Angel of Music (2002)
by D.M. Bernadette
This book is sort of a tragedy.
The author of this book shows a grasp of some of the original story's themes that is actually not half bad; yeah, some of them are swings and misses, and some of them definitely fall into eye-rolling cliche territory, but she gets it right here and there. But even when her plot is coherent, the book is so severely hobbled by what can only be described as a supreme lack of writing ability that it becomes actually difficult to read. This book is so poorly written that it is literally almost unreadable.
It's hard to find one writing flaw to focus on at a time. A huge, constant, painful issue is the misplacement of commas, which do not appear in sentences that they should and then leap into others with totally random placement. Run-ons and fragments are everywhere because of this, and, worse, the incorrect usage isn't even consistent; sometimes Bernadette will put a comma somewhere it ought to be (i.e., "Oh, Raoul, I didn't hear you! Come in!") only to somehow forget how by the next time the situation comes up (i.e., "Oh Raoul I didn't hear you, come in!") The examples here are small, but try, if you will, to imagine something approaching six hundred pages written that way. It was actually impossible for me to try to keep track of all the comma disasters past the first chapter. I would cry if were I a copy-editor assigned to this mess.
Another issue, almost comical, is the fact that all shouting is accomplished via CAPITAL LETTERS. When Bernadette’s characters in the throes of drama, they are absolutely prone to lashing the caps-lock key down and bellowing until our eyes beg for mercy. Hand in hand with this unfortunate tendency is a demonstrated love for exclamation points, which seldom appear alone, preferring to travel in packs of three or even four for solidarity. When Christine makes a naughty joke and Erik cries, "CHRISTINE!!!!" in response, it's like slapping the reader in the face with a dead fish: abrupt, painful, confusing, and it stinks. Occasionally, capital letters also serve to inform the reader that the character Means Business, such as when Christine is told, "You are much too naive Christine, Wake Up!" We totally Get It. Christine is So Chastened.
Honestly, these are all stylistic choices that you might expect in online writing. Conversational online chat uses Capitals for Emphasis and bolds sentences by going with ALL CAPS, and tons of ellipses and exclamation points aren’t surprising, either. It’s not a good choice for prose because it’s abrupt and hard to plow through, but it makes it seem pretty likely that this was originally a fanfiction written for online consumption and only later self-published in bound form.
But I can’t blame internet code-switching for the homophones, which are just absolutely murder. People must "make due" with less. They also "poll" the boat around on the lake, "message" one anothers' sore throats, perform their morning "toilet", find their curiosity "peeked", take steps to "insure" their future, "gage" their emotions, avoid "undo" haste, "pour" over the words of letters, watch the "lightening" in a thunderstorm, experience "shear" exhilaration, "secret" themselves in hiding places, take care to comport themselves "discretely", "loose" their way in the dark, "access" their situation, make sure to sing in the most emotional "manor" possible, perform feats using "slight" of hand, laugh "hardily" at each others' jokes, are "lead" down paths, keep their ears "pealed" for intruders, and "wonder" through corridors. Those are the ones I wrote down before I just didn’t have the heart anymore. The characters also, over the course of the book, constantly "preform" arias and operas. I thought it was just an accidental typo until, with sinking heart, I saw that Bernadette repeated it... eleven more times.
And that's not even mentioning that compound words apparently aren’t allowed in this book and readers have to puzzle over phrases like "what so ever", "blue prints", or "something is a foot" (that one is HILARIOUS, I won’t lie). It's jarring where it's minor but and in the worst cases, like our foot issue, actually obfuscates the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes she even dices up unsuspecting noncompound words, such as when Christine comes through an ordeal "in tact". There are also cases in which Bernadette uses the wrong word entirely, such as on page 49, when Raoul's "comment was likened to a slap across the face and she shrank from him", though, of course, no one is actually likening it to anything since it's just in the narration and no one is discussing it or thinking about it. And again, these aren’t occasional isolated incidents, which you can kind of expect in self-published novels that didn’t have the benefit of an editor. They’re everywhere.
And if all of this wasn't harrowing enough for you yet, the actual writing format is even more difficult to plow through. Paragraphs are gargantuan, sometimes spanning multiple points of view, tenses, and speaking characters, and may run up to a page and a half in length. It's worse than Faulkner.
Bernadette also has major issues with managing dialogue. Half the time there's none at all for pages, while we're informed that characters "discussed" this or "assured" one another of that or "had long conversations" in which they become bosom friends, but we are never shown any of this presumable dialogue - we have to just take the narration's assertions at face value, which makes for very boring reading. The other half of the time there is nothing but dialogue, also for pages, in which characters give massive monologues for pages at a time, making the reader's understanding of what is going on even more likely to give up, go out back, and bury itself in the yard.
