Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan

Title: Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan
Published by: Penguin Group, USA
Published on: April 26, 2012
Page Count: 256
Genre: Fiction - Historical and Biographical
Available formats: Hardcover, audiobook and Kindle ebook editions
My reading format: Advanced reading copy for Kindle Fire from Netgalley

My Review:

This story takes place over a few months at the end of 1916 when Anne Sullivan is ill with what is supposed to be tuberculosis and must have someone else come in to assist Helen Keller with her travels, speaking engagements, correspondence and daily activities. That someone is the dashing Peter Fagan, a friend and former coworker of Anne's estranged husband. Almost immediately upon meeting Peter, Helen feels something she's never felt before: a strong, electric feeling for a man. She's attracted to him and can think of nothing else but how to be alone with him. He falls in love with her as well (or does he?), though Sultan paints Peter as suspicious character right from the start. That feeling never goes away throughout the book as Helen and Peter make plans to elope, escaping Anne and Helen's mother's watchful eyes. In the book's afterword, Sultan says that Keller never publicly acknowledged the affair and letters between the two were lost in a fire. Sultan did use existing books, newspaper articles, photographs, other archived letters and her own imagination to recreate the love affair between Peter and Helen. 

I have to say that I struggled with this book. This is not a reflection on Sultan's writing style, which I liked, or her ability to craft a story, which she did very well. The struggles, I think, were my own personal hang-ups. I studied Helen Keller in elementary school and remember watching The Miracle Worker with my class (who can forget Anne and Helen in the dining room scene?). Certainly for anyone with a disability or perfectly able-bodied, she is an inspiration. Everyone loves what she overcame despite not being able to see or hear. Helen Keller was able to learn enough to attend college, write books and speak to groups around the country. She didn't let obstacles stand in her way. She just hurdled them. (By the way, Anne Sullivan must have just been an incredible teacher.) During a time when women didn't typically stand in the spotlight, Helen Keller did and did it well.

Which brings me to what I didn't like. I didn't LOVE Helen as a character in this book like I expected to, and like I thought I should, even upon finishing the book (I won't give away the ending). I have always thought of Helen Keller as being so focused, so capable. Yet in this book Sultan paints a different picture of a Helen Keller: she is easily swayed and distracted by the possibility of love, unable to manage her own finances (even with assistance) and nearing the brink of bankruptcy, and unable to keep her surroundings in good working order as her home slips into disrepair. It was frustrating to me as a reader to learn of this side of Helen. I guess I wanted her private life to be as accomplished as her public one. And, for a woman so smart and accomplished, I just didn't like how her relationship with Peter led her to have questionable judgment in all areas of her life. Was it because she had little to no experience is romantic relationships prior to meeting Peter? Was it because she desired so much to be loved on that level? Was it because she felt the need to rebel against the rigidity of life with Anne and her mother?

However, I will say that as frustrated as I was with Helen, our heroine, I was turning the pages of this book just as fast as I could. Sultan's storytelling has lovely description and the right amount of anticipation to plow readers right to the dramatic last page of this story.

Four out of five stars. 

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