Things never quite seem to go as I plan them, especially when it comes to this blog. For instance, I fully expected to have posted reviews for two books — neither of which is this book — by now. Alas, I have not, mainly because of a book defect. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I was happily engrossed when BAM! Suddenly what I was reading made no sense. I read and reread, until I finally looked at the corners of the pages and realized that somehow, 30 pages were missing out of the book! Keep in mind, I purchased this book brand new. It jumped from 120 to 153, and let me tell you: the resulting gap rendered the book unreadable. I was very confused by what I had missed in the chasm of missing text, and I just couldn’t keep going. I emailed the publisher and Barnes and Noble, hoping to get a complete copy, but so far neither has come through. (Hyperion Publishing, I’m shooting a nasty look in your direction! At least have the decency to give me a response of some sort!) Hence, Deliverance Dane was grudgingly abandoned, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, the first meeting of a book club that a friend of a friend had decided to form was fast approaching. We were to read The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Since I had already set aside one book, I gritted my teeth and put aside The Hare with Amber Eyes as well. I began reading The Gargoyle, but very nearly stopped reading it just as quickly. The beginning of this novel is a horror story in which the main character stars as the monster, though a case could equally be made for his role as the victim.
Let me explain. The Gargoyle opens with a fiery car crash, in which the protagonist is burned very nearly to death. The main character, who remains nameless for the entirety of the novel, is very upfront about the fact that he ran off the road and flipped his car into a ravine because he was high on cocaine and literally drinking and driving; specifically, his intoxication caused a hallucination that he swerved to avoid. The bottle of bourbon he’d been swigging from only served as an accelerant for the flames, especially where he had spilled it on his lap. The man describes his car going up in flames, with him inside, in stomach-turning detail. He is saved only when his car tips into a stream, extinguishing the fire. It is too late, though. The extensive damage has been done, and he has third-degree burns covering his head, neck, and upper body. Paramedics arrive on scene and rush him to the hospital, where he will then stay for many months.
The burned man’s time in the hospital is educational and appalling. The treatments for his burns are as bad — or worse — than the original injury. His organs fail. His immune system stops functioning. He loses fingers, toes, and, most insultingly, his penis. This loss is especially cruel, as the man made his living as a highly successful porn star before the accident. He intersperses details of his life in the hospital with recollections of his earlier life as a child raised by two meth-addicted relatives, then a man whose body made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He bluntly discusses the sex and drugs that were his work and his lifestyle, and admits that he was a bastard.
At this point in the novel, I couldn’t really see where it was going. It was interesting, but didn’t exactly have a driving plot. And then, out of the blue, a woman walked into the burned man’s room, took one look at him and calmly said, “You’ve been burned. Again.” While the man ponders the meaning of this, the woman continues, “This is the third time you’ve been burned.” Thus, we the readers meet Marianne Engel. She becomes what the burned man looks forward to from day to day, and what the reader looks forward to for excitement and plot development.
Marianne tells the burned man a love story dating back to the 14th century — but insists that they themselves are the lovers of which she speaks. It’s impossible to tell what her motives are, as she truly seems to believe that she was born over 700 years earlier, as was the main character. Her historical knowledge is flawless, but the general consensus is that she must be crazy. The fact that she is a psychiatric patient at the same hospital as the man does nothing to help her case. She might be schizophrenic. Or manic-depressive. Or have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or, as the burned man conjectures, some confluence of all three. Whatever her issues, there is no denying that Marianne tells a damn good story and is a very talented sculptor. Naturally, she carves gargoyles on orders from God. Despite her many eccentricities, one can’t help but fall under her spell.
Marianne and the burned man begin to forge a bond, one which she unwaveringly insists is centuries-old. Marianne serves as the motivation for the main character to actually begin the healing and rehabilitation process. She tells him love stories from around the world and from different eras, though she always returns to the one that unfolded in medieval Germany — the one that she says is the two of them in an earlier lifetime.
Davidson seamlessly merges the stories Marianne tells into the modern-day plot, and both begin to emotionally engage more and more. I have to say that I was probably more fond of the medieval story than the modern one, though they coexist to the point of interdependence. The novel has excellent story-telling, though the pacing is occasionally off. The characters are well-rounded and likeable, even when they do crazy or cruel things. Davidson clearly did his research, as well; the literary and historical references that he incorporates throughout the novel are fitting to both the plot lines and the places. I also appreciated that he left the novel open-ended in a way that lets the readers draw our own conclusions, without feeling like Davidson copped out in any way.
The bottom line: I liked this book. I doubt I’ll read it again, but it was definitely worth the time I put into it for this read. Honestly, I never would have read it were it not picked for my book club, but I’m glad it was. More to the point, I’m glad this book club exists at all. I didn’t know any of the other women in the group before this first meeting (which took place earlier this afternoon), but it was a wonderful warm experience. I am so pleased to find myself among other people who happily carve out time for literature, and are open to books of all types. We’re a very diverse group in terms of backgrounds and occupations, but this just makes it all the more special that we’re finding this common ground on which to bond. I’m already looking forward to next month’s meeting, and the other members expressed the same sentiment. It’s great to be reminded that the love of books is still alive and well.