Learner's The Witch of Cologne is an erotically-charged novel of people swept inexorably along by events they could not control. In Soul, Learner relates the story of Lavinia and Julia Huntington, passionate women trapped in emotional whirlpools that threaten to drown them and everyone they love.
In 19th century Britain, Lavinia is married to an older man who seems to appreciate her lively curiosity. Lavinia proves to be an apt pupil in both the study and the bedroom, glorying in the pleasures of the physical.
In 21st century Los Angeles, geneticist Julia is trying to identify people who can kill without remorse. Stunned to discover that she seems to possess the trait she is looking for, Julia is reassured of her emotions by her intense passion for her husband and her delight in her pregnancy.
In the past, Lavinia's desire for her husband grows, but his cools as he becomes fascinated with another. In the present, Julia's love overwhelms her husband, who leaves her.
Lavinia and Julia feel the tortures of passion unspent. Cold logic tells them that the deaths of their tormentors will bring them peace. Separated by a hundred years, two Huntington women face the same decision. Their choices will echo far into the future.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Originally from London, where she trained to be a sculptor, Tobsha Learner has lived in the United States and Australia.
Read an Excerpt
The housekeeper had brought Lavinia to the remote place before, to this gully south of the village where the peat bog finished in a sharp edge, sliced away like a layer cake. The housekeeper’s sister had married a peatcutter whose stone and peat hut crouched resolute against the unforgiving elements. They were Catholics, now suffering under the great famine.
It was spring and the squares of turf sitting in piles on the new grass of the returning bog exuded a rich smell that was somehow exciting. The nine-year-old girl glanced back at the hut. The housekeeper, her wispy gray hair tucked firmly under a woolen bonnet, was in intense conversation with her sister, pushing the bound food parcels into her clawlike hands. Starvation had reduced the woman’s femininity to a series of sharp corners beneath her ragged dress.
Behind her, Lavinia heard the thud of a slean, then ringing as the iron turf-spade found a hidden rock. She knew it was the boy. He looked to be a good three or four years older than her, with a fudge of curling black hair over the wind-burnt oval of his solemn face. She’d noticed him as they were driving toward the small outpost: a skinny, shadowy parody of a man standing by the split peat, scowling at the approaching cart. Here was mystery, and Lavinia had felt her power as she caught him staring at her long loose hair, the ribbons of her bonnet, the extraordinary whiteness of her clean hands, her fresh face.
Without thinking, Lavinia ran toward him while the boy, feigning indifference, knelt to carve a rectangle with the slean.
"Do you like it here?" She kicked at the soil beside him.
Squinting up, he paused, watching the play of her fingers against the scarlet wool of her cloak.
"It’s a living . . . but you wouldn't know anything about that, a flash missy like yourself."
She skipped around to the other side of his patch of peat, turning the word "flash" around in her mind until she imagined she could taste it, like the sugar plums her father had brought her from Dublin for Christmas. The idea made her heart and stomach flutter.
"You think me flash?"
"Flash and pretty, like the sun, like a golden statue that belongs in church." He sat back, surprised at how the observation had suddenly made him feel demeaned, unclean. He knew her to be the daughter of a Protestant vicar, near gentry, and now he found that he resented the pristine naivety of the child, the plumpness of her forearms visible beyond the sleeves of her pinafore. It was almost as if he could eat the child herself. Picking up a sod of peat, he threw it at a crow—the bird’s cawing scribbled across the pewter sky as the black wings lifted it high into the air. Standing, the boy wiped his muddy hands across his thighs, then looked back to where the two women were still engrossed in conversation.
"If you like, I can show you some magic—an elvin’s cave."
Lavinia hesitated. She knew it was wrong to walk off unescorted, but he looked harmless enough, his adolescent wrists dangling, his face as mournful as a donkey’s. Besides, she liked the burning feeling she had when he looked at her.
"We cannot be long. Mrs. O’Brien will worry if I am not in sight."
But he was already leading her away from the field, his cutter swinging from a notch in his belt. She followed him, clambering down a hidden ravine beyond the bog.
Looking around, Lavinia panicked at their isolation. "Where is the cave?"
The boy walked across to a clump of low bush and pulled it aside to reveal the darkened mouth of a small burrow. Most likely an abandoned badger’s den, Lavinia thought, annoyed that he could believe her so gullible; but she still wanted to see it, just in case—against all the logic her father had taught her—elvins might really exist. Then, later, back at the vicarage, she would be able to tell the story to her whispering box, so that her mother could hear her up there in Paradise.
She hoisted her skirt above her knickerbockers and dropped to the spongy heather to crawl into the cave.
