Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence)

AN UNWILLING BRIDE and SEDUCTION IN SILK: forced marriages, feminist rhetoric, and another violent hero

I’m a huge Jo Beverley fan. Beverley has pretty much everything I’m looking for in historical romance: characters with depth and humor, solid and convincing historical settings with just the right amount of intriguing trivia concerning manners and material culture, intricate world-building and interrelated stories across multiple books, richly imagined and not-too-cheesy dude groups, a dash of bromance, strong well-read heroines, a lovely long backlist to explore, and a willingness to test the conventions of the genre. Beverley’s novels can be fun, and funny, but they are not light. I could go on and on but there’s already a wonderful summary of the best of Beverley here @ Janet Webb’s “Jo Beverley Appreciation” for Heroes & Heartbreakers.

I thought I had read pretty much her entire backlist, or at least all the Rogues (Regency-era) and Malloren (Georgian-set) novels, but a funny thing happened last October right after I read Seduction in Silk, which is the newest book set in the glittering Georgian world of the Mallorens. I was pondering this novel’s explicit discussion of feminist issues regarding marriage, property rights, and the legal status of women, when Liz @ Something More blogged about throwaway uses of the word feminist in romance fiction, and wondered about a “strain of resistance” to the appearance of feminist language, or principles, in the genre. ErinSatie identified a counter-example drawn from the historical romance subgenre — Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride:

…the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

At that point, I jumped in with an incoherent comment, and subsequently realized either I’d somehow skipped book #2 in the Company of Rogues series, which was 1992’s An Unwilling Bride, or I wasn’t remembering it very well. It turns out I was confusing it with the first in the series, An Arranged Marriage (1991). Of course I was excited to uncover a ‘hidden’ treasure – a heretofore unread novel from the Beverley canon. I read Unwilling Bride last week, and it compelled me to revisit Seduction in Silk.

Love, Honor, and Obedience Both these books contain a similar forced marriage premise, and feature somewhat unlikeable and rigid spinster heroines who read Wollstonecraft and/or make use of feminist rhetoric to mask the unsettling realization that the hero’s appearance in her life has revealed she may actually have emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. Which of course this man, whose presence has been thrust upon her, can and will meet.

In each case the emotional journey of the couple involves actual conversations with each other (and each of them with various friends and relations) about the meaning of matrimony and the effort involved in the crafting of domestic harmony. Beverley’s characters explicitly discuss how to arrange their lives together to allow mutual interests and individual identities to thrive and prosper. She is masterful at weaving such conversations (not just in these two books) into the narrative and giving voice to feminist concerns about the marital state, property rights, masterful husbands, and the appeal of the badass alpha, without breaking the character of her Georgian and Regency period settings. This is partly accomplished through the liberal use of bluestocking heroines who read Wollstonecraft, but is also due to careful research and excellent dialogue.

From Seduction in Silk:

“There is no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to Miss Mallow.”

“That is for her to judge.”

“Unreasonable woman! There’s no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to her, because I’ve promised that after the vows are said I will leave her completely to her own devices.”

Genova cocked her head. “That does remove many objections. However, before the law you would still be her master.”

“As Ashart is yours.”

“A factor that weighed with me, I assure you. Love is the very devil.”

Keeping Her In Line  Both these books were absorbing, satisfying reads — the kind of reading experience where you find yourself musing about the characters and their interactions or conflicts when you’re not actually reading. Yet my satisfaction with the two HEAs was decidedly dissimilar. Seduction in Silk left me pleased and content, but was more memorable for its strange subplots than for the actual relationship, which ended up being rather bland in spite of a rather explosive beginning.

An Unwilling Bride left me unsettled and (almost) unwilling or unable to believe in the HEA.  Yet in a way I love this book more for its edginess and willingness to more deeply interrogate the historical romance enterprise itself — what does it mean (both for the heroine and for the reader) when the HEA involves submitting to marriage with no legal protections? How to balance the pleasures of a period setting with the tolerances and interests of contemporary romance readers in the post-feminist era? Some historicals leave legal matters offscreen except when needed as plot device, but Beverley’s characters directly converse about essential everyday questions related to the status of women.

From An Unwilling Bride:

“How do you keep her in line, then?”

…. “In what line?”

It was a challenge and Lucien reacted by stiffening. “Within the line of appropriate behavior.”

Nicholas’s warm brown eyes became remarkably cold. “I’ve never stayed within that line myself. Why should I try to impose it on anyone else?

“She’s your wife, damn it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “She’s Eleanor. I never wanted to become the guardian of another adult human being and God was good and granted me a wife able to accept freedom…”

Both these novels present heroines facing tough choices and harsh consequences if they refuse to accede to the marriage that’s been arranged. Yet although Claris Mallow, a country rector’s daughter struggling to raise and educate her younger brothers (Seduction in Silk), faces much more precarious economic circumstances and hardship, Beth Armitage’s experience as the titular Unwilling Bride in the earlier novel feels both harsher and more emotionally precarious.

Force vs. Persuasion  The most obvious reason for the different tenor of the two relationships is the contrast between heroes Lucien de Vaux, daredevil rakehell with violent tendencies who treats his unwilling bride with a mixture of hostility and detachment for much of the book (until he suddenly falls in love with her and becomes overprotective and jealous), and Peregrine Perriam, amiable charmer and beta hero who eventually wins his bride over with a combination of practicality, directness, and silken luxuries. Both couples are forced to the altar by external circumstances involving adultery (by parents or other relatives) and inheritance, and much of the eventual romance takes place after each couple has tied the knot.

(Spoilers beyond this point, especially for An Unwilling Bride)

Lucien and Beth are the 1992 Regency couple from An Unwilling Bride. At their best they are swapping erudite quotations and bantering about books, while engaged in a very public show of courtship and endless social events at the very highest level of London society. I loved that they discovered shared enthusiasm for competitive quoting that offers them a safe space for exchanging ideas and genuine opinions.  But at their worst they withhold and dissemble so much that they constantly offend and resent one another, and there is a terrible lack of trust between them which only becomes more disturbing when Lucien’s violence erupts and he strikes Beth.

That’s right — this is a 1992 RITA winner in which the hero backhands the heroine across the face in an uncontrolled jealous rage. I’m still wrestling with my mixed responses to this book, which I was love love loving right up to this point. Beverley dropped clues to Lucien’s barely-contained violence along the way, which I thought were interesting in and of themselves — it’s clear Beth found him physically intimidating but she was also coming to understand and love him. But I wasn’t expecting to spend the final chapters preoccupied, as are both characters, with Beth’s bruised face and whether or not I can believe in (a) Beth’s immediate forgiveness or (b) Lucien’s redemption and vow that it will never happen again.

As for Perry and Claris of last year’s Seduction in Silk, they too must cope with the emotional fallout of a violent episode.  This time, however, the gender dynamic is reversed and it is a pistol-wielding woman who expresses deep rage and frustration by shooting her would-be suitor at point-blank range. Fortunately, trusty maidservant Ellie had loaded the weapon with powder but no shot. Perry is unharmed, but Claris is undone by the realization that she has almost killed a man. And truthfully, the whole episode, indeed the whole novel, is played for laughs to a much greater extent than Lucien and Beth’s story. Where Beth appears clever but helpless, and even makes her own situation worse with several strategic errors that plant the seeds of mistrust, Claris comes off  as wacky but not without resources.

