Title: Or What You Will
Author: Jo Walton
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Summary: Sylvia Harrison is a bestselling author nearing the end of her life. After her husband’s death, she travels to Firenze, Italy to write her final novel. Traveling with her is our unnamed narrator, a being who has been Sylvia’s companion for countless years. He fears her death, but knows of a way for them to live forever. He just has to convince her to do it.
As a writer who has had countless discussions with the people in her head, I was immediately drawn to this book. I was also intrigued because it involved possibly entering one’s own made up world. Having created many, I have spent years wondering what it would be like to do so. I thought this book would be fascinating and provide much food for thought on all this. Indeed it kept me thoughtful, but also left me wanting.
The Plot: A Book of Two Stories
This is really two very different, very intertwined stories. One involves the life of Sylvia Harrison as told by the unnamed Narrator as well as the Narrator’s own story. The other is Sylvia’s final novel. It was fascinating to read, woven into the Illyria novel Sylvia is writing, the Narrator’s comments and tangents as well as the conversations he and Sylvia had.
The Illyria story is a follow-up to a trilogy of books the reader is not privy to as they were written early in Sylvia’s career. It was based on Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, but no prior knowledge of the play was necessary. I certainly didn’t have any problems keeping up with it, but I suppose it might have had more meaning if I had been familiar with it. At first, I thought it was utterly fascinating and I couldn’t wait to get to know the characters and their predicaments better, but, as it went on, it seemed to stall and stick on one problem before it was very quickly resolved with very little drama. It was odd, kind of like a first draft, which I suppose it might have been, but it was weird getting a deeply flawed story woven though a professionally published book. It somehow made the story of Sylvia and the Narrator more interesting, though I did really enjoy the Illyria story. The most annoying thing, though, was that it was a follow-up to the trilogy, so it’s impossible for the reader to know what was going on in that world, but the actual author went full steam ahead, so the bits and pieces recalling what had happened before felt like ill-fitting puzzle pieces and out of place and only there because the reader literally has no idea what those books contained.
The story of Sylvia and the Narrator, though, was quite amazing. I really enjoyed getting her life story from someone who was and wasn’t a part of her. Their conversations were fascinating as it came from a place of deep familiarity and friendship even though the Narrator wasn’t a real person. It was somehow both a story of their relationship and of the ramblings around the Narrator has done in Sylvia’s head. It felt like he was sitting there, quite at ease, telling her and their stories with candor, respect, and love. I absolutely loved it. I do have to admit that it was a little hard to get into at first, especially since the Narrator seemed quite intent on telling some historical stories that were amusing, but still frustrating, for a couple of chapters, and then it just glided right into the Illyria story. I think. Still, I thought it was fascinating and thought-provoking and clearly dealt with the ideas of death and life after death and immortality.
Overall, this was actually a splendidly done story, though the end did leave me wanting a little. It was fun, but gave me so much to think about, as well as a good history lesson! The two stories wove together almost flawlessly and I loved how they crossed back and forth.
The Characters: A Fascinating Mixed Bag
I really liked Sylvia, even though we only get to know her through the eyes of the Narrator. She clearly had a difficult life and love was hard to come by (warning: domestic abuse and violence). Still, she persevered and found strength and found her own ways to recover, though it did impact the rest of her life. I liked that she wasn’t perfect, that the Narrator didn’t make her seem so. It made her feel fully human. The only thing that bothered me was that the reader has no real sense of her beyond what the Narrator tells, so the reader is not privy to her thought processes and decision making, so the choice she made at the end of the book felt very abrupt and kind of from left field, almost as though it was just time for the whole book to be finished.
The Narrator was the most intriguing character. I put myself in knots trying to figure out exactly what he was, but I think the point was that he simply did exist and was something special to Sylvia. I didn’t get the feeling that the reader was supposed to know who, exactly, he was, or what, and it somehow made him feel kind of real. I loved trying to figure out whether he was a figment of her imagination or her creativity personified, or maybe she had schizophrenia or split personality. Honestly, the last two intrigued me, but I had a better sense that it might have been the first two, or none of them. What really stole my heart, though, was that the conversations he had with Sylvia reminded me of the ones I have had with my own characters. He was so honest, with the reader, and felt so fully formed. It was amazing.
The one disappointing thing about how wonderfully crafted Sylvia and the Narrator were was that it made Sylvia’s Illyria characters feel flat and kind of boring. None of them were particularly compelling. They each had their own role to play, and simply played it. Upon introduction, they were interesting, but then didn’t progress much past that. None of them were particularly well explored, or really given room to explore anything except the concept of death in Illyria. Perhaps it’s because there’s a whole trilogy that predates the present story and a whole lot of development occurred in them, but then that doesn’t really seem fair considering the reader has no concept of those books as they don’t actually exist.
Overall, the characters were something of a mixed bag, but then I also can’t figure out who were the main characters. It was a fascinating dilemma for my brain, and I still find myself ruminating on it.
The Setting: Quite Italian
I adore Italy, so I was quite happy to learn much of the book took place in Firenze and the fictional version of Firenze, Illyria. As they were basically the same setting, the world building seemed quite simple, but still deep and interesting. I loved getting to know present day Firenze and the Firenze that may have existed during the Renaissance.
Present day Firenze served as a springboard for Illyria. It felt much like the research an author would do for stories set in real life places. It was fun to follow Sylvia around Italy as she did her research, especially as it took her to art museums where bits and pieces of what she saw had an impact on how Illyria was conceived and explored.
Illyria is stuck in the past, in the Renaissance specifically. It didn’t perfectly align with Firenze, and I think that’s what actually made it magical. It was like the real city, but different. There were so many of the same structures, but was still it’s own place. I think I actually found Illyria to be more interesting as more of the whole book took place in Illyria than Firenze, but it did feel like Italy and it did feel like how I imagine a place stuck in the Renaissance would be.
Overall: Magically Unexpected
This was quite an interesting book. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything like this, so I was surprised. At first, I was a little put off, but then the writing just started to flow and the stories started to flow and weave together and suddenly it was kind of magical. Until the end, which was a bit of a letdown. But everything in the middle was compelling and magical. I’m very glad I read this book. It’s given me much to think about, much to consider, and I might never look at my characters the same way again. The characters were a bit hit and miss for me, but I loved the setting and thought the stories were quite interesting, though not without their flaws. Also, the Narrator is a pretty amazing guy.
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Thank you to Netgalley and Macmillian-Tor/Forge for a free e-ARC. All opinions expressed are my own.