Hardcover: 408 pages (409 via e-book)
Published: April 16th 2012 by EVERBOLD Press
ISBN13 9780985157128 (e-book ISBN 0985157127)
Edition language: English, 43 chapters
I was sent this book as part of the Goodreads.com First Reads program and wrote a thank you note and review at the time for the author, this review is an edited version of that. I’d be hard pressed to think of a current befitting genre but I’d say the story is foremost about family and friendship, how those bonds develop and what they mean to people both straightforward and convoluted and secondary themes are education and vegetarianism/health but those are side stories in bringing characters together, though I wouldn’t call them plot devices because they don’t feel contrived.
Wobbly Barstool is firstly, a beautifully presented book reminiscent of a time gone by paying homage to Victorian novels from cute portraits illustrated at the front to its short chapters and simple yet elegant colour scheme. The dignified appearance of the book hides a web of turmoil, of highs and lows written on the pages. The story is complex and emotive yet skips along light heartedly and almost giddily in the first half with previews of lurking dangers.
Advantages: Nod to Victorian fiction. For those who like convoluted romance & drama.
Disadvantages: Convoluted romance & drama.
PLOT AND COMMENTARY
There once was a happy, hard working, farm style, rustic family all under the ‘Barstool’ name – idyllic and sweetness and light, mostly. They were respected in the community and had a fine set of offspring though one called ‘Wobbly’ was a bit slow but genuine and sincere, making quick work of winning people over. Even endearing himself to the rumoured wild boy named Tobias running with the dogs on the outskirts – the dogs took a bit longer to warm to Wobbly but since they adhered to pack mentality and their honourary human leader was keen on the non-honourary friend they decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Tobias has a very sad back story hence how he ended up with the dogs living off the land and is wary but willing to trust Wobbly and even more wary of Wobbly’s family who take him in as their ‘own’ and he learns to feel part of a human family. Of course his dogs are not neglected and due to his life he is an ardent supporter of animal rights and their likewise abilities to think and feel, it turns out he’s also very intelligent and handsome which doesn’t do him any harm in being accepted and listened to at the time, lucky he wasn’t a girl.
Cue a beautiful girl called Prunella on the scene visiting nearby on one of those Victorian long holidays touring other people’s homes, when one is well to do. She catches Wobbly’s eye and heart though thankfully not Tobias’. Wobbly’s cousin Marigold becomes her friend and they remain in constant communication even when the beautiful one returns home.
So the four main characters introduced – yes the tumultuous, twisted love lives of youth plays the driven vehicle for the plot in this Victorian-esque ode as per the successful norm – we move on to the back stage where evil dwells and deception rules, daggers at the ready. What is the connection between Tobias and Prunella? How is it that as soon as they met they felt an affinity, a ‘knowing’ that worried Wobbly and his sister since they both have a romantic interest in the pair? Tobias is seemingly an orphan and Prunella from an adoring, wealthy family. It turns out Prunella has a secret past she doesn’t know of and her so-called parents are quite the underhanded opportunists, getting money and family at whatever the cost. But of course that’s not enough and if this had been firmly in the crime genre it might have been an aspiring Agatha Christie novel with unsightly revelations and plot twists at the end in regards to the mystery(ies) but predictable re: the character relationships and who ends up with who.
Marigold embarks on her quest to win Tobias by playing the wide eyed, admiration and support society of the likes he was unprepared for and due to his harsh life is greatly appreciative of. Meanwhile Wobbly plays the hero to win fair maiden (Prunella) as the Venetian masks slip from her parent’s faces and her disturbing past catches up with her. Oh the gender stereotypes abound – I’d much rather play Robin Hood than Maid Marian, scratch that, swinging from tree to tree robbing the rich to give to the poor whilst looking like Maid Marian is more my cup o’ tea (I’d have dressed as Robin had I gone to one of those Sherwood Forest festivals, but of course I don’t like the lewd take on the origins of the story pairing those two characters which has mainly been obscured, forgotten and whitewashed by modern versions of the tale). Anyway, there are some pretty distractions by way of fairs and nuptials before getting back to business and finding out Wobbly’s parents have a huge secret too and Tobias may be more in the family than anyone, except them, would have initially thought.
Synchronicity, orchestration or both? Ah the lies of the webs weaved to deceive, when good intentions go awry, and those without good intentions at all takeover.
WRITING STYLE AND THOUGHTS
The story began with tragedy quickly turning to warmth, then to tragedy and then to warmth again in quick succession and with different sets of characters but nothing about it was brash or confusing – it actually felt like a gentle read, complete with sincerity. I appreciated that the qualities of kindness and trust were emphasized from the start and were the threads that wove that characters together. The rest of the book continued in much the same pace with many and varied characters introduced rapidly, their stories told alternately through the chapters but the tone of the story markedly changed to something far more serious and revealing.
The main characters were endearing and many were very well spoken with a poetic and whimsical eloquence. The supporting and background characters were clearly defined and generally stuck to their typecast throughout. All benefited from quirky names which added a touch of humour and intrigue. I was impressed that some of the main characters were vegetarian, a unique element rarely noted in classic (Victorian) literature or tributes. I’ve read descriptions of meals and habits but in regards to personal convictions and lifestyles rarely anything other than class and gender struggles. Anytime plant based meals or teetotallers were mentioned in other books I’ve read it was due to poverty and not preference, and usually they were met with derision from surrounding characters.
