Book Review: Father’s Arcane Daughter

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Years ago, I watched the made-for-TV movie, Caroline?, based on this book. As it was one of the few Hallmark productions that left an impression on me, I figured the book had to be exceptional.

Though the book had a memorable title (i.e. the original title, not the renaming), it was also quite short (I read it in a few hours), so I guess there wasn’t enough time to develop the characters of Winston and Heidi’s/Hilary’s parents. (There was much more character development in the movie.)

The book was set in 1952, and I would’ve appreciated more time and place details. We are told the year, but not shown it; we are told it happened in Pittsburgh, but not shown enough of it. The lack of sensory details in this book is jarring, making it seem more dreamlike than real. I felt more like a casual observer than a reader getting to know the characters.

 

Father’s Arcane Daughter would’ve been much better without the present-day chapter prologues, which were intentionally vague. The bits about the comic strip were lost on me (akin to an inside joke), and the fact that Heidi/Hilary was never specifically diagnosed only added to the unevenness of the story. I appreciate specific details in a book. If someone dies from cancer, I want to know what kind; if a child is developmentally-delayed, I want to know how. (Abstract doesn’t do it for me.)

The epilogue, however irregular in its choice of narrator, worked, and made me wonder how many other people felt the same way the narrator did. Though I rarely say this, I believe this book would’ve been much better if Konigsburg had done what I call a “Picoult” (a la Jodi) and written it from multiple points-of-view—those whose lives Caroline touched.

I’ve never been a fan of stories about children who sound like adults, which was how it was in Winston’s (the primary narrator’s) case, though I attributed his maturity to his affluent upbringing and having to be his sister’s caretaker. However, the letters Winston wrote to various individuals and companies added a bit of humor and insight into his character; I wouldn’t have minded more of those letters.

 

The idea of a deeper secret between Caroline and her father was an interesting angle, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of woman—this latter-day lady in white—she was to give up what she did for the sake of a pubescent boy (I assumed Winston was around the bar mitzvah age). Perhaps that is the real mystery, not “Is she, or isn’t she?”

Though I was left wanting so much more—not necessarily more words, but just more—I will read more of Ms. Konigsburg’s books in the future.

 

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