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BOOK REVIEW

'The Bride's Farewell' by Meg Rosoff

The story of a headstrong, independent woman in 19th century England.

September 06, 2009|Donna Seaman

Meg Rosoff, a London-based American, writes harrowing, psychologically complex novels for young adults. In "How I Live Now," 15-year-old Daisy leaves the United States for England to spend the summer with her cousin, and ends up on a perilous journey in the midst of war. An international bestseller, it was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and took the Printz Award and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. "Just in Case" and "What I Was" are intense enough to crossover as books that galvanize teens and adults. The same holds true for her compulsively readable new novel "The Bride's Farewell."

Pell Ridley, 15, is a natural-born horsewoman. Everyone assumes that she will marry Birdie Finch, her neighbor in Nomansland, the smothering little village they call home in mid-19th century England. Birdie is a blacksmith and Pell will be a great help to him. Pressured to agree to the match, Pell is actually dead-set against marriage: "Toil and hardship and a clamor of mouths to feed? Not now, Pell thought, not ever." Look what it has done to her mother. Married to a mean drunk, she's given birth to nine children while living hungry and cramped in a mud hovel. Pell pitilessly describes her mother as "worn and shapeless with a leaking bladder," and fears she'll end up the same way. So just before dawn on her wedding day, Pell sneaks out, leaps on her horse, Jack, and is about to steal away when quiet, stubborn Bean, her youngest brother, appears. Jack easily carries them both.

Pell's plan is to ride to the horse fair at Salisbury, where she hopes to find work. So the children make the long journey, sleeping wherever they can find a bit of shelter until they join the jostling crowd of horses, wagons and people streaming into town. What a sensuously complex and menacing scene Rosoff conjures, from the taunts of leering men to the "river of blood" flowing from the roadside slaughter of animals to the fires burning at each encampment in the vast gathering. Desperate for a job, Pell finally impresses a man with her keen horse sense. She also wonders about the identity of a far more enigmatic stranger whom she dubs Dogman because he is accompanied by two attentive hounds. They will meet again.

As in every fairy tale, the world of this novel is a harsh and monstrous place, where one's mettle is forever being tested. Malevolent forces separate Pell and Bean, and each descends into a circle of hell in a land sickened with poverty, brutality and prejudice. Crushed and appalled, Pell journeys on alone, stunned by the strange sight of the "ancient giant's ring" on the Salisbury Plain, which we know as Stonehenge, and the outline of an enormous chalk horse, mute and majestic testimony to the deep well of human consciousness contained within this old, secretive land.

Pell is a marvel -- smart and resilient, noble and brave. After sustaining terrible losses, she stumbles into an outlaw romance. The book's ending feels rushed, but that's because we want more of this wrenching, picaresque tale and its slashing critique of cruelty and injustice. Rosoff's prose is strong and muscular, its cadence that of a horse's canter, its chiming tone ballad-like. Teens will be enthralled by Pell and her archetypal quest; adults will revel in the novel's canny wit, lyricism and piercing insights.

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Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and book critic for Chicago Public Radio.

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