Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Thorn and The Blossom'

The Book: The Thorn and The Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story

The Author: Theodora Goss

How I Found It: Quirk Books was kind enough to provide me and other bloggers with an advance copy; thanks muchly! The book is officially out today!

The Review: This book has to be seen to be believed, really: it's a book without a spine. Seriously. I will direct you to this Youtube video to show you how it works (but be sure to come back here!). This way, you can choose whose side of the two lovers' story you want to read first: Brendan's or Evelyn's. I always love the innovations Quirk Books and their authors come up with, and this one had me seriously intrigued. I mentioned it to several friends out of excitement when I first got the email calling for interested bloggers, and all of them were curious--a book without a spine? How would that work? Could I show it to them once it was in my possession? I can't know for sure if this book will spread to the masses and fascinate them as it did my friends, but I certainly hope it will. It's genius.

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of books about books and reading, as well as a shameless Anglophile. One of my all-time favorite books is A.S. Byatt's Possession, a story of two poetry scholars seeking the truth behind an affair that may or may not have happened between their respective poets, all through lost love letters and clues hidden in poems and stories. Another book about books I'd read was 84, Charing Cross Road (review here), where two book lovers kept up a correspondence for many years, learning more about each other all the while. I think fans of either would really enjoy this story. There's an enduring and eternal love, like in Possession, and a modern day couple of scholars seeking the truth behind that love in their own individual ways. The relationship between individuals here is romantic, unlike the relationship in Charing Cross, but there's still that sense of distance, chronologically and geographically, a gap that's eventually bridged by books and stories.

I won't spoil the occurences unique to each side of the story, but the basic premise is this: Evelyn is a student visiting the town of Clews, in Cornwall, England, for the first time. Brendan is a native of Clews, the son of a local book merchant. Both are poets in their own way: Evelyn likes writing about fairies and other fantastical creatures, something her thesis adviser at Oxford highly discourages; Brendan has an intense interest in an old Cornish poem, the tale of Gawan and Elowen, a possible basis for the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as we know it today. When Evelyn walks into Thorne and Son, Brendan offers to show her around Clews, and tells her the story of Gawan and Elowen, lovers whose connection could not be thwarted even by death--if not for the curse of an evil sorceress, who doomed their love to a wait of a thousand years...

Evelyn and Brendan might just be falling in love themselves, but mutual secrets threaten their relationship and might even sink it before it begins. Brendan hasn't revealed to Evelyn that he's a student of poetry as well; a dark secret from Evelyn's troubled past threatens to surface in the woods of Cornwall. Will their relationship be doomed to time and distance, like Gawan and Elowen's, or will these lovers fight their way back to each other and craft a new story of their own?

I started with Brendan's story first, because I wanted to shake it up a little: in most of the romances I've read, you start out in the woman's point of view, rarely if ever getting the guy's first or at all. I wanted to see what the story would be like through his eyes, and it turned out that his eyes were very much like my own. He's an English literature scholar, and while I have no strict focus, I'm an English major; he loves books and bookstores, like me; he always felt a little out of place in his hometown due to his interest in literature, something I also felt, as an English-loving, disinterested-in-sports girl who grew up in an athletic town. Brendan's viewpoint resonated with me, and it drew me in immediately. When I flipped to Evelyn, I knew her through Brendan's eyes, which you think would have taken some of the interest away, but it didn't. Evelyn remembers things differently than Brendan at times. She has a past Brendan never quite learns about. Their separation is compellingly played on both ends, and I give Goss credit for making a tale with two very distinct sides that form one cohesive whole.

This book was a really magical experience for me. I always have an intense interest in how academics do things, and there were just enough details about the researching, publishing, etc. process to keep me interested, but not enough that others not interested in such processes would get bogged down. That aside, this book was really a love letter to the stories that bring us together and the stories that last for generations. The story of Gawan and Elowen is the story that Brendan's father told him; it is the story that comes to link Brendan and Elowen together in their academic careers and onwards. Who wouldn't love a story of a love that lasts a thousand years?

The book wasn't without a fault or two; it's only 82 pages total, so naturally, it does feel like some of the loose ends aren't quite tied up. Were Brendan and Elowen perhaps meant to be reincarnations of Gawan and Elowen, as I thought? Did other characters figure into the tale as well--was one, as I'd thought, the reincarnation of the evil sorceress? What was the import of Evelyn's secret, and did it mean what I thought it did? I wanted these questions to be answered, but as I usually do with novellas, I handwaved them away with the knowledge that the author had done the best she could in a short space. Although that being said, I certainly wouldn't mind a longer book in this vein from Goss. She knows how to write a romance, she knows how to write a literary mystery... I'd buy it, for sure.

This is a book I can recommend on the merits of both its presentation and its content. The book itself is brilliantly made and a great conversation piece, as I learned, and it's really a testament to why we still need physical books. As much as I love my eReader TARDIS, books like this remind me of why I still buy physical books. And never mind the presentation, this is a brilliant story of love lost and found again, and of the stories that bring us all together. Highly recommended!