Friday, March 5, 2010

A Review of Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell

I know this writer best for her moving, literary contemporary and historical fiction, e.g., Dovey Coe and Shooting the Moon. (Here's my review of the latter from last year.) So of course, I was intrigued to see how she would handle fantasy. It didn't surprise me to find that Falling In felt as much like magical realism as fantasy in spots, despite the whole portal-to-another-world trope with its nod to Alice in Wonderland.

Because Falling In isn't really about magic, it's about people and prejudice. It's about being a loner and an outsider, whether you're a grown woman or a young girl. It's about the power of the imagination, the way it comforts and protects the outsider, and the ways it can fail her. Also the way imagination can change the world. No small themes here.

First we meet Isabelle Bean and find out that she's not like the others. She's quirky, imaginative, a dreamer. She is also thoroughly ostracized by the kids at school. Even her mother, an orphan and a widow herself, isn't certain how to interact with a girl who isn't interested in shopping at the mall.

There's a barely visible edge of otherworldliness to Isabelle, a silver thread that runs from the top of her head to the bottom bump of her spine. It frightens other children away. They're afraid that if they sit too close, the thread will weave itself into their hair and pull them into dark places they can't find their way out of. A girl named Jenna claimed it reached out to grab her one day as she walked up the aisle on her way to recess, but she had her scissors in her pocket (don't ask why) and nipped it before it could entangle her.

Isabelle is surprisingly stoic about all of this, as much puzzled as troubled by the situation. A great reader, especially of fantasy, she decides she must be a changeling. For one thing, what is that buzzing noise she's been hearing all morning at school? Sent to the principal's office for not paying attention in class, Isabelle steps into the nurse's office and, imagining the possibilities, opens a mysterious door. Her final remark to a classmate waiting for the nurse is, "Yes, I believe I'd like to visit the country of Mice. I'll try to be back by lunchtime, but if I'm not, save one perfect french fry for me, would you?" Then Isabelle "falls in," emerging in another world, another school.

There the children take one look at her clothes and accuse her of being a witch. After semi-convincing them she's not, Isabelle sets out to explore her new domain. It turns out the local villages send their children away to camp in the forest for fear of a horrible witch. (This witch, like a medieval queen, embarks on a grand progress each summer. Only instead of simply visiting her subjects, she travels from village to village in search of children to catch and devour.)

Isabelle being Isabelle, she heads straight for the witch. Along the way, she meets a village girl named Hen who agrees to accompany her, although Isabelle hides her true purpose. They eventually come to the cottage of an old herbwoman named Grete who feeds them and teaches them her craft—but Isabelle begins to suspect that Grete is the witch.

Other than Isabelle's initial journey to another world and some mild psychic powers, there's not a whole lot of magic in this book. Instead, Dowell is interested in the idea of how someone might come to be labeled a witch, and how awful stories might be born from communal fears. Fortunately, she is also interested in laying such fears to rest.

Isabelle's own connection to this strange land and its witch add further dimension to the tale.

The author occasionally comments during the story, interposing short chapters in which she addresses the reader. Because she's a very good writer, the interludes are well written and often funny, but they do pull the reader out of the story. This is done deliberately, so you'll have to see for yourself whether you like the effect. For example, just as Isabelle is about to turn the knob of that mysterious door, the writer interrupts to say, "I'd like to stop for a moment, if I could. I want you to think about how many times you've opened a door. What happened?"

Dowell asks readers if they've ever imagined opening a door and finding something unusual on the other side. Then she suggests:

If you have a little time to waste, go put your hand on the knob of the door to your room. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. What's that noise you hear? Could it be your books reading themselves to one another? Is that your goldfish whistling Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? That thump, thud, crash!—your pillows having a pillow fight? Do you smell the earthy, froggy smell of trolls? What exactly goes on in your room when you're not around?
But I digress. Back to the story.

In the end, Isabelle's adventure in the world she visits is more character than plot driven, and a bit didactic to boot. Still, Dowell is talented enough to make this work. She spices her tale with humor, too: when the witch finally runs into trouble, the situation is both scary and amusing. Then things get darker and Isabelle has to do some quick thinking to turn the tide.

Falling In is a quirky book, but a likable one. I think my biggest disappointment might be expressed as a dream of my own. I can't see Dowell writing a traditional fantasy—I know she needed to do her own thing here, and her roots as a writer of tender real-life stories sort of seeped into the genre she chose. Pragmatic Dowell seems to pull back from the magic in her tale. For example, having given us the "silver thread" passage quoted above, which is lovely and unearthly, Dowell tells us a few pages later that a strange light the other students see hovering around Isabelle turns out to have a realistic explanation. Dowell then goes on to tell the story of a witch who isn't one, or at least not very much. I realize one of the themes of this book is how small communities can transform a slightly unusual person into a monster, but I feel that something else might be going on, as well: this author seems torn between her habitual reality hat and the new fantasy one she's trying on.

What Dowell does beautifully here is write magical realism. The places where she uses that approach in this book, primarily in the early chapters, make me long to see a story from her that is neither contemporary realism nor fantasy, but entirely magical realism. Because anyone who imagined Isabelle Bean could create something truly wonderful in that genre.

Finally, I want to point out that I was an Isabelle once, and I suspect that some of Dowell's readers will be, too. While Falling In doesn't make everything right for the dreamers of this world, it does offer them comfort, laughter, and a kind of secret hope.

Note for Worried Parents: Bullying, threats of violence, and an upsetting story about a baby who is hurt. Generally encouraging, however.

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