I’ve always been fascinated by book covers: how they’re designed, what they tell us about a book before we’ve even read it, how a bad design may keep me from book I would otherwise enjoy, and how a good design will trick me into reading a book I don’t like. Last year Meg Wolitzer wrote a great article on the different ways the books written by women are marketed—including the typeface that is used on the cover. Yesterday, I came across link to an article about how Maureen Johnson had asked her twitter followers to create covers for books as though the original author had a different gender. It’s quite fun.
The article got me thinking about a book I read recently, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. This book may be one of my all time favorites. It’s about a writer, the titular Mr. Fox, his muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne. There is a bit of a love triangle between the three, but what makes it interesting is that Mary is a creation of Mr. Fox’s mind not a flesh and blood woman. The book begins with Mary accusing Mr. Fox of being a serial killer, as he kills of all the women in his novels. They start a game where they enter several different stories—in someways it is a bit reminiscent of Italo Calivino’s If one a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Ultimately, Oyeyemi is exploring how women are viewed, often in ways that justify the violence done to them, and how fictional constructs reinforce or subvert these views. Yet despite the heavy topic, the book is often lighthearted and funny.
However, you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s dealing with such topics from the cover. When I first come across this book, it was the cover to the right that I saw. I immediately recognized that the title was a reference to the British fairy tale, “Mr. Fox,” where a young woman visits her fiancé’s house and discovers he is a serial killer. She takes a dismembered hand of one of the victims, and at their wedding reception reveals his crimes to the whole neighborhood. He is immediately killed by her brothers and her friends. That definitely drew me to the book, but the Art Deco style, the colors, and the shadow of the woman with her back turned to the dapper gentlemen suggested that this book was most likely a period mystery novel with romance elements. Mystery is a fine genre, but not really my cup of tea (I hate puzzles).
Then I started to hear good but vague things about the novel. When I came across the edition pictured to the right at a book store, I bought the book. This cover for one connected the book to the fairy tale—the beast disguised as a human—and it suggested that their might be some exploration of tropes—how the collage of the fox and clothing are not smoothly merged. However, I was a bit worried when I read the summary on the back (which I can never resist reading). It said:
Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding. The fairy tales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?
On one hand the book had seemed to have magical realism, which I loved, but on the other hand it might just be a romance (also not my cup of tea). That summary only hints at the fairly dark parts in the book, but definitely emphasizes the romantic relationship between a man and two women. Oddly, it also suggest that the final outcome of the novel is based on the Mr. Fox’s choice alone, where in the book the two woman have equal agency.
I can’t say why the publisher chose to highlight certain aspects of this book—the love triangle—and not the other more violent parts—the murders in the embedded stories. Maybe this really did sell better, and I would never begrudge an awesome author getting read by a wider audience. Maybe I’m just revealing my own biases—in loving the meta and dark parts of the book, I’m probably selling short the fact that it is fun, usually lighthearted, often optimistic, and even romantic.
All I know is that I love this book, and I almost didn’t read it because of what was on its cover.