Monday, March 8, 2010

Review: Alice I have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Description from Goodreads:

Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she’s experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only “Alice.” Her life was permanently dog-eared at one fateful moment in her tenth year–the golden summer day she urged a grown-up friend to write down one of his fanciful stories. That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice–he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice’s childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war. For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey. A love story and a literary mystery, Alice I Have Been brilliantly blends fact and fiction to capture the passionate spirit of a woman who was truly worthy of her fictional alter ego, in a world as captivating as the Wonderland only she could inspire.

My thoughts:
This book is haunting. I laughed, I cried, I cried some more, I cried a lot more. And for about ten minutes after I finished.

I'd never thought about there being a "real" Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Melanie Benjamin took stories that were merely rumored of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll (Mr. Dodgson), and Prince Leopold, and expanded on them in this very beautifully written and heartbreaking novel. The first chapter introduces Alice to us as an old woman, tired of being known as "Alice in Wonderland". Then we read on to see how her life unfolded from age seven. Benjamin captures her point of view perfectly; a little girl mesmerized by a family friend and storyteller. "His hand still caressed my elbow and I felt, at that moment, that I would go anywhere, do anything he asked, as long as it remained only the two of us, no one else allowed." At times, I cringed that Alice didn't understand what was going on, how even as a young adult she didn't completely understand why rumors floated around about her, why her family broke away from Mr. Dodgson, why no one thought she was good enough for the Prince that loved her.

My heart broke for Alice repeatedly, and several times I thought I should just stop reading, but the writing is so perfect, so beautiful, it's impossible not to keep reading. It's as if the words were written by magic instead of by a person.

"Mamma dabbed her upper lip with her handkerchief; it was warm for late May, and despite being tightly bound, a few strands of her black hair had escaped, lying damp and flat against her high forehead. She was fatter than usual because soon another baby would join us. I wasn't precisely sure what her being fat had to do with a baby, but that was how it was explained to me, and when I asked what the one had to do with the other, she would not say. She told me only that young ladies weren't supposed to ask such questions. Still, I couldn't help but suspect that one very important piece of information was being withheld; I vowed, someday, to discover just what it was. Perhaps Mr. Dodgson would tell me."

I struggle with books like this that cover the span of a whole life, loved ones dying all around, because it really does make you think about your own life. How quickly life goes by! Is it what you wanted? What you expected? Are you making the most of it? Do the people you love know that you love them?

Something else I loved about this book was the description of the clothing styles. When Alice is young, ladies wear gloves, carry parasols... it is, after all, during Victoria's rule. Benjamin does a fantastic job of showing us the passing of time through the changing of trends.

Great story, incredible writing, a heartbreaking combination of fact and fiction... I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I recommend it to anyone interested in a version of what the real Alice's life could have been.

The page number was a bit daunting at 345, because for a while it seemed as if I wasn't making a dent in it. But somehow I ended up finishing in about five days.
It's VERY expensive. $25 for the hardback, which is the only option at the moment. I'd love to own a copy, but I can't afford to spend that on one book. I checked it out from the library, and plan to purchase when it's released in trade paperback, my favorite.

5/5 - Amazing


  1. I'd never heard of this book before. I'll have to look into it. Great review, by the way. I kind of have this love/hate relationships with emotional books like that. But a few tears are good for the soul :)

  2. Never heard of it, but from what I've read so far it sounds amazing! I'll check it out, and I'm with you $25 is a little steep for me!

  3. Thanks for introducing me to a new book. Good news Amazon has it for 16.50 (still pricey) but only 9.99 Kindle edition.

  4. This book sounds very interesting. Alice was based on a real person, who knew?

    I look forward to reading it. : )

    Great review!

  5. I have been wanting to read this book. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been my favorite book since I was a little girl, and I have a million copies of it, annotated and otherwise. I have done a lot of research on Dodgson and Alice for various papers and projects and some of my own writing. I don't know how I'll respond to a book that fictionalizes the real Alice (obviously the original does, but it's not realistic fic!), since all of it is close to my heart but I'm glad to hear that it's so well written, often that is a sell for me... I love books with beautiful language. You just notched me closer to picking this one up. :)

  6. I'm adding it to my Goodreads list now! I'm a bit worried with the crying because I'm a total softie...but we can all use a good, moving book once in a while!

    Awesome review Kristin!

  7. I agree... it was a good cry, too. I'm a major softie when it comes to books and movies (it gets worse every year), and I often feel that if I can't at least get choked up reading a book, I'm a bit let down.

    This was no let down. A slightly sad story, bittersweet perhaps, but well worth the read.

  8. I loved this book too. You are right how the author seamlessly changed the customs and fashions with the passing years. Great review!