Not all feminist brides are created equal Although they share the same views about the disadvantages inherent in submitting to marriage, Claris and Beth respond differently because their circumstances are so different. Beth, with only a spinster aunt and the school where they teach to call home, capitulates early in the novel and internalizes her anger at being manipulated into marriage, becoming ever more isolated and fragile in her sudden ascendance to the rigors of public life in a ducal household. She does assert her autonomy by choosing to help a downtrodden former student seeking refuge (which secondary plot leads to all manner of mayhem and more violence, including the bloody death of a villain who did terrible things to Nicholas Delaney in the previous book in the series). But overall, she just seems entirely overshadowed by Lucien and his confidence, physical presence, powerful allies, and warm circle of friends.

With my other Beverley couple of the week, it is Claris who overshadows Perry. She’s got a motley household to manage, a warm and quirky assortment of family members, and an agenda — to see her younger brothers educated as gentlemen. The two of them also have a convoluted curse plot to unravel, and a manor house to save. As a younger son, Perry has made his way in the role of diplomat and courtier; he puts others at ease and blends into the background, leaving center stage to pistol-packing Claris and her starchy, self-interested grandmother, Athena. Claris doesn’t want to marry because she fears loss of independence and she has a genuine fear of the risks of child-bearing, but she’s also got strong motivation to marry since it will improve her economic situation sufficiently to ensure her brothers’ futures.

Perry is being forced into the marriage by the terms of an unlikely will, but he sets out to win Claris’s acceptance directly, resulting in a narrative of seduction and pursuit that is tart and tangy and not at all unpleasant. Among other things, he brings her well-chosen gifts including fruit and silk (he’s receiving mentoring from Ashart and Genova, an iconic Malloren-world couple). This is all very witty and charming, and asked the right questions about submission, autonomy, and identity, but it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lucien and Beth’s story.

Violence in Romance With Lucien and Beth, Beverley forces the reader to look right into the heart of a marriage, which has now become a love match, where the husband has legal authority over his wife, and listen in when he struggles to rationalize his belief system in the context of his abhorrent behavior.

“Yet you threatened to beat me. Twice.” She didn’t mention it, but the blow which marked her face hovered between them.

They walked a little way in silence before he responded. “I suppose I consider force appropriate on occasions, but I have no excuse or justification for what happened tonight.” Thoughtfully he added, “It worries me considerably.” After a moment he continued, “As for my threats, I threatened to beat you – although I don’t know whether I could do such a thing – when you seemed about to bring scandal into the family. If it helps, I’d threaten to beat a man in the same situation, and be more likely to do it. Does that make you more equal, or less?”

“I don’t know,” said Beth, frowning. “It’s late and I’m tired. That must be why you can justify violence to me. It can’t actually make sense.”  (An Unwilling Bride)

The rest of the novel focuses on Beth and Lucien working together to rescue Clarissa, the imperiled former student, from a forced marriage, along with Lucien’s badass former mistress (she and Beth become friends and allies) and several other Rogues and their wives. There is more violence, and even worse the implied violence and misery of the life Clarissa would have been sentenced to — virtual enslavement to an evil husband who is known to be a sexual sadist and rapist. I think it’s interesting that this secondary plot surfaces quite graphically in the final chapters of the novel. Is Beth so determined to help Clarissa because she wishes someone had done the same for her when she was facing the blackmail threats which resulted in her own unwanted marriage? She had no way of knowing what kind of man Lucien would turn out to be.  Or does she see Clarissa’s situation as completely different from her own, given that by this point in the story she and Lucien have fallen in love and she has succumbed to the physical and intellectual attraction she had for him from the start? Still, on what basis does she trust that his blow was a one-time mistake? I kept wishing that Nicholas and Eleanor had got wind of it, with perhaps some severely man-to-man, and mano a mano, consequences being meted out. And then I can’t believe I’m wishing for more violence to balance the scales!

In the end I almost always prefer a romance novel that makes me think, or even pushes against the limits of my comfort zone. An Unwilling Bride does both these things, and boldly raises many more questions about the appeal of the romance genre, and historical romance in particular, than it answers. Does the HEA justify the means, even if vows are forced?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to an unwilling woman? OK for her to be forced to the altar, an act with far-reaching legal repercussions, as long as the hero doesn’t force her sexually until she consents?  Is she merely reluctant and skittish and ripe for falling in love? Or is the forced marriage trope a common theme because it provides narrative space to explore various ways in which a woman may be taken against her will, from the emotional shock of falling in love, to the social requirement of marriage, to the surrender to desire?

What about the vulnerability of falling in love with someone who will have legal authority over you once you marry him? Seduction in Silk echoes some of these questions, but the sharp edges are blunted — it’s a much more comfortable read. Which begs the further question — was Beverley seeking to make readers uncomfortable with the earlier book? Does having the hero actually hit the heroine force us to examine our own willingness/unwillingness to engage with the badass hero fantasy? Can you believe in the HEA if there has been violence between the hero and heroine? Was this just much more common in the 80’s and early 90’s than I am remembering? Are there any other romances you have enjoyed where the hero strikes the heroine in anger (to distinguish such acts from those in BDSM romance where the violence is consensual and ritualized)?

Seduction in Silk and An Unwilling Bride are available in the usual formats and places. An Unwilling Bride was recently released as an e-book. I purchased both books at my local used paperback shop.

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Old Man River of No Return: A Steamy Regency Brought to You by Father Time?

THE RIVER OF NO RETURN by Bee Ridgway: A Regency time travel romance that meditates on time as a river, cultural hegemony, and the flow of history

The reluctant hero Time traveler Nick Davenant, an alpha-hero Regency soldier-aristocrat turned 21st-century dilettante artisanal cheese farmer (Vermont, of course), pop culture junkie, and ladies’ man. He unwittingly escaped death on the battlefield at Salamanca by jumping forward in time, but his story really takes off when he’s asked to go back and resume his life as Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown.

The spinster heroine Powerful time-bender Lady Julia Percy. An orphan, she’s left alone following the death of her beloved grandfather. When his heir arrives she stops time in its tracks to narrowly escape the violent rage of this mad cousin, and then must learn the how and why of her unusual talents.

The setting Mainly London, 1815, but we also get to travel with Nick to 2003 and experience what happens when he first arrives in the 21st century, along with some of his travels in present-day Europe and America.

The tropes Regency lord with badass military experience, and battle trauma; Bluestocking spinster raised by eccentric and intellectual grandfather; Hero & heroine have shared brief yet compelling childhood encounter; Orphaned heroine at the mercy of villainous relative; Hero’s female relations offer heroine refuge and sisterhood, placing her under hero’s protection; Virginal heroine & reformed libertine hero; Heroine & hero as partners and crime-stoppers.

Islands in the Stream A lot of reviews of this book talk about its masterful blend of genres, from science fiction & fantasy, to romance and historical fiction, to adventure/suspense. And they’re right – The River of No Return is one of those books that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a river with many tributaries. Which is one of the things I like most about it. It’s like a literary, tightly structured Outlander with a dash of the Pink Carnation and Amazing Grace (the film). Here’s how I break it down:

Steamy Regency Of course my starting point is the romance genre, and Julia and Blackdown are a couple with just the right amount of conflict, misperceptions and chemistry. We see them together only in the 19th century, but this is after Blackdown has spent a decade in 21st century America, wearing jeans and hooking up in bars. There’s something utterly sublime about the way Ridgway weaves together his two-fold responses to Julia, revealing his struggle to act the proper Regency lord while undoubtedly imagining what she’d look like in jeans or a bikini. But the romance offers an emotionally satisfying journey in its own right, as Julia moves from distrust to transparency and Blackdown learns her secrets. Strong dialogue and good conversation are the surefire way to draw me in to a romance, and I loved the layers of meaning embedded in their repartee.  As for the steamy part, it’s understated and erotic, not terribly explicit. But there is tangible sizzle, and one of the least icky, most effectively sexy recitations of the oft-used Elegy 20 from John Donne I’ve encountered.

