Recent Reading: 3 books I’m still thinking about

I’ve been reading a lot since my late summer vacation gave me the time and space to delve back into longer fiction, non-romance novels, and a broader range of books than I’ve read in several years. I’m reading more, and blogging less. It’s a little ironic, when I think of how I’ve let the blog lapse in spite of all the good “material” about which I could be crafting posts — in contrast to months last year when I was having trouble finding books I really wanted to read, really thinking about my choices and feeling the constant urge to write about the few books I was managing to read.  I feel way too rusty to take on a long review post, but here’s a quick peek at 3 books I’ve read since Labor Day that have stayed with me, and made me glad to be reading more widely again.

8177577The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt  I agree with Laura Miller’s take on the Dickensian plot-twisty quality of Tartt’s obsessively readable tale. And like her, I was swept up in the novel’s evocation of the magical Manhattan of an earlier, childhood vision – the New York City of my own visits-to-Grandmommy childhood, and the touchstone books Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It’s a view of museum-going, antiques-aware, upper middle class privilege that feels dated and old-fashioned, possibly nostalgic for some readers.

When Miller interviews Tartt for Salon, the two have an interesting conversation about female protagonists and literary norms related to romance and marriage plots. If I had more of my blogging mojo these days, this would be the part where I spin off to deconstruct their discourse and challenge “literary” assumptions about the role of romance in fiction…. but not today. With regard to this particular book I also really liked the questions Evgenia Peretz asks about it, and about literary vs genre fiction, in her comprehensive and helpful summary of the critical battleground over The Goldfinch for Vanity Fair. I haven’t got much else to say about it — I just enjoyed the chance to sink into a dense (yes, I know some would say overwritten) and thoughtful novel of loss, identity, crime, and art that felt sort of like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Breaking Bad.

81xpholOZ8L._SL1500_The Secret River, by Kate Grenville To be honest, I found this book at the library after picking up one of its sequels, Sarah Thornhill, because it (the sequel, actually the third book in the loose trilogy) looked a bit like a romance novel. I saw that it was the 3rd book, and went hunting for the 1st. Which turned out to be the award-winning (Commonwealth Prize, Booker finalist) novel of one family’s journey from grinding poverty along the Thames to prosperity and prominence on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, by way of an early (1806) transport via convict ship and a violent massacre, the legacy of which leaves scars on the land and all who come after. Although The Secret River was new to me, it is of course widely read and discussed. To sum up with brevity what this book signifies, there’s not much I can say to add to this brilliantly spare note it received in The New Yorker.

The protagonist, William Thornhill, is at once haunted by his own complicity and actions, and determined to carve a life for his family that is recognizable to them, and their contemporaries, according to their limited worldview. The ways in which European customs in attempting to wrest a living from the land are in themselves a violence, and in stark contrast to the fluid ways of the people who lived on the land for centuries before, have seldom been so devastatingly and simply rendered, and I have read many many works of historical fiction set in the North American colonial context where Old and New Worlds also clashed with not-so-secret rivers of blood.

In the second book, The Lieutenant, Grenville went back to the exploratory voyage of the First Fleet in 1788 to tell the tale of a William Dawes-like astronomer and linguist and his very different journey, of discovery and friendship – sadly, I foundered reading this book after too many pages and pages of interactions where the protagonist and his Gadigal friends exchanged vocabulary words, and it was a DNF for me. This may have been simply because I did not find the earnest lieutenant as interesting as the morally ambiguous Thornhill. I did return to the Thornhill saga to read the 3rd book, the one that originally caught my eye, and found, again, the story of this family, and the families displaced by this family, much more compelling and emotional. In the end, Sarah Thornhill contained a romance of sorts, but it was a harsh and dispiriting tale that really had no way to offer a happy ending. Perhaps the best that can be said of Sarah and her descendants is that they craft lives around figuring out ways to make the best of a bad history and poor situation.

14568987The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro   I so rarely read contemporary fiction, yet in the wake of The Goldfinch this caught my eye. I was a little worried that it was going to be sort of Goldfinch-lite, maybe a “women’s fiction” version about a plucky artist (forger) and her exploits, but I was sucked in by its explicit use of the Gardner heist at the core of the central mystery. If you live in Boston and/or spend time in art museums, it’s hard not to be a little obsessed about the Gardner heist, particularly if one of the stolen paintings was the subject of a 10-page undergraduate Art History paper you wrote back in the early ’80’s.

