Monday, April 20, 2009

Co-Review: Freddy and Fredericka

I almost didn't survive this book. I am one who rejects books based on trivial reasons. Font too small: reject. Character names too weird: reject. Too long and boring looking: reject. By all of my pathetic reasons, I never would have read this book had it not come so highly recommended and I had already put it in the sidebar as a co-review and I was too lazy to take it off. That and Caren was all, "We can do it or not, whatever you want." Gak! I couldn't back out now that I had to decide whether or not to back out. This is not to say that I didn't put off reading it for as long as humanly possible. I got the book two months ago, read two pages and set it down in favor of reading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, which was excellent by the way. John Green is a genius of teen angst and awkwardness. Yes, I picked awkwardness over Freddy and Fredericka. I knew I had to figure out how to motivate myself to get it read, so I put the fourth Fablehaven book on my nightstand and had it staring at me every night as I read Freddy. We do what we can to get things done. I'm not proud of it, but Freddy is now read.

Mark Helprin is a wordy fellow. Freddy and Fredericka is a billion pages long and huge sections of that are filled with descriptions that are almost too intelligent for me to even read and feel like he is actually writing in English. Speaking of English, that's what Helprin is and this book is a satire/parody of the British monarchy. Freddy is Prince Charles, Fredericka is Diana, Queen Phillipa is Queen Elizabeth and Prince Paul is, uh, Mr. Queen Elizabeth. Freddy is stricken with the ability to embarrass himself in public. Over and over again he misunderstands people, makes inappropriate comments, is seen in public looking like a buffoon and making the royal family a laughing-stock. His wife, Fredericka, is adored for her beauty and compassion but is actually an empty-headed nitwit. Freddy doesn't love Fredericka because she isn't intelligent or insightful, which is what he values more than anything. Weird coming from a guy who laughs hysterically over nothing and wears bizarre costumes to state dinners.

Phillipa and Paul are sick and tired of the both of them, so they call in a mysterious man to solve their problems. Mr. Neil is ancient and some sort of royal expert on how to solve situations where the heirs to the throne are out of hand. He determines that F&F must be sent into a dangerous and hostile country in an ancient tradition of forcing the future ruler to conquer said country to prove himself worthy of the throne. Freddy and Fredericka are then dumped out of a planed into New Jersey with only their essentials covered with fur and parachutes on their backs. From here on out it gets weird.

Yes, they are supposed to conquer the U.S. Mostly they wander all over the country, figuring out how to fend for themselves with no money, no privileges and undercover as dentists. And in true Freddy fashion, they are misunderstood and act ridiculously, but also start to discover more about themselves and each other.

Jenny: I'm serious, I almost didn't finish. This book was way too long and the side trips with the newspaper magnates and Dewey Knott (Republican candidate for president) almost made me put it down. What kept me going was how much F&F were learning to love America and love each other and love working hard. But the misunderstandings between Freddy and nearly everyone he ever talked to made me crazy. I couldn't stand it. I would pace while I read because it made me so agitated.

Best part? The names. Some of my favorites included: Craig-Vyvyan, Cecil Psnake, Alfie Didgeridoo, Watson Axlerod, and Phoebe Boylinghotte. I meant to keep a longer list, but by the time I hit the middle, I was in my stride and didn't want to break out of the zone.

Other best part? How much Helprin loves America. It says in his blurb that he was educated in England and the U.S. and it was obvious that he has great love for America. My two favorite parts of the whole book was when they were in D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial and he talked about what a great man Lincoln was. It almost brought me to tears. The other was at the very end when he said that in America, every man is born a king. Oh man, that almost did me in.

Caren: Yes, I loved Freddy's speech at the end. Both what he said about America and also what he said about coming to love his wife. But, like you, I felt like I was plowing through and if it weren't for committing to this co-review I would have set it down as soon as I picked it up. The story was entertaining, and the way the characters developed.....well....character....made it have a bit more depth by the end. But that wasn't enough to be worth 553 pages of really small type! Just for the record, I'm not afraid of a long book. But you have to have a pretty riveting story to justify that kind of length (e.g. Mistborn), and this just wasn't it. He could have easily cut 200 pages out of it in meaningless descriptions about meaningless people and places and the story wouldn't have suffered. In fact, it would have been a vast improvement because it wouldn't have taken me all month to get through!

