I heard about this book, through the publishing grapevine, long before it was ever released, and made a mental note at the time that I would want to read it. My anticipation was based on knowing that the novel dealt with the life of one of my favourite writers, seventeenth-century love poet and priest John Donne, and his romance with his wife Ann. When the book finally came out and was long-listed for the Giller prize, I was confident enough to do something I rarely do — throw down the money to buy a hardcover copy before even reading it.
I’m not going to say I regret the decision, because Conceit is a beautifully written and intriguing book, but I will admit it was not as engrossing as I’d hoped. Primarily, it’s the story of Donne’s daughter Pegge and her lifelong obsession with her father’s memory. Pegge seeks to uncover the truth of the passionate love between John and Ann Donne — a story Donne tried to downplay by rewriting his own history after he became a clergyman. He attempted to suppress the passionate and erotic love poetry which had made him famous in his earlier life; Pegge believes that in doing this he also silences her dead mother and denies the reality of the love they once shared.
There’s no doubt that Conceit is richly and gorgeously written; Novik’s love affair with the language attempts to capture a little of Donne’s own great romance with words, and comes close. Her portrayal of Donne himself, especially in his dying days, is harsh and far from flattering. My favourite portions of the book were those told from Ann’s posthumous point of view. The book’s greatest weakness, for me, was Pegge as the central character. Although the author invites us intimately into Pegge’s point of view, sharing her thoughts, emotions and sensations, I still found Pegge an elusive character. It was hard for me to grasp her motives, or why she allowed her fascination with her dead parents’ great romance to overshadow her marriage to a real, affectionate, flesh-and-blood man.
Perhaps all I can say is that, in the end, Conceit wasn’t the novel I was hoping to read about John and Ann Donne. That doesn’t mean it’s not a beautifully-written, well-crafted novel, and I’m sure many readers will find Pegge a far more compelling main character than I found her to be. It’s possible I brought too many expectations to this novel, and was disappointed when they weren’t fulfilled. If you come to it with an open mind, you may be delighted.