Happy Friday! Today’s installment of #FridayReads comes to us from Albert Whitman’s Art Services Supervisor, Ellen Kokontis. Take it away, Ellen!
I think that there is a misconception out there that if you were an English major, if you love books, and if you are a girl, that it follows that you are not only part of the cheering squad of 19th century British women authors, but that you internalize their romances and seek them out in your own life. You moon over Heathcliff-ish moody brooders. You are fascinated with the Rochester-esque Byronic hero. You develop a Darcy complex. And while I have known women who fit this description, I am not one of them. Heathcliff is a bully, Rochester is a creep, and Darcy is just plain annoying.
So when my friend suggested I read a book called The Eyre Affair, I thought, ugh, I’m not in the mood for pale English people suffering on the Heath. But I put some faith in my friend and checked it out from the library. I haven’t been the same since.
The English world of The Eyre Affair is not the dreary 1800s, but an alternate dimension in the 1980s, in which time travel, cloning, and dangerous cheese smuggling all exist. This world is the home of Thursday Next, Swindon’s crack investigator of SpecOps department 27, the literary detectives tasked with rooting out forgeries and tracking down stolen manuscripts. The Eyre Affair introduces the reader to this world’s many idiosyncrasies, like the Neanderthal rights movement and pet dodos, as well as Thursday’s family, which includes her father, a rogue time-travel agent who constantly pops in and out of Thursday’s life and also has never existed.
Now, I know you are thinking that this sounds absolutely nuts. And it is. But these details work themselves perfectly into the backdrop of the narrative to amuse but never distract.
The real delight of this book is when its characters start hopping into other well-known works of fiction. Acheron Hades, an evil English-professor-turned-master-criminal starts kidnapping characters and threatens to change the endings of beloved novels if his demands are not met. It is a tall order for Thursday to track this villain down, but she soon learns, with the help of Edward Rochester, that she has the ability to read herself into books.
See, within this crazy alternate dimension is another layer of reality—that of the book world, where characters act out their book’s plot in infinite repetition, and they are forced to follow what the author has written, whether they like it or not. But like actors in the wings, they break character when the narrative no longer centers on them. (For example, in later books you find Ms. Havisham drag racing, Marianne Dashwood chain smoking, and Heathcliff—albeit reluctantly—participating in group therapy) So I have come to have my own special affection for Rochester—but Fforde’s Rochester, not Charlotte Bronte’s. This protagonist is active, kind, helpful, and appreciative of Thursday’s work, and so markedly different from his original form.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot—or rather I can’t really without going into extensive detail about Thursday’s world. All I can say is that if you like British silliness and have a fondness for language, then you should read this book. And if you like it as much as I did, then you’re in luck, because there are six sequels, with the series’ conclusion to come. The sequels delve deeper into the book world and introduce more hilarious Fforde versions of literary figures.
Don’t be shy if you haven’t read every Classic—even a cursory knowledge of British literature is enough to understand what’s going on. The true joy of these books is Fforde’s boundless imagination and wit. I’ve made my way through the fourth book, and I can’t wait to keep going.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from The Well of Lost Plots, the third book in the series, which takes place almost exclusively in the book world.
…A knock on the door revealed an untidy man wearing a hat named Wyatt.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, apologizing for the misrelating grammatical construction almost immediately, “Wyatt is my name, not the hat’s.”