Gail Gauthier: A Brief History Of My Reading Of “A Brief History Of Montmaray”
From: Original Content
September 21, 2012 at 03:30PM
I’ve been hearing about the Montmaray books by Michelle Cooper for a while now, mainly through Horn Book reviews. The 1930’s setting was a draw for me, and I finally got hold of A Brief History of Montmaray through Interlibrary Loan. It’s an odd and attractive work, and I’ll be ordering the next volume in the series, probably later today.
First off, I’ve seen this book compared to I Capture the Castle, a book that seems to have a cult following. If I’ve read it, it made no impression on me. I know I saw the movie. All I remember thinking is that it was a stereotypical eccentric British family story. The book I kept thinking of with Montmaray was The Book of Ebenezer LePage, another story of a character living a very confined life on an island. My recollection of that was that it was primarily character and setting, and for a lot of Montmaray, I felt the same way.
The opening of the book required a little determination from me, in that it begins with a couple of stereotypes I don’t enjoy very much. It’s written in journal form by a young woman who tells us right away about the young man she’s smitten with. Fortunately, given that Sophia is a princess in a royal family that has fallen on very hard times living in a tiny island kingdom somewhere off from England, France, and Spain (can you tell geography isn’t one of my strengths?), I didn’t have to put up with any accounts of shopping. (I’m sorry, journal stories about girls smitten with boys and shopping at malls are just more than I can tolerate.)
What finally attracted me was the way the royal FitzOsbornes can trace their fictional history (because they’re fictional characters) into all sorts of real historical events. I was also interested because Sophia is the least interesting and colorful of the FitzOsbornes. Her cousin, Princess Veronica, is personally powerful and intelligent and busy writing a Brief History of Montmaray, while Sophia plods away at her journal. Her older brother, Toby, the heir to the throne Veronica’s mad father presently holds, is one of those 1930’s era boarding school guys you might see in an Evelyn Waugh or Dorothy Sayers novel. Or on Masterpiece Theater. Sophia’s younger sister, Princess Henrietta, prefers to be called Henry. She’s such a hardcore tomboy that I wondered if she didn’t have some gender identity issues. King John is mad, as I believe I mentioned. Other relatives are dead or missing.
Now that I think of it, I guess a lot of the characters are a little stereotypical. However, putting them in their strange, impoverished imaginary kingdom makes them more interesting. This is a royal family that really is considered royal. But they are in such serious financial straits that the princesses have to do their own cooking and cleaning and outgrowing their clothes is a serious issue. Their aunt, the Princess Royal, married well and appears to be sitting on a load of money in London. She provides for her nephew’s education and is willing to treat her nieces to a London season, with the hope of finding them wealthy husbands in the market for princesses.
In terms of plot, the actual story here, the something that happened to somebody, involves how the family ends up…well, I can’t exactly tell you that without slapping you with a huge spoiler. I will say, though, that that story line didn’t really get started until halfway through the book. The disturbance to the characters’ world, the initiating act that everything else is a response to, doesn’t come until that point. We are teased with some possible disturbances prior to that. The invitation to Sophia and Veronica. The arrival of an airplane. But I’d have to say that the real story doesn’t begin until close to the middle of the book.
It’s hard to describe what this book is and why it’s attractive because everything I’ve written here doesn’t sound that flattering. Is it a historical novel when the country/kingdom involved is clearly made up? The Fascists, Communists, and Nazis in the book really existed, though. The Mitford sister referred to at one point was a real person. In many ways, I felt that with some tweaks to the setting, this could have been a fantasy. All it would have taken would have been to switch the greater world in which the made-up world of Montmaray exists to a made-up world, too, with slightly different groups filling in for the Fascists, Communists, and Nazis. Or would that have made it alternative history? Is it alternative history now?
I think, ultimately, that’s what I like about this book. I don’t see it fitting into any narrow category.
Oh, and in addition, there are two relationship surprises at the end of the book that I didn’t see coming. Loved them. One, in particular, does a number on the Sophia of the beginning of the book. Loved that.