But the plot! you say. What's happening in the plot? Well... a huge amount of stuff is happening in the plot, but very little of it is actually plot, if you follow me. We should possibly be grateful for Bernadette's habit of simply telling us that things happen without actually explaining them, because if she had explained everything in this book it would have topped a thousand pages in length. Bernadette has basically written a series, spanning from the end of Lloyd Webber's musical (she definitely has a passing acquaintance with Leroux's novel, judging from some references and the occasional use of the name Erik, but most of the book is extremely obviously based on the musical; there are also occasional glimmers of what might be influence from Kay's 1990 book) to the end of all of the protagonists' lives, and then decided to make that series only occupy the physical space of one book, resulting in a book that goes on forever but that is saying very little most of the time.
The general gist of it is that, after the events of the Lloyd Webber musical, Christine and Raoul discover in short order that they don't actually want to get married, she returns to the Phantom's lair and nurses him back to health, and then they fall in love, get married, have a kid, and die. It takes five hundred sixty-three pages for them to do this, because time jumps are employed only where they would not make things easier for the reader and incidental scenes that add nothing to the narrative, such as a bazillion evenings in which the Phantom and Christine have a dance/dinner party and then hump, are described in loving, only-slightly-varied detail every time. It seems that Bernadette herself did not know where she was going for a majority of the book, since there's no real sustained buildup to speak of and the action crests and ebbs about fifty thousand times over small happenings, right up until the very end, when it just sort of peters out.
Okay, you say. So the writing is awful and the plot is boring nothing. So what's good about this?
What's good is that, despite the book not having the writing skill to communicate its ideas effectively, it does have some interesting ideas and does explore a few directions that are we haven’t seen in earlier versions. Raoul is somewhat out of character for a while when he becomes a petulant, drunken society boy who dumps Christine because she doesn't like his friends, but he still retains a decent amount of sympathy and personal integrity over the course of the novel and Bernadette doesn’t fall into the common trap of making him a conscienceless bastard to get him out of the way. Of course, this is helped by the fact that he disappears around chapter three and won't really return for any extended length of time until chapter twenty-two or so, but the point is that some real thought was put into his character, even though he's been removed from the role of hero in the story. The very end of the book, in particular, features an aged Raoul and Christine as bosom friends and confidantes after the Phantom's death even though they were never again lovers, a bittersweet choice that feels authentic and true to the characters.
The Phantom is referred to simply by his nom-de-plume for most of the beginning of the book, probably because he’s unnamed in the Lloyd Webber musical, but this sobriquet will be abandoned once he comes out of his coma and starts romancing Christine, at which point she, and everyone else, will begin referring to him exclusively as "the Angel" (later, he changes his last name to "Angel" as well, making the married couple they inevitably become Mr. and Mrs. Angel, referred to preciously by the rest of the opera house as "the Angels").
Normally, I hate it when authors begin calling the Phantom "angel" with no provocation, since it makes no sense for Christine to fall back into a fantasy that has already been exposed as a devastating lie without some extenuating circumstances. But Bernadette actually puts work into making a psychological comment here, attempting to pull off a sort of dual personality thing; the Phantom's coma is a symbolic "death", from which he is resurrected by Christine (who, hey, gets to be a Christ figure in this novel!), and he declares upon waking that the Phantom has died and that he will henceforth be the Angel, a new and different person. That everyone seems to be fine with this after a few minutes and the world is full of butterflies and laughter stretches credulity more than a little bit, but the narrative makes it clear that Christine's use of the name stems from her belief that he now is the noble being she's always believed he could be, even if that being isn't actually divine, and his own sincere attempts at reinventing his personality make the idea of a new persona viable. Is any of it believable? No. It's written terribly and not planned very well, either. But it is a good idea. Incidentally, the name Erik is mentioned a few times (apparently the local friar christened him, which surprisingly locates his birthplace right in Paris), but he refuses to use it because of its connections to his past and to a family that didn't want him, again a thoughtful reason for the change.
And speaking of family, that's another interesting theme that Bernadette uses several times over the course of the novel. As many authors do, she removes Christine from the mothering role assigned her in the original novel in regards to the Phantom and instead substitutes Madame Giry. She doesn't quite go the whole hog like the Spencer musical and make Giry the Angel's actual mother, but both he and Christine begin referring to the woman as "Mother Giry" within a few pages of her introduction, and her role from then on - often peripheral, but she is around - is strictly a maternal one for the happy couple. Note that Meg is not included; she got kicked out of the book after a brief, early appearance so that Madame Giry could focus exclusively on the lovebirds, which is kind of undercutting her as a mom, but whatever. In the same vein, Christine also has a father figure in the newly introduced Dr. Joseph; Dr. Joe was a close personal friend of her father's and has apparently been taking care of her ever since his death. Again, he's merely present to provide a support net for Christine (and, by extension, her husband) so that the characters aren't alone in the world.
You know, a lot of authors find the idea of their protagonists forsaking society for their love terribly romantic, but they never actually write about it. Probably because living with no friends or family or connections kind of sucks and they want their protagonists to be happy.
