Book Review : Anna and the King of Siam {Part 1}

The saying goes "The book is always better than the movie," but what about the play?

When the local performing arts center, Walton Arts Center announced that they would be having a book club attached to their 2017-2018 Broadway season I knew I wanted to take part to answer that question. I hope {fingers crossed} to read the book and then watch the performance of at least four shows when they come to town. 


The first book is Anna and the King of Siam with the play being Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

First thoughts:

Good gracious was I intimiadated.  Call me shallow but I get frustrated ridiculously easy when there are too many "thous" and "therefores" and the author starts referencing world events that may have been common knowledge at some point but isn't at this point. Fortunately for me, this wasn't the case. Though the events of the book take place in 1860 this compilation / rendition of Anna's story was written in the mid 1940's. This makes it immensely easier to digest and the author does a wonderful job of giving context and backstory. Within the first five chapters I was hooked and ready to hear about the adventures this smart but stubborn woman was about to undertake. 


Anna is a newly widowed mother of two who takes a job teaching the King of Siam's children (and many wives) the English language and European customs. In the process she learns the intricacies of Siamese court life and the people within. 

Reading thoughts : 

Reading, to me, is always an inexpensive ticket to a faraway land. But this particular ticket in book-form had a special time traveler aspect to it as well. Not only did I get to felt the oppressive humidity of a Bangkok summer but I got to experience it while wearing all the layers of clothing {think hoop skirts} of a proper English lady.

I felt that there were three main parts of the story: the description of place and people, the explanation of Siamese custom, and the individual stories that ran throughout. Other than a particularly dry section that explained French aggression, I really found that each of those three parts interlocked and depended on the other. Without the detailed explanation of the Siamese custom of harems one would not be able to fully comprehend a city of 9,000 women that lived solely within the walls of the palace. And without the lush details given of the scenes and streets within that city, the individual intrigues would not not been so personal.  

Personal, that's what these stories truly were. I would find myself wondering,

"What would I do if I were suddenly the disgraced wife of the king? Would I throw myself into study or would I try to escape?"

"What would I do if I were the favored wife and saw a young concubine misbehaving? Would I try to help her or would I leave her to her own undoing?"

"What would I do if I were a young single {poor} English school teacher and the most powerful man in the country (tyrannical despot though he may be) wanted to marry me?"  

Perhaps it was this sense of the personal that gave it such an immediacy to me. This wasn't the story of women almost two hundred years ago. This is a story about women.

Poor women and rich women. Kind women and evil women. Brave women and otherwise. Loyal slaves. Despicable mothers. Rowdy teenagers. Women who loved and married and miscarried and sent their children to better circumstance however possible.

Women of all sorts who were simply trying to do the best with what that had been given. 

The end of the book has the main character speaking to a minor character years after the story takes place, where the main character is lauded for the having achieved her goal of influencing the direction of an entire country through the education of one young prince. And, though it sounds trite, isn't that what we all want? "It was hard but it was worth it. I changed the world for the better."

After reading / Before the play:

I'm excited to see the visuals the theatre makes happen with this story. "Lush" and "decadent" are two descriptors I would immediately associate with the setting of the book. Another is "expansive". A city within a palace that holds 9,000 women?!? How is that even possible to put forth on a stage?

This makes me think this will be more about the relationship between the main character and the King. I understand that. I mean, it is the title of the book. But the truth is, the wasn't the thing that most interested me.

Yes, it was the string that connected all the other events. If she wasn't having a {mostly disagreeable} relationship with the King none of the other things would have happened in her presence or sphere of influence. However, to me, her relationship with him wasn't the transformative thing that generally moves a story forward. So I will be interested to see how they make that happen on stage as well. 

Logistics note:

I'm publishing this on Friday September 29. I will be attending the play on Tuesday, October 3 and the associated book club on the 9th. I will write a follow up post after I've both seen the show and attended the book club so that you get to enjoy the breadth of this experience with me.