Today’s second team review is from Noelle, she blogs at http://saylingaway.wordpress.com
Noelle has been reading The Strangely Surreal Adventures of Sylvia Smetana by Meira Eliot
I will freely confess it took me a while to finish this book. Life got in the way and I had to go back and reread a goodly portion of it, because the story jumps around.
It begins in medieval Prague, now the capitol of the Czech Republic, and a city I know well having lived there for more than a year. The author asks, “What is life?” and then describes a barber, bored with his profession, who leaves his wife and children to follow the perceived enchanted life of a traveling scholar and alchemist. He carries with him a green stone of moldovite, the only gem not of this earth, but from a meteorite. When he returns to Prague after many fruitless years, he finds his wife dead and his daughters working in a brothel and realizes he had squandered a good life.
This is the prospect facing the main character in this book, Sylvia Smetana, a likeable middle-aged teacher at Our Lady of Ransom’s private school for girls, where she teaches religious studies. She was more or less contented with her life until she traveled to Prague with her mother Svetlana, a Czech ex-pat who has lived in England since the 1950s. Svetlana gives her daughter a ring of moldovite, and from that time, Sylvia feels a psychic draw to Prague, to which she escapes as often as possible, and she begins to observe and question the lives of ambition populating the school.
The book is part scathingly funny description of the school’s hierarchy and the lengths to which the members of the administration will go to advance. The author has clearly had experience with the machinations of academia, and her sarcastic views tickled my funny bone, since I’m a long time academic. She takes the concepts of head hunting, steering committees and thinking outside the box to new heights of ridiculousness, and I loved these parts of the book.
I also enjoyed the author’s colorful descriptions of Prague and the many sites I know so well. It was a trip down memory lane for me and her affection for the city comes through loud and clear. I, too, would love to return again and again.
One problem I had with the book was the changing points of view. The story jumped from Sylvia to her mother to the parent of a prospective student and to another faculty member who is having a nervous breakdown and back again. I found the transitions jarring and occasionally perplexing. There are also digressions to the history of John Dee, English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and his links to Prague, specifically to Thaddeus Hajek. Hajek was the personal physician of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and a Bohemian astronomer. I see these digressions as part of the Sylva’s growing desire to nurture her inner life, and the book concludes with wandering thoughts on love and trust, the finding of self, and the creation of our lives through experience.
I give this book four stars, largely based on its characters and humor, which makes it well worth reading.