I loved pretty much everything about this book: the historical setting, the thrilling developments, the literary characters, the social observations... it perfectly conveyed the times while also describing a gripping story. History buffs might be put off, because it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction, which to me, is the mark of Marantz Cohen's deftness at creating an imagined world out of a real one. There was only one scene where there seemed to be really too much literati assembled from the times to be truly believable, but generally the real and imagined cohabit brilliantly.
I found the psychological and philosophical discussions just as entertaining: touched on but not ponderously, as well as the gentle sibling rivalry, most particularly the depiction of Henry James as a maladroit bon vivant. A delightful find!
I enjoyed that they author weaved a fictional mystery around the facts surrounding the Jack the Ripper case. Good book.
The subtitle of this book is "A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper". A murder mystery, it's main conceit is that the writer Henry James and his siblings Alice and William are in London at the time of the Ripper murders, and get involved in trying solve the case. William is a professor at Harvard and an expert in the new field of psychology who is asked by Scotland Yard to come to London to look into the murders. Alice is a "professional invalid", which was the way this very intelligent and well-off woman avoided the whole marriage and family drudgery. William has access to the police evidence, and Henry has access to the broader London social scene. Alice stays in bed reviewing what they find and coming up with theories.
This is one of those books where the exploration of ideas trumps almost everything else. The narrative comments on the importance of art, the way the English class system compared with American democracy, the growing understanding of the working of the human mind and the appropriate way to treat mental illness, and the place of women in society, even as it tells the story of the James's investigations. That said, the plot is well-constructed and logical. It wasn't a brain-burning page-turner, but it got the job done. The real interest for me was in being taken to such a different place and time. The book read like a 19th century novel, seamlessly integrating consistently elegant language and ideas to create a completely self-contained world.
The author is a professor of English in Philadelphia, which set up an interesting compare-and-contrast with the last big book I read, "A Discovery of Witches" because the author of that book is a professor of history. "What Alice Knew" was very different in tone and subject matter, but was similarly impressive in the scope of knowledge its author possesses. While it didn't make me as passionately excited as Witches did, it's still a very good book.
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