What I found was indeed “lighter” in many ways than The Goldfinch, but this book offered a more powerful tale of authenticity and falsehood than I expected. For anyone who has visited the Gardner Museum, or speculated about the world’s most notorious art crime, this alternate history of the collection, with its oddly fascinating level of detail about the techniques and history of art forgery, is pretty good reading. At its heart, this is a deftly woven past/present exploration of female creativity, forced choices, and compromise in the male-dominated worlds of contemporary art (the painter protagonist, Claire Roth) and 19th century art collecting (the “scandalous” Isabella Stewart Gardner).

Advertisements

Siege Warfare: Meditations on Medieval Romance with Author Elise Cyr

Besieged by love?  How many times have you read something like “her emotions were under siege” in a romance novel? I feel like this metaphor is common, and compelling, yet I’ve never really unpacked it. For one thing, it suggests a traditionally gendered experience, in which the hero is the pursuer, surrounding the heroine with his army of manly charms until she accepts and gives in to the inevitability of surrender/conquest.

What makes this work in genre romance is that while she may be “conquered” by the hero’s love, the heroine surrenders as much to the power of her own corresponding emotion as to the conquering male. The siege as romantic metaphor sort of circles in on itself, since the besieged is frequently “starving” herself of love/emotion while the besieger “attacks” by providing rather than depriving. (I know there must be examples of the metaphor used with the genders reversed and a pursuing heroine laying siege to her hero…I hope to hear of such in comments since I can’t find one at the moment!)

570px-Siege_castle_love_Louvre_OA6933

Ivory mirror back depicting “The Siege of the Castle of Love,” French, 14th century, now in the Louvre (via Wikimedia Commons)

Until last month, it’d been quite a while since I read a romance, or indeed any novel, where the hero wears chain mail.  Then I picked Sharon Kay Penman’s LIONHEART off a very dusty spot on my TBR shelf, for a “challenge” read involving Big Fat Books. Not a romance, but it reminded me how much I used to enjoy and immerse myself in historical fiction with medieval settings, and whetted my appetite. Also, here was a book brimming with literal historical examples of siege warfare, replete with all the implements (heavy weaponry, grappling hooks, scaling ladders) and strategies (starvation, persistence, ruthlessness) from which the literary & emotional metaphors derive.

I confess, I had to push myself a bit to get through this long book about England’s Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and his exploits in the Holy Land during the Second (?) Crusade in 1190-92. Based on my memories of Penman’s Welsh trilogy (it was nearly 20 years ago, but I treasure these books among my ‘best evers’), I had thought there’d be a stronger romantic element, and I found myself really missing the emotional satisfaction of a romance HEA. I also missed the sense that there is an end to the story at all, since this was just one long chunk of a multi-novel Angevin saga, and leaves off just as Richard is returning to England to deal with his treacherous relatives.

siegeoftheheart_FinalSo – time for a medieval romance.

Fortunately, hard on the heels of my March reading challenge came SIEGE OF THE HEART, a debut release from Elise Cyr, an author acquaintance from Twitter. I am thoroughly enjoying this romance between a Norman knight and a sword-wielding English heiress, and it’s got me re-examining some of my own assumptions about medieval romance novels, thinking about why I stopped reading them, whether they’re still as popular as ever, and what’s happening in this historical subgenre that’s new and fresh.

 Is harsh history romantic? Elise has graciously agreed to share some ideas about medievals – the chivalry, the history, and what makes a romance novel work in a setting where historical accuracy means a world with a challenging dominant belief system characterized by religious intolerance, a rigid feudal class system, very limited access to literacy and learning for most people, and marriage laws that left women with very few rights, even over their own bodies and children.

Pamela: I just read a great review of Jeannie Lin’s THE JADE TEMPTRESS in which Miss Bates referred to the setting – also medieval, but 9th century China – as a “harsh, hierarchical world” (I can’t wait to read this one, too!). What makes this kind of setting a good place to tell a compelling love story?

