Book Review: MONA IN THREE ACTS, a painful, beautiful character study

We first meet Mona when she is almost ten, locked in a dark room in the basement by her mother, Agnes and accepting the punishment as her due since she has internalized her mother’s criticisms of her being difficult and poorly behaved. But, the cruel discipline soon ends when her parents are in a devastating car accident that kills Agnes.

Mona’s distant father, Vincent, waits only nine months before marrying Marie whose moods are erratic. Marie often lapses into paranoia, believing Mona or her brother Alexander’s benign behavior to be a deliberate slight. Mona learns to repress her emotions to humor Marie and keep peace in the family. Highly verbal with a rich interior life, the precocious child is observant and insightful but given her age is not always accurate in her observations.

Part II finds Mona, in her mid-twenties, at a turning point in her life when she accepts a position with an acclaimed theater producer/director and meets a famous author while Part III presents Mona in her mid-thirties as she faces personal and professional crises wondering if she can ever escape the patterns she learned as a child.

For me, reading Mona in Three Acts, set in Belgium, written by Griet Op de Beeck, and translated by Michele Hutchison, was a pleasure. I really felt for Mona in my bones, and I particularly enjoyed Part I, when she was trying to understand adult problems through a child’s perspective. Above all, the book is a character study, and its structure allows the reader to watch Mona’s evolution over time. Personally, I also really like books that have gaps like this where the events of the intervening years are puzzles to solve.

Mona’s central challenge—the pull between fulfilling family responsibility and expectations and pursuing individual passions—as well as her challenging relationships with her father and stepmother reflect universal conflicts, and I think many readers can if not see themselves in Mona certainly empathize with her. She also has some brilliant reflections: I highlighted many passages!

I was satisfied with everything in the book, but I did wish the novel had developed certain areas more, particularly how outsiders like spouses and boy/girlfriends relate to the family dynamics and a subplot about a conflict between Marie and one of Mona’s younger siblings which felt incomplete.

I really enjoyed Mona in Three Acts, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Readers who enjoy literary fiction, character-driven novels, and books in translation should consider this book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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