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A Far Better Rest by Susanne Alleyn
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A Far Better Rest

by Susanne Alleyn

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Six-word review: The Dickens tale didn't need retelling.

Extended review:

I've seen this book touted as wonderful, but I didn't find it so. In fact, although it was reasonably well done, I didn't like it much.

Within a few weeks after reading it, I'd forgotten it almost entirely. I do remember the main thrust of it, though: it's a retelling of Charles Dickens' 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities from the point of view of Sydney Carton.

Carton is given an extensive backstory, including a schoolboy friendship with Charles Darnay, that is not encompassed by Dickens' narrative. Author Alleyn recasts the story as a tale of two personas: the brilliant but alcoholic junior barrister whose chance resemblance to Darnay saves the Frenchman's life not once but twice, exactly as Dickens tells it, and the gifted schoolfellow whose private life reveals depths and dimensions unlooked for in the classic tale.

Set against the riveting backdrop of the French Revolution, the interweaving of Carton's life with that of the Manettes and the Darnays in both London and Paris binds personal histories to those of two cities and two nations in a time of almost unimaginable turmoil. Carton's childhood, the history of his connection to Lucie Manette, and his life in Paris are all well imagined and consistently depicted.

It's possible that this treatment might have been outstanding. It just wasn't. At least, I didn't think so.

But perhaps I was prejudiced. I could not help seeing this as part of a much larger trend of authors' capitalizing on someone else's original work or riding on the coattails of a traditional tale instead of creating something fresh. A practice perhaps most blatantly conspicuous in the work of Gregory Maguire (done once, it's a novelty; done half a dozen times, it's parasitic; and I did indeed read several before I lost my appetite), it's been seen in countless variations in recent years. The practice of adapting novels for film and television seems to have rebounded into fiction writing itself, so that authors now want to sponge off older classics in the same medium.

Yes, I can hear the shrieks: pastiches abound. Respectful plagiarism occurs in all art. Shakespeare borrowed older works. There are only {two|six|ten|thirty-six|a hundred and one} basic plots in fiction. Dickens is in the public domain. There is nothing new under the sun.

Still, why shouldn't an author pull the oars herself rather than being towed by someone else's strokes? I call it freeloading. Reversing of roles, retelling a familiar story from a different point of view, recasting the main characters, and so on, although interesting once or twice, is so flagrantly derivative that it's hard not to see it as exploiting another's labors for one's own gain.

And it leads me to suspect the poverty of an author's own imagination. I picture someone who desperately wants to write something and can't come up with an idea of his or her own. Plunder the world's literary treasury? Why not? Little Red Riding Hood as told by the wolf. Lear on a farm in Iowa or on an island in Maine. Hamlet in a dog kennel. One sort of school or another for young magic users. And on and on.

Adaptation is one thing, literary vamipirism another.

I don't know where the line is, and the gray area is broad, but some things are definitely on one side of the line and some on the other. This is not like telling an original story featuring, say, Holmes and Watson; this is telling the same story Dickens told, with interlocking scenes and dialogue. It's not an homage. It's poaching.

Alleyn's work here is by no means the worst example I've seen, nor would it be fair to say that she fails to bring her own ideas and creativity to the process. And there must be a hungry market for these reheated entrees, maybe among readers who can't get past the dated language, style, and attitudes of an earlier work. But there is also a significant benefit to connecting with the past of our culture, every bit as much as we tout the importance of reaching across cultural barriers in our own time. Are publishers so fearful of audience shrinkage that everything has to be purged of challenge? I sometimes think that that favorite advertising word "easy" will turn out to be the curse of our generation.

So those are the biases and kneejerk reactions I brought to this reading, and they may mean nothing to another reader. Until I attempted to review this book, I didn't realize how much I had accumulated in the way of indignation toward a whole field of recyclers and imitators. So I'll just say this and then stop: What Alleyn set out to do she appears to have done well enough; I just don't think it needed doing.

(Kindle edition) ( )
  Meredy | Dec 8, 2014 |
Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A Tale of Two Cities is the story of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, but Sydney Carton is the hero who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Sydney disappears from the novel in London and turns up years later in Paris to bring the story to its heartbreaking end. A Far Better Rest imagines his missing personal history and makes him the center of this tragic tale. Born in England of an unloving father and a French mother, Sydney is sent to college in Paris, where he meets Charles Darnay and the other students who will have enormous influence on his life and alter the course of French history -- Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins among them. The beauty and kindness of Charles's wife, Lucie Manette, affects Sydney so deeply that he secretly devotes his life to her happiness.

Sydney becomes a major participant in the formation of the French Republic at the end of the eighteenth century and a witness to one of the most gruesome periods in history, as the significant people in his life fall to the guillotine. A Far Better Rest is a novel of passion, identity, and history that stands fully on its own.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, in honor of Bastille Day, is to select your favorite novel set in or about France.

Okay. I know this will come as a surprise to y'all, being as how I've kept it such a closely guarded secret, but I have to say this right up front: I don't much care for the novels of Mr. Charles Dickens.

I know, I know, pick your jaws up from the floor, I'm sure you'll recover from the shock soon.

Now, with that bombshell out of the way, consider this: I am rating a book based on Mr. Dickens' dreary, interminable, turgid, jelly-bodied clunking clanking gawdawful sentimental absurdly overblown....

