2.5 Stars - Recommended Lightly to people familiar with genre or author
Oh my. It is very unlike me to take two full weeks to read a 300 page book cover to cover. Though partially due to the fact that most of my days off this month have been packed to the gills with errands and day trips, it's also due to the novel itself and my lack of motivation to pick it up once it had been put down.
The French Revolution was recommended to me by an author friend, and also pitched to me by author Matt Stewart himself. I initially hemmed and hawed over it, feeling very strongly that the story line did not match my genre/style preference. But I had recently come off a great experience reviewing K. Stephen's The Ghost Trap, which also went against my typical preference yet I had loved it, so I was feeling open and hopeful.
You decide to take the gamble. You win some. You lose some. Right?
It's a family saga, spread across many years, detailing the lives of the grossly overweight ex-pastry chef Esmerelda Van Twinkle, a coupon street hawker named Jasper Winslow, and their twin children Marat and Robespierre.
It started off with a bang - Matt Stewart's description of Esmerelda, her love affair with food that oftentimes ended in orgasmic coma's and a ghastly loss of bodily functions were vile and disgusting, yet surprisingly hilarious. His choice of adjectives for her are unlike any I ever read before : " seven chinned face shaped like a lima bean", "pumpkin shaped hindquarters", and "pachyderm legs". Reading through the first chapter of the book, it was one of the few times that I can recall having experienced a physical reaction to a story. His main character was repulsive, and you could sense Stewart's immense pleasure at creating and poking fun at such a monster. He was enjoying himself. And damn it, his readers would too!
By page 8, this 400 pound, wheelchair bound woman had been wooed and impregnated by the not-quite-entirely-right-in-his-mind Jasper in a community pool, and by page 16 she was unexpectedly giving birth to twins in a gas station restroom.
As wacky and quirky as this all sounds, the break-neck speed at which the events of the novel took place quickly began to confuse and frustrate me. Over the span of 10 or 15 pages, an entire decade seemed to blow right by. Characters moved so rapidly from one situation to the next that sometimes I didn't even realize the setting had changed, the characters had aged, and the situation had been resolved.
I'm all for authors going light on descriptive narration, but if you're going to sacrifice time and place in the name of brevity, then at least develop your characters slowly and noticeably. The Van Winkle family members developed - don't get me wrong. The characters, at the end of the novel, are most certainly not emotionally or physically identical to the way they were when the novel began... but they appeared to change almost immediately, from chapter to chapter, without tangible explanation.
The thing that is most difficult for me, as a reader and reviewer, is the fact that I can see so much potential in this book. If Matt had taken his time, and say... written out an additional 300 detailed pages or so in the middle of the story, he could have had an epic novel on his hand. Or, oppositely, he could have shaved off 20 years from the timeline while keeping the page count the same and focused his plot more specifically and intricately. That would have opened up the possibility of sequels - book one could contain the Esmerelda and Jasper years, up to giving birth and raising the twin babies; book two could contain the "troublesome" years with Marat and Robespierre coming of age and becoming young adults, as Esmerelda struggled to lose weight and raise them on her own; and book three could detail the twins as full fledged adults, bucking the system, and rebuilding their relationships with Esmerelda and Jasper.
That said, I quite enjoyed Stewart's writing style and the way his words worked together, the tongue-in-cheekiness of it all. You can tell he had a good time writing this story.
He even created an iPad / iPhone app that unlocks additional information, deleted scenes, and videos that are supposed to enhance your reading experience. All you have to do to access them is download the free app, and take a photo of any page within the novel. Unfortunately, the app is not available for Android users, so I was not able to experience this for myself. But Matt created this video to show us how it's done:
Click here to read an excerpt of the novel.