Elise: It comes down to stakes. In the medieval period, regardless of which continent we’re talking about, the “harsh, hierarchical world” often meant most people were so focused on their survival and that of their family, the concept of “love” we think of today was rare as a result. The medieval version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs often didn’t move beyond food and shelter for the vast majority of people living at the time. So when love did strike, the afflicted had a lot of barriers to work through. Not least of which was the concept of marriage, which was essentially a contract negotiated between families at the behest of their liege lord. Compatibility had more to do with dowries, ready coin, and the whims of nobility instead of attraction, passion, fidelity. So love not only had to exist, it had to be a love worth fighting for, since often the couple would be going against the wishes of their families and their liege lord, removing any security they had in society. It was a harsh world indeed for lovers of the time.

Pamela: What do you think is the particular appeal of the European-set medieval? Are there deeper associations with folklore and fairytales many English-speaking readers may have grown up with?

Elise: For me, the medieval time period comes closest to evoking the world of fairytales. Castles, knights, adventures, with the more unpleasant aspects blunted by the passage of time. I grew up on fairytales—the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang. This legacy is distinctly Europe-centric, so it makes sense to me that many historical romance authors keep returning to European history and the fairytale structure with the obligatory happily-ever-after in the stories we write for ourselves and others. (I wonder to what extent that would change had I been exposed to the fairy tales and myths from other cultures at such a formative age.)

Pamela: I kept thinking about your siege metaphor as I was reading about the Crusaders’ trebuchets and other siege implements and strategies, in Penman’s LIONHEART. That was a later period than SIEGE OF THE HEART, which is set immediately following the Norman Conquest, but the forced marriage as part of a strategy of conquest, alliance, and/or assimilation is a common theme. It’s a tried and true historical romance trope, but I think it can be particularly powerful in a medieval story – how does it work in medieval to become more, and to transcend the plot device that serves to throw the hero and heroine together?

Elise: The forced marriage trope is indeed common in historical romance. The reason I think it works in medievals is because the marriage is bigger than either partner, and more is riding on its success. Servants, townspeople, villeins, and vassals all had a stake in the success or failure of an alliance. The term “peace weaver” originates from the Anglo-Saxons where a woman was married off to a warring tribe to make peace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace-weaver). To have so much riding on a match raises the stakes for a relationship, and finding ways for the hero and heroine to connect, compromise, and complement each other are elements at the heart of any romance, regardless of the time period.

Pamela: Isabel faces a forced marriage like so many widowed or otherwise vulnerable women of the ruling class in her period, because a single woman can’t “hold” a castle, or a kingdom, for her liege lord, and needs to be married to another powerful lord.  But in what ways does she hold power? Can she hold on to her own inner “castle” – ie. her heart, at least until she chooses to open the gates…?

Elise: When I chose to write in this time period, I soon realized the cards would be stacked against my heroine Isabel. The fallout from the Norman Conquest threw so many lives in turmoil, including that of an unwed English noblewoman. So I had to figure out a way to not only make her someone worthy of a story, but also have enough agency to sustain one. That way a modern reader could respect her choices despite changes in culture and gender roles brought on by the march of time. It helps that my heroine is a bit spoiled by her father, still mourning the loss of his wife. Because of this, Isabel has been afforded opportunities to acquire certain skills and experiences not available to other women. Her power lies in the respect she commands from her father’s men and the rest of the household, her knowledge of the land and the vassals who tend it, and the passion she brings to her responsibilities. The result, I hope, is a strong character, cognizant of her place in the world, confident in her abilities, who realizes her heart is only hers to give.

800px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene19_Dinan

Siege of a motte and bailey castle at Dinan as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela: Beyond her inner qualities and skills such as strength of purpose or being politically astute, you also gave Isabel an outwardly fighting spirit and weaponry and badassery to go with it. She’s quite a shield-maiden, and in this way reminds me of the warrior maidens from a Tolkien saga, or the early Norse mythologies that inspired him. What made you decide to have Isabel be skilled at physical combat in her own right, in spite of needing to marry in order to retain dominion over her family’s lands?