*ahem*

I am rating this novel, even factoring in its source, at four stars. And wanna know a secret? I've read all Alley's Aristide Ravel mysteries, set in Revolutionary Paris. And her novel The Executioner's Heir. And her short fiction, Masquerade. And her non-fiction Medieval UNderpants (I mean, how could one not read something titled Medieval Underpants?).

So absorb for a moment the improbability of a man with the discernment and good taste to loathe Dickens picking up this novel in the first place; reading a snatch of it and getting hooked; buying the Soho Press hardcover at retail; and becoming such a fan that he's read what there is to read by the author.

So I'd say that makes this my favorite novel set in and or about France. Why? Because I've read a lot of books, and unlike most historical fiction, this book reads like it was written by a person from that time who simply, inexplicably, happens to be alive now. The same is true of her Ravel mysteries. I don't know how she does it, exactly, but Alleyn handwaves away the 225 years between the Revolution and today. Forget you're reading a hardcover that did not cost you a month's wages. Or a Kindle whose mere existence would be a marvel to the people you're reading about. And you know what? You *will* forget those things.

I love immersive reads. I love to lose myself in a time and a place not here and not now. And Susanne Alleyn has done that for me again, and again, and never failed to make me happy I've spent time in her company.

Best of all? The Kindle edition of this book is a whopping $2.99. Please go buy it. This author deserves our support!


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
3 vote richardderus | Jul 14, 2014 |
I've read both this and A Tale of Two Cities several times before, but I've just read them back to back for the first time, so I can now officially state that this holds up well next to the original. Not only does it fill in the story of the "hero" of ATOTC who actually appears only briefly in that book, but it corrects the timeline and fills in the details of the French Revolution that was ignored to focus solely on bloodshed. Dickens deserves credit for showing sympathy to the French poor in the years leading up to the revolution, but Alleyn shows a fairer picture of life after the fall of the Bastille. ( )
1 vote Unreachableshelf | Nov 19, 2012 |
Unrequited love, redemption, politics and sex rolled into one terrific book!

I finished reading [A Far Better Rest] a day or so ago. It is an excellent "stand alone" book, but it is also the fictional back-story to [ A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens] It both follows and tells of the life of Carton during the period between when he was a school boy in a Paris boy's school with his mirror image friend, Darney, and the dreadful, stark, closing days of the French Revolution.

Brilliant. Inventive. Believable, to the degree that it brings the sense of characters, time and place completely to life. I really care about these players and what is happening in France during this time period as put forth by Ms. Alleyn.

If you love good writing and are interested in a more in depth history of how the revolution in France unfolded and the untold numbers who were subsequently guillotened as enemies of the Republic, then this is one book you will want to peruse and enjoy within its pages the story of star crossed lovers, politics, publishing, loss and betrayal in the process.

I felt that it would not be a tremendous leap for this to be written about present day irrationality in the arena of politics and personalities. Scary, what is done in the name of patriotism, sometimes, when there seems to be no brains and thinking behind the frenzy of feelings of hatred and blood-thirsty revenge.

Well worth your time and attention. Mission accomplished by the author with this stunning work of fiction. Five stars. It would be a marvelous screenplay given the proper treatment and a good director, producer and cast. (Masterpiece Theater, BBC, Merchant/Ivory quality film). Suspense abounds even though you know the story and the ending having already read Dicken's classic. A Far Better Rest is a "far better book", IMHO. ( )
10 vote womansheart | Nov 6, 2009 |
Showing 4 of 4
"Portraying a Paris full of political intrigue, lofty goals and lost hope, Alleyn's first novel re-imagines Dickens's classic A Tale of Two Cities, charting the events of the French Revolution and filling in the missing years in Sydney Carton's life. ... From the fall of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, the revolution's main players, both historical and fictional, are portrayed with skill and depth, making even such notorious figures as Robespierre comprehensible, if not sympathetic. Although the prose is encumbered with 18th-century vernacular, Alleyn's insightful storytelling and assiduous historical research create a richly textured, tragic tale that, in the tradition of the best historical novels, brings an era alive through the depiction of human drama."
added by SusanneAlleyn | editPublishers Weekly (May 22, 2000)
 
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"A brilliant retelling of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.
.

A Tale of Two Cities is the story of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, but Sydney Carton is the hero who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Sydney disappears from the novel in London and turns up years later in Paris to bring the story to its heartbreaking end. A Far Better Rest imagines his missing personal history and makes him the center of this tragic tale.
.

Born in England of an unloving father and a French mother, Sydney is sent to college in Paris, where he meets Charles Darnay and the other students who will have enormous influence on his life and alter the course of French history-Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins among them. The beauty and kindness of Charles's wife, Lucie Manette, affects Sydney so deeply that he secretly devotes his life to her happiness.
.

Sydney becomes a major participant in the formation of the French Republic at the end of the eighteenth century and a witness to one of the most gruesome periods in history, as the significant people in his life fall to the guillotine. A Far Better Rest is a novel of passion, identity, and history that stands fully on its own. "
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Susanne Alleyn chatted with LibraryThing members from Sep 14, 2009 to Sep 25, 2009. Read the chat.

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