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Poor Things [Paperback]

Alasdair Gray
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 17 2002 British Literature

One of Alasdair Gray's most brilliant creations, Poor Things is a postmodern revision of Frankenstein that replaces the traditional monster with Bella Baxter--a beautiful young erotomaniac brought back to life with the brain of an infant. Godwin Baxter's scientific ambition to create the perfect companion is realized when he finds the drowned body of Bella, but his dream is thwarted by Dr. Archibald McCandless's jealous love for Baxter's creation. The hilarious tale of love and scandal that ensues would be "the whole story" in the hands of a lesser author (which in fact it is, for this account is actually written by Dr. McCandless). For Gray, though, this is only half the story, after which Bella (a.k.a. Victoria McCandless) has her own say in the matter. Satirizing the classic Victorian novel, Poor Things is a hilarious political allegory and a thought-provoking duel between the desires of men and the independence of women, from one of Scotland's most accomplished authors.


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From Amazon

The full title of this work, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer, reflect a bit of wacky genius at work here. Someone named Alasdair Gray has found a memoir supposedly of a 19th-century public health officer in Glasgow. The truth of the memoir is suspect, nevertheless Gray manages to change it and then lose it. And that's just the backdrop. Inside the memoir is the story of McCandless, an acquaintance named Godwyn Bysshe Baxter who takes a suicide victim, gives her the brain of her unborn child to create a promiscuous and brutal girlfriend. The book, which won the 1992 Guardian Fiction Prize, takes off from there. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Winner of the 1992 Whitbread Prize, Scottish writer Gray's ( Something Leather ) black comedy uses a science-fiction-like premise to satirize Victorian morals. Ostensibly the memoirs of late-19th-century Glasgow physician Archibald McCandless, the narrative follows the bizarre life of oversexed, volatile Bella Baxter, an emancipated woman and a female Frankenstein. Bella is not her real name; as Victorian Blessington, she drowned herself to escape her abusive husband, but a surgeon removed the brain from the fetus she was carrying and placed it in her skull, resucitating her. The revived Bella has the mental age of a child. Engaged to marry McCandless, she chloroforms him and runs off with a shady lawyer who takes her on a whirlwind adventure, hopping from Alexandria to Odessa to a Parisian brothel. As her brain matures, Bella develops a social conscience, but her rescheduled nuptials to Archie are cut short when she is recognized as Victoria by her lawful husband, Gen. Sir Aubrey Blessington. In an epilogue dated 1914, cranky idealist Victoria McCandless, M.D., a suffragette, Fabian socialist, pacifist and advocate of birthing stools, pokes holes in her late husband Archie's narrative. Illustrated with Gray's suitably macabre drawings, this work of inspired lunacy effectively skewers class snobbery, British imperialism, prudishness and the tenets of received wisdom. Author tour.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book Oct. 22 2002
By Blaid
Format:Paperback
I just finished the book a few hours ago and it's the best book I've read in a while. "Poor Things" is the story of a lonely doctor, Godwin, who reanimates a beautiful woman's body who commited suicide (in a unique Frankenstein-esque fashion). Godwin's creation was meant to be for his own selfish desire but like every Frankenstein story it goes horribly awry. The books goes into detail bringing you into points of view from every character, not letting you forgot what happened, and using excellent foreshadowing. Make sure you read the extra writings at the end of the book to get the full impact of Alisdair Gray's skills.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eccentric alternate history/fantasy Jan. 26 2003
By Glen Engel Cox - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I make it my job to read some pretty weird books--as an aficionado of science fiction and fantasy, I sometimes run into some doozies-- but this novel by Gray has to be one of the strangest that I've run into recently. The fact that this novel was not published in the genre, and won a couple of mainstream awards makes me wonder what else I'm missing in the "mundane" fiction shelves.
Poor Things is supposedly non-fiction, as illustrated by its full title on the title page: "Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, Edited by Alasdair Gray." But this is all part of its mystique. Gray has constructed a literary puzzle, a Frankenstein's monster of a book that takes its inspiration from that novel by Mary Shelley as well as the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells. McCandless is the titular biographer, but the story is actually that of the eccentric Scottish doctor Godwin Baxter and his "creation," Bella Baxter, later known as Dr. Victoria McCandless. Set in Glasgow in the 1880s, the plot entails how McCandless met Baxter, how he then met Baxter's protege Bella and fell in love with her, her subsequent departure, and the circumstances of her return. To reveal any more would be to dilute the heavy stuff of the novel's innovative twists.
If Gray were writing with the Fantasy label stuck on the spine of his books, I would have termed this one a "steampunk" novel for its revisionist look at medicine and technology in a pre-auto world. Fans of Tim Powers and James Blaylock should definitely check this one out.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book Oct. 22 2002
By Blaid - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I just finished the book a few hours ago and it's the best book I've read in a while. "Poor Things" is the story of a lonely doctor, Godwin, who reanimates a beautiful woman's body who commited suicide (in a unique Frankenstein-esque fashion). Godwin's creation was meant to be for his own selfish desire but like every Frankenstein story it goes horribly awry. The books goes into detail bringing you into points of view from every character, not letting you forgot what happened, and using excellent foreshadowing. Make sure you read the extra writings at the end of the book to get the full impact of Alisdair Gray's skills.
12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Merchant Ivory Gone Wrong - Poor Things by Alasdair Gray April 29 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
