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Conceit by Mary Novik


by Mary Novik

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14713124,815 (3.72)44
St Paul's cathedral stands like a cornered beast on Ludgate hill, taking deep breaths above the smoke. The fire has made terrifying progress in the night and is closing in on the ancient monument from three directions. Built of massive stones, the cathedral is held to be invincible, but suddenly Pegge sees what the flames covet: the two hundred and fifty feet of scaffolding erected around the broken tower. Once the flames have a foothold on the wooden scaffolds, they can jump to the lead roof, and once the timbers burn and the vaulting cracks, the cathedral will be toppled by its own mass, a royal bear brought down by common dogs. (p.9) It is the Great Fire of 1666. The imposing edifice of St. Paul's Cathedral, a landmark of London since the 12th century, is being reduced to rubble by the flames that engulf the City. In the holocaust, Pegge and a small group of men struggle to save the effigy of her father, John Donne, famous love poet and the great Dean of St. Paul's. Making their way through the heat and confusion of the streets, they arrive at Paul's wharf. Pegge's husband, William Bowles, anxiously scans the wretched scene, suddenly realizing why Pegge has asked him to meet him at this desperate spot. The story behind this dramatic rescue begins forty years before the fire. Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father begins arranging marriages for his five daughters, including Pegge. Pegge, however, is desperate to taste the all-consuming desire that led to her parents' clandestine marriage, notorious throughout England for shattering social convention and for inspiring some of the most eroticand profound poetry ever written. She sets out to win the love of Izaak Walton, a man infatuated with her older sister. Stung by Walton's rejection and jealous of her physically mature sisters, the boyish Pegge becomes convinced that it is her own father who knows the secret of love. She collects his poems, hoping to piece together her parents' history, searching for some connection to the mother she barely knew. Intertwined with Pegge's compelling voice are those of Ann More and John Donne, telling us of the courtship that inspires some of the world's greatest poetry of love and physical longing. Donne's seduction leads Ann to abandon social convention, risk her father's certain wrath, and marry Donne. It is the undoing of his career and the two are left to struggle in a marriage that leads to her death in her 12th childbirth at age 33. In Donne's final days, Pegge tries, in ways that push the boundaries of daughterly behaviour, to discover the key to unlock her own sexuality. After his death, Pegge still struggles to free herself from an obsession that threatens to drive her beyond the bounds of reason. Even after she marries, she cannot suppress her independence or her desire to experience extraordinary love. Conceit brings to life the teeming, bawdy streets of London, the intrigue-ridden court, and the lushness of the seventeenth-century English countryside. It is a story of many kinds of love-erotic, familial, unrequited, and obsessive-and the unpredictable workings of the human heart. With characters plucked from the pages of history, Mary Novik's debut novel is an elegant, fully-imagined story of lives you will find hard to leave behind.… (more)



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» See also 44 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
I tried, I really did. But at 200 pages I gave up the ghost. I'm not willing to blame this on the book - I love Donne's poetry but had little interest in reading about his romance with Anne. I didn't mind Pegge and was intrigued by her story enough to persist, but that's interrupted in the middle by the Romance between John and Anne. I ditched at page 200.

I think that in a different head space this book could be real fun. ( )
  mkunruh | Nov 13, 2016 |
Conceit is Mary Novik's fantasia on the life and poetry of John Donne. As any English major has been taught, Donne's literary output divides itself between the erotic and satiric poetry of Jack Donne, the rake, and his later self, John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul's, poet of the Holy Sonnets and renowned sermonizer.

Personally, I have always been fondest of Jack -- poet of "The Flea," "To His Mistress Going to Bed," and "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" while admiring the Dean's "Death Be Not Proud" and "Batter My Heart" ( see Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/243)

Novik's historical novel, while focusing mainly on the viewpoint of Donne's next-to-youngest daughter Pegge (Margaret), jumps in and out of the consciousnesses of Pegge; her dead mother, Ann More; her husband William, Samuel Pepys, Izaak Walton, and Donne himself. Pegge, who cared for her father as he died, proves to be far less interested in his religious concerns than his relationship with her mother and his secular poetry -- especially as it relates to her own personal relationships.

This is not a Hilary Mantel historical novel, steeped in details and much research, but Novik has done her research. It's a literary tour-de-force -- playing with Donne's words, poetry and the milieu of 17th c. England. While granting its probable historical shortcomings, I found it quite delightful. Recommended for those who have at least a passing interest in and knowledge of Donne's poetry and life. ( )
2 vote janeajones | Oct 27, 2013 |
There is a certain eternalness about the characters who are carved so sharply, so beautifully from the words that flow together as poetry. This was a beautiful book – it is a classic. And I am entirely enamored by the world created by Novik. The story of Pegge, who might have been Cinderella in some other story, who dreams and wants as feverishly as her genius father. Her genius has no audience, and her desires are largely unspoken. However, at the end of it all, she finds fulfillment. And love. ( )
2 vote Nafiza | Aug 5, 2010 |
Conceit is the story of Pegge, daughter of the poet John Donne, a woman obsessed with the desire to understand and experience true passion--the kind of passion expressed in the erotic poems her father penned in his youth. Pegge barely remembers her mother, who died giving birth to her twelfth child, and her father, now Dean of St. Paul's, has striven to suppress both his poems and his passion as he approaches death.

