Cecelia Holland’s GREAT MARIA

I started GREAT MARIA by Cecelia Holland, but couldn’t get on with it. The story was curiously lacking in shape and the pacing was off. This is what happens at the beginning:

Maria is visiting a shrine, when suddenly her servant Elena is killed.

This happens just after the opening of the novel, so we don’t know enough about Elena to connect with her.  It might have been more powerful if it had been rendered as interior monologue, rather than shown baldly as it was. In this instance, it is less the tragic incident that matters. Rather it is its effect on the protagonist.

Maria returns home and develops a sudden crush on Roger. But she is to be betrothed to the other brother Richard. She doesn’t want it. He talks to her. She accepts.
The men go out and return home. Her father is furious. Richard wanted to kill him. She goes upstairs. She tells Richard she’s expecting a baby. He is unemotional.

At that point, I threw the book down because I couldn’t connect with the characters. What is missing here is the glue of interior monolog, a certain degree of foreshadowing (not too much), internal physical reactions, and external displays of emotion, sometimes done subtly. Without these elements, the plot just becomes a series of events that don’t pluck at the reader’s heartstrings. After all, why should we care about Maria, Roger or Richard if their story is told to us in such a dry-as-dust fashion?

The New York Times describes Cecelia Holland as a literary phenomenon. Unfortunately, in this novel, she didn’t display her gifts. One star.

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