Saturday, March 08, 2008

REVIEW: Perchance to Feast by Ellen Belitsky

PerchanceToFeast(S).jpgPLOT

Sixty years ago, the cosmic imp Chance, in his eternal quest for entertainment, set a scheme in motion. He contrived to inspire Sadie and Lillian, best friends at Hometown Junior High, to write the story of Subring, a hellish realm where the mean girls who bullied them would be punished. Scared of their own creation, the girls quickly abandon the story. But dark ideas, once loosed, are not always easily buried.

Now, decades later, Chance is ready for the grand amusement to begin. A new generation of Hometown residents, including Sadie's own granddaughter, have been set in motion and are ready to assume their roles. And Subring is ready to be unlocked.

MY TAKE

I expected the worst from Perchance to Feast. The back cover description seemed to promise a twee fairy tale. Based upon my own prejudices, the author bio (Ms. Belitsky describes herself as a "retired teacher" who "is passionate about peace, the environment, the Bill of Rights and all things built of words") appeared even worse. I knew I was being unfair, but what could a retired teacher have to say to someone as jaded as me? And the first few pages -- told from Chance's point of view -- heightened my fears. They struck me as overwritten, filled with alienating alliteration and the typical "look at the superior cosmic being who happens to find amusement in playing with humans" clich├ęs that I have seen so many times before.

And, to be honest, Perchance to Feast does lack a certain professional polish that betrays its POD origins. The (thankfully few) passages told from Chance's perspective continue to be heavy-handed. Similarly, Sadie's dialogue, filled with "Oy!"s and noun-verb inversions, is less colorful than it is a caricature (she is a Russian immigrant). And Ms. Belitsky's decision to use on-the-nose names for places and off-stage characters (the novel takes place in "Hometown," which is home to both "Hometown Junior High" and snooty "Classical Academy;" "Mr. Cleanitup" is the janitor, while "Mrs. Fuddydud" and "Mrs. Stickler" are teachers) is not so much clever as evidence that Ms. Belitsky was trying too hard.

But my reservations soon fell away, and I suddenly realized that I was truly enjoying Perchance to Feast . The novel quickly hit its stride once the POV shifted from Chance to other characters and the story began to unfold. Yes, the novel is essentially a fairy tale about a brave young girl foiling the plans of a grotesque evil queen. However, Perchance to Feast is anything but twee. The story is surprisingly dark, mature and involving. Although Subring does not open its doors until the last portion of the book, Ms. Belitsky holds our interest throughout with an interesting backstory and a slowly escalating tension, with a fully satisfying resolution.

Indeed, the many successes of Perchance to Feast easily overcome its few stylistic failings. In particular, Ms. Belitsky's handling of one of the novel's underlying themes -- how stories impact our lives -- is impressively graceful. Novels dealing with "the power of the imagination" are often uncomfortably blunt and, quite frankly, unimaginative. But Perchance to Feast handles this theme deftly. The novel may not exactly be subtle; after all, the premise of the novel is that Chance has manipulated the cosmos so that the imaginary Subring will intrude on the real world. But Ms. Belitsky's handling of this subject is elegant and low-key, allowing the theme to play out naturally and without becoming overbearing.

Ultimately, however, it is Ms. Belitsky's handling of her characters that is particularly accomplished. The more "down to earth" characters, such as Lillian (an elderly woman for most of the novel) and Sadie's grand-daughter Karma Robin (a thirteen year old who likes to be called K-Rob) all feel genuine, despite the range in their ages and personalities. The more "extreme" characters such as the villainous Hera, the drama teacher at Classical Academy, are so (entertainingly) monstrous as to be almost inhuman. Yet both types of character work well on their own and, impressively, this contrast does not tear the novel apart. Perhaps the ability of these disparate characters to co-exist is due to Ms. Belitsky's decision to keep them apart for most of the novel, until the situation is so out-of-control that the mashing of the ordinary and the extreme seems reasonable. Or perhaps it is because Ms. Belitsky succeeds in giving us just enough background detail about even the monsters so that, ultimately, they don't seem quite so inhuman after all.

AVAILABILITY

Perchance to Feast is available for $15.95 from iUniverse or Amazon. (As always, iUniverse has a free preview of several pages available.) Ms. Belitsky writes a blog about the novel called Perchance to Publish; she has written several interesting posts about the benefits and frustrations of publishing through iUniverse, including a couple that reveal how such an interesting novel ended up with such an uninspiring cover.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

Extraordinary(s).jpgBack during the initial run of this blog, John Purlia sent me a review copy of his novel The Extraordinary Adventures of the 25 Year Old Birthday Muse (available from Lulu through a special link available on request from the author). I didn't review it at the time because I didn't know quite what to say. In large part, I still don't.

Extraordinary Adventures is an episodic fairy tale about Kathy, muse of Gardening, Fashion and Photography, who wishes on her twenty-fifth birthday to "finally find the artist whom I shall inspire." She is immediately cast from Olympus in order that she might better chase her dream. What follows is a series of agreeable encounters with quirky people and places (illustrated by full-color reproductions of masterpieces of mythologically inspired art), events that, while individually interesting, lack conflict or narrative drive. I enjoyed Extraordinary Adventures, the same way one might enjoy a languorous stroll through a local art museum on a hot afternoon: a pleasant diversion to be sure, and worthwhile in its understated charms, but, ultimately, not fully inspiring.

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