It was typical British humor; random, bizarre, and often juvenile. There were some very funny things about it, and occasionally I would have to relate parts of it to my husband. (I'm not sure he appreciated the twenty minutes of back-story for any of it to make sense.) Unfortunately, I can't remember any of the funny parts now. So apparently, it still wasn't enough to compensate for the length. (Have I mentioned how long it was?)

Jenny: Seriously, who was his editor? What kind of pull did Helprin have to get away with that much extraneous writing? Didn't anybody point out to him that he uses way too many words than normal people can suffer through? Yes, there were parts that actually made me laugh out loud but most of it was like you said: bizarre, random, juvenile and not to mention uncomfortable. I would squirm as I read. Also, don't forget the completely messed up ending. It ended with me going, "Whuh?"

I loved how we got to know Fredericka better. She wasn't as empty-headed as everybody assumed she was. And as Freddy got to know her better, he came to realize how smart and capable she really was. What was shocking to me was how much Fredericka loved him despite all his many, many foibles. He became a better man by the end of the book, but he was still a nutter, as the Brits say.

I am so glad to have this book out of the way. It has been ruining many a lovely evening when I could have been reading the latest Fablehaven, catching up on my stack of selections for National Poetry Month or maybe doing some blogging. I've been ignoring the blogging in favor of Freddy.

Caren: Yeah, part of the problem was that since it was so pointless, it was hard to justify taking the time to read it. Like watching a bunch of Seinfeld episodes for hours and hours on end. It might be funny, it might be stupid, and really, can't you think of anything better to do?

I actually liked Freddy. He was a great big geek, but he had the capacity for nobility and honor when it was forced out of him. I liked him a lot until the incident with Lucia, and then I was downright disgusted. Phoebe I could handle, because that was during his idiot days. But the fact that he could have developed such feelings of love and commitment to Fredericka, and then mentally toss it all out the window for the first pretty face to come along......I was not so impressed. And Fredericka was way more magnanimous about it than he deserved, I thought.

So, were Freddy and Fredericka supposed to be Charles and Diana? I didn't make that connection and thought they were just a fictional royal family, but my knowledge of Charles and Diana is pretty slim. If Freddy was supposed to be Charles, I take back everything I said about ever liking him. And I'm embarrassed to have to ask this, but what was odd about the ending? I'm having a hard time sorting out all the anecdotes to remember which ones added up to be the conclusion.

Jenny: Oh man, it totally screamed Charles and Diana to me. He was goofy looking and not that well-liked, she was beautiful and loved by the people, Phillipa's father died young and she ascended the throne younger than she anticipated, etc. Maybe I know too much about the royal family.

So the odd ending included Phillipa and Paul not knowing that F&F were in America the whole time, Paul's bizarre explanation of Freddy's weird behavior his whole life, the fact that several members of the royal family were probably completely insane and then the secret room in the palace. Wait, I liked that last part. And I loved the fact that Freddy became a great ruler and truly loved his mother. And that Craig-Vyvyan (the bird) flew for him and Craig-Vyvyan (the boy) got an education and wrote Freddy's memoirs. Those parts I liked.

My recommendation is that if you have the time to commit to a long, wordy book and think the royal family is fascinating, go for it. If neither of those things strike your fancy, stay away.


  1. Gah! You make me want to read and not read this book! I love British wit with bizarre stories but I can't handle long wordy books. Conflicted!!!

    I'm very excited to hear what you think of the Eyre Affair. I'm pretty sure you're both going to be in love with it.

  2. I'm mostly with you both. The first 1/3 of the book was torturous. If it hadn't been on the RHE book list, I would have sent it back to the library. By the end, I was glad that I had read it. I loved the humorous names and the British humor had me laughing out loud. It was also kind of bitter-sweet for me. I guess I'm too romantic and as a child was thoroughly mesmerized by the "Charles and Diana fairly tale" until it turned out in real life to be just a soap opera. I wish the real life Charles and Diana could have lived happily ever after.
    This book also had me wondering why it is that so many people (mostly authors, I've noticed) have a decent perspective on American government and what we need to do to be great, but all our politicians can't see how to fix the system.