Romance and Re-Reading

love-letteringIt hasn’t been a good stretch for me in my romance reading. I haven’t read anything since Love Lettering that I expect to re-read, which for me is the real sign of success: since I found my groove as a romance reader (nearly a decade ago, now!), romance has filled a nice niche for me as my go-to genre for incidental reading, books that divert, distract, and cheer me when I don’t have the time or am not in the mood for heavier options. I don’t mean to belittle the genre at all with this characterization. I have always read and reread books in that spirit, but they used to be mostly ‘light’ mysteries (Dick Francis, for instance) or relatively undemanding but satisfying general fiction (Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope). I still reread old favorites in those genres too, but now my interstitial reading (as I have come to call it) also includes Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan and Kate Clayborn.

tyler-ladderWhat is it that makes rereading–sometimes frequent rereading–pleasurable? Why do some books invite and reward it and others not? I reread for a living, of course, and for the books I teach the answer usually has to do with complexity: with layers of meaning and intricacies of language or form. Books teach well that don’t reveal themselves completely on a first try–otherwise what is there to talk about, after all? The better you know a book like that, the more you appreciate on each reading: the pleasure itself gets more complicated and multidimensional. That’s not (or not quite, or not usually) the same with the mysteries or romances I reread, though–or with writers like Anne Tyler, whose novels are many good things, including smart, touching, and subtle, but not particularly layered or complicated. You might notice more details on rereading, or see some connections or patterns that you missed the first time through, but for me anyway, rereading these books is about familiarity, not novelty, about confirmation rather than revelation. The pleasure comes from watching things unfold again as you already know they will, and enjoying again what you enjoyed before, whether it’s witty banter, angst-ridden suspense, sparky sexual tension, or whatever genre tropes the novel is built around.

evvie-drakeBut not every romance novel inspires rereading for me, even if I enjoyed it just fine the first time. Sometimes there’s an obvious problem–stilted prose, unconvincing characters, a plot that feels too utterly contrived, leaden dialogue–but others fall flat for no reason I can really put my finger on. The recent string of books that prompts this post included just one of the first kind (Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager, which felt creaky from the get-go and then lumbered predictably along while trying to be spritely and witty, which is the worst effect for me) but mostly books of the second sort, where nothing was overtly wrong but they still didn’t do much for me. Get A Life, Chloe Brown was like that–it was perfectly fine, sometimes even charming, but when I was done, it went straight into the ‘donate’ pile. Ditto Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me, and Lucy Parker’s Headliners, and Alyssa Cole’s A Duke by Default. This morning I finished Linda Holmes’s Evvie Blake Starts Over and overall I enjoyed it the most of this recent batch–though I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as romance. (It sits on the fuzzy line between contemporary romance and “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” especially as it doesn’t quite serve up the requisite HEA–its ending is a very nice happy-for-now one.) If I went back a couple of months, I could give a much longer list of titles–very few of them actually bad but also few of them particularly good. (In romance as in all reading, of course, YMMV, and these are all books others have enjoyed a lot. Love works in mysterious ways, I guess! As we say on Twitter, “don’t @ me.” ūüėČ )

crusieWhen I mentioned my discouraging string of “meh” romance reads on Twitter, Liz (who, more than perhaps anyone else, got me into reading romance in the first place!) commented that she “might be off romance for good.” It’s not (I am sure she meant) that she has lost respect for or interest in the genre overall, but that it gets tiring (and boring) having to read through so many to find the ones you like. This is certainly true of my own experience of romance, at any rate. There are lots of contributing factors to the skewed hit-to-miss ratio: the sheer quantity of books, for one thing, and the equally wide-ranging variety of readers and tastes they serve. Marketing–covers, blurbs, hype–makes useful discernment a challenge (this is true of all the genres I read, but the problem feels more pronounced with romance), as does the (perfectly understandable) desire of romance readers and writers to support each other and the genre they love, which is so frequently reviled and misrepresented.

