Details:(c) Sara Maitland 1999; Pub Virago Press 2000; ISBN 1-86049-759-4
Verdict: Very mixed; has moments, but fails as a whole
Reasons for reading it: I have a good friend who enthuses about Maitland, and on her recommendation I've read a few of Maitland's short stories, which I liked enough to be prepared to try a novel.
How it came into my hands: The library
I read this in a mood of a craving hunger for text, a mood in which I'm liable to overlook the flaws of anything that I can read. Yet I felt very unsatisfied by Brittle Joys.
Brittle Joys strikes me as not really having enough substance to hold it together. The emotions are very convincing, particularly the guilt at feeling 'inappropriate' emotions, but they seem somehow attached to unreal characters. The story meanders rather, and its emphasis feels wrong; the important events (the heroine's divorce, the resolution of her relationship with her apprentice etc) are glossed over or omitted altogether (there is absolutely no discussion of how Héloïse came to marry Henry in the first place, or how she converted to Catholicism). On the other hand, trivial details are overemphasised to the point of being tedious.
The flights into 'poetry' seem forced and pretentious rather than lyrical, and I absolutely hated the angel storyline. Brittle Joys seems to be sitting on the fence between realism and fantasy, and I think this is a lot of the reason why it doesn't work too well. There are some interesting ideas about how a person might experience an angel, but they're never really developed properly, and that plotline tips over rather too often into soppy romanticism.
Relationship clichés are still clichés if the people having the relationship happen to be of the same gender. And while Héloïse is mostly reasonably well drawn, most of the other characters are real stock types: the gay men follow an utterly predictable spectrum of camp through impeccably well-mannered, and having a random American Jewish lesbian called Judith Davidson who plays no rôle in the story beyond being a stereotype is a bit much.
One thing I did like about Brittle Joys is the way it portrays religion as force in the heroine's life in a way that rings true. She is neither a saint nor a rebel; she understands what it is to move in a society where Christianity is at best unglamorous compared to more exotic 'ethnic' religions, and often despised.
Some of the strongest elements in Brittle Joys apart from that were spoiled for me because they were too close to themes that Maitland has expanded in her short stories. I don't have a problem with her reworking themes, but the fact I'd encountered them before spoilt my enjoyment of them. On the basis of this sample I'm inclined to conclude that the short story may be more Maitland's forté than the novel.