My husband suggested we go to a movie one Friday night. “But,” I said, “I’m in the middle of reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ How could any movie compare with that?” He understood and took out “1493” by Charles C. Mann, a book he was enjoying tremendously.
Nine years ago, when my son was a high school freshman, his English class read “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, a Frenchman, written in 1846. “Ma, ya gotta read this,” he said, knowing how I love a good book.
Five years ago, when my daughter was a high school freshman, she practically made me promise I would read it. Finally, I picked it up. Wow, were they right! One thousand five hundred pages and not a word too many.
In fact, I’m losing sleep over it. The adventures and the revelations just keep on coming, and I can’t put it down even when it’s time to go to bed. This is one of the reasons I prefer non-fiction. As fascinating as is David McCullough’s book, “The Path Between the Seas” about the Panama Canal, I was able to put it down and go to sleep.
I knew when I began Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” about the life of Abraham Lincoln that it wouldn’t have a happy ending. No matter how much I wished otherwise, the fields of the United States would be covered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and Lincoln would die of a gunshot wound at the end.
But when a strong and charismatic character in Patrick O’Brian’s novel “Master and Commander” died an untimely death, I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. I wanted that character to live, and couldn’t understand that the author, who had a choice, would choose otherwise.
Robert Louis Stevenson (50 years Dumas’ junior and author of his own great adventure stories) said about “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “A piece of perfect storytelling … I do not believe there is another volume extant where you can breathe the same unmingled atmosphere of romance.” Here, the definition of romance literature, “fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures” would be more apt than the modern idea of romance referring simply to a love story.
My daughter told me the book hadn’t been 1,500 pages when she read it. I said she had probably read an expurgated version. When she asked what expurgated meant, I wondered how she had gotten through the SATs without learning that word and what might need to be expunged from a 19th century adventure story. Then I came to the hashish-induced dream, the allusion to a sex slave, the tragic tale of the gang rape and a plot to promote an incestuous marriage.
Many movies have been made from this book, but I won’t be seeing any of them. No actor could be as handsome as the real count, no actress as beautiful as the Catalan Mercédès or the Greek Haydée. To represent these characters on film would bring them down to mere human beings. The count and his acquaintances are magical.
The other night my husband closed the book on his final page of “1493.” As he tossed it onto the table he said, “My life has no more meaning.” As I write this, with only 275 pages left to read about my friend the count, I feel that same sad day approaching for me. Will I lighten my burden and read non-fiction next? Or will I read Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”?