Monday, August 13, 2012

This is truly the Tarzan and Jane saga brought to life.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Okay, I'll admit it, I've never read the original Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I have seen the movies starring Johnny Weismulller and Maureen O'Sullivan. I know, not the best way to be introduced to the series considering how much the books were changed from page to screen, I'd imagine, but you've got to admit, Weismuller's Tarzan created quite an impression in the cultural consciousness. So, since I haven't read the books, I don't know how Burroughs portrayed Jane, but I would imagine in not the most flattering of ways--a lot of cowering, crying, and "Oh, Tarzan, help me!" So it was rather exciting to see a book about Jane which both told the Tarzan story from her perspective and was also written by a woman. Even better, the novel is authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, meaning the author couldn't just slap something together and call it a story of Jane.

In 1905, intelligent, headstrong, adventurous Jane Porter is a fish out of water at the University of Cambridge, not to mention an unabashed 'old maid'. Happiest when she's at her father's side, studying anatomy and dissecting corpses, she's the only female student at Cambridge's medical program as well as a budding paleoanthropologist. She idolizes female explorers such as Mary Kingsley and yearns to one day prove Darwin's theory that the human race came out of Africa. So when an American adventurer named Ral Conrath invites her and her father to join his expedition to West Africa, she naturally jumps at the chance. When they reach that 'Dark Continent' and begin their trek into its interior, it's just as marvelous and exotic as Jane had imagined. Mother Africa's jungles also hide dark secrets... and so does Ral Conrath. When Jane and her father find themselves in peril, Jane discovers the one thing which will turn her entire world upside-down: Tarzan of the Apes.

This is not an adventure novel. This is a romance novel with some adventure sprinkled in, and those adventures, except for the last act, come in between a lot of discourse: Jane reminiscing about her life in England, Jane narrating her travels in Africa, Jane and Tarzan discovering Tarzan's past. It's only in the last third of the book that we stop reflecting on the past and concentrate on "here and now" actions. The amount of reminiscent narration might be difficult for some, especially those who are anticipating a pure adventure novel mirroring the original Tarzan novels. However, I found the background stories just as interesting as the main one and didn't have a problem with the lack of "non-stop" action.

What I did have a problem with was the third act reveal, the big denouement that all the previous archaeological and anthropological discoveries had been leading up to. I'll be honest, when I saw a YouTube video of Maxwell speaking about this book and her inclusion of the "Missing Link" as a plot point, I rolled my eyes. Then, as I read, I discovered it actually worked; after all, it's not like the story of Tarzan is super-realistic, so why not included a living missing link? I eventually got on board with it. But I could not swallow the finale. ***SPOILER AHEAD--READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!***Basically, Maxwell writes about an ancient Egyptian wonder, buried within the depths of a volcano, accessible through a crude yet abundant gold mine. This wonder, a three-thousand-room ancient Egyptian labyrinth, was supposedly visited by Herodotus and written about in his Histories. As they move through the cave, they see frescoes and murals of amazing complexity, of celestial bodies, the moon in its phases, the planets of the solar system, of geological features both native to Africa and foreign such as arctic wastes and snowy peaks, not to mention a map which looks amazingly modern. That alone is, well, laughable; the Egyptians were an amazing race of people, able to create and do many, many things. But arctic explorers? Diviners of celestial phenomenon thousands of years before we had the ability to see that far into space? Um... no. But that's not all; this "New Egypt" in West Africa also contains a library which equals, if not excels, the library at Alexandria. Oh, yeah, and a dissection laboratory, with knives and probes, and an image painted on the wall of a Caucasian man, his skin flayed, his torso opened, with his muscles and organs depicted perfectly. Good grief! Did they also discover penicillin and the DNA sequence and the cure for polio and mumps as well?***END SPOILER*** It was just too ridiculous, too over-the-top. It was as if Maxwell suddenly channeled H. Rider Haggard for the last act, which would've been fine, actually, and quite in the spirit of Burrough's original novels. But it wasn't in the spirit or tone of the novel Maxwell had written up to that point. Up 'til then, Jane was quite grounded, relatively speaking, giving a nice reality to the story and character of Jane Porter. To me, the third act just felt like a huge stumble.

Until that stumble, I was quite impressed with Maxwell's writing. When I got the book, I opened it up to the first page, just to glance at it before putting the book down to be read at a later date. I never put it down; instead, I kept on reading... and reading. The writing caught my attention immediately. Jane Porter is a fun and interesting character; yes, she's a modern woman, which may ordinarily be out of place in an historical romance, but here it's just fine. The early 20th century was all about the modern woman, so Jane's ambitions and character traits aren't at all unusual. The prose is dynamic, with action and drama scenes both having a real sense of depth and emotion; the dialogue is compelling, though it does tend to get a bit overdone in Ral Conrath's case, as if to really point up the fact that, when he does show himself to be the villain of the novel, we know absolutely that he's "The Villain." I think what Maxwell did best was show the evolution of Jane; even though she considered herself an independent woman, out in the jungle she realized just how sheltered she'd been. Watching her grow in both physical and mental strength, seeing her conquer her fears and doubts, not to mention those prejudices and assumptions which had been ingrained in her was, I think, the true force of the novel. Yeah, the romance which developed between her and Tarzan was compelling, but not as much as Jane's maturation as a person.

It may sound weird, but I really enjoyed the part of the story when Jane, who is injured when she first meets Tarzan and is rescued by him, questions how her bodily functions were taken care of during her unconsciousness, and recognizes how Tarzan took care of them while caring for her. It's kind of a gross subject, sure, but one that's nearly always glossed over in fiction, even though it's a normal human behavior. That Maxwell included it is rather brave of her, I thought.

The story is book-ended by the appearance of Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. When we first see Jane, it's through Edgar's eyes as he watches her give a lecture on the missing link she found during her African adventure. When he, rather fan-boy-like, introduces himself to her and asks to hear her story, Jane begins to tell it both to him and to us. At the end of the story, we come back to Edgar as he ponders what he heard. Jane gives him permission to tell her story in whatever way he sees fit, giving Maxwell the out she needed in order to have "her" Jane do things differently from "Edgar's" Jane. As the novel wraps up, Edgar is already reweaving Jane's tale into the Tarzan books with which history is familiar, which ties both versions together neatly.

In the end, up until the last act, I truly enjoyed the novel. I felt it kept the spirit of the original (as far as I could tell) while infusing it with a breath of fresh air. If that climax just hadn't been quite so eye-rolling....

Read from July 31-August 10, 2012
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program August 12, 2012

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