While there is much to admire in Conceit, it is not without its flaws. Mary Novik has obviously conducted extensive research into seventeenth-century London, including its architecture, history, society, family life, and literature. For the most part, these details are effortlessly woven into her fine prose. Oddly, in a book featuring John Donne, Isaak Walton, and Samuel Pepys, the literary allusions themselves seemed stilted. One example: when Pegge's husband William shares a cup of sack with Pepys, the latter's conversation is peppered with the coded sexual language familiar to readers of his diary. While I haven't read a biography of Pepys, I doubt that he used this code in conversation with persons who would not have understood it all; and in flirting with a tavern maid, he certainly would have expressed his desires in more forthright terms. It came across to me rather like a rap on the head (as if to say, "It's Pepys, you know? The sex-crazed guy who wrote about his adventure in a coded diary"). Since Pepys is one of our greatest sources of the details of London life in his day, including the Great Fire that launches Conceit, he might have been put to better use. Lines from Donne's poetry, of course, are central to the story, but they sometimes came up at odd moments and, again, tended to distract the reader. But since Pegge's obsessions are the novel's focus, this is more forgiveable.

Overall, the characters and relationships are certainly original, engaging, and well-developed. Pegge's love/hate relationship with her father, who she nurses towards death while still a teenager, haunts the rest of her life. A physical late-bloomer, she obsesses over her "fleurs" (menstruation), a habit that continues through her childbearing years and on into menopause. When she marries William Bowles, she brings with her the bed in which her parents made love and in which her father died. Her own efforts at penning passion are scrawled across the pages of her father's biography, pompously written by Isaak Walton, the object of her own first (and perhaps undying) love. As Pegge's behavior becomes more and more strange, her memories of Donne border on the incestuous and become confused with her marital relationship. Pegge's rivalry with her sister Con, her obsession with Walton, and her husband's gentle, loving concern are all brilliantly rendered here.

I have to admit that I was rather offput by seeing my beloved Donne presented as a self-centered hypochondriac; I am not sure if this is Novik's invention or recorded fact. However, the chapters that flash back to his courtship of and early marriage to Ann More redeem him. Structurally, the novel moves back and forth through time--a ragged structure but one appropriate to Pegge's thought processes. We even hear the voice of Ann Donne, come from the grave to accuse her husband of abandoning his promises.

On the whole, Conceit fully engaged me in Pegge's world, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves historical novels that are intellectually challenging. It's also a wonderful study of the complexities of the father-daughter relationship. As has been mentioned by others, it is hard to get ahold of a copy in the US, although the book was critically acclaimed and a strong seller in Canada. I had to wait a long time before I found a copy. It was worth the wait. ( )
18 vote Cariola | Feb 28, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)

I've just finished reading -- for the second time -- Mary Novik's novel Conceit, which is about St. Paul's cathedral and Pegge Doone, the daughter of John Donne [and] which is set at the time of the great fire in London. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.
A magnificent novel of 17th-century London. . . . Conceit is a mind-expanding creation of a distant world . . . in often-exhilarating detail, seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted. . . . Reading Conceit is like settling into a multi-course feast that shifts your ideas of food, of the wonders that art can conjure from the staples of life. . . . Buy the book. Find a free weekend and a quiet place. Do not Google. Step away from the remote. Enter London, 1666, the blaze of death and life. Recall what it means to know a world through the surface of a page, created in the words of a gifted stranger, made uniquely yours by your own storehouse of experience and the mystery of your subconscious. Conceit will cut a reviving swath through your tech-addled world.
added by MaryNovik | editThe Globe and Mail, Jim Bartley (Sep 8, 2007)
A powerful and passionate historical story vividly set in 17th-century England. . . . Fans of novels like A.S. Byatt's Possession and Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring will probably enjoy Novik's perspective on one of the great figures of English literature.
added by MaryNovik | editThe Vancouver Sun, Joe Wiebe (Sep 1, 2007)
How to write a review in 350 words that does justice to Mary Novik’s extraordinary debut novel Conceit? .... Novik plunges us into the London of the Great Fire of 1666 as the book opens. She makes us smell the smoke and feel the heat, just as she shows us, a little later on, the longing that Pegge Donne (daughter of poet John) feels for her first love, Isaak Walton... In preparing to tell this story, Novik obviously read major texts from the period. But the book is a vision of “my seventeenth century,” Novik writes in her acknowledgments, adding that she has “invented joyfully and freely.” The result is as delightful as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and as erudite and readable as A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
This exuberant debut is so forcefully imagined, it's hard to believe it emerged from a New World outpost like Vancouver.
added by MaryNovik | editVancouver Review, Gudrun Will
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It is the second of September, a Sunday, at one o'clock in the morning. Samuel Pepys is making his way home from the Three Cranes, where he drank too much mulled sack and sang himself hoarse . . .
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Conceit, a novel by Mary Novik, first published 2007.
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