Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan

2 Star

Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Annie Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions—signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers—quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.

Lydia - 2 Star

I really, really wanted to love this novel. Like many people, I knew some of Helen Keller's story before cracking open Helen Keller in Love but I wasn't familiar with her entire life. The idea of a secret love intrigued me and I had looked forward to learning more about her life and the love she kept secret, but I unfortunately I really struggled with this novel.

This must have been an incredibly challenging novel to write and kudos to Sultan for tackling it. I couldn’t even fathom writing a novel about Helen Keller’s life and how to portray her disabilities in text. There were great learning points in this story, and I did become more familiar with Helen Keller’s story, but overall I felt I needed more in the end.

There was much description at first through sight, which I found strange. I was expecting more of her other senses, especially earlier on in the novel to really reinforce that she was blind and deaf. But this was done repetitively by her internal dialogue as opposed to showing us exactly how she feels the world. There were some instances of this which I did like, but I had really hoped for more – especially at the beginning of the novel.

There was dialogue going on around her that she seemed to be privy too, but no mention was made of it being translated into her hand so I would get confused. And then she would speak, but not much was mentioned about how she ‘spoke’ and many times I would forget she was blind and deaf because of this as well as the descriptions. In addition, the dialogue of her love interest actually disturbed me at times. It was nothing at all how I envision anyone in 1916 speaking and came across as juvenile. The things he said to her were something I pictured a teenage boy today saying and this completely removed me from the storyline.

Unfortunately their relationship didn't come across as interesting or romantic to me. It started so abruptly. Suddenly she was in love with this man who she met a couple of times, and he her. It didn’t feel natural. There was also nothing endearing about him, so I didn’t care about their relationship and I couldn’t see what she saw in him and as this was the major focus of the novel, I lost interest. The sex scenes were odd to me too, and made me dislike him even more, although maybe that was the point.

I always pictured Helen Keller as a strong woman and was looking forward to a more humanistic glimpse into her life as opposed to the glorification she receives. Unfortunately though, she doesn’t come across as anything near how I envisioned Helen Keller to be. I realize that obviously not everything in her life would have been perfect, but in this portrayal I didn’t see a strong woman at all, just an insecure and whiney woman mooning about over a man. This may have been amplified by the ongoing repetition throughout the novel with her internal dialogue and thankfully some attention was devoted to her humanitarian side and her anti-war cries to deflect from some of this, but the main focus on this novel was her love life so she seemed one dimensional in that aspect.

The prologue made this story anti-climactic because it is actually the ending of the novel and this fact is easily discernible once you’re part way through. This might not have bothered someone that knows Helen Keller story inside and out, but I didn't, and when I realized that I was already told the ending, I almost gave up on the book. I was terribly disappointed that no new information was added beyond that point. I wanted to know what happened to her, how she moved on afterwards.

All in all, I was really disappointed with Helen Keller in Love and muddled through to continue. I really wanted to love it, but maybe it just wasn’t for me. There are plenty of reviews out there that enjoyed it though.

Thank you to Penguin USA for our review copy!

Connect with Rosie Sultan here:


  1. Why would any publisher send a review copy to this person? Who would take reading advice from someone who writes like this? I read this book and it was fascinating to me the way the author channeled Keller's vision of the world through her severely limited methods of communication--finger-spelling, hands on lips, through smell and vibration and touch. Forget the nincompoop who wrote this review. Read the book instead. Helen Keller was a human being. Everyone imagines a miracle, a saint, but try to imagine how difficult, despite her amazing successes, it would be to live without sight or hearing. That's what Rosie Sultan did.

    1. While I do not appreciate the name calling, I will not remove this comment. I am fully aware that there are positive reviews for this novel, which I stated above - and I'm thrilled you loved it - but I also know there are many others who felt exactly the same way I did.

      Writing negative reviews are difficult, but I won't shy away from them because then what good are reviews at all? I encourage readers when researching novels to read many reviews before deciding on a book, which I do myself. I am sorry we did not share the same opinion and I'm even more sorry that you felt had to lash out in such a disrespectful way. Anonymously.

  2. Very "Lame", was not impressed at all, even the cover put me to sleep...couldn’t even finish it! Wish I would have had the "heads-up" earlier! Thanks anyways! Keep it up!!



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