Jo Walton, Or What You Will (2020)

Author: Jo Walton

Title: Or What You Will 

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 320

Series: –

Or What You Will, marketed as “writer’s book,” was my first Jo Walton’s novel – and I reached for it thanks to the infallible Bookforager, who is guilty of burdening my TBR with kilograms of books – just ask her, I’m sure she’ll gleefully admit to it and be proud! 😉

It’s a tough book to review, and quite tough to read, to be honest. At least at the beginning, where the writer seems so focused on actively dissuading readers from reading that at some point it became quite irking. But don’t take my word for it, just read the quote below:

“I will ask you to do nothing but read, and remember, and care. If you refuse to care? If reading this so far has made you shudder and recoil? If you have no least curiosity about that apophatic pool by the rose garden, not even whether it’s a swimming pool or a pool full of waterlilies, if you don’t want to at least glance at those books on the windowsill and scan their titles? Then you are not my reader, not any of my imagined readers. Stop now, while you are ahead. Take your embodied self off to read something else, feeling grateful for your solidity, your reality, and that of the world you inhabit, go read something you’ll enjoy more, or deal with the pipes and boilers banging and hissing in your own life, and leave the rest of us here. We will do well enough without you, I dare say.” 

That’s pretentious, arrogant, and self-indulgent, to say mildly. If you want to know how to sieve out the right readers with class, try Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; he does it in style. And I was actually quite tempted by Walton’s offer, as by this point the book amounted to nothing more but a list of historical monuments and tidbits about the history of Florence and was quickly devolving into a perfect illustration of one of the writer’s deadly sins, i.e. “I did all the research, now I’m going to cram its entirety into my novel, whether pertinent or not.”

The other deadly sin very noticeable in the opening chapters of this book is its geekiness. Or What You Will is tiresomely geeky, with countless allusions to other writers, artists, books and movies, in what is ultimately not an entirely successful attempt to create a shared frame of reference with readers. There are simply too many “badges of honor,” names thrown here and there; and this parading of the hermetic knowledge in the end amounts to nothing and doesn’t even pertain to the story at hand. 

But.

I persevered through those first few chapters, and was rewarded – and let me tell you, this doesn’t happen to me all that often lately, as you already probably know from my previous review. This time, though, the slog was worth it. Because Or What You Will finally found its legs at some point, and became quite charming indeed. It could be marketed as a tribute to Shakespeare, as one of the main storylines revolves around Shakespearean characters from The Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Walton freely uses the Italy as imagined by Shakespeare, and further reimagines it, creating a unique fantasy world. But it is also a deeply meta book, a novel about the process of writing stories, creating characters, about the fluid boundaries between the real and the imagined. You have probably already inferred that it’s also a charmingly clumsy love letter to Florence, something between a travelogue and a Lonely Planet guide; Walton seems to follow the steps of many English artists before her in finding an unending well of inspiration in Renaissance Italy and in the underlying ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Her infatuation with Florence is catching; now I really want to visit and eat Italian gelato and lazily walk through the streets, admiring all the art ;). These three threads intertwine more or less gracefully, but with boundless enthusiasm, which in the end turns out infectious. 

There is a level of sincerity in this book that I haven’t encountered in a long time; private life and thoughts mix up with total fantasy and imagined characters begin to interact with real life worries, experiences and events in a triumph of imagination. Walton is very honest with herself and her readers; while the main character, Sylvia, is a fictional one, the author imbues her with enough of her own thoughts and fears, passions and experiences that Sylvia comes to life with admirable panache and a layer of reality that’s hard to describe. And the same goes for the unnamed narrator, the spiritus movens of the plot, Sylvia’s imaginary friend who over the course of their entangled lives becomes her twin and savior. The main question is beguilingly simple and yet so difficult to answer. Is it possible to become immortal through one’s art? Horace’s famous sentiment Non Omnis Moriar forms a strong undercurrent in this novel, creating the main conflict and also bringing a strangely satisfying solution to it, adequately fantastical and optimistic.

Walton is a skillful wordsmith; after the first few hesitant chapters she finds her plot and twists and turns it admirably, clearly having lots of fun with it. It’s at times boring, at times silly and at times heartbreaking, alternately touched with tender emotion and ruthlessness, prone to digression, self-indulgence and preening, and yet sometimes it transcends its limitations and becomes strikingly apt. Or What You Will is clearly Walton’s labor of love, and while not perfect, it’s certainly unique. I’ll be reading more of her books, that’s certain.

Incidentally, the name Sylvia is of Latin origin; it means “of the woods”. In the 16th-18th century in Poland, silva rerum was a form of a family chronicle written by nobility, and as Wikipedia notes, it contained “diary-type entries on current events, memoirs, letters, political speeches, copies of legal documents, gossips, jokes and anecdotes, financial documents, economic information (price of grain, etc.), philosophical musings, poems, genealogical trees, advice (agricultural, medical, moral) for the descendants and others.” The similarities between Or What You Will and silva rerum are striking; I wonder if Walton knew this while choosing this name for her character – but even if she didn’t, the end result is wonderfully, serendipitously meta ;).

Score: 7/10

40 thoughts on “Jo Walton, Or What You Will (2020)

    1. Same here! Though admittedly, my faves, apart from his non-fiction, are his early books: The Names of the Rose and, of course, the masterpiece that is Foucault’s Pendulum 😁

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Yup, I thought so! 😀 You’d physically throw this against the wall, probably around the whereabouts of that quote or earlier 🤣 I’m glad that I finished it, but I definitely won’t be buying my own copy 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is interesting how we will rate books, even beyond a star rating. Glad I read it. Not worth buying. Didn’t like it but worth buying, etc.
        There is a rich vein to be tapped on that subject…

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Oh yes indeed!