"If you get closer you will see their wee purple eyes glinting in the dark."
Lavinia peered into the darkness. Behind her, suddenly, she felt the strangeness of his hands under her petticoats, up between her legs. Kicking, she pushed herself back into the light as she tried to fight him off.
To her amazement, she was not so much afraid as surprised when he pinned her against the bracken. As he held her there he supported his weight with one hand while reaching down with the other to his breeches. The glint of his cutter hanging from his belt pulled at her consciousness. Before she had time to think, she’d grabbed it and, with a strange, soft tearing sound, plunged it into the boy’s thigh.
He screamed once like an animal. She rolled from under him and for a minute, they both stared down at the buried knife. Fascinated, Lavinia watched as blood began to well around the lip of the wound, staining his thin burlap breeches.
"You have fallen on your own knife, understand?" she said softly. Her cool demeanor sent a shiver through the injured boy. "If I hear mention of any other explanation, I shall have you whipped."
Lavinia waited until the boy nodded, his ruddy face now ashen. Then she ran, filled with a wild, thumping exhilaration that she intuitively knew she would have to keep secret, perhaps for her whole life.
Excerpted from Soul by Tobsha Learner
Copyright © 2008 by Tobsha Learner
Published in May 2008 by Tor/Forge
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Learner draws an historical comparison between phrenology and genetics, Darwin and creationism, the onset of the American Civil War and the fall-out of contemporary American Foreign policydo you think by raising such comparisons she is commenting on the nature of progress or suggesting history in some ways merely repeats itself?
2. Soul is very much a story about power. What are the greatest differences between Julia and Lavinia in terms of the types of power that they have, or lack, in the world intellectual, familial, social, economic, professional, and maternal?
3. The prison of Lavinia's marriage has its basis in the consolidation of economic power solely in the hands of a man. What have been the most important elements in the establishment of women's independence in the western world over the last century? What commodities, abilities, and freedoms do we take for granted that Lavinia could never gain access to?
4. Learner's characters talk frequently about nature vs. nurture, about genetic imperatives vs. free will and moral responsibility. Is Lavinia a moral person? What code of ethics does she follow? What are her strongest priorities?
5. Why do you think that Julia is able to avoid killing Klausand therefore avoid either going to jail or losing her own lifewhile Lavinia is compelled to kill James? Do you think that Lavinia's decision was the right one, either morally or in terms of her struggle for survival? Does Julia represent a more evolved version of her greatgrandmother, or does she simply have more choices?
6. Genetic propensities are triggered or not triggered by external factors such as stress, physical environment, and even diet. How do the external circumstances that trigger the propensity to kill without remorse in both women differ?
7. Post-traumatic stress disorder has a huge impact not only on combat soldiers but also their families and friends. The notion of genetically profiling men who would not suffer from it is morally complexhow does Learner address this issue?
8. Learner portrays Klaus as someone who has frequently failed to stand up for himself, yet when he leaves Julia, he does so in an aggressive and self-centered way. Is he actually a narcissist, or simply someone who took years to learn how to prioritize his own needs? Is he a modern-day cad? How does he compare with James, his parallel in Lavinia's story?
9. What do you think of Julia's decision, early on in the book, to accept the Defense Department contract? Is she ethical in her thinking about her work? Can you envision situations in which her super-soldiers could be essential to public safety or national security? How do you feel about her decisions at the book's end?
10. Gabriel is an enigmatic character. Do you think that he loves Julia, or does he seduce her for professional gain? Given their age difference, what do you make of the fact that he genuinely seems to care about her well-being? How does this relate to his own up-bringing?
11. Much of Lavinia's story revolves around differences between culture and manners in Ireland and England. Are these always differences of class? What other factors go into creating the rift that Lavinia so often feels as an Irishwoman in Mayfair?
12. How do you think Julia's story would have unfolded had she not miscarried? Would Klaus have come back to her? Would Carla's pregnancy have influenced his decision? Do you think that having a child would have altered Julia's anger toward Klaus or her decisions about harming him?
13. The Irish Famine was one of the great crimes perpetuated by an indifferent Englandin what way were the English aristocracy implicated?
14. The ambassador for the Confederate States did indeed have an embassy in Mayfair and the Confederacy was active in campaigning for support in Britain. What economic hold did they have over the manufacturing industry in England?
