BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Gene Wilder
Yes, this is the same Gene Wilder who played Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein. (Note to Gene Wilder: I love you and Young Frankenstein is perhaps my favorite movie ever. Thanks. You can stop reading here.) And yes, he should probably have stayed with acting rather than becoming a novelist. That’s not to say he’s a bad writer by any means. He’s just not a great novelist.
I very much enjoyed Wilder’s last book, My French Whore. It wasn’t deep literature with lasting staying power, but rather a cute, short, at times funny, period romance. The Woman Who Wouldn’t, his second novel, is a cute, short, at times funny, period romance. Both books are worth the read, and you could easily read both in one afternoon. They really are novellas–which is fine, I like novellas–so it’s hard to judge them as novels.
All told, The Woman Who Wouldn’t is a good read. It takes up 180 small pages, and is a great option for a short flight or to kill some time in the sun. It’s a mostly cheery and fun book, but forgettable. Jeremy Webb is a violinist in 1903 Cleveland. He plays in an orchestra and is quite good, but a critical review sends him into a breakdown of sorts–he dumps water down a tuba, claiming it was thirsty–and leaves for a spa in Badenweiler, Germany, to clear his head.
There he meets a beautiful, young Belgian named Clara Mulpas. He takes to her right away, though she is not as quick to warm to him. Eventually she does, they share a romance. Oh also, Clara has terminal stomach cancer.
Wilder is a good writer. His prose moves quickly and is pleasant on the eye/ear. He is, unfortunately, not as deft with plotting and characterization as he is with syntax, and often times is too blunt with the narration. Take this for instance:
I brushed away a fly that looked like it was about to land on Clara’s eyelid. What an angel face she has. I don’t want her to die. And I don’t want her to fall in love with me me on the rebound from that asshole she was married to, or out of vulnerability because of her thoughts of death and cancer. I just want her to be happy, for as many weeks or months or days that she has. The pain is going to come later, Dr. Gross said. Well, watch over her, Jeremy. But I’ll be glad when I’m healthy enough to return to my work and my home, without responsibility for Clara’s happiness.
Most of the italics (they’re his, not mine), are stuff we either know already or can very easily infer. We learn more though the first sentence about the fly than through the entire paragraph that follows it.
Perhaps the oddest inclusion in this book is the companionship Webb finds in Anton Chekhov. Chekhov stayed in Baldenweiler in 1904–he suffered tuberculosis–so Wilder clearly chose his setting in order to include him. His Chekhov is an interesting character, even if he doesn’t bring much to the table. He more or less works as a foil, or an author-imposed external conscience, for Webb. He helps Jeremy get over the damage to his ego and seek emotionality for his work. It’s not an altogether a bad thing, but feels a little shallow for the size and scope of the book. That is, rather than an interesting plot mechanic, it feels here like a semi-formulaic plot crutch, and a period-piece indicator.
I really do like this book (as I do My French Whore, for similar reasons), and happily recommend it. But it must be approached for what it is. These books are nice little diversions, light fare for a quick and pleasant read. If you see them on a shelf at a bookstore or library, pick them up and give them a shot. But if they pass you by, you’ll survive just fine.
Similar Reads: My French Whore (Wilder)