Another move, one that is brand-new in Phantom literature, is the creation of Henri, Christine's older brother. Christine is traditionally an only child, so giving her a living relation (albeit one who is exiled to Belgium for fear of getting murdered by vengeful noblemen) substantially detracts from her orphaned status. This gives her a more stable footing and allows the Angel to be the uncontested master of orphaned angst, which has more appeal from a certain dramatic standpoint than messy, complicated things like parallel characterization. Henri and his family also serve as a foil to constantly give the Angel an opportunity to mope about and soliloquize about how lovely families are and how lucky everyone but him is to have one.
And then, of course, there's the kid. Christine, as she is prone to doing in these versions where she bangs the Phantom, gets pregnant and has a son. It's interesting to note that that makes four out of five books that make the Phantom's offspring - and he always only has one - male, the only exception being Pettengill's novel with its stillborn girl (your call if that even counts). All the living children are sons, and they're all exactly like their father except without that inconvenient ugliness issue. I'd hazard a guess that some of this has to do with the potent virility (or at least, in modern interpretations, masculinity - and fathering sons instead of daughters is a very old “proof” of masculinity myth) symbolism surrounding the Phantom, and also with the idea that writers feel the need to give the Phantom what he wants. That is, they recreate him in miniature form but without his flaws, so that he can vicariously have the life he wanted.
It's not a great idea, story-wise; it's trite and becoming a cliche within the body of Phantom literature itself at this point, but it is enlightening when it comes to analyzing trends. (As an aside, I'd also theorize that the Pettengill novel's female child is an exception because that author was not intending the child to live; the kid was a device through which to effect Erik's salvation, and as such was a miniature of her mother, the original instrument of redemption. And I don’t have to say again that Christine getting terrorized, tortured, or even dying is unfortunately a lot of authors’ go-to way of having her help the Phantom.)
The most interesting feature of this particular Phantom mini-me is that he actually dies within the story, at around the age of seventeen (I think. The narrative had totally given up on being coherent by the last eighth of the book or so). He falls out of the flies to his death on the stage, prompting wailing and devastation, anger and grief, etc. It's something to note in case it recurs in previous versions, but I honestly can't figure out what the point of it was. Christine and the Angel go into a long round of recovery and wailing, of course, but there doesn't seem to be any purpose or statement behind the random tragedy, other than Bernadette feeling the need to inject yet more angst for her protagonists to overcome.
Another thing to note is that, in keeping with the trend of "sexifying" the Phantom, the Angel is mad hot. Not only does he lift "iron weights" to keep his physique in shape (that's about the third Phantom since our beloved Eric from Phantom of the Mall started the trend... guess you can't be a sexy protagonist without a regular fitness routine), but his deformity is described as covering "at least a quarter" of his face; while I expect the half-face deformity in works derived from Lloyd Webber's musical, this is the first version I've encountered to think that the half-face deformity was still too much and to tamp it down yet further. The actual deformity itself is not described, mostly, I assume, because it isn't attractive, though mention is made several times of his "grotesque" lips, another obvious nod to the makeup from the Lloyd Webber show. The Angel also has a "deep cleft in his chin" that Christine loves to stick her tongue in. Totally hot.
There are a lot of other things wrong with this book.. There's the veiled suggestion that domestic abuse is okay if he loves you (authors, it will never be okay); there are buckets and boatloads and veritable arks full of sex, none of which is described well or relevant to the plot but all of which is visited in loving detail, constantly, even when the Angel is almost 80 years old; there's insistence that the Angel's past misdeeds are okay because he's really sorry and also he never killed Buquet and Piangi's death was totally an accident; there's the blithe assertion that anyone who dislikes the Angel/Christine relationship as presented is just jealous that nobody loves them that much; there are so many instances of random muggers/rapists/footpads jumping the protagonists for no reason other than to provide momentary antagonism and lasting angst that I really can't even remember how many there were (it doesn't help that each encounter is suspiciously similar); there are random Threats to Christine's Virtue, for the same reasons, because hey, why not threaten the female protagonist with rape. But it's all I can do at this point to point and click the mouse and try to remember what actual, correct punctuation use looks like. The best of the book, by far, is the last chapter, when the Angel's already dead and Christine and Raoul hang out together as though they were in The Notebook until she also dies and the novel ends with him visiting her grave in his wheelchair. But even this chapter suffers from the same issues as the entire monolithic 560+ page rest of the book, so it really can't be called a success.
I didn't want to give the book a failing grade. I really did show glimmers of interesting ideas here and there. But I had to be honest, and honesty says that I would never, ever, ever recommend this book to anyone, no matter how interesting the idea buried on page 264 is, and I would never, ever, ever read it again, not even if I were sentenced to life in a blank white bubble with no other sources of stimuli. It tried, but it ultimately completely failed to tell its story; and, if I'm still being honest, said story wasn't much good, anyway.
I am left with an intense feeling of sadness. Oh, what might have been.