Wings of Destiny
Remember the TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the one where two robots sat around with their human friend Joel and wisecracked their way through the cheesiest science-fiction movies ever made? It was the only way anybody could stand to watch those films. Reading Wings of Destiny, I kept wishing desperately that Tom Servo and Crow were with me – it might have made the experience more bearable.
The story begins in Jamaica in 1774, when Yuala, a slave owned by Henry Duke, sees a vision of a beautiful white woman who says her name is Barbara. Barbara says that she’s Yuala’s great-great-granddaughter, and that Yuala is destined to become Henry’s mistress and have a daughter. In due course, this happens, and Henry and Yuala enjoy several years of happiness until he dies and his spiteful, jealous family sells Yuala and their daughter Rachel to Richard Harrison of Charleston. Soon after, Yuala dies of a broken heart. Her ghost comes back to Rachel and tells her that her destiny lies with Richard, and that they will have a son, Jefferson.
A few years after Richard’s wife dies, he and Rachel embark on their affair, and Jefferson makes his appearance. After several years of happiness, Richard suffers a debilitating stroke and his spiteful, jealous daughter Maureen exacts her revenge on the two people who stole her father from her. Richard dies, and Rachel follows him into the next world. Jefferson flees and makes his way to San Francisco. Here he will build the empire his mother told him would be his destiny. He becomes one of the city’s founding fathers, influential in the arts, politics, and business – a fine, upstanding man, except for one tiny, little thing.
Jefferson enters into an adulterous affair with Caroline Mansfield, a married woman, who bears him a son, Lawrence. Meanwhile, someone else arrives in town: Nan-Yung Su, whose family was ruined in China by Jefferson’s great-uncle Andrew Duke. Nan-Yung is delighted to learn that a member of the Duke family is also in San Francisco, and swears to avenge his family honor on the wealthy merchant. His wife Yin has the second sight, and learns that she is destined to become Lawrence’s lover. Once Lawrence’s wife turns him out of their bed after the birth of their daughter, Barbara, he turns to Yin for consolation. It will take the great earthquake of 1906 for all these threads to come together: Will Nan-Yung get his revenge? Will Barbara ever find out her true heritage? Will Jefferson ever learn who’s been stalking him all these years?
I cannot find a single thing to recommend about this book. The storyline is ludicrous, hinging as it does on so many coincidences that Charles Dickens would have been embarrassed to use them. The dialogue is wooden and anachronistic (nobody said “snafu” in 1900 – it’s a word from World War II). Shifts in point of view occur abruptly, within the same scene and often in the same paragraph. A single scene is drawn out for pages and pages, while years pass in the space of a phrase or sentence. The characters are so heavily stereotyped that I knew what they were going to do chapters beforehand. The fact that all the love stories were based on adultery was an aspect I found especially distasteful: Yuala and Henry, Rachel and Richard, Jefferson and Caroline, Lawrence and Yin, even Barbara and her lover Michael.
It is obvious – painfully so – that Ms. Lanigan conducted a lot of research in the course of writing the book. It’s as if she were standing in front of readers, waving a sheaf of paper and beating us over the head with what she found out. Unfortunately, most of it is not germane to the story: at one point a character sits at a piano and plunks out a tune. That’s the only reason we’re subjected to the preceding paragraphs, which give us a pedantic and self-important treatise on the history of the piano. By the end of the book, we’ve been treated to a social history of San Francisco, complete with lists of politicians and socialites, as well as more information than we need about the graft and corruption in City Hall. We’re also told at great length about the social structure and foreign policy of China in the nineteenth century. But don’t ask me how this advances the plot. One of the rules of fiction writing is: If it’s not necessary to the plot, leave it out. By that measure, a good half of Wings of Destiny could have been penciled out, and this reader, at least, would not have lamented its removal.
What makes it worse is that much of the research is flat-out wrong. Caroline gets anesthetic during childbirth, in 1839, when in fact doctors did not attempt this until 1845, at the earliest. The beginning of the Civil War is given as 1860, not 1861. Mention is made of Beethoven being a “prize pupil” of Mozart’s, when he studied under the Austrian genius for only a brief period in 1784. The plethora of errors I ran across led me to doubt everything else I read. This is in addition to the fact that all of Yuala’s descendants exhibit nothing but aristocratic European features, with nary a hint of their African heritage among the lot. Evidently, genetics was not among the subjects the author included in her research; the only gene this group seems to have in common is the one that passes on a propensity to commit adultery.
Throw in a couple of gratuitous masturbation scenes, the distracting tendency to introduce secondary characters in elaborate detail and then do nothing with them, and typographical errors that occurred so frequently I stopped making note of them, and Wings of Destiny went over with me like the proverbial lead balloon. I ended up reading passages aloud to friends, trying to recreate the MST-3K experience. I should have asked Joel if I could borrow the robots before I started reading.