent, lovable almost Santa Claus-like person crumbled and I wasn't ready for that. There appeared to be some gossip of a scandal concerning young Miss Alice and Mr. Dodgson and looking at the photographs taken by him, I have to say that there is indeed some impropriety in them. I don't want to come out and say that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile, but there certainly seemed to be more to his love of children than I originally thought. But that's really nothing to do with the author's talent. I think that Melanie did a great job by subtly portraying this relationship between a girl and an adult that might or might not have had any sexual undertones.

The second half of the book and second half of Alice's life is what I enjoyed the most. It was the most emotional for me and I could really sympathize with this young girl and then a wife and a mother just trying to get away from forever being Alice in Wonderland and to build a life in which she is known, loved and respected as a real woman and not a child from a story. I even caught myself admiring this strong character and wondering if that's who she really was. Life didn't spare Alice misery, tears and tragedy but life was also good to her in many ways. She emerged from a scandal and from a broken heart as a different woman who knew what she wanted and how to be finally happy. It was truly an adventure to read Alice I Have Been where many emotions were evoked and that's what I think makes for a story worth reading.

I have received this review copy of Alice I Have Been from the Shelf Awareness program.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin will be published in January 2010 by Bantam Dell Publishing Group.