Or What You Will
“Walton has a knack for presenting unexpected and very human glimpses of both historical and fictional figures, and her delight with the city of Florence may inspire many to visit.”
Or What You Will feels like a book that was written more for the author’s benefit than for the reader’s. Walton clearly adores the history, art, and cuisine of Florence, the Shakespeare plays Twelfth Night and The Tempest, and musings about topics ranging from Renaissance art to the reliability of the Bible. The book is interesting the way a travelogue or an essay collection is interesting—the anecdotes about Bruneschelli are particularly compelling—but what it lacks is much in the way of a story.
The book is about an author, Sylvia Harrison, who has at least some similarities to Jo Walton herself. Sylvia has an imaginary friend who lives in her head, helping her write her books and sometimes playing the characters. This imaginary friend—her muse—is the narrator of this book, telling Sylvia’s story to the book’s readers in a bid to let her live forever in their imaginations. This creates strange layers of reality, in which an imaginary person who lives in the mind of a “real” author—herself a fictional character—tries to save her life by writing her into a doubly fictional world.
Sylvia herself describes the problem with this concept in the first chapter: “No,” she says. “No. It would be too meta. Nobody would want that. The poor reader would recoil in horror. Besides . . . what would it be about?”
The resulting story isn’t ultimately about anything, not in the traditional sense of having a plot with characters. It rambles through scenes from Sylvia’s life, descriptions of Shakespearean characters inhabiting Sylvia’s fantasy world, reviews of Italian food, and sketches of life in Florence from various points in history.
It’s not that all these diversions aren’t engaging. Walton has a knack for presenting unexpected and very human glimpses of both historical and fictional figures, and her delight with the city of Florence may inspire many to visit. But readers expecting to find characters to root for against an imminent threat may be disappointed.