'Poor Things' is the perfect example of how Gray understands the power of the medium he works in. Just as two poets could destroy the Eastern Empire in 'Unlikely Stories, Mostly', Gray playfully toys with the reader's perception of reality and truth and how it is influenced by the media. Rather than being the author of Poor Things, Gray purports to be merely an editor, who has discovered a manuscript and letter, which he presents for the reader's examination. His personae in this instance implies that the novel has been 'received' rather than 'created'. This lends the rather bizarre proceedings a strange air of credibility, and stops the reader pondering over the likelihood of some of the more extraordinary events occurring. For example, Baxter's "skeely, skeely fingers" performing the "skilfully manipulated resurrection" of a young woman is the stuff of fairy tales, but due to Gray's web of fibs, it is understood as a rational medical discovery rather than a magical act. The main body of the book is presented as a first-person narrative, written by one Archibald McCandless. In it, he describes how an eccentric friend creates a woman from a dead body, in the manner of Baron Frankenstein. However, a letter accompanying the narrative (according to Gray) states that it is little more than a pack of lies. The letter has been written by the very woman who the narrative covered. On top of this confusion, Gray has annotated and analysed the text, and professes to believe the original narrative as true. In this fashion, the novel is as 'stitched together' as Bella herself, every 'fact' seems to be contradicted later, true history is marred by pure fiction, almost making it impossible to separate truth from falsehood. From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is confronted by colliding facts, and must make a choice as to who he or she believes: Archibald or Victoria. Because the choice has to be made between the two characters, Gray's own 'facts' are never brought into doubt. Even the erratum slip in the endpapers adds unnecessary confusion to the proceedings, stating: "The etching on page 187 does not portray Professor Jean Martin Charcot, but Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac." Apart from the fact that the accuracy of this one etching has little if no effect on the reader's perception of the novel, Gray has once again abused the power that has been vested in him by creating unnecessary confusion. If Gray himself was responsible for the illustrations, would he choose to draw the wrong character deliberately, or would he draw the correct one but deliberately try to mislead the readers with an erratum slip? Alternatively, is the etching of someone completely different (i.e. neither Charcot or Count Robert)? Whatever the identity of the etched man, to mislead the reader in this way would be entirely pointless. Therefore, the only rational answer is that the illustrations were done by William Strang and Gray is indeed only the editor. In this fashion, Gray leads the reader to ridiculous conclusions throughout the novel. Another example of this trickery can be found in the medical terminology used within the novel. When describing Bella being shot in the foot by Blessington, McCandless states that the bullet had punctured "the integument between the ulna and radius of the second and third metacarpals". However, Bella, in her letter, describes this terminology as "blethers, havers, claptrap, gibberish, gobbledegook" and then describes the actual wound as "puncturing the tendon of the oblique head of adductor hallucis between the great and index proximal phalanges without chipping a bone". Unless the reader is aware of medical terms for various parts of the foot, neither sentence makes more sense than the other. Gray is fully aware of the power of the written word, as if he had not brought the statement into question, the great majority of his readers would have accepted it as a sound medical analysis. However, as he takes on the persona of the editor, he has put himself into a position to make the reader aware of this power. In a similar way to the etching, the accuracy of the medical description has no bearing on the novel, but is Gray's way of making the point that what is written cannot be assumed to be fact. Although this may seem rather obvious, if I personally looked back over the multitude of books that I have read, there must have been countless occasions of me blindly accepting a similar statement without a second thought. In this way, Gray has used his persona as editor to provoke thought and contemplation in the reader over the book that they have just read. What better way could Gray have found for his piece of writing to have a lasting effect on its reader? Once again, Gray has hidden the key to the entire novel in the epilogue, on this occasion on pages 274-5 of Victoria's letter. The sentence reads: "If you ignore what contradicts common sense and this letter you will find that this book records some actual events during a dismal era... it is as sham-gothic as the Scott Monument". Gray fully realises that his novel is fantastical and the period in which it is set is outwith his own experience. However, Poor Things is the kind of novel which, when read for a second time, offers the reader a whole new perspective on the goings-on and Gray is actively encouraging his readership to do this. By printing the book in a certain order, each section offers a new perspective on the previous ones, encouraging re-reading.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly executed. Fragmented and chaotic. Aug. 25 1998
By Richard Harrow - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Mr. Toad's wild ride. A schizophrenic yet accurate and relevant romp through the nineteenth century. A fantastic concoction of comedy and human drama through a unique revisioning of Mary Shelley.
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, but lacks the "punch" of Gray's others April 28 2013
By Lance - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed Poor Things very much. Alasdair Gray has a great skill for writing from/for the female perspective. His recurrent theme of women's independence can be seen in both Lanark and 1982, Janine; both of which are better books than this one. But I shouldn't hold Gray's prolificness against this book, so it still gets 4 stars. Fans of Gray will enjoy this novel, but I wouldn't recommend this to first-time Gray readers. Sure, it's not as weird* as the other two books I named, and in that regard might be a bit more accessible to some, but more importantly it lacks the power of those two books (Lanark and 1982, Janine).

What we have here is another excellent book by one of the greatest living authors. It's good to see this book winning some awards and getting Gray (some of) the recognition he deserves.

*this book is still pretty weird.
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