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BOOK REVIEW

Frankenstein’s monster anew

Poet Laurie Sheck uses Mary Shelley (below) as a character in this, her first novel. Poet Laurie Sheck uses Mary Shelley (below) as a character in this, her first novel. (Nina Subin)
By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2009

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Mary Shelley wonders in “A Monster’s Notes’’ whether the creature she wrote about was hideous, beautiful, or both. I kept asking myself the same question about Laurie Sheck’s 500-plus-page reimagining of the writer’s life and work, in which the monster is real and not a creation of Shelley’s imagination. In fact, here the monster seems not really monstrous, but a rather benign if morose and malformed presence who reads to her at her mother’s grave.

In this, her first novel, Sheck, who is quite a good poet, recasts Shelley’s “Frankenstein,’’ with the monster railing at his creator for forsaking him while also reading, or imagining, the letters of Mary and her half-sister Claire, as well as the letters of other characters, fictional and real. The monster, indestructible, lives on into the 21st century, consulting Wikipedia about various things as, no doubt, you will, too.

We really only have his word for it that he is physically hideous as no one else in the book describes his looks - he’s in hiding as he reads to Mary.

This is a serious book centering on loss: the monster’s loss of the father figure as well as the 19th-century friends he sees from a distance; Mary’s loss of husband Percy Bysshe Shelley; Mary’s and Claire’s loss of children; a story within a story that features Clerval, a character from Shelley’s novel, and a leper in Asia whose outcast status resonates with the monster.

The Mahlerian scope of the novel’s obsession with loss and loneliness is its own worst enemy. As metaphors about loneliness pile atop meditations on the human condition, the temptation is to yell, “On with the story, stop all this running in place.’’

But it is poetic running in place and whenever I felt like giving up on the book, there would be a tenderly turned passage, such as the monster’s plea to his creator: “If you who made me had given me lessons as Claire gives lessons, what might you have taught me? It’s summer. We sit beneath the trees . . . by the banks of the River Istra. You’re not disgusted when you look into my eyes. I don’t mistrust you, though I know I was made differently from others . . . ‘So,’ you say, ‘let’s look at Leonardo.’ ’’

He is similarly puzzled as he reads the novel “Frankenstein’’ about why Mary turned him into a killer. She, intriguingly, wonders the same thing. Is it some Freudian impulse to banish the strange? Is he symbolic of other fears and desires? Sheck is also speculating here, it seems, on how artists turn their lives into art.

But how much slack we should cut the author for her constant chewing on even more obscure philosophical bones will be up to the individual reader. Those looking for a crisper narrative will be bored; those who get off on philosophical speculating should find it refreshingly unconventional.

Personally, I would rather have both in a book half the length of this one with a good editor saying: “When in doubt, take it out.’’

Does this make me a monster? A Philistine? A . . . a . . . a journalist?

Maybe. I know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. I just don’t need to have them all in one book.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

A MONSTER’S NOTES By Laurie Sheck

Knopf, 530 pp., $30

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