June 2009

Having enjoyed with some reservations – no book passes Withiel Book Circle scru­tiny without some criticism – Katharine McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastopol, we decided to try another of her books. As The Alchemist’s Daughter is said to be her most popular we chose it for this month.

Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father, a student of Isaac New­ton, who believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. He fills Emilie with knowledge and obsessively records her progress within the seclusion of their ancient house. The beautiful and haunting description of this mansion as it undergoes changes throughout the story is one of the strengths of the book.

In the spring of 1725 father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experi­ment to date – they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one the new vicar who has an interest in scientific research, the other a dashing and charming merchant. These two who will become her admirers are presented throughout rather simplistically as opposites. The worthy priest Shales is dull and reticent in contrast to the resplendent and gre­garious, but shallow Aislaby whose sartorial elegance is described in some detail with every appearance and provoked a tinge of envy at the wonders of such a ward­robe in at least one reader. The author has clearly done her research on 18C cos­tume.

During a sultry August while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head she chooses life with Aislaby in London. We felt that there is much potential here for an insight into the social history of town and country at the time, but that McMahon fails to develop this as­pect. We get only a tantalizing glimmer, where so much more could have been re­vealed about issues such as slavery, women’s position and wealth and poverty.

McMahon says she likes her characters to develop a life of their own which means that what happens in the end is often as much a surprise to her as the reader. This would explain the uncertain ending that allows us to conjure up our own conclu­sions. In general this is an easy, enjoyable plot-driven read.

We have read a varied mix of interesting books over the year and have had many lively, thoroughly enjoyable and at times hilarious discussions. Our thanks to Anne for all her hospitality over the months. We next meet on 10th September to discuss The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith.[This book was not available so our next was Empress Orchid by Anchee Min.]

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