Father Time As time travel Fantasy, The River of No Return is more conceptual than literal, and the world-building is sketched in only as much as necessary to convey the vision of history as a river through which people, via innate powers combined with powerful emotion and occasional talismanic objects, can move both forward and back. I’ve read some time travel romance but not very much SF/F, so I’ll tread carefully here. It seemed to me as I was reading that Ridgway’s construction of the river of time was – appropriately – fluid, and less about a mind-blowing time machine or time travel concept than about what happens when a powerful elite controls access to history and knowledge. There are two opposing time-controlling factions, with strident political differences regarding the use of time-stopping, history-altering powers. Each group has heroes, leaders, intelligence operatives & counter spies. Julia’s grandfather turns out to be a pivotal father figure for the ‘revolutionary’ Ofan, while Nick is embraced and set on his intelligence mission by the leaders of the entrenched and reactionary Guild.

In contrast to time travel romances where either the hero or heroine has traveled to a distant century and spends most of the book having comical reactions to newfangled contraptions or old-fashioned ideas, Ridgway exercises restraint in developing Nick as Blackdown’s 21st century TV-loving persona. Cleverer by far to whisk him to our time at the beginning of the novel, just long enough to be indoctrinated by the Guild, cram his head full of pop culture, and absorb the ironclad rule There Is No Going Back, and then plunge him back into his own 19th century life where he’s not ridiculously out of step but subtly and importantly modernized. Thus most of the novel takes place in Blackdown’s original time, and only at the very end do we learn where, and when, Julia is really from.  As a longtime romance reader I also very much appreciated that the time traveling hero was not a hunky medieval Scotsman, much as I appreciate a man in a kilt. In spite of the comedic restraint, however, there are some hilarious moments when Nick’s devotion to pop culture gets the better of Blackdown and I found myself chortling madly when he and a fellow traveler serenade Julia, on the run in a tumbledown barn in 1815, with Islands in the Stream, complete with fist-up pretend microphones.

Political History  The River of No Return contains a clear and nuanced account, from multiple perspectives, of the political and social upheaval in England after the Napoleonic Wars, when lands were enclosed, factories were on the rise, and the Corn Laws were debated. On the one hand there are Blackdown’s sister Clare and her friend Jem Jemison, attempting to democratize the distribution of land and labor on the family estate, and on the other hand Blackdown’s peers in the House of Lords, unashamedly cooking the books to pass laws that will prop up their own estates at the expense of their laborers. It’s woven into the narrative organically, so it doesn’t feel like an info dump, but it’s like a real-history case study for the larger point the book makes about cultural hegemony and the ruthlessness with which a ruling elite will seek to hold on to power and increase its wealth. Amazinggraceposter.jpgThis is the part that reminded me of Amazing Grace, an amazing film starring Ioann Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, leading a bitterly contested campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain. It’s a view of Parliament from a few decades before the Corn Bill debates, but if you haven’t seen it, you should, for all kinds of reasons (did I mention it’s Ioann Gruffudd?).

Good vs. Evil The suspense plot pits the Ofan vs. the Guild, and plays upon the trope of a secret organization bent on world domination while another equally secret, but more democratic and sympathetic, organization tries to keep the playing field level.  There’s a Talisman both groups seek to understand or control, which could be an object, but may actually be a person. My favorite part of this element of the book was the notion that these organizations would choose a particular moment in time — in this case 1815 London — and make of it a sort of safe house and meeting place for operatives and members. I guess I just like the idea of a bunch of people hanging out at Almack’s or Gunter’s, who are really Vikings from 800 AD or disco queens from 1984.

Is There Really No Return? I understand a sequel may be in the works, but I appreciated that The River of No Return offered an HEA for Blackdown and Julia. There was a lot about other characters and their respective roles with the Guild and the Ofan that was left unresolved, and I would be very very intrigued to read a follow-up novel that focused on Clare and mysterious Jem Jemison. For me the most appealing thing about this book was the playful way Ridgway approached the crafting of a literary romance novel. She even gave Nick and Julia – holding hands and jumping into the river of time together – a perfect theme song from the ’80s.

Islands in the stream

That is what we are

No one in between

How can we be wrong

Sail away with me to another world

And we rely on each other… etc.  (@ the Bee Gees, 1983)

I love a book that tosses the poetry of the Bee Gees in with John Donne. And just because it’s so incredibly fabulous, I’m making a second link to the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton video of this song.

The River of No Return is a 2013 release from Dutton; it is available in the usual formats and places. I read a copy borrowed from my local library, but I’m planning on snapping up a copy of the paperback which is due out soon.

RevWar Romance: Turncoat + Quaker = Badass Couple

THE TURNCOAT, by Donna Thorland

A suspenseful Revolutionary War spy romance set against a finely textured backdrop of intrigue and decadence in British-occupied Philadelphia

For the British: Peter Tremayne, titled, well-connected officer who’s too principled for a career leading a ruthless army of occupation, too honorable for his own good, and too much in love to turn in the woman he knows played a role in his disgrace and is spying for Washington.

For the Americans: Kate Grey, serious, smart Quaker whose tactical genius and boldly calculated courage are roused by Major Tremayne along with her first taste of true desire.

The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution, #1)

Brought to you by: Donna Thorland, in The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution #1), 2013: Penguin/New American Library.

From the publisher (jacket copy):

They are lovers on opposite sides of a brutal war, with everything at stake and no possibility of retreat. They can trust no one—especially not each other.

Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason. Painfully awakened to the risks of war, Kate determines to put duty ahead of desire, and offers General Washington her services as an undercover agent in the City of Brotherly Love.

Months later, having narrowly escaped court martial and hanging, Tremayne returns to decadent, British-occupied Philadelphia with no stomach for his current assignment—to capture the woman he believes betrayed him. Nor does he relish the glittering entertainments being held for General Howe’s idle officers. Worse, the glamorous woman in the midst of this social whirl, the fiancée of his own dissolute cousin, is none other than Kate Grey herself. And so begins their dangerous dance, between passion and patriotism, between certain death and the promise of a brave new future together.

Real History AND Romance, again!

Lucky me – two books in a row that offer meticulous and atmospheric colonial history along with a breathtaking and believable romance. Like The Traitor’s Wife, which I reviewed for my previous post, The Turncoat falls on the “cusp” of the romance genre, where it blends seamlessly into historical fiction, and has been published in trade softcover format. But as with many a traditional histrom from Avon or HQN, the bosom&bodice cover image and allusion to a “Renegades” series tell a romance reader what to expect. This is certainly a romance novel. And what a romance novel! I loved it.

Here’s why:

Great hero. Peter is above reproach in many ways that matter; he deplores the inhumanity of the occupying force along with the particular depravity of certain notorious officers. Yet he’s subtle and nuanced – he’s not holier-than-thou and he’s not above using Kate’s attraction to him against her, from their first private encounter to his discovery of her masquerade as a wealthy Loyalist socialite in close proximity to the most deadly senior officers. He’s not an alpha, but he’s a survivor; he has a tortured family history and has twice disgraced his service to the Crown due to an innate sympathy for the victims of his army’s imperial occupation. He’s focused, strong, elegant and tenacious, but not one of those larger-than-life heroes who take up all the space in the book. Which is good, because….

Even greater, Jane-ish heroine. Like my beloved Jane Eyre, Kate is stronger than she knows, smarter than most of the people she encounters, unremittingly sure of her principles, and able to make painful sacrifices in order to act according to her moral compass. Her selfhood is never in question, even when she is brought painfully low it’s clear she’s choosing aspects of her abjection as a form of atonement.  And never at any time does it come across as “feisty” or “spunky” or TSTL-foolhardy, like some heroines who dash around madly and adorably doing the right thing and saving the day. This is a beautiful portrait of an unworldly young woman who becomes very worldly very fast. She falters, she doubts, she questions her own motives and inconvenient desires, but her strongly pragmatic idealism survives.

