We all know that Mary Shelley was the brilliant woman who wrote Frankenstein at the tender age of twenty. Somehow, she wrote a masterpiece in her spare time while raising small children, living a nomad's life in continental Europe, and babysitting her laudanum-addicted man-child, Shelley. Mary was a voracious reader and a talented writer, but no mention is made of this. Instead, Bennett shows Mary blindly following Shelley across the continent, trading insults with him one moment and then weeping for his attention and fretting that he doesn't love her enough. She seems deranged and needy. That doesn't necessarily make this a bad book--plenty of good books have crazy characters--but it does make the story difficult to swallow. Bennett doesn't show us any good reasons for Mary to stay with Shelley.
And why should the reader stay with this book, when poor pacing makes it an unrewarding chore? The 230 page book covers Mary and Shelley's entire eight-year relationship, but the first hundred pages cover their first year together. The remaining seven years are smashed into 130 dizzyingly hurried pages that can be summarized thus: "I had another baby. The baby died. I fought with Shelley. I am jealous of my sister. We moved again. REPEAT." Mary becomes a blank pawn moving through the events, not a believable character, and it is difficult to care about her. More dialogue and descriptions of day-to-day events would have made this book feel more like a novel and less like a timeline.
Occasionally Bennett does try to write personal interactions, but they feel heavy-handed and strange. Consider this: In the space of a single page, Mary discovers a pregnancy, gives birth to a son, watches him thrive, and sees Shelley's literary reputation grow. A few chapters later, Mary makes an emotional return to her parents' house. She says, "My exile had apparently affected everyone in the house. I was touched, and asked after [the servant's] wife." This servant has never been mentioned until now, so Mary's question doesn't demonstrate strong emotion as much as it demonstrates awkwardness. Why mention this casual question she poses to a servant, but not describe the details of her son's birth, which is much more important? This is just one example of a problem that plagues the entire book.
I imagine that Bennett carefully consulted primary sources to flesh out the dialogue. If there was no historical evidence for an interpersonal exchange, she didn't invent one. That makes for great academic writing, but for a very poor novel. It's fiction--make it interesting! Flesh out the characters and make them your own!
Finally, let's talk about sex.
Bad love scenes are awkward and icky, and if an author doesn't want to write a love scene, that's fine. But don't make a female character swoon and then suddenly sex is happening to her without her active participation! I feel like this sends a subtle message that female characters shouldn't actively participate in sex or enjoy it, and I object to that message. Also, it's creepy! Check this out: "My head felt heavy, and full of some substance that obscured my wits. I could not think. I could not find my conscience... My dress disappeared from my shoulders. I was sure I had not loosened it, nor taken the pins from my hair... I had lost my powers of reasoning. The grass and trees, the churchyard, even the sky disappeared." Rohypnol what?! This scene makes my skin crawl. But Mary runs away with Shelley afterward, so she must have liked it. Right? Right?
Mary Shelley was hardly raised in an oppressive environment. Her mother, Mary Woolstonecraft, was the most radical feminist of the 18th century, and her father supported and published Woolstonecraft's feminist writing. Angelmonster begins with Mary donning a thin white dress and soaking herself head-to-toe before attending a party in her parents' parlor, putting every bit of herself on display. Wet
This book sucks. Read Frankenstein instead.