The story started out strong and fascinating, and Dawnay was a sharp and interesting character. I bought it on the strength of the free sample, hoping to be blown away by some amazing journey of a woman natural philosopher from an unfortunate background defying all the odds. It very nearly was, and on the whole (despite my lengthy passages below) I mostly enjoyed it – but the three stars are for the first half of the book only.
I liked the writing style, the nuances reminding me of the diaries of natural philosophers such as my hero Michael Faraday, who raised himself from poverty through his sheer passion and determination in the following century, and who, too, had a permanently enduring curiosity. The first half of the book far outshone the second, however, and I felt my interest gradually waning away after the caves and the spark of the relationship. I got through it so quickly because, apart from it being pretty short, the first half was great, and the second I was so hoping for a redemption that never came I scoured quickly.
Dawnay was practical and collected during the disaster of Lisbon’s earthquake, and also the sea voyages through the storm – the story was kept strong and I was excited for the build-up of her quest. I do like a bit of romance, and enjoy any character following their heart however socially immoral at the time. Even present tense, which is never a preference to me, didn’t bother me too much, though Dawnay did have a slightly too-adult voice even at four years old (not sure if this was some kind of allusion to a hidden genius, but that genius never sprouted in my eyes). However, the ending and its lead up was entirely too cliché for my taste - actually this one is my biggest pet hate in the whole damn world - that having a baby would suddenly cure all the ills of the character’s loneliness and mindset and suddenly ‘correct’ her thinking and behaviour. Utter tosh. Also, doesn’t fare too well against the notion that women are distractions on boats, which is an old tradition in some places. Justified? Hm.
Throughout the story it’s as if the author couldn’t quite risk the leap that maybe Dawnay is too single-minded to see outside her solid theoretical box, because this would probably make the character less inclined to follies (i.e. lusty romance). Instead there's an attempt to ply us with some kind of emotional wanting on Dawnay’s part, of which is constantly undermined due to her actual emotional bonds with all these people she meets, and so clearly doesn’t seem lacking in it. It seems making her too independent and disconnected just wouldn’t work purely because of the way the romantic arc plays out. It would have been better to rewrite the romance to something more viable than try to justify the sheer wilful ignorance an otherwise intelligent character follows – or at least have her acknowledge guilt from the start for the adultery she is helping this man to commit because she should have actually felt some (agency comes with a price, I’m afraid).
I think I wouldn’t have disliked the ending so much if she hadn’t been so damn knowingly selfish, and from her background she really shouldn't have turned out like that. Alas, no, having a baby does not make every person whole, nor does it mean that you have a better understanding of the world than if you hadn’t, which seemed to be the theme stemming form the cracks of her life at the end. Perhaps sorting her own mind out would have helped her better. If anything it made Dawnay way more insular and so everything beyond the scientific aspects of her life and that glorious time she spent truly at one with her calling failed to resonate with me because I think it was a cop-out of a climax. I didn't feel at all sorry for her circumstance, I think she deserved it and it served her arrogance better. I felt sorry for Robin's circumstance, because he wasn't thrown at us like some superior being, just a guy being ambitious, and he knew he was in a loveless marriage, we just weren't told. I felt sorry for Owen who we see for about four seconds, and Mr Applebee, whose story is not unlike her own in scandal, yet he is much less a nobber about it. Susan and Matron and all these other characters who give her everything and show her proper love (and give her money and trust), but it is never enough. I cannot like her by the end, but I feel I'm supposed to. Well, no thanks.
I think I’ll revert back to the Dawnay floating in the ocean amongst the coral reefs and leave my memory of her there.