Non-icky “deflowering” scene that supports character development. (possible spoiler alert) Yes, Kate is a virgin and yes, Peter is an accomplished lover who senses her “awakening desire.” Blah blah. But Thorland deftly steers clear of the potential pitfalls with this trope. For one thing, I think it’s daring to put her heroine in the hands, literally, of another man, not the hero, for her first overtly sexual experience — this is an uncomfortable yet revealing scene where Kate, wearing her alluring assumed identity, has her first climax with her faux fiance, the curious villain of the novel, and Peter’s look-alike cousin, sadist Bayard Caide. I know, this all sounds convoluted, but it really works to throw the coupling of Kate/Peter into high relief, while exposing layers of nuance and complexity when we read Kate through her alternate identity in the Lydia/Bay scenes.

When Peter and Kate spend the night together the actual un-flowering (why isn’t there a better one-word term for this than the supremely silly “deflowering”??) scene is blessedly unflowery, and unsentimental.  Nor is it bizarrely implausible (worst for me is when these scenes are overly swoon-y and the heroine is suddenly discovered to be a “natural” sex goddess). This is one of the best scenes in the book for allowing the reader to see Peter and Kate as a man and a woman in love, in conversation, and in intimacy, without the burden of false identities or imminent danger. It’s emotionally satisfying. It’s also prosaic yet sexy and compelling.

Fresh look at fascinating history. Here is where l disclose that I have a tweep-ish acquaintance with the author, and we have twitter-chatted briefly about the history in this book, my fangirl appreciation for it, and a shared interest in local historic sites and museums. I have read numerous other fictional treatments of this period and the role of women in Revolutionary War espionage, many also incorporating the legendary figures of Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, and Major John Andre.

As I read The Turncoat I thought a lot about the sentimental turn-of-the-century Janice Meredith, by Paul Leicester Ford (1899), which I read as a teen, and Shadow Patriots by Lucia St. Clair Robson (2005), both of which present Andre as a heroic figure on the wrong side of history. And there are dozens of other novels which do the same. But this is the first I’ve read which offers a darker, less sympathetic portrayal of the dashing, artistic Major Andre. Thorland effectively uses her knowledge of social history and material culture to create a plausibly creepier and more human version of the notorious spy hanged by Washington.

And her background as a curator of historic houses also lends varied textures to the novel’s architectural and domestic settings and deepens the impact of the events that happen therein.

Here are some of Kate’s thoughts on the first night she spends with Peter:

She’d realized in the first few weeks of her adventure in Philadelphia that no matter what the outcome of the war, she had transgressed. There would be no place in polite society, neither the learned salons of Philadelphia nor the forgiving parlors of Orchard Valley, for a woman who bartered her body for secrets. It was simply too sordid.

But this bedroom, borrowed though it was, was not sordid. It was the private retreat of proud parents. There were penmanship and embroidery samples on the wall, framed and hung with care. In the corner was the dressing table of a lady fine enough to receive visitors during her toilette, but not so fine as to banish the toys abandoned beside her chair: the cup and ball, the hoop and stick some toddler must have chased around the room just before they were forced to flee the house.

and

They lay drowsing on the soft down mattress, curled on their sides facing each other.

“I like this room,” she said, running her fingers through the fringe on the bed curtains. “Whoever lived here must miss it. I don’t think you could be unhappy in a house like this.”

He’d noted the toys beside the dressing table, the penmanship samples… “It feels like a home,” he replied.

Donna Thorland, The Turncoat, 2013, New American Library softcover edition, pp. 243 & 255.

This was a great read, both as historical fiction AND as a romance novel. In my book, that’s always a win-win. My only reservation in recommending The Turncoat to any and all histrom fans who will listen is the level of violence and the pervasive threat of rape which looms throughout Kate’s journey from country girl to notorious spy and turncoat’s wife.  Like other armies of occupation throughout history, the British in the American colonies during the war used rape as one weapon of intimidation against the general populace, as well as for punishing/torturing women suspected of espionage, and the book does include several depictions of rape or torture involving both peripheral and central characters. These scenes are not gratuitous, but the book has a graphic darkness not often found in historical romance.  Yet it IS a romance, and as such, there is a lovely HEA, hard-won and very satisfying.

Postscript: On Badass Couples

Peter and Kate reminded me of some of the compelling things about Jamie and Claire in the Outlander books — they’re both powerful in their own right but somehow become more than the sum of their parts as a couple. Like Gabaldon’s famous characters (headed to a screen near everyone next year…ack.) Peter and Kate endure long separations and harrowing near escapes, they share a sexual chemistry and candor with each other that is verbal and emotional as well as physical, and they each rescue each other and are rescued over the course of their story. Also, the use of violence in this novel is not unlike some of the challenging aspects of Outlander.

I’m a Gabaldon fan though I recognize the unevenness of her unwieldy series, and not much HEA, except at the end of the first book. But I do relish Thorland’s creation of a badass couple, akin to Jamie/Claire, and if she wanted to write them more adventures, I’d happily go along for the ride.

The Turncoat is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased my copy at my local used bookseller.

Executioner’s Song: Real History, Real Romance

THE TRAITOR’S WIFE by Kathleen Kent

Real history and the author’s family lore combine for an intensely romantic tale with a larger than life badass hero and a dangerously outspoken badass heroine

The Setting: Eastern Massachusetts (Middlesex County, north and west of Boston) in the hardscrabble 17th century countryside. The IMG_5158story takes place in and around towns I visit regularly today, along the Concord River, and up towards Salem. There’s something about the specificity of place, landscape, and architecture that has always made historical fiction even more compelling for me as a reader when I am fortunate enough to visit sites that evoke the setting of a well-loved novel. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for the ‘historical squee’ of breathing in the atmosphere of a historic place or standing on a spot where history happened, even if it’s now doing time as a gas station or Starbucks  (there are a lot of these spots in my town).

It’s quite possible my deep response to this richly rewarding novel is influenced by my other obsession with the history and material culture of colonial New England.

But back to the love story –

He: Thomas Carrier, tall, silent hired man with mysterious past, uncanny strength, and immense capacity to hold love and secrets in his heart. A Welshman, former bodyguard of Charles I and later soldier for Cromwell, he’s an outlander in the insular Puritan community and rumors abound about his role in the killing of a king.

She: Martha Allen, difficult, outspoken daughter; capable, pragmatic servant in her petulant married cousin’s household; a fatally independent thinker and keeper of secret and painful histories, she ultimately faces persecution for witchcraft.

Brought to you by:  Kathleen Kent, in The Traitor’s Wife (2010; Little, Brown/originally in hardcover as The Wolves of Andover).

From the publisher (jacket copy):  In the harsh wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, Martha Allen works as a servant in her cousin’s household, taking charge and locking wills with everyone. Thomas Carrier labors for the family and is known both for his immense strength and size and mysterious past. The two begin a courtship that suits their independent natures, with Thomas slowly revealing the story of his part in the English Civil War. But in the rugged new world they inhabit, danger is ever present, whether it be from the assassins sent from London to kill the executioner of Charles I or the wolves-in many forms-who hunt for blood. A tale of love, courage, and independence, The Traitor’s Wife confirms Kathleen Kent’s ability to craft powerful stories set against the dramatic background of America’s earliest days.

