Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Ecliptic

Title:  The Ecliptic
Author:  Benjamim Wood
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1594206864 / 978-1594206863

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers."

Favorite Quote:  "The way we envision the stars is by imagining they're attached to a giant invisible sphere surrounding the earth. It is a total fiction, really - just a construction we came up with to help us get our heads around the complexity of it all ... The ecliptic, put simply is the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun. But since we all live here on earth, we observe the sun to be moving along this plane instead. Why? Because what would be the point of looking at things from the perspective of the sun? That's no use to anyone ... Ergo, it's an imaginary circle, as it's only a part of our human construction of the cosmos."

What does the scientific concept of the ecliptic have to do with an artist's refuge off the coast of Turkey and what does that have to do with Scottish painter Elspeth "Knell" Conroy? Explaining this puzzle and the corrections between these disparate ideas becomes the story of this book that revolves between two worlds.

Portmantle is a secret artist's refuge off the coast of Turkey. Why Turkey? I don't really know because the physical location has no impact on the story. Portmantle itself it the setting, not its geographic placement. It is a refuge not simply a retreat because the artists come and stay for long periods of times, many times even years. Refuge though comes at a price and with its own set of strict rules, much like a secret society. Knell is a long time resident along with a core group of friends she has found there. Their life has a rhythm that works for them, rules and all.  That is, until a young man named Fullerton comes in as a new resident. He brings change that reverberates through the colony.

London is Elspeth "Knell" Conroy's chosen home, where she comes to find her place in the art world. It depicts Elspeth's journey as an artist and a woman. Her career and her life has its highs and its crises. This section of the book depicts a detailed picture of an artist's angst and the personal cost of an artist's success. It pictures the euphoric highs and the depths of despair.

Cutting across both worlds is art with descriptions of the process of creating art and the works of art themselves. A lot of words are used to describe the art, and the thought comes to mind that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand word. This book would lend itself to illustrations; I would love to see the images that are described, and a visual may have the impact that words just cannot capture in this instance. (I am such a word nerd that I cannot believe I just said that! For this book, though, pictures with the words would make a big difference.)

I find the world and characters of Portmantle more interesting than Elspeth's life in London. Knell's cronies Quickman, MacKinney, and Pettifer and newcomer Fullerton are intriguing characters. Knell is the painter. Quickman is the author. MacKinney is the playwright. Pettifer is the architect. It is unclear what art haunts Fullerton. These characters sound like they have amazing stories of their own, but we don't hear them. This book is about Elspeth; it is a first person narrative told through her eyes. Perhaps, that explains the lack of development of the stories of others. Perhaps.

At this point, the book becomes difficult to discuss without a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that by the end, the structure and the focus all makes sense, but I am left with the question - did I just read 500 pages for that? The setup is promising. The world of Portmantle is one I want to know more about. Unfortunately, the ending makes the rest of the book seem contrived and makes this not the story for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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