Catherine Gilbert Murdock,
Wisdom's Kiss
(Houghton Mifflin, 2011)

I enjoyed the strong, confident narration of Princess Ben, so I was eager to give Catherine Gilbert Murdock's newest book a try. Wisdom's Kiss is a fantasy set in the same world, but with a very untraditional format: eight different perspectives that include encyclopedia entries, a play, letters and diaries. (If you ever wondered what a letter game on caffeine would look like, this is it.) Each source has a very distinct style. Together, they tell the story of three people: Princess Wisdom of Montagne, the orphan girl Fortitude (also known as Trudy) and her childhood friend Tips.

As the book opens, the queen mother and her granddaughter Princess Wisdom (known as Dizzy) are on their way to meet Dizzy's intended bridegroom in the Duchy of Froglock. What they hadn't counted on: a dastardly duchess, an obnoxious little terrier, food poisoning, love at first sight, magic and the importance of a most unusual cat named Escoffier.

It's all very witty and fun for the first 50 pages or so. Readers are plunged straight into a well-developed world, and the variety of voices -- from Dizzy's breathless stream-of-consciousness diary to Felis el Gato's self-absorbed memoir ("Written in his own hand, all truths verified, all boasts real") -- make it easy to keep flipping the pages.

Then things started to get a bit old. Behind all this dazzling word play, there wasn't actually that much plot (most events are repeated from several different perspectives, so there's more backtracking than new development). Halfway through, I realized that I didn't give a fig about any of the characters because their brief, interrupted accounts didn't leave much room for empathy: Dizzy, who might as well be called Ditzy, is actively unlikable, Trudy is kind-hearted but a little pathetic, and even the cat doesn't turn out to play as much of a role as I had hoped.

In short, style wins out over substance, and for all its cleverness, the book doesn't really work for me. Wisdom's Kiss gives the impression of being a slightly self-indulgent writer's experiment. It's fun in small doses and plenty readable, but beneath the cleverness and tongue-in-cheek references, I wanted a real story and characters I could root for.

Murdock is clearly a nimble and capable writer with an affinity for turning fairy tales and their endings upside down, but Wisdom's Kiss is not one of her better books.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

1 October 2011

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