August 4th, 2020

and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Tuesday

Vienna by William S. Kirby. A murder mystery/retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons", set in modern-day Europe with a Holmes and Watson who are both women and also in an explicit relationship. This book was sold to me as "lesbian Sherlock Holmes", and to be fair, it succeeds on that front – which is probably all that matters to many of you.

Justine Am is a world-famous supermodel, currently doing a tour of the capitals of Europe for an art project in which various photographers shoot her posing with wooden mannequins from the 1700s. She's also an ex-med student, which I suppose makes her the Watson of this story. Vienna is an autistic savant (there's a little bit of jargon at one point about how autistic savants aren't really a thing, and she actually has some other rare condition, but she's clearly written to be an autistic savant despite that ass-cover), with a photographic memory for everything she's ever read, incredible math skills, and a tendency to be pulled into geometric patterns in a way that can lead to seizures. Which I suppose makes her the Sherlock? Someone has to be, at any rate. Vienna is also an orphan with a mysterious past connected to her extremely rich and powerful "uncle", a British lawyer and nobleman.

The book opens with Justine in Vienna's bed after a mildly dissatisfying one night stand. Matters grow more complicated when Justine's boyfriend is shortly thereafter murdered and Vienna becomes the first suspect. Despite being thrown together under these not-promising circumstances, they discover a real connection and fall in love. Meanwhile, the boyfriend's murder is only the first in a string of deaths which seem to be connected to Justine's photo shoots – someone is using her as an opportunity to get access to the mannequins. Figuring out who, and why, is the only way for Justine and Vienna to stay alive.

The relationship is well-written – I'm always a fan of characters who have sex first and take a while to catch feelings – but the mystery is complex and arcane to the point of silliness. It involves astronomy, anarchists, assassinations of the 1800s, alchemy, ancient Egypt, and is weirdly alliterative, I've just now realized. The solution also depends on believing that the royal families of Europe (including the Hapsburgs) are secretly still in charge of everything and have regular hidden meetings to maintain society. Which would have been outdated in 1904, the publication date of the original Holmes story, much less 2015.

That's not the only odd thing about Kirby's writing. Justine is constantly called out for behaving "like an American" or a "crass colonial" by other characters, while this is actually not a thing that comes up all that often in my experience of living in Europe. She herself makes strange allusions to this supposed deep contrast between American and European culture, such as when she worries that a joke about Romeo and Juliet in front of a British crowd will set off "a riot, but the laughter seemed good-natured rather than derisive. How had she gotten away with mocking the country's greatest hero?" Vienna's British accent also struck me as a bit stiff and unrealistic, but not being British, I'll leave the final call on that to the experts.

The weirdest plot twist of all is when Justine loses her modeling career because it comes out that she's dating another woman. It's not even the added complications of Vienna being visibly autistic or involved in the case about Justine's boyfriend's murder that supposedly drive the nail into the coffin, but simply her gender. 2015 is not that long ago; I find it extremely doubtful that anyone would lose multiple modeling contracts due to a lesbian relationship.

Kirby's writing is highly oblique, with dialogue that often jumps from topic to topic with no transitions and plot developments that never entirely spell themselves out. I usually admire this style of writing, with its do-it-yourself approach to the reader who's left to figure out meanings and connections for herself. But Kirby occasionally goes too far, producing scenes that are just baffling rather than ambiguous.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed Vienna, despite this review sounding like a litany of complaints. It's just that the things that bothered me were all so unusual that I couldn't resist describing them in details, even though they were minor.

Medea and Her Children by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated from Russian by Arch Tait. A novel focusing on Medea, a widowed and childless woman living alone in the Crimea, and her large and messy Greek-descended family, who arrive at her small village every summer for beaches, parties, and gossip. The style is lyrical and frequently shifts in time from the present moment (which seems to be around the 1970s, though I don't think it's ever explicitly stated) to various events in Medea's memory, stretching all the way back to her parents' lives at the dawn of the 20th century and covering every important moment in between. Despite brief references to the many major political upheavals this period covers (WWI, WII, the expulsion of the Crimean Tatars, the death of Stalin), the focus is very much on the family and its petty dramas: dead parents, marriages, divorces, affairs (SO MANY AFFAIRS), illegitimate children, children sent to live with siblings or grandparents or cousins, house renovations, careers desired and discarded, and so on. The best passages are those describing the landscape of Crimea, its mountains and steep paths and the scent of the ocean.

Medea and Her Children falls into a certain style of 'literary fiction' that just doesn't work for me. I never engaged emotionally with any of the characters, although the writing is certainly lovely. There's all sort of major tragedies in the narrative, but I don't feel them much when the style comes off as so distancing and almost deliberately disorienting, choosing not to reveal characters' motivations or histories. Ah, well. At least there are some gorgeous turns of phrase. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.