Book Review for “The Determined Heart” by Antoinette May.
The bulk of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s fame came from her novel “Frankenstein.” However, she was also married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the daughter of two well-known writers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. This novel examines the life of this woman who, in the early 1800s, wrote a penultimate horror novel, and was arguably one of the first writers of science fiction.
The timeline of this story starts with Mary as a young girl, just before her father re-married. This happened several years after her mother died in childbirth. From there, May takes us through Mary’s youth and young adulthood, until not long after the deaths of Shelley and, subsequently, Lord Byron. Of course, this also covers her writing and publishing of “Frankenstein,” and follows her life until just after the time when she sees a staged version of her own work.
May succeeds in avoiding almost all of the pitfalls of historical fiction. She only includes essential information about era, and focuses on politics and events that are truly relevant to Mary Shelley along with those that affect the other personalities included in her story. In this way, we get the right balance between Mary herself, mixed with some lesser-known details of her life. Furthermore, May does her best not to insert hints regarding Mary Shelley’s posterity and forthcoming fame, with the exception of her prologue and one tiny line at the end of the book. May’s carefully treading this path allows the readers to learn more about Mary Shelley, while giving us insights into motivations for her actions, and the various relationships that shaped her life. Obviously, May did quite a bit of research here, since there are excerpts of letters and diaries peppered throughout the story.
With this basis, May was able to concentrate on the drama and with it, develop the fictional aspects that enhance the truth. May’s writing style also compliments this, using appropriate language and phrasing, which she gently tempers to keep it from sounding archaic or fake. With this, the era came through perfectly and naturally, without ever distracting the reader with overly flowery language. This also allows the reader to better identify with the characters, and thereby empathize with them. Believe me, there is a whole lot to feel for these people, not the least of which were the many, many premature deaths of loved ones (particularly young children and babies) along the way. With all this going on, it is no wonder that Mary Shelley had a dark side, which she conjured up in her writing, only to create the most famous monster of all time.
With all this going for it, the question is, why am I not raving about this book? Despite the excellent writing and perfect balance between fact and fiction, there was something just felt a little distant to me. What I mean by this is, that as much as readers will enjoy this story and feel for (as well as get angry at) the personalities that surrounded this incredible woman, I got the feeling that somewhere May held back somewhat. It could be that May (or her editors) felt she needed to keep the emotions in tow so that it didn’t become melodramatic, but I think she (or they) stopped just a little short, as it needed a bit more passion to help make the comprehensive facts feel a touch more human. This doesn’t mean that this book feels cold; it just means that I would have preferred a bit more warmth. Even so, I really loved learning about Mary Shelley through this fictional account, and overall, I did enjoy this book. However, I can’t give it more than four out of five stars, but with that solid rating, I can still recommend it.
“The Determined Heart” by Antoinette May, from Lake Union Publishing, release date September 29, 2015 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (audiobook), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for a fair review via NetGalley.