by Iain Pears

Knopf, 2016

528 pages

Not long ago, I tried to describe to my husband what it’s like to read Iain Pears and Kazuo Ishiguro, two of my favorite authors.

Though their styles are distinct, there is a key commonality: both like to play with perception and how it affects narrative. Ishiguro comes at the question from the perspective of memory, while Pears focuses on point of view. In both cases, I told my husband, reading one of the author’s novels is like holding a Chinese carving-within-a-carving. It’s nearly impossible to put your finger on just how the creator executed the work, but the effect is mesmerizing and marvelous.

Both these authors have come out with new novels in the last 18 months, so I’ve been in reader heaven. I mentioned Ishiguro’s latest, The Buried Giant, in my survey of my favorite books of 2015. Today’s post goes to Pears’s book Arcadia.

I always appreciate it when male authors write strong female characters, but sometimes I end up thinking, “Well, at least he tried.” Too often, male authors produce strong female characters who just read like men with women’s names, or the same woman with different names. Pears, however, has a knack for writing strong women who feel real and are as varied as real women are.

When I first came across Arcadia, I decided to read it because the book jacket promised an homage to Tolkien and Lewis (which it is, beautifully mixed with sci-fi and Elizabethan pastoral). I wasn’t even thinking about Pears’s penchant for strong female characters. I remembered pretty quickly, though, once I got past the first couple of chapters. And Arcadia has Pears’s largest and most diverse cast of women yet.

First, there’s Rosie Wilson, a teenage girl living in 1960s Oxford, England. She’s the child of working-class parents who don’t quite understand her active mind. Rosie pet-sits for Henry Lytten, a middle-aged professor from the university whose evil-tempered cat is putty in the girl’s hands. Searching for the cat, Rosie enters Lytten’s basement one day and stumbles across a gateway to another universe. She passes through into a pastoral world called Anterwold, where scholars are the highest form of authority and conflict between them threatens to tear the land apart.

I love Rosie because she is one of those characters who develops significantly as the book progresses. Her innate intelligence, curiosity, and independence, previously dampened by her physical and familial environment, come to full flower in Anterwold. She proves smart, decisive, and courageous – a strong encouragement for girls who aren’t sure whether they’ll ever have the chance to become everything they want to be.

Angela Meerson is another strong female figure in the novel. A “psychomathematician” from the far future, she is treated by her male superiors as a walking science experiment. They view her primarily as a tool for accomplishing their own ends, to the point of forcibly impregnating her, purely to see how the accompanying hormonal changes affect her mathematical capabilities.

Meerson, however, has her own ideas about how to use her abilities and where her life should go. After inventing a time machine, she travels to pre-WWII Europe, where she meets Lytten. The two quickly become lovers and, after their affair ends, remain devoted friends.

Meerson is Pears’s own fantastic version of the mad scientist trope, and she lives much of her life in Europe with no boundaries on her own behavior – until she meets Rosie. Thinking she can manipulate or intimidate the girl, Angela discovers that Rosie is made of much sterner stuff than expected. Ultimately, they end up conspiring to solve one of the book’s knottiest problems. It’s a not-at-all-typical depiction of different women working together to save the man and, ultimately, the world(s).

Pears’s final heroine is Lady Katherine, whose true identity is one of the book’s central, but highly subtle, mysteries. She oversees an idyllic domain in Anterwold, but her position is under threat from two different men, one with more noble motives than the other. Like Meerson, Katherine encounters Rosie and finds in the girl more strength and intelligence than she expected. And like Meerson and Rosie in England, Katherine and Rosie in Anterwold end up collaborating to stave off disaster.

What I love about the women of Arcadia as a group: they’re diverse. Whether a girl is quiet, bold, cerebral, or active, she can find herself here. And, more importantly, she can see examples of women like her collaborating with women who are not like her – and making a world-changing difference in the process.

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