February 3rd, 2011

Takarazuka Romeo and Juliet

Book review: The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd

This review is spoiler-free.

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A history fan, Rutherfurd takes a unique approach to his novels: he chooses a place and then writes several novellas, each of which gives readers a glance at the place as the centuries pass. All the novellas are connected, of course. The illegitimate son of one novella becomes the ancestor of the star in the next; love letters written in one novella become the clues to solving a mystery centuries/three novellas later. But mostly we see how the place changes, and the importance it has in the hearts and histories of people, past and present, who lived and died there.

The Forest stars England's New Forest over a thousand years of development. I read it back in 2005, and still remember much of the plot today; in other words, Rutherfurd did a good job crafting a story that stays in a reader's mind. Through everyday conflicts in his characters lives--fighting over a lover, family disputes, making enough money to feed yourself, living under corrupt leaders--he wrote culture and history with a human element readers can connect to. It's fascinating to think of the sheer number of people who have lived and died before this generation, like us and yet not because of cultural and technological differences.

I'm amazed by how well he writes women, as very few writers grasp the opposite gender. Rutherfurd's women believe they should be submissive and that men are superior as that's how they've been schooled...yet Rutherfurd obviously doesn't agree, and how he did such an incredible job making readers see how resourceful, brilliant, strong and indomitable women can really be without turning them into anachronisms, I still don't know.

This is not light reading. Though Rutherfurd gives many characters happy endings, they don't all get away unscathed. The characters are also historically accurate, which means uncomfortable prejudices and practices are considered normal and go unquestioned, even when you desperately want them to ask some questions. Also, at nearly 800 pages, it takes time to get through The Forest even if you're a quick reader.

The Forest is a book to be savored and read more than once to pick up on the rich detail. It's dense in the best possible way.

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Click here for a review of Rutherfurd's 2010 novel New York.

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