Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: A Perfect Red

Both exhaustive and exhausting, I struggled through A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield.  Perhaps this is more a reflection on me than the writer as the book has garnered many plaudits from top reviewers.  Greenfield obviously did her homework--there is little wasted space--as she elevates a lowly insect to instant celebrity. 

I did learn quite a bit, so the book did not disappoint in that regard.  Yet the full title was so inviting that I expected something sexier in style than a dry lecture: A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire.

All of those things are in the book to a certain degree, but as someone who enjoys nonfiction the telling of the story disappointed me. The gears of A Perfect Red grind and seize the worst through the core of the story--the elusive source of the lucrative and perfect scarlet: the cochineal insect.  

The writing kept me at arm's length from a story I found quite interesting.  Yet, I was never able to lose myself in the story and found myself constantly thinking that I need to keep reading because the history is compelling.  Being kept at arm's length in a newspaper or magazine informative article is one thing, but the same feeling in a book is disappointing.  For a book about a color, I expected a little more engagement of my senses.

At its best, the book reveals the compelling journey of red.  From nobility to British red coats to the man struggling to put bread and soup on his family's table, everyone sought to wear at least a small trace of red (no matter how poor the quality) on their clothing because of what it represented--wealth and power.  As a matter of fact, these strong feelings towards red do not shift until the emergence of the Victorian Age when everything bright and beautiful was summarily dismissed.

The writing yanks the reader back and forth across the Atlantic as the Spanish Empire bumbles its finances and political decisions and at the same time European scientists quibble where this lovely scarlet dye comes from--plant or insect.  It had been under the noses of Cortes and his men in Spanish-occupied Mexico for decades...meanwhile the Spanish Empire's finances burn...

We go on to follow a kidnapped cochineal insect and the quest to try to cultivate the insect.  Pirates raid ships not only for the traditional gold and silver...but for cochineal as well.  This becomes such a problem that the English found it a source of national pride when one of their men navigated a ship full of cochineal safely and successfully home.

The Spanish pressed their lips tight and their secrets to themselves for as long as they could, but the development of the microscope laid the debate to rest and the secret was out.  Manufacturing took over and squashed the highly-labor intensive development and refinement of the cochineal insect.

Overall, it is a story worth telling and knowing, and I am glad I know it now, but the journey through the book just proved dry and challenging for me.  The writing just did not appeal to my sensibilities.

Vermeer - Girl in the Red Hat

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