Illyria, by Elizabeth Hand

illyriaThe Tierney family all descended from a theatre tradition, though for several generations, that tradition has been shunned. The two youngest cousins, Rogan and Maddy, both have stage inclinations though, the former to singing, the latter to acting. They are also in love with each other despite being first cousins, and have to hide that love from the rest of their family.

This was an interesting novella, part coming of age, part family saga, part critique on talent versus training, part star-crossed love story. I enjoyed it, despite some big flaws, so I want to get those flaws out of the way first in this review so I can concentrate on the parts I really loved.

First, it’s historical fiction, but at times seems inconsistent with the timeline. I had a hard time placing the era, which I only discovered late in the book must have been the 60s or early 70s. At the beginning I thought it must be early 20th century, but then every once in awhile there would be a very modern reference from the narrator looking back over her life, so I knew it had to be closer. That was only a small thing though. The biggest flaw for me was that at times there were distractions to the narrative. I loved reading about the odd love story, and the theatre stuff, and the different paths of the two cousins. Periodically, though, there would be some side plotlines that seemed to lead into new territory that were then just abandoned. I felt like the book could have done with less of those and more development on the main points.

Okay. So those were the flaws. They kept me from saying this is a wonderful book and instead I’ll say it’s simply a good book. I enjoyed it despite the problems. The reason I think I loved it so much was because of a juxtaposition of talent and training, as well as the idea of burning out versus never shining as brightly. Maddy says, near the end:

In love, as in theatre, I had never had any magic. True, I never flamed out. And I never shone, not even for a moment, the way my cousin had.

Rogan has a beautiful voice that captivates everyone who hears it. When he uses it, he uses it fully, never conserving himself or treating himself well. He smokes and gets hooked on drugs, and his performance record is spotty at best, but still alive. Maddy, on the other hand, has only a small amount of inborn talent. She can’t captivate people on stage the way Rogan can, and she can’t sing at all. Everything she does in acting, she must learn. She must be taught. She has enough talent and dedication to learn, but not enough to ever become a star. But because she is focused so much more on training, whereas Rogan has no reason to ever really train, he is a star that burns bright and dies, while she is the moon that steadily reflects on and supports another person’s glory.

I used to think about this a lot, especially when it came to music. I remember when Kurt Cobain killed himself in the mid-90s and people saying it was such a waste, so much pure, raw talent gone in that instant, but then others questioned that position. Perhaps suicide wasn’t the best answer, but what if he’d just quit, at the height of his career, as many amazing musicians do? What if he quit before he burned out and faded away? There was that question – is it better to be steady and have a long career, even if you never get to be that star, or is it better to burst into a firework that awes people, and then disappear?

It’s not just in music, but in all areas of art. Think about it in books. There are some authors (Harper Lee is the first to come to mind) who wrote something brilliant and then never published again. There are some authors who wrote something brilliant, but everything else they ever wrote was just mediocre and forgotten. Then there are authors who wrote multiple works, maybe none of which were brilliant, but which add up to a huge body of great-if-not-brilliant books. Is one of these paths better than another?

This book really got me thinking, and that’s why I liked it so much.

One other note: I think this is meant to be a YA novel (or at least I’ve seen people classify it that way on GoodReads), but it didn’t feel like YA. Sure, the protagonists were young and they grow into adulthood, so that there’s a certain amount of coming-of-age in it, but the ideas in it felt more adult than YA to me. YA-friendly, if you don’t mind drugs and some heavy sex scenes, but still very adult in theme. Maybe that’s just what I got out of it, but it didn’t feel like any other YA novel I’ve ever read, so I’m classifying it as adult for the purposes of this review.

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About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2010, Adult, Prose and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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