By Roseanne Montillo
William Morrow, $26.99, 336 pages
Like Victor Frankenstein assembling various body parts to bring his creature to life, Roseanne Montillo stitches together various stories to create The Lady and Her Monsters. Roughly half of the book focuses on Mary Shelley’s life and other events that potentially inspired her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Interspersed among Shelley’s biography are sections devoted to body-snatchers and scientists who experimented with the effects of electricity on bodies both living and dead.
“At this time, the very nature of what it meant to be a man, or rather a human, was being questioned. The notion of reawakening the dead with a bolt of electricity, and the experiments designed to do so, brought to light certain moral questions people had no definite answers to: Was man a creature created by a God who dished out values and properties according to his fancies? Or was man a machine powered by an internal galvanic fluid, which in turn could be sparked alive by a rush of electricity? Did man possess a soul endowed by God? Or was he merely a soulless automaton?”
Unfortunately, little of Shelley’s actual writing process seems to be known and most is conjecture. Montillo’s own writing process leaves much to be desired. Sections often begin with buried leads and Shelley’s biography often veers off into tangents, some more interesting than others. Poorly chosen quotations, often incomplete or containing ellipses, are awkwardly inserted into her prose. Although several fascinating details are scattered throughout, many are inaccurate. Mary Shelley and her famous family and friends are sensationalized to the point that, instead of being a historical literary study, this book becomes more reminiscent of a modern celebrity tabloid.
Reviewed by Sarah Hutchins