This book blurs the lines between romance and literary historical fiction as greatly as anything I’ve read in quite a while.  It’s also a form of family memoir, since the author has fashioned a love story from the known facts of the lives of her nine-greats grandparents. Martha Carrier was executed for witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, and this novel is a prequel for Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter (2009), which tells the story of Martha’s children during the terrible time of her arrest, imprisonment and execution.

Kent writes eloquently in the afterword about her research process and the significance of these powerful stories passed down through the generations in her family.  Both Thomas and Martha were historical figures whose lives were shadowed by dark deeds, and somewhat shrouded in mystery. The historical facts of Martha’s prosecution are more readily available (though of course there is no single “answer” to the historical mystery of the witchcraft hysteria itself – why then? why this town and those girls?), but the legend and lore surrounding Thomas as the executioner of Charles I remain murkier.

In relating her fictional endeavor to her historical research and family traditions, Kent powerfully articulates a rejection of the Halloween-izing of the witchcraft trials and the peculiar devolution of Salem’s rich and complex history to its annual October masquerade as “The Witch City.” I’ve refrained from casting this as a Halloween post in spite of the date on the calendar and my own culturally ingrained initial connection between the witchcraft context and Halloween this week.

Traditional romance doesn’t usually feature actual historical personages, except as secondary characters, and I can’t think of another trad romance featuring the author’s own ancestors. Certainly everything about this book, from its serious treatment of harsh historical truths, its beautifully rendered prose and layered storytelling, to its packaging and marketing, says “serious historical fiction.”

Yet at its core The Traitor’s Wife is a love story. And it’s a love story that touched me deeply. I found it achingly romantic.  So I started to think about my response to this novel as a romance, and why I had a reading experience that was emotionally similar to my experience when reading a tremendously satisfying historical romance novel.  It really makes me wonder why, and whether, we – consumers and/or producers of fiction — are so invested in being able to neatly label books as one thing or another.  Or are we? Is this literary historical fiction, traditional historical fiction (genre fiction), and/or romance fiction? And what is the significance of the re-branding of this book, from the hardcover The Wolves of Andover to the softcover The Traitor’s Wife?  It still doesn’t look like a romance novel, but something about the newer cover signals “women’s fiction” to me. It certainly makes the marital relationship the titular center of the story, and sidelines the parallel narrative of the “wolves” (these are the brutal and sadistic assassins — the villains, if this were a romance novel, whose evil and ominous pursuit of the hero is conveyed via short interspersed alternate POV chapters — sent by the Crown (Charles II) to track down the regicides in the colonies and bring them back to face a traitor’s death).

I’ve come up with 5 fundamental ways The Traitor’s Wife feels like reading a good romance novel. I’m sure in some circles a statement like that about a “serious” work of historical fiction would cause a pang of anguish, but as anyone who has visited this blog before knows, when I say “like a good romance novel” I mean “I loved this book and highly recommend it, for romance readers, history lovers, and for people as serious about reading as I am.”

Hero and Heroine POV. Martha’s POV is the primary one, but when silent Thomas lets down his guard he offers her, and the reader, lengthy reminiscences and stories that reveal his past, his priorities, and his heart.  These near-soliloquies are so deftly woven in that they never feel like exposition, and they layer in the hero’s POV without head-jumping or inner “he reflected on her incredible awesomeness” nonsense.

Focus on characters. Much of the plot development occurs as back story so the timeframe encompassed by the novel primarily focuses on the interactions and domestic routines that build the relationship between Martha and Thomas over a period of months. As the two strongest adults in a household at the edge of the wilderness (the master and mistress are depicted as ‘weaker’ and less capable by virtue of Daniel’s frequent absences and infidelity and Patience’s helpless petulance and pregnancy), they bond by fighting off predators (wild animals, disease, hostile human threats) together. They find in the other a fortitude and survival instinct to match their own.

Banter.  If there is such a thing as flirting via taciturn banter of a semi-hostile nature, this is it. The spoken and unspoken communication between this couple is a big part of this novel’s appeal as a romance.

“What’s a Swedish feather?”

He turned to her, startled, with raised brows, as though she had asked him to jump off a cliff.

“John says I have a tongue like a Swedish feather.” She had asked the question in all earnestness, but when he moved to hide a smile, she bridled.

He straightened his mouth and answered, “It’s a weapon. A short pike with a steel-pointed blade. I say so as I have had necessity to use one.”

“And where,” she asked stiffly, “would you have had use for such a one as those?”

“Most times, missus,” he said, standing, “between the eyes and the belly.”

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition pp. 101-102)

I just love how Thomas routinely leaves sharp-tongued Martha grasping for his meaning, offering her space to come to her own conclusions.  While simultaneously revealing the knife-edge intensity of his feelings for her.  Her strength, desire, and pain gut him, she is deep beneath his skin.

Space for female sexuality/sexual desire.  Martha’s inner narration frequently reveals the tense and vibrating nature of her gaze when in proximity to Thomas, and she begins to notice him physically long before she begins to have substantive conversations with him. She has much to overcome in order to allow herself to feel and act upon her own desire, and when they share physical intimacy it is truly an expression of love and redemption. The brief love scenes are never what romance readers would refer to as ‘steamy’ but nor do they retreat into the arch vocabulary of historically circumspect and discreet language.  There is a rawness, grace, and physicality that I found quite powerful.

HEA/HFN. This may be the real ‘stretch’ in making an argument for Martha and Thomas as a love story that functions as a rewarding romance read. Because this is a prequel and they are historical figures, most readers will already know there is no Happy Ever After for this couple. And in fact the end of their story, as told by Kent in the earlier book (The Heretic’s Daughter), is so wrenching and painful it is one of the saddest and most affecting books I read last year. But take The Traitor’s Wife on its own merits, embrace the Happy For Now of these scarred and battle-weary survivors, and there is a deep satisfaction in seeing them married and settled together on a piece of land at the end of this beautiful novel:

The couple being poor, and they being of remarkable fortitude for work, I have offered them, along with Carrier’s man, John Levistone, a good plot of land from my own holdings, in return for some period of labor and a gold coin given to Goodwife Carrier by her father.

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition p.288)

This happy ending is recounted in the form of documents, which means that we get just fragments from which to imagine their union. But it is enough, to see Martha as Goodwife Carrier, and the two of them working the land together, as equal partners as was possible given the legalities and customs of the time.

It strikes me now, as I try to wrap up this long-overdue post, that what’s missing from this book, as a romance, is an epilogue after the epilogue of the documents.  Instead, there’s a letter from Martha to her daughter Sarah. Not exactly the traditional romance “baby epilogue.” Rather wrenchingly the letter sort of aft-shadows the tone and voice of the companion book, Sarah’s story (The Heretic’s Daughter).

Even in the passage I just quoted, “Goodwife” itself evokes the “Goody” of “Goody Carrier” — for some, myself included, that is all it takes to transport the mind to the awful milieu of 1692, Cotton Mather, the “afflicted” girls, and the tragic mayhem of the witch trials.

There’s a lot to wrestle with here, but I simply love the fact that after writing truly the most harrowing and powerful fictional account of the trials I have ever read (it was generally well reviewed, in the New York Times, for example), Kent went back and lovingly crafted this elegiac romance to commemorate who Martha and Thomas were before they became “the accused,” and how they fell in love.

Brave in Heart: A Contradiction Too Great for One Man to Bear?

A Civil War Romance in Which we find Many Intriguing Contradictions

The Hero: Theo Ward, dutiful son and attorney-at-law; justice-seeker on the side of right, abolitionist but not activist; mildly henpecked, professionally and emotionally stalled until a second chance at his failed romance galvanizes his enlistment as a Union officer.

Falls For:  Margaret Hampton, principled and devoted teacher, pragmatist and secret romantic.

