Pros: Not a one. Even despite the possibility of an exciting segment of history.
Cons: Sloppy writing style, one note characters, too many perils.
To be honest, I was first suckered into reading this novel by the inside cover blurb. First time author James Conroyd Martin purports to have taken the hidden diaries of a Polish noblewoman, and crafted a tale of forbidden loves, revolution and jealousy set in the last days of Poland's independence before being carved up by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the fading years of the eighteenth century.
At least that's the claim.
I was hoping to learn more about Poland's history, and find some distraction for a few hours. Instead what I got was a flat novel full of one-note characters, bad writing, 'tell, don't show' writing, and a host of other problems. For more than four hundred pages this novel grinds on, tediously name dropping and telling us on and on about how patriotic the Poles are, and what nefarious traitors there are about.
It starts off in a good romantic novel fashion, where our heroine, Anna Maria, comes to the home of her cousins, the Gronski family after suddenly being made an orphan. A moody seventeen year old, she records her thoughts in her journal, and suddenly comes across the neighborhood bad boy, Jan Stelnicki, in a sunny meadow and the pair hit it off. Soon enough they are planning a future together, but there's quite a few that don't want to see the pair wed -- namely Zofia and Walter, Anna's cousins. Zofia wants Jan for herself, and Walter is just plain bad.
And therein lays the trouble with the novel. The setting is exciting, there's plenty of scenery chewing and thrilling events, but the characters are so one note that it's immediately transparent as to what is going to happen. Anna Maria is relentlessly good, so good that she is on the verge of perpetual martyrdom at invading forces, nasty husband, or vengeful peasants. Jan is relentlessly noble, and equally good, so much so that I thought I was going to die of boredom wondering if he was going to at least make a pass at the heroine -- they kiss, once. Just once. And as for the bad people, well, they certainly outnumber the good by several factors of ten. Zofia is relentlessly selfish, self-centered and b!tchy; Walter is relentlessly bad apple of the worst sort, determined to have his own way in all things; Antoni, Anna's husband, is relentlessly greedy, selfish and without scruples, and so forth. Indeed, our heroine is so painfully good that when she comes across a dying, wounded Walter, not only does she know about all the harm that he has caused in her life -- but she nurses him back to health!
Throughout the story, our heroine is raped by a stranger, abandoned in the woods, saved by 'good' peasants, harmed by 'bad' peasants and invading Russians, manages to avoid the pitfalls of the highlife in Warsaw, is always just missing her long-lost-love Jan, usually by the machinations of the bad girl Zofia, and so forth. Indeed, nearly every major event that can be dreamed up by a novelist happens to Anna, but not once does she protest to God, or Fate, instead making flowery mythological allusions to what is going around her. Feh.
So this novel isn't much more than a long laundry list of the sufferings of our heroine, always in need of being rescued and ends with her looking forward to a future reunion with her beloved. Along the way, she has sex once -- the rape -- ends up pregnant, but steadfastly hangs onto her chastity and virtue, despite plenty of admirers. The author, claiming that this is a 'true' story, goes right along and commits most of the major sins of a writer -- exclaimation points in the narrative, telling the reader about what is going on, spends endless pages telling still more about the poltical life in Poland -- which I was interested in, but bored silly by this particular way of describing it -- along with naming who did what treason, and who was on what side. Most of all, by the end of the book, I simply did not care what happened to anyone in the novel -- the good survive, the bad die in various ways, and that's that.
Except, alas, there is mention that the author is working on a sequel. I hope not -- the reading public ought not to be subjected to this man's further writings about 'a true story' about a countess and her misadventures. This book gets barely two stars from me, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. If you see it tempting you from the remainder tables at your local bookstore, or from the shelves of the library, I urge you to move swiftly past.
Push Not the River
James Conroyd Martin
2003; St. Martin's Press