Poe No

Last year, my library received a grant for a really cool program from the NEA called The Big Read.  There's a list of books that a community can choose from, and then the idea is that the community reads the book and creates and participates in activities based on that book.  We did Selected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe in October, which was wonderfully spooky and just a ridiculous amount of fun.  I had forgotten how seriously disturbing (yet amazing) some of his stories are.  Poe is also kind of an enigma, but I've always been pro-Poe, even if he did marry his cousin.  Poor guy had issues.

Too often, the misunderstood or marginalized become the villains of a narrative.  I guess it's somehow more convenient to transform an ill person into a bad person than to transform a goody two-shoes into the harbinger of doom.  I mean, in comic books, disfigurement or mental illness lead straight to villainy.  This is something we need to change.  It perpetuates the shunning of the "other" and makes people think that legitimate mental illness indicates that that person is also a) a psychopath, b) a murderer, or c) both.

This is what happens, unfortunately, in Of Monsters and Madness.  (This title felt vaguely familiar to me and I didn't know why, until I realized that I was thinking of the band Of Monsters and Men.  TOTALLY different.  This book is not Icelandic, for one thing.)  Of Monsters and Madness is a reworking of Edgar Allan Poe's life ... well, kind of.  The subject of his famous poem, Annabel Lee, is the narrator of the book, but they don't live by the sea.  They live in Philadelphia.

Annabel Lenore Lee (ha!  I see what you did there!) comes from Siam to live with her father.  From what I could gather, Annabel and her mother first lived in England, then "stowed away" with some missionaries on a ship to Siam.  As you do.  In Siam, she learns to meditate, she prefers simple food, and her mother is some sort of acupressure practitioner (I am not making this up).  While that may seem fairly common today, I don't really think English citizens in the 1820s would be accepting of those lifestyles.  Annabel also seems to think that the style of dress in Siam (Thailand) is the kimono.  According to some quick research (hi, Wikipedia!) traditional Thai dress for women has different pieces such as the sinh or the pha nung.  No kimono here.  Because people in Japan wear kimono.  

ANYWAY.  Annabel shows up alone in Philadelphia, as her mom died a month before the ship tickets arrived.  It's not convenient to have both parents alive, you know, especially in YA historical fiction.  Her father is a scientist-ish-type guy who is very rude, but Annabel still wants to please him.  After he abandoned her and her mother.

Upon her arrival in Philadelphia, Annabel promptly falls in the river and is rescued by the dashing Allan Poe, her father's research assistant.  He fishes  her out of the drink and instructs her new maidservant to loosen her stays ... wow, this scene reads remarkably like that one in Pirates of the Caribbean.  "Obviously you've never been to Singapore."

Annabel meets her friendly grandfather, whom she must address as grandp√®re, because, you know, French???? (I honestly have no idea here), and her father, who suffers from the residual effects of a serious bout of "typhoid," which causes him immense pain.  His symptoms sound more like rheumatoid arthritis, but whatever.  Typhoid.  Fine.  He is an immense jerk to his daughter, whom he presumably wanted to come to the States, since he paid for her ticket and all.  The author sets him up as the classical mad scientist.
So, Colin Clive, but with a limp and an even worse attitude.
I kind of stopped reading at this point.  This is like 25% of the way through the book.  I skimmed through and another guy named Edgar Poe shows up, and he's dangerous and smoldering and absolutely bonkers.  Murders grip Philadelphia--who could possibly be committing them???  I'll give you three guesses, but you won't need the second two.

THEN we find out that Annabel's pops was experimenting with a serum that separates the good and evil parts of a person's personality.  Thus, Edgar and Allan are the same person.  Dun dun DUNNNNN!  In the end, all is well, and Allan commits himself to a hospital in penance for the crimes of Edgar.  The last chapter occurs two weeks after the main action, and somewhere in that period, Annabel's dad has disappeared, so she sneaks into the hospital, disguised as a boy (why???) to ask Allan to take the serum and again become Edgar so he can find her father.

What?  When did daddy dearest go missing?  Why does she need "Edgar" to find dad?  Why is she disguised?  I am so confused.

So, basically, this is a strange, muddled retread of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson, but with Edgar Allan Poe as a murderer.  There are these winky nods to Poe's work--such as Annabel's dad's house having stained glass windows donated by "Prince Prospero."  I totally want the depraved Duke of the Red Death to have a hand in my interior decorating!  There's Annabel's middle name, Lenore.  There's the book that Allan is writing.

Evidently, it's just easier to cast Poe as the villain because he is mysterious.  He was troubled.  Tortured.  Hmmm ... obviously he must have had Dissociative Identity Disorder!

 Actually, it's theorized that Poe had bipolar disorder (no puns, please), and looking at the high highs and low lows of his work, as well as his extreme intelligence yet lack of comfort in society, that's certainly a valid hypothesis.  But nope.  Let's just give him a serum to turn him into a monster.  Makes better fiction.  Ugh.

The other thing that seriously irked me about what I managed to read was that practically every other sentence consisted of Annabel saying something like, "In Siam, ..."  YES.  Siam is a different country, with a different culture; ergo, your experiences in America will be different.  I do not need that pointed out to me at every turn, thank you very much.

Okay, the other other thing that irked me was the lack of plot (which a very few books can get away with, but that's because they're character studies or avant-garde).  What little plot existed came straight out of other authors' works.  It was Dr. Moreau meets Dr. Frankenstein meets Dr. Jekyll.

Not recommended at all.  I have other things to read.

A digital copy of this book was provided by NetGalley for my review.  All opinions in this review are my own.


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