          But I might be a special case here as I mainly depend on libraries these days… Back in Poland I used to buy lots of books because I didn’t have access to them otherwise 😉

          Liked by 2 people

  1. I did not expect you to like it so much after reading the first paragraphs of the review. That quote is really strange to put in a novel. And I have read books that were in love with Florence that were absolute trash, like Dan Brown novels. But what is this book actually about? It’s a bit confusing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, it got markedly better afterwards. It is confusing, certainly. I didn’t want to say too much about the plot, but as you probably won’t read it I can spoil it a bit for you 😉
      The main character is Sylvia, a seventy-something author of fantasy books. She’s dying, and has only one book left in her. The narrator here is Sylvia’s imaginary friend whom she called to life in her childhood and who since then acquired his own personality and goals. His goal is not to die in Sylvia’s head when she kicks the bucket, and to take her with him into Sylvia’s fantasy world where they could live together even after Sylvia’s death in the real world. There! 😁

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  2. Your review reminded me of Among Others, the only Walton I’ve read so far, in that too almost challenged the reader to not like it because of its dense nature, its rambling narrative, its catalogue raisonnée of SFF books which felt ill-placed in a work of fiction. But I found it ultimately satisfying, and this sounds like something similar.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hmm, so it seems that her other books employ similar tactics? That’s actually worrying. I was willing to overlook this seeming self-indulgence because the book picked up decisively after the rambling beginning (it still was rambling, but more bearably so 😉), but if this is a part of Walton’s style I might rethink my decision to read another one like this – Or What You Will was good, but not so good as to expose myself willingly to another dose of pretentious tedium 😉

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      1. A better judge of its worth might be my review of Among Others (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-genii) where I see I pretty much unreservedly praise it—it’s only with your review that I can see that there are aspects that could make it a ‘difficult’ read for a first time reader.

        That said, I tried her Tooth and Claw and couldn’t get very far with its curious blend of Austen and dragonology, and her Platonic titles (The Philosopher Kingsand all) really don’t appeal at all. This one, for all your caveats, does sound more my cup of tea…

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks for the link and for the explanation; both were very helpful, Chris! 😊

          I think you might indeed enjoy this one, with its unabashed fangirling over Shakespeare and Florence, and some insights into the ever pertinent problems of memory and forgetting.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. No no, while these two are similar, some of her other stuff is not at all like this. Would recommend you try the Small Change trilogy or the King’s Name/King’s Peace duo for examples of what else she can do.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So what stopped you from DNFing this one? I feel like you had all the reasons in the world to stop at some point or did you get a ring buoy just in time in this case? Also what exactly do you look for in the books you decide to add to ur TBR and then read? It’s a fascinating review you’ve got here though, as usual! Thanks for sharing, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hmm, it’s a very good question.

      I think that Bookforager’s praise was convincing enough for me to give this a second chance even after those weak opening chapters. Also, the premise of this novel was quite intriguing and I wanted to see where it will go. You know, underneath all that haughty self-indulgence Walton can write and she’s quite erudite; and even if I don’t come across as particularly lenient in my reviews, I’m quite aware that not every book can be Foucault’s Pendulum or Hyperion ;).

      My TBR is a really eclectic place right now 😀 but if I were to pinpoint one common trait of books I want to read it would be originality of thought executed with skill. If you can add a well-done research to it, and some passion, there’s a big chance I’ll enjoy the book 😀

      Thanks for reading, Lashaan! 😀

      Liked by 4 people

    1. I know, right? I was so close to DNFing this then and there! But fortunately it got better later on. Nothing special, but an all right read, especially if you like Shakespeare 🙂

      Like

    1. That quote is something, right? It would be the first point in my guide on how not to write books 🤣 But Walton is an “acclaimed author” and apparently it seems that it means “everything goes” 😉
      The books is enjoyable enough, but not great or unique or anything; I really wonder why she put this “my way or you suck” call to the reader in her novel. Maybe it was a failsafe if the book didn’t sell well? Sort of “it’s not me, it’s you” type of thing? 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It certainly feels like getting her insecurities out in the open right away. ‘Look, all my friends say I’m awesome. So if you don’t agree, you’re obviously wrong’.

        Reminds me of a certain podcaster who, unless you are rich or have a huge following for your podcast, refuses to take ANY criticism because you have no clue what you’re talking about … it’s not like we regular folk don’t know what we like to listen to haha

        Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek

    I heard good things about Walton, and this actually sounds interesting, I like to torture myself with such stuff every once in a while… adding to the list of books I’ll buy for my Kindle if there’s a nice deal 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that I should probably just copy my comment for your Moreno Garcia’s review and be done here too! 😉 But here I have to admit that you have way more patient than I. I would have stopped reading at the beginning, and I would have no regret about it. Even if a book that made you want to eat gelato has to jave something good in it! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, we had great Sicilian gelato joint in Kraków… Here they’re just not as good – I’ll have to visit Italy instead! 😁 This book certainly made me want to visit Florence, just to see all the art and architecture! I’ve been to Italy before, but mostly for skiing trips, so I stayed in the North.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Florence is really worth a visit. I am not particularly in love with it but it is a wonderful place to visit (and don’t let me start on the museums, because there are some that are awesome!), also skiing trips are not the best to enjoy gelato, but they are the best for a lot of othe delicious dishes!!
        And now I made myself hungry… Argh!!

        Liked by 1 person

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