This book had me fooled. Completely, up until about half an hour ago. After hearing from a daughter of a missionary that the book was, as expected, much better than the movie, I set out to trying to find a copy. Unfortunately, nobody had the original version, and since the copy she was reading was certainly not the thousand page work Goldman describes, she must have had the abridged version, too, so I gave it a try.

After reading through a rather lengthy prologue to the 25th edition that I had and then through the introduction, I discovered why there were no unabridged copies. They were out of print; Goldman himself expended substantial effort finding a copy for his son. When he did, he also discovered that the original book was, in addition to true love and high adventure, a subtle mockery of the royalty of Florin, Italy. He had been introduced to the book during an illness by his father, who had skipped over the lengthy sections (like dozens of pages describing what the princess of Guilder, Italy, packed and unpacked as she travelled). Apparently Morgenstern had watered down the love and adventure parts with his social satire, resulting in a less than timeless work.

If the original was out of print and that bad, I consoled myself that at least he had saved me the bother of reading poorly written, tangential material. Unfortunately, other constraints had forced him to take out other pieces which sounded interesting, and was disappointing. He was, however, quite a chatty abridger. He would occasionally explain about certain abridging decisions he had made, which made it clear that while scholars may appreciate the subtle satire, Goldman thought that Morgenstern had hidden the interesting story pretty deeply. He also talked quite a bit about his personal experiences as a poor novelist, although quite successful screenwriter, and about his slowly deteriorating marraige with his brilliant, intellectual, but loveless wife Helen.

The movie had done an excellent job of following the story, with the result that there really was not much that the book added to the movie. Beautiful farm girl falls in love with farm hand, who leaves to make his fortune but is killed by pirates. Selfish prince needs an heir but really just wants to conquer neighboring Italian state, arranges to marry beautiful farm girl and simultaneously arranges to kidnap her in a manner such that neighboring Italian state is blamed. Farm hand shows up and rescues farm girl (now effectively a princess) but is captured by selfish prince who fools simple farm girl into believing he let him go. Selfish prince’s Count, who is studying pain, uses farm hand as experimental subject. Friend’s farm hand converted from the kidnapping party rescue and resuscitate him, princess is rescued, and all live happily ever after.

Actually, they probably didn’t. Morgenstern’s ending was rather vague and abrupt, hinting that the prince caught up to them. And here is the part that I missed: it was all a fraud! There never was an S. Morgenstern, there were no small Italian city-states named Florin and Guilder, Goldman did not have a wife named Helen, and half the personal stuff he said was not true. But the other half was, or at least certain parts, including the name of his works, was, making savants like me easy prey for his lie. All the time I was supposed to be noticing that while Goldman loved romantic adventures, they weren’t happening in his life. That they, notwithstanding Morgenstern’s supposed historical accuracy, don’t happen in anyone’s life. That really, the book is about how we want life to be a romantic adventure and that in reality, life just plain stinks.

Of course, I did not notice this until I started writing this review, because it did not occur to me that an author would flat-out lie, especially in his introduction. I didn’t get the point until I ran across a review on the web, after searching for a biography of Morgenstern and maps of Florin or Guilder completely failed, which made clear to me my lack of discernment. I suppose his open disillusionment with his wife, son, and publisher (!), in print, should have tipped me off, as well as the similarity in writing style of “Morgenstern” and Goldman. Maybe I just shouldn’t read books for six hours straight waiting for my flight after having volunteered my seat on my original flight, thus procurring a free ticket anywhere in the continental U.S., but not Hawaii despite the fact that I could really use a ticket there because a good friend is getting married there and I spent too much on the ski trip I was returning from, because that much constant reading just does not make me very perceptive.

So now, I am disillusioned, too. The love and adventure plot was not substantially better than the movie and I was too stupid to notice what the missionary’s daughter had noticed, so I had spent my time reading it wishing that Goldman had abridged it less so that the movie could not have used everything instead of appreciating his point. And now I can’t figure out whether I should rate this book as 9.7, brilliant and subtle but just a little too colloquial for my taste, or 5, good romantic adventure but author failed miserably in getting his point across by being too subtle. And whether by making this review have the same theme as the book I can salvage my pride by readers thinking this review is brilliant because I might be lying just as much as Goldman was.

Review: 5 or 9.7


  • As has been often noted, if you want to fool the reader, put lots of truth in your lie and sound like everyone who is telling the truth. Make sure you research poor quality examples of the work you are imitating so that everyone relates to why you are making this version better.