Brave in HeartBrought To You By: Emma Barry, in Brave in Heart (July 2013 e-release from Crimson)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Theodore Ward is a man of deep passions and strong principles—none of which he acts on. So Margaret Hampton ends their engagement, breaking both of their hearts in the process.

Years after their estrangement, ardent but frozen Theo attempts to reconnect with Margaret. She is no longer trusting of the idea of romantic love, having become pragmatic and wary during decades alone. But with the drumbeat of the early days of the Civil War in the background, how can she refuse?

The courtship that results is hasty, reckless, and intense, fueled by contradictions between Theo’s willingness finally to change and Margaret’s fears about the future. Two smart, stubborn, fiery people will need to overcome the hesitancies of their hearts and the perils of battle if they’re ever to find happiness.

The Setting: Middletown, Connecticut, at the start of the U.S. Civil War, 1861 through 1863. The setting alone is going to get this book noticed within the histrom community, and Emma Barry has been eloquent in framing her enterprise in the long shadow of Margaret Mitchell, in spite of the fact that GWTW is not a romance, and Brave in Heart is not set in the South.

It’s a bold move to set a romance in a decidedly unglamorous wartime, and especially so when there is no plot device to put the couple together at the front (eg. working as spies, battlefield hospital, etc). In historical romance these days, when war is a major theme, it’s nearly always Napoleonic and it’s usually in the hero’s past, not his present. The history here is well-researched and authentic and the details of their lives as lawyer and teacher and members of the educated and privileged class of Connecticut society are skillfully rendered.

GWTW regimental ball scene, replica lobby card, via posterplace.com

Barry’s evocation of a Northern community on the brink of what we (but not they) know to be the massive and protracted trauma of the Civil War is moving and poignant without ever patronizing. I truly loved the opening sequence set during a ball in honor of departing Union regiments, with its heightened emotion and feverish sense of enthusiasm staving off grim realities and dread of what’s to come. The writing itself has an old-fashioned density and dignity that enhances the Victorian-era atmosphere, without making use of overt dialects or overwhelming the narrative.

The Tropes: Second Chance at Love, War Bride, Mother in Law Issues, Love Letters, Ordinary Heroes

Brave but not Badass: “Ardent but frozen” is a great tagline for Theo, asserting a hero who is by definition contradictory.  I couldn’t really figure him out and as a result I’m finding this a challenging book to review as a romance.  Let’s start with ardent: I badly wanted to connect with Theo as a man driven by strong emotion, but reluctantly concluded that, for me, this was a case of telling not showing.  He’s described as impassioned. I just couldn’t feel it, except maybe in his letters. He’s frustrated, with himself and with his life; he has strong political principles and inner yearnings to be an actor on a larger stage. I’m not sure these frustrations make him come across as passionate, though ardent is an interesting word choice because it suggests someone more youthful (even adolescent?) than a man in his late 30’s.

And how about frozen? We see him freeze up — and give up — in the Prologue when Margaret breaks off the original engagement, but WHY is he frozen? I couldn’t get past the fact that he’s 39 years old and the broken engagement happened two years prior – he would have been 37. What happened during almost two decades of adulthood to make him so passive and deferential to his mother? We do learn early on that the death of his father has caused his mother to rely on him and keep him close, but he seems to have almost no discernible personality beyond his politics, his love and admiration for Margaret, and his frustration with his own lack of backbone. I kept wishing that the Prologue had been long enough to help me understand what makes Theo tick, and why he has chosen to live such a narrow life for so many years. I just needed more back story to understand his pressures and priorities.

Arrested Development? Perhaps if Margaret and Theo had been written as younger characters — in their early 20’s, say — the romance might have made more sense to me.  Theo in particular comes across as a much younger person, flailing around trying to figure out how to match his actions with his dreams and fantasies. There are several references to the years he has suffered since the broken engagement, so it might have made more sense if they had been estranged for 10 or 12 years, rather than 2, which doesn’t really seem all that long if you are nearly 40. Because the wartime separation is part of the novel’s main story arc, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to  note that Theo suddenly enlists in the Union army immediately following an unsatisfying encounter with Margaret in which she gives him a reprise of her original rejection and dressing down.  At this point his thought process more resembles that of an “I’ll show her!” adolescent than a seasoned lawyer of 39 years. It also doesn’t come off as the bold, ruthless action of a man in control of his destiny — it feels reactive and hectic, rather than badass. Also, I know authors have little or no control over cover images, but this one, which uses sepia tones beautifully to convey the period, really misleads with its photo image of a young woman who looks decades younger than Margaret’s 37 years.

An Unusual Romance Hero: I’m very sympathetic to arguments for getting rid of rigid alpha/beta hero classifications, and Theo makes a strong case for the inadequacy of these definitions. He’s one of the most passive heroes I’ve ever encountered in romance. As I mentioned, I’m finding it challenging to sum up my response to Theo — on the one hand I appreciate the intellectual challenge of encountering and enjoying an unusual hero who’s not an up-in-your-face alpha. I also like Barry’s willingness to construct a hero who is hard to love, but not in the usual bad boy ways, and I do think Theo works quite well as a portrait of a young man riven by inner conflict, still seeking to live an authentic life in accordance with his beliefs as well as with his family’s (his domineering mama!) needs and expectations.

If I’m being honest, though, Theo’s To Be or Not To Be angst just irritated me for much of the novel, and, like Margaret, I kept wanting him to man up. Here’s how Margaret describes her man to a younger friend, during the wonderful ballroom scene where she re-encounters him for the first time since breaking the engagement:

He is a passionate man, but he submits, I think, too much to the desires of others. He…doesn’t achieve moderation. I grew weary of his inner intemperateness and his outward capitulation. It’s a contradiction too great for one man to bear.

The Age of Innocence

Ardent but frozen? Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis as Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, via moviemail.com

I need to pause here to savor this language, with its old-fashioned restraint and cadence masking the ruthlessness of the judgment rendered. Barry’s gift for replicating the tone and flavor of period dialogue and prose is unique and tremendous.

Back to Theo — his quest for love, identity, and authenticity put me in mind of another 19th-century passive hero — the tragically trapped Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s masterful The Age of Innocence. So I am intrigued by all this, but not immersed in the romance. Neither hero nor heroine captured my heart in the way that larger-than-life characters do when I am reading a captivating romance in which the principle focus of my experience as a reader is the anticipation of their every interaction, and the ultimate HEA.

The fact that Brave in Heart, as a work of genre/romance fiction, ends with an HEA, is satisfying on one level, but doesn’t match my experience of these characters or this couple.   It just wasn’t a good sign when the hero refers to the heroine as a nag within the first chapters of the book — and not in a jokingly affectionate way.  This may be authentic, and how real people think, but it felt jarring and caused me to repeatedly question whether Theo and Margaret really liked each other.  She thinks he’s a mama’s boy; he thinks she’s demanding and impulsive. In a romance, I’m not sure I want to spend much time thinking about how the couple will probably drive each other crazy once they start actually having to live together.

A Successful Contradiction of Expectations: What this unusual book did achieve quite brilliantly was to evoke the experience of reading an authentic 19th-century story, and this in itself is quite captivating. Theo survives the great battle of Fredericksburg (again, I’m asserting this is not a spoiler since we know the book will have an HEA), but most of what we hear about his experience of the front is about surviving and enduring. I haven’t said much about Margaret as the heroine, but she, too, is a figure of stoicism and yearning, and I didn’t see her as impulsive or demanding. Her one truly impulsive act was breaking off an engagement with someone she appeared to love but not like very much. But what’s so interesting about this kind of protagonist — whether hero or heroine — is that it suggests the ordinary heroism to be found in endurance, perseverance, and constancy. The ability to love someone in spite of their fears and unredeemed flaws can also be an act of heroism.

