Havisham, by Ronald Frame

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 1 November 2013.

Such chutzpah to take on one of Charles Dickens' most memorable characters and write her backstory! Ronald Frame's novel Havisham is an attempt to give Dickens fans a story they have always wondered about. What happened when Miss Havisham was jilted? Why did it cause her to live the rest of her days in a decaying wedding dress and use her adopted daughter to revenge herself on men? I've wanted to know since I finished Great Expectations a few years ago.

Frame takes us back decades before Great Expectations opens with the famous encounter between Pip and the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, to show us a woman who was raised to be prideful, polished, but curiously sheltered from the world. Here, Catherine is the only child of a brewery owner who wants his daughter to rise above her family's humble origins and become a gentlewoman. Frame tells her story in bits and snatches and short vignettes, almost the complete opposite of Dickens' usual torrent of highly descriptive exposition. (It's a safer choice, not to try and imitate the original.) But as you read more about Catherine's upbringing and her first meetings with Charles Compeyson, it's hard not to read into everything. It all seems like foreshadowing. This isn't a bad thing, but it analogous to reading a book with all the text highlighted.

Catherine Havisham is not a likable person. She's prideful and given to temper. Unfortunately, this armor masks a personality that reacts badly to betrayal. She's terribly hurt when she learns that her highly placed friends were paid by her father to put the finishing touches on her training. Further, she never seems to pick up on several impeding betrayals. Clearly, my shouting at her through the pages didn't work. But then, Compeyson is a skilled conman. He managed to get Catherine to most of the wooing and soothing and coaxing along in their relationship.

Havisham and Great Expectations eventually collide, as they must, when Catherine receives a letter from Compeyson telling her that he can't marry her. From there, the plot shows Miss Havisham's perspective of the events of Great Expectations. Frame did his homework and surprised me by using the first ending to Expectations. Dickens revised it based on feedback from a colleague to be more ambiguous. It's a brilliant choice. Even those who know the story will be surprised by this alternate ending, one that works much better for Frame's Greek Fury-inspired Catherine Havisham.

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