The Magazine

Out of the Past

"A complex time scheme" by Lifetime Channel standards.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By STEFAN BECK
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Presumably, Iris is the way she is because it's in her vintage genes: Her great-aunt Esme is so singular, so magnificently willful and spirited, that not even a half-century in the loony bin can cure her of her incorrigibility. "I'm not going to get married," she informs a persistent suitor. "To anyone." Compare: "Iris doesn't usually permit men to remain in her bed overnight." This is familiar territory, a fearless condemnation of Victorian sexual repression ages after every stitch of relevance has been jerked out of it.

Esme asks Iris if she has many lovers, then wonders if the question is "impolite." This is the moment at which the book's contempt for reality can no longer be ignored or denied. Bad enough that Esme's psychological strength is shown by having her emerge unscathed after a lifetime in a mental hospital. (After all, when a character demonstrates his physical strength by stopping the Wabash Cannonball with his forehead, you're meant to infer that he's from Krypton.) At the same time, she's so dreamy or dim-witted that decades of solitary reflection haven't sketched out a connection between sexual mishap--whether refusing to marry or getting raped or having lots of lovers--and social opprobrium. This is supposed to be realism?

Esme Lennox is about the tragic fact that, once upon a time, unruly women could be locked up for damn near anything, and often were. I don't mean to belittle this matter of historical record to say that the book itself is a cartoon, full of cartoon characters and without a human being in sight. It could have gone way over the top and been a creepy, effective, and beautifully written gothic thriller, but it tries too hard to mean something.

For the record, that "very complex time scheme" consists merely of switching between the past and the present; that is, Esme's thoughts and Iris's, and it feels an awful lot like time-traveling just to poach on the turbulent emotional life of the past. It would be nice to think that it's something more complex than that, but honest readers will probably have their doubts.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and elsewhere.