Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin

Alice Liddell is the daughter of a dean at Oxford. Charles Dodgson, known to most of us as Lewis Carroll, is a professor there, who routinely takes Alice and her two sisters, Ina and Edith, out for picnics and boating excursions. Alice is clearly his favorite. She is not the prettiest—just the spunkiest. Mr. Dodgson dreams up a dream for Alice and tells the story during one of their outings. Alice loves being the star of the tale and begs him to write it down. The rest is history. Well, not exactly. I guess we'll never know if Mr. Dodgson was a pedophile or just a lonely man who enjoyed entertaining children. Of course, there are all those photographs that he made of young girls, including Alice, in somewhat provocative poses. On the other hand, Alice comes off as a bit of a Lolita, acting innocently coquettish without grasping the impact on poor Dodgson or the possible consequences. His relationship with the Liddell girls is broken off and Alice's reputation soiled for reasons she doesn't understand or perhaps remember. The book follows Alice into old age, and her life is full of tragedies, both related and unrelated, to the Dodgson business. As a child she had hoped never to grow up and ironically meets Peter Llewelyn-Davies, who was the inspiration for Peter Pan. Alice does live on as a child in the Lewis Carroll novels but hesitates to embrace the story or even read it, because she doesn't want to revisit what really happened with Dodgson. Benjamin uses suspense to keep our interest, as we, too, want to know what caused the sudden breach in their relationship. That and just the novelty of imagining Alice of Wonderland fame as a real person make this book an enjoyable read, but the author's frequent habit of burying sentences within sentences, set off by dashes, was annoying and prompted a lot of rereading. Although a minor theme of the book is that of accepting and embracing one's identity, even when it includes a modicum of celebrity, its more overriding message is that of facing and accepting one's mistakes, forgiving all the guilty parties, and hoping that they have returned the sentiment.

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