In some ways this trope in particular reminds me more of mainstream fiction, or a 19th century novel.  It’s almost as if Theo and Margaret are literary characters from a period piece who have been given Romance H/h roles to play, and they do so somewhat awkwardly. In historical romance there is a strange alchemy that happens when the sexy times take us inside the bedroom for steamy sizzle without breaking into anachronism or allowing the characters to become ahistorical.  I can’t figure out why the love scenes felt uncomfortable, since there is indeed heat along with a sense of intimate discovery, and both characters remain fully authentic. For some reason I just felt like I would have been OK with letting this hesitant couple have their privacy! These contradictions kept taking me out of the romance itself, but may have served to enhance this novel as a work of nuanced historical fiction.

Bring Back the Epistolary Novel! Finally, the most distinctive feature of Brave in Heart as a romance in the style of a 19th century novel is its reliance on a long separation and correspondence between hero and heroine. The epistolary sections of the book are fiercely and beautifully written, and these passages where we hear the characters narrating in first person were the most effective in pulling me in and allowing me to connect with the genuine romance between Theo and Margaret. I am delighted to be reminded of how affecting an epistolary novel can be, and also how difficult to write an entire novel within the constraints of this format.  But if anyone has a chance at reviving this old-fashioned and challenging literary form with authenticity and verve, I’d venture to say it’s Ms. Barry, and I hope she may indeed consider it.

Brave in Heart is available today from Crimson Romance, and is available in the usual formats and places. I received a generous e-ARC of this novel from the author, for an honest review.

 

Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

In which a Duke is Deceitful and the Badass Hero is a Spinster

The Badass:  Katherine (Kit) Sutherland, spinster sister of a countess and niece of an earl; fraying at the seams trying to keep her family’s manor home from going under, she’s a cynical, brusque, brooding hero who just wants to be left alone to take care of her family in the wake of her father’s ruinous gambling and emotional manipulations.

Falls For: Jude, His Grace the Duke of Darlington. Who is also Lady Rose, Darlington’s cousin. A cross-dressing Duke who follows Kit home to beard the badass in her den. They bond over painful childhood memories.

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Likes: Country ways, simple gowns, seeing her mother smile, reading her brother’s books. Oh, and wooing her sister’s eccentric, ducal lover.

Dislikes: Actually, she’s not really a negative person. She’s unhappy/tormented for a lot of the book, and under duress, but she struck me as having a pretty good attitude. She even notes that if not for her intensely protective possessiveness about Jude, she’d admire and respect the actions of her nemesis, Lady Marmotte.

Brought To You By: Anna Cowan, in Untamed

(2013 debut release ebook from Penguin Books Australia, which I obtained by purchasing it.)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Outspoken and opinionated, Katherine Sutherland is ill at ease amongst the fine ladies of Regency London. She is more familiar with farmers and her blunt opinions and rough manners offend polite society. Yet when she hears the scandalous rumours involving her sister and the seductive Duke of Darlington, the fiercely loyal Katherine vows to save her sister’s marriage – whatever the cost.

Intrigued by Katherine’s interference in his affairs, the manipulative Duke is soon fascinated. He engages in a daring deception and follows her back to her country home. Here, their intense connection shocks them both. But the Duke’s games have dangerous consequences, and the potential to throw both their lives into chaos…

The Setting: Regency London & the Sutherland country manor and pig farm.

The Tropes: Genteel Poverty, Ruinous Gambling, Animal Husbandry, Long Suffering Elder Sister, Selfish Titled Younger Sister, Rakish Duke with Hellish Childhood, Eccentric Uninvited Female Houseguest, Vengeful Discarded Mistress, Loyal Well-Dressed Friend Group including GBF (Gay Best Friend) Sidekick, Traveling Under Assumed Identity

Badass Hero Moment: Liverpool’s Ball.  Can’t say more, there be spoilers here, but it is a big bold badass moment that reminded me of favorite ballroom declaration scenes. This may have been the point in the book where I began to feel emotionally engaged with Kit and Jude as a couple. As satisfying and heartstoppingly romantic as Colin and Penelope at the ball near the end of Julia Quinn’s near-incomparable Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, and in a weird way not unlike those thrilling Queer Eye big reveals at the end of that late, lamented, gone-but-not-forgotten makeover show.

Badass Annoying Moment: Tough call, because as is by now evident, I liked this unforgiving and relentless character. I can concede that the sequence of events and her eventual embrace and triumph among the political and social elite of London may require more suspension of disbelief than some readers are able to muster.

(too) Frequently Described As: Unattractive.  Some careful readers have objected to the language Cowan employs to convey Kit’s rough exterior and lack of feminine graces. I’m not sure her broken nose and unkempt hair are unfortunate signifiers or not, but I rather like this view of Kit coming in from a downpour, from Darlington’s POV:

Miss Sutherland… looked nothing like a kitten. Her dress and smock clung to her, and the hair was slick beside her face. She was pared back – all that might have been floss or sugar about her had melted away and left the hard, uncompromising core. Only her lashes became poetic when wet, conceding some relationship to stars.

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Casting:  For him, I’m really not sure, but I just kept thinking Johnny Depp.  Probably way too obvious. But possibly Jude-like: clever, funny, smoldering when he wants to be, master of ironic self-deprecation. Not averse to an I Feel Pretty moment. A friend, however, has suggested James Callis, from Battlestar Galactica, and I think she might have the right of it here.

For her, I’m going with Jessica Brown Findlay/Lady Sybil Crawley. Something about the stubborn stare.

James_Callis_25146_Medium

via fancarpet.com

Ten Reasons This Book Is Perfectly Imperfect

  1. This book risks a badass heroine without providing the familiar even-more-badass hero. I’m blurring my language here — I guess I could say she’s a badass heroine, but I’m more inclined to just view her as the hero. Kit is assigned many hero attributes and in effect she’s playing a cross-dressed role in this book much as Jude plays a cross-dressed role when he visits the Sutherlands at the Manor. He’s a beauty, and she’s really kind of a beast – untamed, and possibly untame-able. But not bitchy. Her sister Lydia can be bitchy (she has her reasons).
  2. This Regency hero/ine says “fuck.” And not as a verb. Or being coaxed to talk dirty by her man.
  3. This author takes risks, and so did the publisher. Here’s Anna Cowan’s kick-ass feature post for Dear Author about her motivation for crafting a sort of  ‘social experiment’ of a Regency (my words, not hers). Regardless of Cowan’s motivation, and whether a queering the hetero romance experiment intrigues you, for some readers the construction and artifice of the exercise may be too distracting, and cause a disconnect in place of emotional engagement with the romance and the story.
  4. This experiment demands a strong response — people are either loving it or hating on it, with dueling reviews appearing on release day a few weeks ago, and many, many thoughtful comments. I sat up and listened when Joanna Bourne tweeted a rave; when a writer of her level of badassery points out a good book, I’m THERE.
  5. This novel has flaws. The writing is at times so oblique that I had to re-read passages; more so in the first third of the book, while I was still getting to know the cast of characters. There’s a choppiness when the POV switches unevenly to secondary characters. As others have pointed out, the most damaging flaw, which can sink a novel with lesser compensations, may be that the hero/ine Jude doesn’t exactly come across as charismatic, charming, or desirable though we’re told he is all of these things via Kit’s POV. It’s telling, not showing, yes. But something raw and fresh is going on here, and there are moments of liquid silver when the language is effortlessly exquisite.
  6. This sentence, which I read over at least 8 times before turning the page:  “Mme. Soulier had indulged him as few adults had, managing him with words like pins tucked into the fabric of his wayward nature.” I love the idea of Words Like Pins.
  7. This cross-dressing duke may actually be the least compelling element of the book for me. He’s intellectually intriguing, as an exercise, and I appreciated his take-charge attitude towards addressing the resource constraints at the Manor. But my sense of him as a character in a play got in the way of the emotional connection I look for in a romance read, and it wasn’t until somewhere in the latter half of the book that I felt invested in the HEA for this couple.  He just didn’t get under my skin nearly as much as Kit, or even some of the secondary characters. But I was moved by the recurring theme of people, including Darlington, yearning to be “chosen” — to be seen, understood, and embraced.
  8. The Earl of BenRuin. This secondary hero, the “great Scottish lummox,” nearly overtakes Kit as my favorite character. I know some found him too much of a caricature. I just really fell for him and for damaged Lydia’s eventual repair. Their fragile conversations drew me in completely.
  9. This historical is somehow both detailed enough to beautifully convey domestic period authenticity (pig farming, running out of candles, carrot soup cookery, etc.) and freewheeling enough to rankle the history police (the divorce proceedings, the Corn Laws – neither are accounted for with historical accuracy, but these problems have been sufficiently explicated elsewhere).
  10. This writing has a loose tension and distinct voice that puts me in mind of haiku. At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it falters, it can be frustrating. Artisanal, yet unruly.

