February 5, 2009

Conceit by Mary Novik

Conceit (Merriam-Webster) 
1 a (1): a result of mental activity: thought (2): individual opinion b: favorable opinion ; especially : excessive appreciation of one's own worth or virtue 
2: a fancy item or trifle 
3 a: a fanciful idea b: an elaborate or strained metaphor c: use or presence of such conceits in poetry d: an organizing theme or concept   
I’m an enthusiastic historical fiction fan and I especially like medieval fiction, maybe because it is not as popular as other periods, and I’m always looking for unique concepts.  I’d been to the bookstore numerous times indecisive whether to buy Conceit and I finally gave in because the great cover captivated me. The story is about the famed love John Donne has for his wife Ann, their children and in particular John’s daughter Pegge and her life.  On a broader level it is about the many facets of love and death set in the 17th century. I really really wanted to like this book but I just could not warm to it.  Normally I read a book within a week no matter how many pages but Conceit took just under two!   
The first 75 pages were plodding and confusing…and then I figured out the general direction of the plot and reading became smoother. Conceit was engrossing in a way, that of being a voyeur to disturbing behavior and unable to look away, as if spellbound with witchery. I didn’t mind the gore or rude language (Novik seems to detail every imaginable bodily function and irritating humor of the period), the complex, rambling ideas, and skipping back and forth through time, rather I detested all the characters.  The characters were for the most part brash, uncouth, self-involved, superstitious and unlikable. To be blunt I finished the book then threw it across the room. What I have realized about myself is that I need to like the characters to enjoy the story.    
But Conceit IS a masterful, authentic debut by Mary Novik and I would recommend it to those who prefer challenging, unique fiction.   
As an aside, there were a lot of foreign words I did not know the meaning of and didn’t bother to look up…I would have a dictionary with you reading this book.  For other medieval fiction I would recommend Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death series, Elsa Watson's Maid Marian: A Novel, any of Elizabeth Chadwick's novels, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn.
My Rating: 3.0   

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