The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came at this book from a unique perspective as I had watched the movie version first. I know conventional wisdom holds that one should read the book and then watch the movie but I find most times after reading the book I have no interest in watching the movie. I am confident the story can’t be told as well as I can tell it in my head and there’s usually other things to watch or other things to do. Consequently it is rare I get to compare one version to the other.
The movie, a Lifetime TV movie it must be noted, has many flaws. When compared to the book they drop the sexuality of the main character. I feel they made an attempt to just drop it, not turn him straight from gay but just to not bring it up. Yet in making it a Lifetime movie, there are too many long lingering close-ups of the main character and Queenie holding each other lovingly, possibly to be used in commercials for the movie, for the character to be anything but straight.
Matt Czuchry plays the lead well enough but I didn’t really buy his mother. Also although the movie drops most of Ann Eliza’s story, it also drops many characters from the book too, including the hotel boyfriend and the runaway kid. There doesn’t seem to be enough left to hold attention. That being said with the story stripped down the reveal has more impact than it does in the book.
In the book the story weaves from modern times to a lengthy, too lengthy, history of Ann Eliza Young and the history of Mormonism. I had some interest in this which is one of the reasons I picked up the book, but I thought the story would never end. After Ann Eliza’s personal story is told we get a variety of sources, from diaries and letters to testimonials from her children and Bringham Young himself, and the disjointed narrative in the last 20% of the book serve to lessen the impact of the reveal. I felt with such a huge cast of characters it was easy to forget who did what to whom and by the time you remember and adjust from jumping from one narrative to the next you had already found out who did it.
I was glad the book was a more factual retelling as if the book had gone more into Mormon philosophy of the late 1800’s I may have thrown it across the room. At one point a character is kicked out of his home and life forever at the age of 13 for listening to popular music and the book says of the mother: “She said she was going to see you again in heaven.” This kind of mentality makes me shake my head, my head is shaking now as I write this even. Although this being said the author does say at the end of the book that he wrote most of the story himself and although some events were based on fact, most of the words were his. So I don’t really know what to believe. When you tell the truth you don’t need an agenda, which is at odds with the fictional murder story in the book.
Overall I felt I liked the story enough, I felt it told enough about this culture, more than enough, to sate me for many years to come.
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