"Really, the impertinence of these people! They made my whole life sound like a cheap novel."
So proclaims protagonist Alice Liddell Hargreaves in Melanie Benjamin's intimate fictional reconstruction of her life. Despite this self-deprecating dig from the author, Alice I Have Been is anything but tawdry, instead presenting a heavily-researched, heart-rending view of the real girl, and later the real woman, who inspired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Alice first speaks to the reader as a tired but unbowed octogenarian, struggling with her memories of the past. She takes the reader on a journey through time, back to a Victorian childhood overseen by her kind but distant father, the Dean of Christ's Church at Oxford, and her stern, domineering mother. Unlike her more prim and practical sisters, Alice finds her irrepressibly curious nature at odds with her strict society and stiff garments. Her carefree, inquisitive nature makes her the favorite of mathematics professor Charles Dodgson, who despite his thirty years of age prefers the company of children. While he seeks the acquaintance of all the Liddell daughters, it is Alice for whom he casually spins a yarn that will immortalize them both. However, Alice's reckless crush on the older man and his inappropriate encouragement taint her innocent childhood memories.
With acerbity and confidence, Alice goes on to detail the ways in which the famous author and book shape and haunt her adult life, from ending her happiness with her true love, to saving her family's estate. Benjamin deftly and precisely sketches the family, friends, and enemies that inhabit Alice's world and paints quaint, never ponderous scenes of Oxford and the surrounding British countryside. Through all the high notes, though, the relationship between Alice and Dodgson remains the great demonstration of Benjamin's skill, evoking innocence and forbidden romance without crossing the line into gratuity. Spend time with Alice I Have Been, and prepare to find reality as enchanting as Wonderland.
Shelf Talker: An engrossing novel about Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the girl destined to be known for all time as Alice in Wonderland. By turns comic and heart-rending, it reads so much like an autobiography, it's easy to forget it's fiction.