Alice I Have Been
Just the Facts: by Melanie Benjamin. 368 p. Published January 2010 by Delacorte Press. Read for my book club.
Who Cares?: Adult Historical Fic (Memoir-style)
Short Bio: Meet the “real” Alice in Wonderland – Alice Liddell, princess of Christ Church at Oxford and favorite photography subject of Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll). As an enigmatic 11 year-old defying the strict constraints for girls in Victorian England, a young lady blooming under the attentions of Prince Leopold, or as an imperial mother of three sons who worries which ones won’t return home from World War I, Alice tells the story a life that seems both completely separate from her fictional namesake, and yet forever altered by Mr. Dodgson’s story.
Eyewitness Account: Alice I Have Been seems like the perfect book club choice – the fictionalized memoir of Lewis Carroll’s real-life muse. However, this is one of the few books that I wish I hadn’t read. While the author’s voice and flow was above par, the actual content of the story and portrayal of Alice’s cast of characters left me feeling disturbed and depressed.
The main characters that Benjamin creates are not exactly stereotypical, but don’t quite make it to fully-dimensional. Charles Dodgson comes across sometimes as a gentle, lonely professor and sometimes as a creepy pedophile; Alice’s sisters are either older and bossy, or young and sweet; Alice’s future husband is the antithesis of her first-love, and even “old Alice” becomes a re-creation of her mother, Lorina.
To be fair, Benjamin stuck faithfully to all known facts about Alice Liddell’s life, but of course filled in the numerous (and sometimes very deep) holes left by historical documents. My main beef is that if you’re an author who gets to fill in the holes with your own imagination, why take it in such a dark way? Alice’s life is portrayed as one series of misfortunes and disappointments after another, until at the end of her life she gives up the memories of all the real people she has loved and resigns herself to being the “Alice in Wonderland” that she has always sought to escape. Benjamin masterfully holds your attention through the entire book by withholding the one piece of information that you want to know – what causes the breach between Alice and Mr. Dodgson? The answer is somewhat anti-climactic, and becomes the reason Alice “deserves” such a disappointing life.
As I commiserated with one of my other book club friends, I can never view Alice in Wonderland the same again . . . and it saddens me. I have no problem with learning about real historical facts, but I’d rather not believe a depressing version of history if I don’t have to. I doubt I’ll recommend this book to anyone. I will, however, still try other Melanie Benjamin books as she did prove to be a good writer in many other respects.
“I myself suffer it each time I consult a looking glass, only to wonder how the glass can be so cracked and muddled–and then realize, with a pang of despair, that it is not the glass that is deficient, after all.”
“How could I tell her that I–seemingly alone of all the literate world–had never read the entire book? How could I tell her that I had no idea whether I was truly Alice–or Alice was truly me? For as long as I had lived with her–on the other side of the looking glass, staring back at me every day–I’d never dared to ask her how much, or how little, we were alike.”
Other Books Read by This Author: None.
★★☆☆☆ Plot Development
★★★★☆ Writing Style
★★★★☆ Original Idea
★★★★☆ Page Turner