I was immediately intrigued by the description of A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd: Gothic novelist Ann St. Clair becomes involved in her own Gothic romance with a mad genius that ends in violence. Even if it weren’t set mostly in nineteenth century Venice, I would have picked it up. Unfortunately, the execution of Ann’s story leaves much to be desired. The pacing is off for the first third. Todd switches between different characters’ perspectives at odd moments and for no discernible reason. And, as if this weren’t enough flaws for one book, the loathed the way the various Gothic-inspired mysteries were resolved. I only finished it because I wanted to know the answers to those mysteries.
The first third of A Man of Genius is any self-respecting woman’s nightmare. Ann St. Clair is a successful, though not very talented, scribbler of Gothic mysteries. She is contentedly independent when she meets Robert James. James once wrote a fragment of an epic poem that has made him sort of famous. Now his “career” consists of rambling about his big ideas to a group of followers and fellow artists. Ann falls in love with him and attaches herself to him as much as he will allow. Ann shares her miseries while trying to explain why James is a genius and why she loves him, sounding much like any person who falls in love with an awful human being and wants to justify their feelings.
It’s clear that James is more disturbed than enlightened, though Ann keeps hoping that he will find a way to finish his magnum opus. When James decides to leave London for somewhere sunny, Ann packs up her life and follows him south. They eventually settle in Venice. For me, this is where A Man of Genius started to get good. In Venice, worried about money, Ann strikes off and lands in good company. She finds work helping an aristocratic Venetian practice her English. Working in the city provides an escape from her self-appointed task as James’ caretaker—and a relief from my having to read about the woes of a man who clearly needed psychotropic medication.
The Venetian section is also where the Gothic elements of the novel start to appear. James turns violent and unhinged. A man appears to be following Ann around Venice. There are questions about James’ past and political activities. These don’t reach a boil until much later. Until they did, I enjoyed wandering around post-Napoleonic Venice with Ann as she learned to rediscover herself as an independent woman.
In the last third, events pick up the pace, the mysteries deepened, and I found myself in yet another part of the book that didn’t gel with the other parts. A Man of Genius really did feel like three fragments glued into one novel. Even the writing style shifts, from literary vignettes and snippets to more traditional prose. I’ve often seen novels described in reviews as uneven and this book is a textbook example of that criticism. I suspect that the main problem is Todd just tried to stuff too much in. If the book had just been a Gothic pastiche or a literary psychological thriller, A Man of Genius would have worked much better. As it is, this book is a mess.