Title: A Mad, Wicked Folly
Author: Sharon Biggs Waller
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Release Date: January 23rd, 2014
It's a little jarring to think that if it were not for Heather's "Waiting on Wednesday" post, this book would have completely slipped under my radar. Although A Mad, Wicked Folly falls under one of my favorite genres - historical fiction - it focuses on art, a theme I nearly always dismiss (unless it's written by Cath Crowley). Needless to say, once I found myself immersed in the narration of this debut, I was more than just a little glad to have picked it up. A Mad, Wicked Folly is by no means a perfect novel, but it's certainly a riveting one. Once you fall into this book, you won't want to emerge back out.
Waller bases her debut during an interesting time period in history - one that hasn't been explored very much in historical fiction - which makes for a fascinating read. Vicky, a budding artist, is promptly whisked away from France when she is caught escaping class to pose nude for art students. In France, Vicky was subjected to the dull - and typical - "womanly duties" classes that all upper-class girls attended. In following her life-long passion of art, however, she stumbled upon a class of male artists. While every one of her fellow students posed nude for the class, Vicky, being the only female, never did. Nevertheless, determined to prove her worth among her students, Vicky poses for her fellow classmates and, once word gets around of her scandalous deed, is back under the jurisdiction of her strict parents in London.
It is 1909, though, and the women's suffrage movement is fully underway. Although Vicky is initially uninterested in gaining the power to vote, the wave of revolution strikes her as well, giving her the courage to take a stand and finally apply for art college. Vicky's only way into the prestigious school she dreams of attended, however, is to marry Edmund - a rich society man - who will pay for her education when her parents won't. While Vicky keeps up the charade of a perfect daughter to her parents, she sneaks off to draw Will, the handsome police officer who has offered to be her model for her portfolio. Vicky realizes, soon enough, that leading a dual life is not necessarily the path to her dreams. Finding the courage to go after what she wants, though, is far more difficult than it seems...
Where A Mad, Wicked Folly excels is in its characterization of Vicky. I love a strong female protagonist, but give me one whose stubborn will won't let her give up her passion? I'm sold. Moreover, this book truly shines in its historical portrayal of the time period. From clothing to occupations, class struggles to gender roles, Waller paints such a vivid image of twentieth century Europe that it's practically impossible to believe we aren't living there ourselves. Waller also captures the mindset of this time perfectly; the young radicals eager to charge into the future and the stubborn elders unwilling to let go of the past. Waller manages to weave the women's suffrage story into this era perfectly, conveying the desperation of the times and the staunch mindsets these women had to fight against. Additionally, Waller ties together the suffrage movement with art seamlessly. I wouldn't have thought art to be such a vital aspect of the movement, but Vicky, too, finds a place for her talents and voice among these strong women, which is heartening to see.
Another aspect of this novel which I loved was the romance. Will and Vicky meet during a suffrage protest and after a series of misunderstandings, soon become colleagues with Vicky illustrating the tale Will has written. Obviously, I adored the slow build-up between these two, especially their conversations and the manner in which Will - unlike anyone else in her life - truly supports Vicky in her artistic endeavors. I was also impressed, however, by the class distinctions between these two. Will comes from the country, so working in the city is prestigious for him. Vicky, on the other hand, not only employ dozens of servants but also owns many unnecessary comforts. Thus, I found that the gap between their social classes was portrayed very well, only because it examined the strangeness that could tinge their interactions but also proved that what they had went beyond mere societal boxes.
Where this book faltered for me, though, was in the extent to which a few events were carried out. First and foremost, the most pressing issue from the beginning of the novel is the fact that Vicky poses nude. Even in our day and age, it's a little extreme. Thus, I understood where her parents were coming from in their anger at Vicky and their attempts to make her fall back in line were realistically drawn up. In fact, all the familial interactions in this novel were brutally honest, which I appreciated. On the other hand, though, many people - such as Will and a few suffragettes that Vicky befriends - never fault her for her actions, accepting her and going so far as to imitate those actions themselves. Although Europe, during this era, was on the verge of a cultural revolution, I feel as if the readiness with which so much "scandalous" behavior was accepted to be a bit strange. Moreover, there is virtually no explanation given for Vicky's own forward-thinking. From the first page itself, Vicky's narration reads more like a woman from our time than a upper-class snob of 1909. On one hand, I completely understand that Vicky represents a group of women who slowly emerged from their seats of comfort into the working world, but I wish her growth into that mindset could have been more gradual. Instead, she more-or-less starts out with this form of thinking, which made for an excellent - and consistent - narration, but didn't quite work for me as the novel wore on.
What Vicky really goes through in this novel is the realization that there is nothing she can do to convince her parents of her side of life. Vicky goes through many stages, thinking that she can eventually prove to her parents that she is a serious artist - that it can be a career for her - and their continued refusal to budge an inch on the issue never deters her from trying again and again. It's more than a little naive. When Vicky does, eventually, realize that there is no way for her to keep her current life and pursue her dreams, the pace of the novel quickens suddenly, only to end in a matter of chapters. I really wish this aspect of the novel were explored with further depth. A Mad, Wicked Folly is a large book - the bulk of which is focused on Vicky's art, her romance with Will, or even just her inclusion into the suffrage movement. For me, this book would have been much stronger if it focused more on Vicky's internal growth and change a little further.
Nevertheless, I already know a handful of people for whom A Mad, Wicked Folly will be a perfect read. It addresses so many issues that teens go through daily, even today, especially in regards to breaking away from home and parental expectations. Despite its size, it is so, so quick, practically impossible to put down, and Will Fletcher is guaranteed to make you swoon on more than one occasion. A Mad, Wicked Folly is a debut to kick the year off with a bang and if it's anything to go by, then the coming year is going to be unusually promising.
A huge thank you to Heather @ The Flyleaf Review for organizing and adding me to the blog tour for this novel. :)