Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

I know I made it a point of honor not to read Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania, but my post about booksplitting inspired a Readerville friend to offer me her copy of the book (thank you, Sarah!), and in the end I couldn't resist*. The original concept for this post was to examine Park's novel in light of Tor's decision to split it into two volumes (The Tourmaline, due out next year, completes the story beginning in Princess). Did Princess stand on its own? Did it require judicious editing, which might have made splitting it unnecessary? Was I inspired to pick up The Tournaline?

My ability to answer these questions hinged on the assumption that, at the very least, I wouldn't find the experience of reading A Princess of Roumania an unbearable torment. Considering the exuberant blurbs plastered all over the book's cover--from such luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Swanwick, and John Crowley--not to mention the favorable reviews from the likes of Cheryl Morgan and Gwenda Bond, this didn't seem like a tall order. But as it turns out, A Princess of Roumania made a spirited attempt at capturing the title of my absolute worst read in 2005 (Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian held onto the spot, but only by a smidgeon). By the time I reached the end, I was actually grateful for Tor's decision to split the book--the thought of 300 more pages of this dreck was more than I could bear**.

At no point is A Princess of Roumania demonstrably terrible, but neither does it ever rise above bare competence. Park's prose isn't dreadful, just painfully unimpressive--the descriptive passages are unoriginal, the infrequent action scenes choppy, and the dialogue, which all too often relies on stereotypical Eastern European accents to convey the speaker's voice, is canned and rarely believable. Although Park's narrative moves between the points of view of perhaps a dozen different characters from all walks of life, they have almost identical voices (inasmuch as such voices exist--most of the characters remain opaque to the third person omniscient narrator). The characters themselves run the gamut from inscrutable cyphers to cardboard cutouts. The novel's plot, such as it is, moves at a snail's pace, serving only as a setup so that the next volume can begin with all the characters in place. Reading A Princess of Roumania is akin to eating dough instead of bread--the right ingredients are all there, but the sensation is unpleasant, with a good chance of an upset stomach later on.

Princess can be divided into two major storylines. The first revolves around Miranda Popescu, a Romanian orphan adopted by an American couple and raised in a small Massachusetts college town. Like most of your standard princess-in-hiding heroines, Miranda feels out of place in her adoptive home, and harbors a deep-seated curiosity about her biological family. Princess' first major twist occurs when Miranda and the readers discover that the princess' hiding place isn't a sleepy Massachusetts town but an entire world, contained within a book--our world, which is in fact a fiction. It's a neat idea, but Park squanders it. Miranda emerges from her protective shell within the book's first hundred pages, only to discover that a return is impossible--our world has been destroyed. Her reaction to this revelation--that everyone and everything she's ever known is gone forever, that she and two of her friends were the only real people in existence--is simply bland acceptance***.

From the moment she emerges into the real world--a cod-19th century in which "Roumania" is a major power, under threat of German invasion, and magic (of course) exists--Miranda's plotline loses what little tension it had possessed. Her enemy sends soldiers to apprehend her, but most of them are dispatched with the help of a gypsy woman, a former servant of Miranda's parents, who kills herself in order to appease a protective spirit (Miranda's reaction to this sacrifice is first numbness, after which she feels a little bad). The surviving soldier soon becomes a figure of ridicule, and although Miranda and her companions encounter several other 'hazarads', they seem to float through them. At no point did I believe that Miranda was in genuine danger, not least because it was obvious that Park needed to get her to Europe, and in fact the entire plotline might have been excised without any adverse effect on the story.

The second, and marginally more interesting, plotline in A Princess of Roumania revolves around Miranda's nemesis, the Countess Nicola Ceausescu. Reviewers have heaped praised on this character, calling her a fascinating and compelling villain, but trust me when I say that this is no Romanian Al Swearengen. Nicola's alleged originality stems from the fact that for a cold-blooded killer, she's a rather principled person. She feels tremendous guilt over the deaths she's caused. She's moved to pity by the plight of her servants, the people she uses in order to get to Miranda, and even her enemy of several decades. She's tormented by her husband's decision to place her mute son in an institution, which she's been forbidden to visit, and throughout her heartless machinations, she's constantly wondering if it wouldn't be better to leave all this mess behind her, go into seclusion in the country and live a quiet, blameless life. I've just described a rather fascinating character, but Park's execution gives us a Countess Nicola Ceausescu who is a whiny bore, to the extent that towards the end of the novel I was actually wondering what Miranda had to worry about. In his zeal to create a human villain, Park seems to have overemphasized the former quality and almost forgotten the latter. Nicola is human enough, but she's hardly villainous, she's rarely frightening, and she's never interesting.

Nicola's story involves political machinations between Roumania, currently ruled by a puppet-empress whose strings are pulled by a military dictator, and Germany, represented by the nefarious Elector of Ratisbon (we know he's evil because he's a chauvinist). Although marginally more interesting than Miranda's Perils of Pauline storyline, these political games advance slowly and meanderingly. Little that is accomplished on this front is likely to be important to the book's eventual plot except as scene-setting.

Park has been getting a lot of praise for overturning some of the conventions of the princess-in-hiding subgenre--the world Miranda emerges into is as morally ambiguous and complex as our own, and the hidden princess finds the notion of assuming her throne less appealing than the thought of rattling around the New England wilderness with her not-boyfriend. All of which would have been terribly ground-breaking in 1985, but nowadays is practically expected from any fantasy novel that doesn't have a dragon and a half-naked woman on the cover. Not to mention that Park's subversion of the subgenre's tropes is so half-hearted and anemic that most of the time it is barely noticeable. There are plenty of interesting and well-written novels out there that take well-worn fantasy conventions and turn them on their heads, but A Princess of Roumania doesn't even have enough moxie to make it through the front door, much less into the club.

Is it possible that with massive editing, A Princess of Roumania could have been made into a good book? I can't tell for sure without reading The Tourmaline (and in case there was some doubt on this point: only for an obscene amount of money), but my guess is no. I actually suspect that it would have been possible to dump Princess in its entirety and leave The Tourmaline as a standalone novel, but then we'd still have to deal with the fact that Park isn't a very good writer. I can't even imagine where the ecstatic praise for Princess is coming from, but I'm not too worried by it. This isn't the first time I've found myself perplexed by the literary tastes of my favorite authors, and it probably won't be the last.


* And after all, aren't free books the reason we all got into blogging in the first place?

** I've started to wrap my mind around the notion of being allowed to put a book down if it isn't grabbing me, but the idea of reviewing a book that I couldn't even finished is still abhorrent.

*** It's possible that Park is delaying Miranda's shocked reaction until the second book, but the choice to forgo character development in favor of boring plot advancement and unoriginal dream sequences is hardly a point in his favor.

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