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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Little Person, Giant Ego

JennyESP's review of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

The Writing:

The writing was very nice if you take it sentence by sentence. But those well-written sentences did not always move the story along. They sometimes just sat on the page looking pretty. And at times the dialog felt inauthentic, as if the characters were speaking for the sole purpose of informing the reader. (There would be long paragraphs of dialog from one character, saying things the other characters in the room had to have already known.)

The Pace:

Slow. Slow. Quick, quick, slow. I danced the Tango with this book, when I much prefer the Running Man. There were whole chapters that didn’t seem to add anything to the story and were, in fact, very dull. (Like chapter 5, for instance. You can skip chapter 5 and you won’t miss anything. Actually, you can skip the whole book and read about Vinnie Warren on Wikipedia.) Conversely, the parts of Vinnie’s life that I was particularly interested in reading about were skimmed over in a sentence or skipped entirely. For example, her courtship with her future little husband, Charles Stratton, Mr. Tom Thumb himself! I had to muck through 40% of the book, which included a lot of daily snobbery, before they finally met, only to have their courtship summed up in one unsatisfying “by the way, I agreed to marry Charles” sentence. (More on that relationship later…)

Mrs. Tom Thumb (aka Vinnie):

“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it would be defined as a self-absorbed, selfish, arrogant, condescending, uppity, heartless, cold, manipulative, opportunistic, cruel, self-righteous, judgmental hypocrite.” (Edits.)

The list of Vinnie’s unlikeable attributes grew and expanded as the story dragged on until any hope of redemption was lost. Although, such little effort was made to redeem this character that I have to wonder if the author intended for us to dislike Vinnie. Or perhaps the author and I simply define “strong, driven, independent female” differently. Either way, I utterly disliked Vinnie in an overwhelming contemptuous far-out way, and in the end, she killed this book for me. The most satisfying part of the book was when P.T. Barnum finally chewed her out, although it wasn’t nearly long enough and he failed to kick her into a thorny bush, as I was hoping. Vinnie never apologizes for her faults and never changes. If anything, she gets worse as the story progresses. Her mistreatment of her husband is particularly heartbreaking.

P.T. Barnum:

He was by far the best character in the novel. He shared many of Vinnie’s flaws, yet he was surprisingly down-to-earth and likeable. His relationship with Vinnie felt authentic.

General Tom Thumb (aka Charles Stratton):

Excuse me while I wipe the mud from this poor gentleman’s name.

Credibility (or lack thereof):

**spoilers ahead, and some frank talk about love-making, but I suggest you read on**

Charles Stratton was a real man. Vinnie Warren Stratton was a real woman. In this fictional autobiography, the author wants us to believe Charles and Vinnie never consummate their marriage.

Vinnie, the cold-hearted snake, only marries to advance her career. Unbeknownst to Charles, she never intends to consummate their marriage, or have children (adopted or otherwise, as children literally give her the heebie-jeebies). By the time the author is done with her, Vinnie is a 43-year-old, widowed virgin who is terrified of sex. Again, the author and I have different ideas about what makes a woman strong, driven, and independent.

Stretching the imagination even further, Charles, who married Vinnie for love, is blindsided by her unwillingness to consummate their marriage, but after a few rejections in the bedroom, he never presses the issue, never complains, and never strays from the marriage. He is given an almost child-like sensibility after that, as if he hasn’t any strong adult male desires. This is attributed to his small size and his “simplemindedness.”

I found this suggestion not only insulting, but lacking credibility. I read the author’s note at the end to see how she came to such bold conclusions about Vinnie and Charles, and found that the little evidence she gave to support her claims actually implies the opposite of how she portrayed them to be, if you ask me.

On Benjamin’s (author) website, she answers the question of how she balances “fact versus fiction” in her writing. Her reply: “I like to say that I never let the truth get in the way of a good story! There's a reason why "A Novel" is on the front of the book. It's fiction, and I trust the readers to know that it is. Always, my hope is that, after reading one of my books, the reader is then inspired to learn more about these remarkable people. However, I do use the known facts as a template; they're the "bones" upon which I hang the "skin"—the story, the fiction. But sometimes you do have to take liberties—although I always try to take them with people whose motivations are truly unclear in the historical record. Or with events whose details remain unknown to us.”

Oh, how I would've preferred if M. Benjamin had let a little more truth get in the way of her fiction! Her bones of facts were too easily broken. Indeed, I was inspired to read more about these real people, just as she hoped, and I believe she sold them short. Pun intended!

Here are some confirmed facts, not mentioned in the novel: Vinnie married an Italian Count (another little person) a few years after Charles’s death. She and the Count were together until her death, 34 years later. However, when she died, she was buried next to her first husband, Charles, and her grave stone simply reads “His Wife.” No name, no tiny life-size statue like her husband got, and no mention of her being a Countess. Just simply “His Wife.”

Yeah. They consummated their marriage, all right. In fancy hotels all over the world, including that weird little Mormon town in UT.

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