Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: "Treasure Box" by Orson Scott Card

Treausre Box (HarperPaperbacks, 1996; 372 pages), by Orson Scott Card, tells the story of Quentin Fears (pronounced, it is pointed out more than once, as "fierce"), a software millionaire and recluse who turned his back on most of humanity after his sister was killed in an accident when he was a teenager. He has reached his thirties without ever having had a real relationship. Then he meets Madeleine, who appears to be the perfect woman. She is smart, beautiful and is as reclusive as he is.

It only takes a short time for them to marry, and then Madeline finally takes Quentin to meet the family that she has so far carefully kept him from meeting. They are an odd family, eccentric to the point of strangeness, living in a remote old house along the Hudson river. Madeleine has warned Quentin that she is "not herself" when she visits there, and it doesn't take him long to discover exactly how accurate that characterization is, and Quentin soon finds himself fighting to keep an ancient evil from being unleashed on the world.

Treasure Box isn't a bad book. But as I read there were things that bothered me about it, things that I couldn't quite put my finger on at first, and I was over halfway through the book before I realized what wasn't sitting right with me. What was wrong is that Card falls back on the old stereotype of women as manipulating their innocent, noble male victims. It doesn't just appear in the relationship between Quentin and Madeleine, but is hinted at in the relationship between Quentin's parents and stated more boldly in the relationship between Quentin's attorney and his wife, who is portrayed as cheating on the attorney while insisting that he is the one who is cheating.

I probably wouldn't have finished the book if it had become clear earlier exactly what Card was using the story to say about male-female relationships, but I kept reading in hopes that the subtext wasn't really what I was interpreting it to be. Yet, there it was, right up until the end of the story, with the added jab that the women who were manipulating Quentin were witches but the woman who he finds himself attracted to at the end of the story is not.

I don't know if Card did this consciously, or if such attitudes are so ingrained in him that he wasn't aware that he was dividing his female characters in the traditional bitch-whore/virgin dichotomy, with the whore presenting as virginal, literally in this case, in order to manipulate him before he saw through the deception. He is a man who holds very conservative values regarding family, and portrays his "good" characters as living out those values.

Despite the ideology lurking in the story, Treasure Box is a well-told tale, although I prefer a little more ambiguity in characters, and not the kind that was used here, where any contradictions in the characters' behavior was explained by their being "enthralled" by the witches rather than by the fact that few people are consistent in their behavior all the time.

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