This is a really odd book. Delightful, but odd. It’s alternate history, and the narrator, Thursday Next, lives in 1985 in a world where time travel is common, the dodo bird has been genetically resurrected, and literature is taken just as seriously as war. There are 4000 “John Miltons” in the phone book in London; the Baconians are presented like religious fanatics that go door to door with pamphlets, trying to convince people Francis Bacon really did write Shakespeare’s plays; and everyone NOT named after a poet seems to be named in pun (Paige Turner, Braxton Hicks, Jack Schitt).
Thursday Next works for the secret police, SpecOps, in a department called LiteraTecs. For the most part, they protect literature from theft, plagiarism, and impersonation. Thursday’s life gets much more interesting, though, when she is called in to help capture the seemingly indestructible villain Acheron Hades. Hades is stealing original manuscripts and entering them in order to kidnap characters. He starts small, with a minor character from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, but soon captures Jane Eyre herself to hold for ransom. Thursday, who has a decided interest in Jane Eyre owing to the fact that she’s entered the book by accident on occasion and once Mr. Rochester jumped out of the book in order to save her life, vows to set things right.
I don’t want to say any more than that and give away spoilers. This was a really funny laugh-out-loud sort of book, but at the same time, a thrilling literary adventure. I loved all the literary references, everything from the description of Blanche Ingram as “a sort of nineteenth-century bimbo” to the “bookworm” maggots that got genetically rewired and have been dubbed “HyperBookwormDoublePlusGood.” Also, I really love Jane Eyre, it’s one of my favorite books, and Mr. Rochester (who has a big role in this book) is one of my favorite literary personalities, so it was fun to watch how the text was treated. Fforde really did have a good handle on the characters – Jane, Mr. Rochester, Mrs. Fairfax, Bertha, etc – and when they moved, spoke, and acted, it really felt like they were the same characters as in the original book, even when they were outside the events of Jane Eyre. That, I think, was the most impressive thing about The Eyre Affair. That, and the sheer volume of literary and historical interplay; I’m sure I missed at least half the references and jokes.
My only complaint would be that the book seems to take a long time to get started. The driving force of the plot doesn’t start until at least a third of the way through, though to be fair, everything leading up to it is so interesting that I wasn’t slowed in reading. There just seemed to be too much information and too many plotlines stuffed into the beginning of the book. I’m not sure all those sideplots were needed. Many of them weren’t important to this book, nor did they get resolved. There are, however, four (soon to be five) sequels to this book, and I imagine some of those unexplained moments/plots/etc will blossom in other books. I look forward to reading them.