15. The genetic imprint that Julia, Lavinia, and Julia's soldiers share begs the question of whether warthe use of lethal conflict to settle differencesis inherent in our nature. Is war a necessary part of life? Can you envision a societya town, state, or nationthat could function entirely without internal armed conflict? Do such societies already exist?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 2002 Los Angeles, pregnant genetic researcher Julia Huntington searches for the gene that makes someone become a remorseless killer. However Julia¿s life collapses when she learns her spouse Klaus loves her best friend she becomes despondent and angry. She also knows she can kill with no remorse having done so in Afghanistan.----------------------- In 1849 Julia¿s great-grandmother, Lavinia was a young woman living in Ireland when she was assaulted she stabbed her attacker feeling no remorse. In 1860 she was chosen to be the wife of three decade older amateur anthropologist Colonel James Huntington. Lavinia was given no choice in the matter. However, when she learns the secret that her spouse hid from she becomes despondent and angry.----------- The fun in this engaging psychological horror thriller lies with the comparative analysis of the two eras especially enlightening are biological theory, criminology, and psychology in 1860 vs. 2008. The audience will enjoy following the escapades of the abusive remorseless couples although the rotating viewpoints between the two women feel disruptive at times, not enabling the reader to get deep into the hearts of either lead female or their ¿abusive¿ spouses. Still psychological horror fans will enjoy Tobsha Learner¿s look at the souls of two female relatives a century and a half apart as the author raises the argument that civilization¿s nurturing can impede or enhance the core individual¿s DNA blueprint depending on circumstances.--------- Harriet Klausner
Set in two different centuries, this intriguing story questions whether the potential to be a killer can be passed on from one generation to the next. Lavinia, living in the 17th Century, is married to Col. James Huntington. Although she entered the marriage with high hopes, she discovers her husband is keeping a secret that eventually destroys their marriage, and leads Lavinia down a path she never imagined. Centuries later, Lavinia's great granddaughter, Julia, is a genetic scientist working to find the gene enables a person to kill with remorse. While expecting her first child, Julia's life is turned upside down when her husband leaves her for her best friend. What makes a killer nature or nurture? These two stories explore this question, while providing intriguing story lines that are hard to put down. Both stories will keep the reader fascinated as the characters struggle with complicated emotions that range from love to hate.
So this is 'fictional science' more than science fiction. Pretend genetic research in an (overly time-stamped) 2002 that is shadowed by events in the mid-late 1800's does not speculative, nor science fiction make. Not a problem unless that is what one is expecting, I suppose.But like I parenthesised, way too time-stamped. Who are these people and events you are referencing, totally dating and damaging your prose with, m'dear? Oh wait, they are so obvious I cannot miss them. The past bits are better.
I was going to give this only 4.5 stars but then I realised that there was nothing I really disliked it. Compelling, painful in the right way, and very clever.
Only made it about 160 pages into this thing and decided it wasn't for me. Here are my impressions based on those 160 pages. I only found one main character likeable in this thing, Lavinia. Oddly enough, having found her the only likeable character I just didn't find her storyline in the book necessary. I understand the author was trying to draw a comparison between the two characters but I don't think it was really necessary for me. The inclusion of Lavinia's story just become filler for me. At first I was intrigued by the premise of the genetic project of the other main character and was interested to see how it was going to play out but after a small mention in the first 10 pages or so it was obvious it was going to take a back burner to sex,betrayal, and pity parties. Too bad, could have made an interesting story and perhaps the line of the book changed I'm just not willing to use my time to see if it does.
Two women, one living in the mid-1800¿s, the other in early 2000, have a lot in common, including their husbands¿ betrayals and perhaps a killer DNA gene. Lavinia was intrigued with James Huntington¿s scientific research. The fact that he was more than twice her age didn¿t stop her from falling in love and winning him over with her insatiable intellectual curiosity. Their marriage fulfilled her dreams and bearing him a male heir made them the perfect family. In the present day, Professor Julia Huntington, a direct descendent of Lavinia and James, has just landed a dream DNA sponsorship with the Department of Defense, discovers she¿s pregnant with her first child and is still madly in love with her husband of over a decade. The events in the women¿s lives parallel each other in an unsettling way and Julia is hoping to find resolution through her science. Soul is a relaxing read. The author aptly separated the novel into three parts of the Garden of Eden tale: The Apple, The Serpent, and The Fall. The short chapters alternate between the women¿s point of views which keeps the reader intrigued as to what will happen next. Learner handles transitions well and keeps the reader focused on the women and their lives. The book¿s many layers all relate to its overall theme of `nature vs. nurture.¿ Tobsha Learner, born and raised in England, has lived in Australia and the US. Her third book, the bestselling The Witch of Cologne, was her first work of historical fiction. She has had a collection of short stories published before each of her novels. I recommend Soul to anyone interested in a good story with intriguing female characters. Soul grasps right to the unpredictable end. Reviewer: Lisa Haselton, Allbooks Reviews.