Elise: Well, badassery was indeed a consideration. One thing I always disliked about fairy tales was the passive or secondary role women often played. I didn’t want that for my heroine, especially given the modern lens and the power dynamics of the time. So I wanted her skills with blade and bow to match her fighting spirit. She couldn’t be easily dismissed, politically, personally, physically. If you dig into the accounts of the Conquest, it wasn’t very pretty. I wanted a heroine who could transcend the brutality of the time period and be strong enough to pick up the pieces afterward.

Pamela: Alex is a wonderfully patient yet determined siege strategist. It’s refreshing to read a medieval warrior hero who’s open about his willingness to fall in love with the heiress he’s being commanded to marry, rather than bemoan his lost bachelorhood or succumbing to insta-lust for wedding, bedding, and then ignoring his new bride. He approaches Isabel as he would any worthy potential adversary or ally – and only once he realizes that he’s attracted to her, both physically and in terms of her character, does he decide upon a courtship strategy of emotional siege warfare. So many romance novels cast the hero as the protagonist whose deeper emotions are walled up behind a mental fortress – did you think about this as an inversion or subversion?

Elise: I did try to invert some expectations when it came to Alex, the Norman knight who throws Isabel’s world in turmoil. Going back to the brutality of the Conquest, it’s easy to assume that bloodlust is what defined the conquerors as they raped, pillaged, and razed the land on their trek from the coast to the heart of London. I felt not every man William brought to England could be ruled by such aggression—these very knights were the origins of chivalry after all, formalized roughly a hundred years later. As a conqueror, it’s easy to view Alex as a “bad guy.” So I tried to give Alex those honorable, chivalric impulses, while retaining the rough edges of the Norman culture. Having him in touch with his emotions, aware of how he’s perceived by others and how to manipulate that, were tools I used to keep him accessible to the reader. I also wanted to highlight his leadership qualities—he may be a landless knight, seeking his fortune in England, but he is still worthy of a noblewoman like Isabel.

Pamela: They do seem very well-matched, and I am looking forward to finishing their story.

800px-Mortagne_siege

Siege of Mortagne (Hundred Years War) from a 14th century Flemish manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am also feeling very pleased with myself for rediscovering the delights of a well-crafted medieval romance. It’s interesting there are some very popular mainstream television series with medieval or medieval-inspired settings, and I have been wondering if we’d start seeing more romance novels that show the influence of Game of Thrones or Vikings, at least in terms of setting, if not theme, but perhaps there is more epic fantasy that uses such settings these days, as opposed to traditional histrom?  I’ve gone back to find Jo Beverley’s medievals – new to me and, as expected, both satisfying and and complex — but I’m also eager for recommendations of newer titles.  Apart from the perennial popularity of Scottish-theme books (which tend to involve castles and claymores, even when set in a later century!), I’m having a hard time coming up with recent traditional medieval romances.  (Happily, Elise is working to fill the void.)

From the publisher, about SIEGE OF THE HEART: He fought for king and country, but that battle was nothing compared to the one he’ll wage for a woman’s heart.

Still reeling from the news of her father’s death during the Norman Conquest, Isabel Dumont is unprepared when trouble arrives at the castle gates. Alexandre d’Évreux, a Norman knight with close ties to England’s new king, has arrived to secure the land and the loyalties of the Dumont family. Desperate to protect her people, Isabel strives to keep the confounding knight at arm’s length and hide the truth about her father’s death.

For Alexandre, the spoils of war come with more than just a generous gift of land. They come with Isabel Dumont. Vowing to marry only for love, Alexandre finds himself in a difficult situation as a conqueror granted dominion over the land and its people. Isabel is the one person capable of helping him win the regard of those living in the war-torn country…if he chooses to accept her.

Just when Alexandre finds a spark of hope that he and Isabel have a chance at love, she vanishes. His quest to find her plunges him deeper into the conquest’s fallout. Was she taken? Or did she leave?

CONTENT WARNING: Entering into this novel may cause extreme affection toward knights of old, admiration for strong-willed women, and the overwhelming belief that love really can conquer all.

SIEGE OF THE HEART is available from Kensington as an e-book in the usual places. I believe a print edition is forthcoming. I’m grateful to the publisher and to Elise for sharing an e-ARC with me.

 

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!

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.

Scare Tactics: How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?

This is a post-in-progress, which is to say it’s an invitation to a discussion….  