This book expanded and expounded on the ethical and clandestine subjects touched upon in the genre, from highlighting the almost courtesan view of upper class females of marriageable age to an anti-animal experimentation stance adeptly inserted into the plot. Universal ethics apply to all. Subjects touched upon that are more modern in literature were surrogacy, environmentalism and carcinogenic radiation, the first two dealt with from a personal perspective of the characters involved and the latter in an interesting landscape perspective.
From the start it seemed that the story was a mystery, initially disguised as an armchair mystery, not too thrilling and something nice to read nestled with a warm beverage of choice but later showed itself to be intense. It was quite philosophical but cleverly juggled with the underlying family secret and changing circumstances. The themes of family, friendship and love were strong throughout as well as the notion of give and take; I didn’t quite agree with the author’s presented view of an ideal life, the various forms of love demonstrated or what I saw as unethical behaviour in the name of morality or giving on the part of the characters written as the moral ones, which isn’t so problematic when reading fiction but because it’s a predominant theme/setting in the book it might be off putting to some readers. On the whole I was impressed with the level of high spirits, fortitude, geniality and openness of the main characters, it is rare to find such a large group of personalities capable of interacting with others without reservation, superficial first impressions and able to be happy for each other. Yet all the while there was a mysterious figure pulling the strings and orchestrating the lives of the main cast; does perceived happiness and contentment come at such a cost? The romance on the whole was fast (years pass in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ way) and neat for most of the characters but suffered the usual entanglements and difficulties of class difference, expressing feelings and physical distance. Overall the romance was very youthful exempting that of the Barstool parents.
The language used was just as elaborate as in classic literature but without the pretension and stuffy tones that I’ve often found. Rather, in this case it was nifty and fun and I read and re-read sentences to ensure that I didn’t miss a word. The only thing I’d mention is the large number of commas which were helpful in breaking up the wordy dialogue of certain characters but otherwise broke the rhythm. I thought that they would have been more helpful had I been reading a play/script because they were inserted as oral ‘breathers’ as if the sentences were part of a speech or first person narrative to readers rather than changing the direction or extending a sentence in written work or as part of a list.
There was great attention to detail in the book; here are a few examples:
- Within the story Tobias’ lectures are published and the name of the publishing company is the same as the publisher of the physical book I’m reviewing – a cute and practical promotional example of the naming nuances in the story.
- The observations of London were as relevant to the time period as they are now.
- Also worth noting is the number of coincidences in the story, which is an interesting meta-narrative of the aforementioned mysterious figure pulling strings (“that’s Mr Beggintrade. He manages our affairs” page 188), the seemingly natural though oft farfetched coincidences (that fit in with the storytelling style) are really the product of the author and demonstrate synchronicity mixed with intentional effort (an underlying theme in the story). An interesting irony and mirror.
- ‘That Which Must Be Kept In Mind’ is fondly familiar to ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (Rumpole of the Bailey) and ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ (Harry Potter).
- The use of living potted plants at a wedding location.
- Noting University of London for being forward thinking – one of its major colleges UCL was one of the first UK universities to admit women and people of different ethnicities. Though sadly in line with other employers in modern times it wasn’t forward thinking when it came to its pocket, paying women less wages.
- A lecture on electricity which is worth noting for its ‘alternative’, intriguing presentation.
I think that the story had all of the elements of a Victorian dramatic novel and then some. I found much of it heart warming and sweet but at the same time I couldn’t really enjoy it because I thought it better suited to readers who enjoy the big/extended family setting where many characters are related and through the various circumstances other than a random meeting of strangers turning into love; such as tradition, lack of choice, desperation, ‘keeping it in the family’ etc and follow the usual meet, woo (no matter how arduous), marry, bear children formula. I also couldn’t support the main couples having reservations about one and cynicism about the other as I found the romance forced though I did believe there to be genuine respect, affection and gratitude. But that’s the problem; companionship and non-romantic familial bonds based on those qualities are one thing and/or a romantic relationship that has passed its bloom and reached maturity but romantic love, let alone young love shouldn’t be based/born out of gratitude aka obligation, duty or hero worship in my opinion even if the participants don’t see it that way (though tend to later on unless some disaster happens which serves to reinvigorate their gratitude and dependency, or ‘happy’/joyful circumstance that blindsights them for a while allowing them to continue on). I wouldn’t want someone to be romantically attracted to me because I helped them, it happens I know but I think the responsibility is on that person not to encourage the crush rather than going with and benefiting from it – it’s awkward trying to avoid or be near a devotee whilst remaining sensitive to their feelings but in my opinion it’s better that they love you ‘just because’ they’re attracted to you innately combined with respect and show any gratitude in a non-“I give you my body/mind/soul because you’re so cool” way. However I reiterate that the story was skilfully written and managed, a veritable soap opera (though not as painstakingly slow) befitting romance and sabotage and brought to mind the universal adage – ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’.
I could tell that the author and her family handling this book really held it in high esteem (much like the family in the story); I was very impressed with the presentation of the book from the considered paraphernalia given, none of it pushy, to the careful packaging (in matching colour scheme). Everything about it implied marketable quality.
Sidenote – the story is based in England but every time the Barstool family was described I couldn’t help visualizing them in Mid-Western USA with Golden crops and sunshine rather than our Green fields and Greyish skies. I later realized that the author lived in Houston, perhaps that came through.