Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Ivy by Julie Hearn

... It's inauguration day. I have no clever lead in to this summary and review.

Ivy has lead a hard life, even by the low standards of Paradise Row. Orphaned as a young child and left to live with her invalid aunt and scheming cousin, Ivy has suffered more than her fair share of humiliation and abuse by the age of five, when we first meet her. She has fiery red hair and oddly colored eyes, quite unlike her aunt's family. When Ivy is given the chance to attend school with her favorite younger cousin, she is wary, but is excited to get out from under her aunt's wrath.

But school isn't any better for Ivy. Humiliated by her teacher and other workers at the school, Ivy runs away on her first day and falls in with a "skinner" - someone who literally steals the clothes off of people's backs - called Carroty Kate. After Ivy lies to Carroty and tells her she has no home to return to, Carroty takes Ivy under her wing and the two become an inseparable pair - to the mild chagrin of the others in Carroty's gang of n'er-do-wells.

In order to keep Ivy calm in the early days of the partnership, Carroty Kate introduces her to the soothing effects of laudanum - the drug that, ten years later when the story picks back up, with Ivy back under the care of her aunt and cousins, Ivy has a terrible addiction to.

Now Ivy spends much of her time in a laudanum-induced daze. To the endless contempt of her family, Ivy doesn't contribute to the family business (either pulling scams or selling flowers) - she's too doped up. She hasn't told them where she spent the two years she had disappeared.

Despite the heavy drug use, Ivy's unique appearance has grown into a sort of a beauty as she has aged. In the market one day she attracts the attention of an artist, Oscar Fosdick, who insists that she become his new model for his paintings. With the promise of a generous salary, Ivy's family sign her up for the job.

And here's where the conflicts begin: from the first day, Ivy and Oscar's mother are constantly at odds. Another (more famous) artist lives next door, and finds Ivy to be the spitting image of his late wife (who died after an overdose of laudanum) - and as another layer of intrigue, his young servant is quite smitten with Ivy as well. Ivy is increasingly unhappy in her work as a model - both because it is tedious work and the constant harassment from Mrs. Fosdick - but her chances for happiness seem to be foiled at every turn.

Lots of reviews are comparing this to Dickens. I have to admit that I haven't really read any Dickens, but I kept feeling like, at least in narrative style, I was reading Jane Eyre. I kept expecting the page to read something along the lines of "Reader, I married him." Thankfully nothing that obvious came up, but this does seem to be a rather meta novel - the narrator is very aware that she/he is conveying a story.

In the author's note at the end, Hearn explains that she was inspired by a real life painting that appears in the novel, and wanted to, in a way, create a better life for the ill-fated subject of that painting. However, I found that explanation rather jolting - the painting appears rather late in the story, so it seemed like an odd point of inspiration. Additionally, the "better life" Hearn tried to create comes about rather conveniently at the last moment.

Overall, this book felt extremely flat. I had small problems with everything from the narrative style to the motivations of various characters. Individually, my issues are in fact rather small, but considering there are so many of them they add up to a less-than-thrilling novel.
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