I finished reading Mary Novik's novel yesterday. Conceit is a strange and wonderful story based on the life Pegge Donne, the daughter of John Donne. It is set in 17th century England, which seems strange and familiar by turn. Real people and places are brought to life as ordinary and extraordinary figures. In the middle of it all, we see Pegge growing up from little girl to grandmother, all the while craving the legendary passion that was shared by her parents and memorialized in her father's poetry.
In between chapters I re-read some of John Donne's poetry and was reminded about how beautiful and also difficult it is. Mary Novik portrays John Donne as a difficult man to know. After his wife's death (in childbirth with their 12th baby), he raised 7 surviving children alone. As a widower, he was appointed Dean of St. Paul's church in London. In his new role, he did his best to suppress the embarrassing revelations of his love poetry. Pegge survives the pox, and cares for her father in his final days, all the while burning with curiosity and longing for a grand passion.
Nature, 17th century English society, art, architecture, religion, upper class home life, life at court, politics, science, medicine and cooking are all woven into the story. I saw Mary Novik read from her book at Word on the Street Last week. One member of the audience asked to what extent she went to ensure the accuracy of the details of everyday life. She answered, "This is my 17th century." She talked about visiting the places in the novel as part of her research, and how the dramatic and pivotal opening scene of the novel came to her when she visited St. Paul's. While I'm no expert, the details feel authentic, and definitely serve to advance the narrative.
I enjoyed the richness of this novel's setting and details, the complexity of its characters and the idea of a life spent in fierce pursuit of a connection that would consume all else. Pegge is a fascinating character. Her thoughts and actions in the story made me think about the things we try to hide about ourselves, even from the people who know and love us best. I also thought about the juxtaposition of reverence and resentment in public and private relationships, and about the idea of how we think about ourselves and who we will be after we die. In all of our lives, no matter where our minds take us in speculation about immortality, there is a strong force pulling us back to what is real, alive, today. For me, Conceit asked me to look at that force from a new perspective. I'm glad I did.