I’m still thinking through the questions I want to explore, and I’m hoping one or two fellow readers and/or bloggers will be willing to help me kick this around a little bit.  What’s your comfort level with graphic violence in romance fiction?  Does your level of ease/unease change according to the setting or sub-genre?

My previous post was a rave review for Donna Thorland’s The Turncoat.  I think — although I’m by no means able to state this with any kind of statistical certainty — that it’s more violent than most histrom novels I’ve read.  It’s a wartime romance, and the protagonists are engaged in espionage and counter-espionage on opposing sides. There are several scenes involving physical and psychological torture (of known and/or suspected spies, of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intimidation by the occupying British) that were intense enough to remind me of novels and films well outside the romance genre – painful WWII stories with Nazis, or at one point even the cable drama Homeland, which is sort of a maze-like essay on spying, love, illusion and torture. I thought perhaps the novel Thorland most evoked for me, in terms of the use of violence and fear as a theme in a love story, might be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which some detractors dislike for its graphic no-holds-barred narrative (that’s the original cover from 1991, when it was published looking very much like a trad romance novel).

In a way, the grittiness of Thorland’s wonderful novel was oddly refreshing to my historical sensibilities, because I love this period and setting so much, and she made it a very real, very dangerous place and time, with safe domestic harbors few and far between. But there are other romance novels set in this period, even ones involving the spy networks, that don’t place the brutality of wartime so much at the forefront. It’s got me thinking about violence in the romance genre, and the delicate balance required to incorporate graphic episodes in a form of storytelling that is a lot about escape, fantasy, and happy endings.

We talk a lot about how rape or the threat of rape functions in romance, from “rapey” heroes and dubious consent to rape culture and assumptions about women who read BDSM erotica. These are important discussions, and what I’m talking about is certainly connected to these issues. But I’m pondering violence in romance more broadly — what do we find acceptable, and how does what we find acceptable change according to the different sub-genres or settings of particular novels? What about non-sexual violence?

Heroes are often called upon to be badass and perform a beatdown on the villain, or to annihilate random thugs. This is equally true in a Stephanie Laurens Regency or a Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy from JR Ward. In some cases the heroine is also capable of delivering the beatdown – see for example Joanna Bourne’s female spies. Do we expect a certain level of badassery and capacity for violence in the hero across the romance genre? Do we look for a similar capacity in the heroine in selected contexts?

And what of violence and the threat of violence against hero and heroine? How much is too much? How much are we willing to let happen to our protagonists? And whatever has happened to them or whatever they endure, what level of detail are we willing to experience along with them?

If you’re still with me, I’m really curious to know what you think about the way violence gets used and incorporated in romance novels. Do you prefer the suspense to build via allusions to offscreen violence? Character development via potentially violent and/or abusive episodes from the past, not the present space of the novel? What about the function of plot devices such as last-minute rescues, subjecting a secondary character to violence to intensify the sense of danger to H/h, or going inside the villain’s head for sections or chapters involving evil deeds and/or graphically violent fantasies?

Even romance novels that are frothy and fun sometimes utilize danger or the threat of violence to drive the story. How does that work? When a novel is light in tone, how do authors elevate suspense if there is a plot involving hero or heroine in peril? I reviewed The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries a while back, and I struggled a bit with the romp-ish tone of the book given grim subject matter (pirates kidnap convict ship carrying female prisoners, for forced marriages so they can make a utopian community on a deserted island). Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers?

Or are all these questions sort of meaningless since as readers we tend to instinctively choose books that will meet our needs within our comfort zone on several important measures? In romance fiction, people seem to frequently make choices based  on subgenre, “sensuality rating,” and the opinions of trusted recommenders. Perhaps level of violence, like level of explicit sexual content, is something about which we make instinctive judgments, thereby avoiding books that will make us uncomfortable? Or are we willing to tolerate more variability with violence, from book to book?

Finally, are there loose conventions that guide us as readers — that is, does level of violence correlate with particular subgenres within romance? Do you expect a certain amount of danger in paranormals or urban fantasy because of the use of suspense plots, while contemporaries tend to offer less violent forms of danger? What about historical romance? Are certain settings likely to involve more graphic violence, or just different types of violence — eg. the ritualized violence of the duel?

dsafda

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1975
via amovieaweek.com

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.