Thursday, March 29, 2018
Published January 2010 by Random House Publishing Company
Source: bought my copy at the Omaha Lit Fest
But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?
Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she’s experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only “Alice.” Her life was permanently dog-eared at one fateful moment in her tenth year–the golden summer day she urged a grown-up friend to write down one of his fanciful stories.
That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice–he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice’s childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.
For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey.
I'm always impressed with the amount of research Melanie Benjamin does for her books. It always feels like she has a good grasp on her characters and she can really make settings and time periods come alive. Alice I Have Been is no exception. For this book, in particular, that helped make the characters easier to understand, to an extent (more on that later).
The book essentially has three sections: young Alice, the girl who inspired Charles Dodgson to write the book that would make him Lewis Carroll; Alice as a young woman in love whose past comes back to haunt her; and elderly Alice looking back on her life as a married woman. It was in writing about Alice in her later years and her boys that I really felt the heart of the book. Alice Liddell Hargreaves lost two sons in the first world war and Benjamin's description of their loss is absolutely heartbreaking.
As interesting as the story of young Alice was, though, I did have some problems with that part of the book. First, I felt like Alice's voice was much too worldly for a girl between seven and eleven years old. I can't remember being that age, and I was certainly never in the same situation, but I don't know that it would have occurred to me that a family friend might be touching me inappropriately.
My other issue might not even be an issue. After reading the book, I felt that Benjamin's research had lead her to believe that Dodgson was a pedophile. That seems to be a popular opinion amongst Dodgson's biographers, so it stands to reason that Benjamin might work with that idea. Some research turned up the fact that parts of Dodgson's life, that might have countered this opinion, were hidden by his family after his death. Also, the opinion that Dodgson was a pedophile is, to some extent, based on 21st-century mores. But Victorian-era mores were quite a different thing. So I'm left not entirely sure how I feel about Dodgson but concerned about a fiction author painting him as a pedophile. But here's the thing: my book club friend, who also read the book, didn't feel like Benjamin had painted Dodgson as a pedophile at all. If you've read this one, I'd be curious to learn what you thought.
My book club was a bust on getting this one read, so we didn't get to have much of a discussion about this book; but I would still recommend to book clubs, in no small part because of the very things that were issues for me but also because of all of the emotions this book stirs up.