Overall, I’m calling Untamed perfectly IMperfect — by which I mean this debut novel is uneven; flawed in many of the the right ways, and subversive in interesting ways, too. We have a queered “hero” who can be read as a heroine; an “unmanly” version of masculinity who is the object of female desire. A badass heroine who cross-dresses as the hero of the novel; once she fixes her desire on Jude she is as relentless, ruthless, and daring as any alpha (in fact the bold badassery with which she pursues and “wins” her mate reminded me a great deal of a classic alpha-pursuer hero in the Cynster/Laurens mode).

It’s rare to see the female pursuer in a historical romance, and maybe in romance in general, and this book explores female desire without reverting to focus on her desire to be desirable to him. Jude is passive, and fully objectified by her desire. And yet I’m not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are “worn” by the opposite gender.

Subversiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and what makes this book most intriguing for me is its willingness to embrace the “same old” Regency tropes and turn them inside out. If a talented new writer like Anna Cowan is applying herself to historical romance, I take it as a welcome sign of vigorous — untamed — growth and life for the genre.

 

Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3

Armchair BEA 3

Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

I’m still so new at this game, I can’t really say much about how I’ve developed as a blogger.  The blog is still in its infancy, and I find myself every day wishing I had an extra hour or two to spend working on future posts, reading other blogs, and researching best practices.  ArmchairBEA is pushing me to post more this week than I would normally be able to, although this kind of navel-gazing post is not the same as a review post or commentary on a bookish theme.  It’s less than 2 months since I drafted my About Me and Why Badass Romance posts, and then I just spent eleventy-two hours doing the long Liebster post last week, so it’s feeling like ENOUGH about me and not enough about books right now!

For this reason I’m going to segue right to Day 2’s bookish topic, which is genre (what draws you to a genre?), and Day 3’s related focus which is literary (artistic?) fiction.  The literary fiction prompt asks: Which works of art have changed your life?  Be creative and make a list outlining books featuring specific subjects (i.e., animals, recommended prize-winners, outstanding authors, etc.). Hmmm. What is it with this “art” label?? Is genre fiction a lower order of cultural production?

Feb 2013 iPhone 020books4

As a result of the Liebster chain letter last week, I met a fellow blogger who, like me, has an academic background, has read classics, literary theory, and criticism, and now – at mid-life – prefers to read… you guessed it: (badass) romance.  Miss Bates is quite loquacious on this topic! Her new blog is a must-read, if you haven’t already checked it out.

We’ve been chatting back and forth in comments, and it’s helping me re-formulate some of my rather inchoate thoughts about why I don’t like a literary hierarchy that sets genre fiction (romance along with others, like fantasy, science fiction, mystery, etc – not to mention sub-genres) in opposition to literary fiction, thereby declaring that genre fiction is not Art. I realize no one is saying that genre fiction doesn’t have meaning or merit, but let’s face it, there is still a literary hierarchy and the main reason romance gets taken seriously at all may be its badass sales figures. But the main reason I don’t read much “highbrow” fiction anymore is that I started to feel unhappy and uncomfortable with books that felt chore-like — at times opaque, depressing, and/or pretentious. Life is too short to read books that feel like work.  I am not saying, however, that I don’t want to be challenged by what I read — to read books that spark me to think deeply and broadly about my values and assumptions and priorities. I’m just saying that I want to have this experience as a reader with books I actually enjoy reading, and at this point in my life as a reader I’m looking for happy endings.

While I recognize the importance of individual preferences in terms of genre, and the reality that there are going to be groupings of readers who read and blog mainly around literary fiction vs. any particular genre fiction, what’s important to me is enjoying what I read, and applying the same kind of critical thinking and analysis in formulating my response — whether it’s a romance novel or a Booker Prize nominee.  As a serious reader, I don’t want to have to prove I’m serious in spite of reading and reviewing romance.  I was delighted yesterday to read Book Riot’s Stop Apologizing for What You Like to Read, via new Armchair BEA blog friend Cheap Thrills.

But on the other hand, I don’t think the romance reading and blogging community should be without a robust critical discourse, nor should we shy away from thoughtful exchange of ideas about what’s political and or problematic in the books we also enjoy and celebrate. This week Emma Barry has posted a provocative set of questions about politics in romance, and there are some wonderful comments.  Also this week, at Radish Reviews, Natalie’s challenging post about reader shame and extreme romance, along with the incredible discussion it’s generating, has really got me thinking.

Although I’m new to blogging, I’ve been participating in online fan forums about books off and on for almost a decade. I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the strong negative response from such communities when a critical view of a challenging theme or book is put forth. Frequently, critical discourse is suppressed with “if you don’t really like this, why are you reading it?” Or, “how can you like this and call yourself a thinking person?” Of course I am thinking about polarization around the proliferation of erotic romance and erotica in the wake of 50 Shades. I’m also thinking back to a fan community where a post that critiqued a problematic aspect of a beloved book was frequently perceived as an attack. But this kind of suppression is side-stepping.

Why can’t we trust that we’re mainly going to read what we like and enjoy, and that it’s OK to enjoy reading something and yet still be deeply thoughtful and even troubled by it? And to express these “troubles” in the form of thoughtful interrogation of our own reading, in concert with the cross-blog discourse of reviews and commentary? Is it OK to be a romance blogger and say “negative” things about the genre?  My response is a hearty yes. But are romance readers especially sensitive to criticism of the books we enjoy, because there is always this problematic intersection of gender, identity, feminism, and the masculine hero archetypes which embody patriarchy?

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the discourse around feminism and romance which was (re)launched with vigor back in March (B.B.R. – Before Badass Romance), by way of an article in the Atlantic, and a series of wonderful author and blogger posts such as this one by Cecilia Grant, from which I will offer a favorite quote:

But “romance that might appeal to feminists” and “romance that actually is feminist” aren’t quite the same thing.

I also found this post at Bad Necklace extremely challenging and provocative, in a good-kind-of-uncomfortable way.

So, badass romance readers – what do you think? Is it possible to enjoy reading a book, and to equally enjoy a respectful critique that challenges our enjoyment? Are we stuck reading romance through the lens of feminism? Are such “-ism” lenses limiting or liberating?

Finally, as an aside, I must add that I am on pins and needles waiting to get my hands on a copy of Cecilia Grant’s forthcoming new release, A Woman Entangled! A Gentleman Undone is among my top 5 favorite books of 2012 (or top 5 reads of 2013 so far.)