Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jane by Robin Maxwell

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: December 8, 2012

Cambridge, England: 1905. Jane Porter is hardly a typical woman of her time. The only female student in Cambridge University’s medical program, she is far more comfortable in a lab coat, dissecting corpses, than she is in a corset and gown, sipping afternoon tea. A budding paleoanthropologist, Jane dreams of travelling the globe in search of fossils that will prove the evolutionary theories of her scientific hero, Charles Darwin. When dashing American explorer Ral Conrath invites Jane and her father on an expedition deep into West Africa, she can hardly believe her luck. Rising to the challenge, Jane finds an Africa that is every bit exotic and fascinating as she has always imagined. But she quickly learns that the lush jungle is full of secrets—and so is Ral Conrath. When danger strikes, Jane finds her hero, the key to humanity’s past, and an all-consuming love in one extraordinary man: Tarzan of the Apes.

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Never having read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books, I suppose I am at something of a disadvantage when it comes to reviewing Robin Maxwell's Jane. Still, I can't help feeling that there is value in my thoughts, that perhaps my unfamiliarity with the originals might present an alternative point of view for those readers like me who have never encountered the classic. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.

I really liked the idea of Jane sitting down with Burroughs and relating her adventures, thus inspiring the books that made him famous, though I am not altogether convinced Burroughs' contributions were entirely necessary or appropriate. Would it have been so awful if the man merely admired her adventurous spirit? I guess I don't understand why Maxwell thought that relationship needed to include sexual undertones.

On the same note I wasn't a fan of Jane's preoccupation with sex. Though convenient for the story Maxwell wanted to tell, for a woman of Jane's era it seemed altogether wrong and for me personally, this aspect of her personality undermined the presentation of her character as a female academic of independent mind. Not to say that one can't be both, but on paper and in fiction it seemed a contradictory combination of motivations for a single cast member to possess.

While we are on the subject of things I didn't understand I suppose I should tackle the "New Egypt" story line Maxwell created. I'm going to be honest and tell you I found it ridiculous, but I also felt it in poor taste for a novel set on the west coast of Africa. Call me crazy, but why not give a nod to the native culture? Here again, I found myself both confused and disappointed.

Disappointment seems to have been something of a theme during my experience with this book, case and point being the way the story seems to emasculate its leading man. Did Jane really have master life in the jungle so quickly? It took Tarzan a lifetime to master these skills. Tarzan's accomplishments, the strength and fortitude necessary to his very survival is lost under Maxwell's pen. Not having read the original I don't know exactly how much damage is done to his character, but I can't imagine the story would have endured if its protagonist lacked the magnetism and charisma emulated in more than eighty Hollywood adaptations of Burroughs' work. I guess I don't understand why it is necessary to sacrifice one character's talents and triumphs when retelling their story from another's point of view.

There were things I liked. Jane's personal growth was a particularly satisfying aspect of the book and I also enjoyed Maxwell's writing style. It has been years since I have sampled this author and perhaps my memory is tinted various shades of rose, but the fact remains that I expected much more going into this book than I found between its pages.

*Addendum: While discussing this review with a friend, I was informed the Egyptian elements of the story are directly related to Burroughs' original works. I do not want to retract the portion of my review that addresses this plot element, it remains an accurate description of my feelings upon finishing the novel. Still, I want to note that my confusion and lack of appreciation is a byproduct modern day sensibilities and lack of familiarity with the classic works.

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But to hell with them! None of the other girls at Newnham had a fraction of the ambition that I did. I was going to make something of myself. Leave a mark on the world. And that was that.
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