Angelica by Arthur Phillips
Published by: Penguin Books
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2007
Format: Paperback, 331 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
The Barton household is about to be violently upset. Whether it's of a supernatural nature or a more prosaic nature is dependent on who you are listening to. The simple facts are these. Constance Barton and her husband Joseph had a hard time having a child. Two painful miscarriages and finally Angelica was born. In an attempt to thwart her husband's sexual advantages Angelica has been living in their bedroom for four years. Constance couldn't handle more disappointments and Angelica is enough for her. Angelica is her everything. But things are changing and Joseph finally imposes his will, which is a rare occurrence, and Angelica is removed to her nursery and the master bedroom is once more home to the martial bed. That is when the trouble starts. Constance views it as a haunting. There are smells and spectres and while Joseph points out that it could all be due to her high strung nature, she is convinced something more is at play; and is Angelica playing along? Could the child actually be scared or is she feeding off her mother's emotions? When Joseph claims his martial rights with Constance the spectre takes on physical form and something must be done. The maid Nora has heard of a spiritualist who specializes in cleansing houses, Anne Montague, a failed actress who is supplementing her income via overwrought housewives. But Anne sees something in the Barton household to change her mind about her "calling" and helps Constance. As for Joseph, he is easily taken care of... and as for Angelica? It turns out this is her story in more ways than one.
If you're looking for a book strewn with contradictory stories and lack of resolution, than this here is the book for you! If instead you're looking for a psychological thriller that has supernatural elements, then I'd suggest you walk away. Or at the very least only read Constance's viewpoint, because the only thing going for this book was, aside from Phillips's ability to capture the language of the time period heavily reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, the first section with it's paranormal activities. Because this book isn't about the supernatural it's about unreliable narrators and the fallibility of memory and how each and every person sees the world differently. Which is all fine and good, it's just not the book I thought I was signing up to read and therefore I was a very dissatisfied reader. But more on my complete dissatisfaction later, with spoilers aplenty, so you've been warned. The problem with having four distinct perspectives is that they will never agree, add to this that Angelica is technically the vehicle for the other three narrators, and it's a jumbled mess. Yes, it's interesting to see the different interpretations of the same events, but overall it needed some grounding. There needed to be some character that you could connect to over the others, someone needed to be a little more believable so that you could take that away as what you believe is the truth. Instead, by not having this element the inconclusive ending makes for dissatisfied reading.
Seeing the story in order from the POVs of Constance, Anne, Joseph, and finally Angelica, who we've really been hearing from all along because this is her therapy session, Phillips seemed to want to discount the previous POV. Yes, everyone sees the world in their own unique way, but he seems determined to lessen the book in each section by paving over what came before and making it unbelievable. Therefore instead of being able to pick apart the POVs and find some thread of truth, we have each subsequent narrator totally disproving what came before. With Constance it's a ghost, but then Anne comes along and it's not a ghost it's sexual abuse, though she still lets Constance think it's a ghost. Then along comes Joseph and it's not sexual abuse it's that women be crazy yo. As for Angelica... she confirms nor denies any of these stories. So all is plausible. Say what!?! All is true and nothing is true? I know you can mimic the writing of Carroll, but please, no. Phillips you are no Carroll when it comes to nonsense and riddles. Unreliable narrators are really popular at the moment from Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, heck this book technically has the ever popular "girl" in the title with Angelica's name, but these books succeed, and I really can't believe I'm saying there's something successful in Gone Girl, but they succeed because you get closure, not some supposedly deep yet ultimately aggravating non-ending.
But then again, this is a book that basically writes itself off in the end. In fact, rarely have I hated a book so much in it's last few sentences that I grew to despise it and wanted to throw it more than anything."Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths... Heathing..." So let's break down that ending. At the conclusion of the book Angelica, the gimmicky narrator/manipulative bitch we've been hearing from tells her therapist to just ignore everything she's said, he will never understand her and he should just bring on the next "pretty hysteric." Now I've had long talks with one of my friends over this abrupt ending, seeing as we read this book for book club. Her conclusion, in as simplified a manner as I can make it, is that Angelica realizes that the therapist will never understand her, a complex modern woman, and the slight is to the therapist. Whereas I think it's the exact opposite. I think it's the author not bothering to understand women but just flipping them off at the end. They're women, they aren't worth figuring out because this wasn't Angelica's story it was Joseph's story all along. And why do I think this? Because Phillips, while writing so much about women here can't help that he is a male and as evidenced strongly in Joseph's section all his sympathies are with the male of the species so he's just writing from his entitled white male POV. Yeah, so let's throw this book out a window shall we?
Going back to Joseph's section, not only does it discount everything that Constance and Anne have said, it makes Joseph this tragic figure who isn't understood at work or at home and he just has no friends and blah blah blah blah. I'm sorry your wife doesn't want to sleep with you, could it be because there is no birth control and she doesn't want to almost die having a stillborn child again? Every aspect of Constance's life is put under the microscope, every thing she does, says, feels, is up for debate, whereas Joseph, well, it's just poor Joseph don't pick on him, he's having a bad day, so let's let him be. Why not scrutinize Joseph? Put him under the harsh lights he uses in experimenting on animals, a job that is noble and not at all amoral! The true theme of this book isn't about memory and differing POVs, in Joseph's section we see Phillips's true motive, everything comes down to "poor men." Because obviously, like the recent Portlandia sketch, men have been pushed aside and marginalized too long. All women want from them is to trick them into marriage so they can have babies. Yeah, that's right. This very modern and topical view that women are out there to trick men into baby making is thrust into this Victorian period piece. I just kept thinking, yes, things are cyclical and men could have felt that way then, but more I kept thinking, is the author's girlfriend trying to get him to put a ring on it and a bun in the oven?
So as you can imagine by this point, I'd sworn off the book. Whatever good had happened with Constance and Anne, all was washed away by the modern hypocrisy just screaming at me from these pages that made up Joseph's section. Was there hope that Angelica could redeem the book? As you've read already. No. There wasn't. In fact Angelica's section is so slight it barely deserves a mention, except for one point; Constance and Anne hooking up. This is an issue I have with many male authors, they think that women will just randomly be lesbians if it suits the needs of the men. George R. R. Martin might be the worst, but can't they get that people are born who they are and that's that? You can see why Constance and Anne might be drawn to each other, Constance hasn't fared well at the hands of men, especially in regard to reproduction, and Anne is a wonderful protector and provider. But like the male entitlement that just oozed off the pages earlier, this just seems to be another nail in the coffin of women as manipulators. They got the child they wanted, killed Joseph, and now can live happily ever after. Or you could look at it as Constance doesn't like Joseph or his attentions so therefore she must be gay. In other words, everything in this book is seen through male entitlement glasses, I wouldn't say they're rose colored, they're more shit colored, because what makes you think that it's OK to think like this? Women are people too. I know many men are trying to change this, and reading a book that thinks that way... it just enrages me.