lady-225Although my relationship with romance has come a long way since my first skeptical and ill-informed attempts at reading in the genre, I do sometimes get fed up. As I mentioned in that Twitter conversation, I “DNF” romance novels far more often than books of any other kind, and while it’s possible that this result is mostly about me (as a reader or a person, who knows) it’s hard not to think it also says something about the genre, though what exactly that is, I’m not sure. But it’s also true that most romance novels are relatively fast reads, which is why I can get through so many of them in such a short time. Perhaps, proportionally, the hits and misses are not really that out of line with the rest of my reading–they just stack up more quickly! That also means that each romance novel on its own is a fairly low risk endeavor (certainly compared to, say, Ducks, Newburyport, which so far I dislike much more intensely than any of the romances I have picked up and put down without finishing, and which will require a vastly greater investment of time and effort to get the rest of the way through). Moreover, when I do find a romance novel I really like, the pay-off is disproportionately large because of how often I am likely to end up rereading it. I have now read all three of Kate Clayborn’s ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy three or four times each, for example, and will no doubt reread them again before too long; the same is true of Cecilia Grant’s ‘Blackshear Family’ series, the first one of which, A Lady Awakened, I recently reread with great pleasure. There are even some individual scenes that make the whole exercise worthwhile! Sometimes I pick up Heyer’s Devil’s Cub just to reread the chapter in which Mary, all unwitting, tells the Duke of Avon about her misadventures with his wayward son Vidal: it’s the perfect antidote for a fit of gloom, a reliable dose of “restorative pork jelly” (an allusion other Heyer readers will appreciate!).

devils-cub

Discovering that, if it’s the right one, a romance novel is the best bookish friend imaginable–always there when you need it and sure to cheer you up–is the happiest result of my now decade-long romance reading adventure. In the end, that’s what keeps me trying again and again even when it starts to seem that the ones I really like are few and far between: when I do find them, the rewards outweigh the accumulated tedium of the many others that weren’t for me. If that balance ever tips too far the other way, I too might go off the genre, though I can’t imagine clearing out my collection of favorites, which is a sign of much I have come to value romance as part of my reading life. It feels apt (if a bit trite!) to point out that my optimistic pursuit of just the right book for me is a bit like the stories romance novels themselves tell–which I guess means it’s rereading that turns out to be the real HEA!

Reading in the New Year: Love and Death

love-letteringRing out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s¬†The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.

Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In¬†Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck,¬†Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.

luckThe first time I read¬†Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of¬†Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy. luck-of-draw

It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a¬†lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:

He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The¬†t, the¬†w, the¬†o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.

It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.

witch-elm The Witch Elm has¬†been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in¬†Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I‚Äôd say that without any ‚Äúbang, bang‚ÄĚ for hundreds of pages, ‚ÄúThe Witch Elm‚ÄĚ becomes ‚Äúboring, boring.‚ÄĚ I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.

My only quibble with¬†The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.

So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.

 

 

 

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure.¬†I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the¬†Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute¬†and¬†Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s¬†Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s¬†Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it,¬†submitting it) to the¬†New Yorker, and learning in¬†THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s¬†The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s¬†Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also¬†Obasan¬†is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book.¬†I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that¬†The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and¬†Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off¬†Canada Reads,¬†and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony¬†because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a¬†collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is¬†intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of¬†Rectify¬†before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting.¬†If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading T√©a Obreht’s forthcoming novel¬†Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)

 

Recent Reading: Mostly Romance

I had been feeling unnecessarily guilty (because after all, it’s not as if I’m answerable to anybody about this!) that I haven’t done much reading–and thus much book blogging–for some time. But then it occurred to me that in fact I¬†have been reading pretty steadily; it’s just that it has mostly been what I think of as “interstitial” reading–reading that fills in the time between other more demanding tasks, reading that distracts and amuses rather than demands much in its turn, either because it’s already familiar or because its prose is light rather than dense.

I don’t in any way mean to belittle the books I read in this way: they are a vital part of my reading ecosystem! They used to be mostly mysteries, and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker still make regular appearances in this role–for instance, not long ago I finished a reread of Francis’s¬†10-Lb. Penalty, which I decided in retrospect got short shrift in my round-up of Francis’s “Top Ten.” Since I belatedly learned to stop worrying and love romance too, now I also have a pool of reliable favorites in that genre that I reread, and I’m also alert to suggestions for new ones to try. In fact, these days I’m more likely to search up new romances than new mysteries: for whatever reason, right now I find it harder to accept the necessary machinery of detective novels unless I’m already friends with the protagonists – and even then it doesn’t necessarily go well for us.

So while I have been starting and then putting aside other books that demand more concentration than I seem able to apply right now outside of work and deadlines (including Elizabeth Taylor’s¬†A View from the Harbour and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s¬†The Fatigue Artist, both of which I fully intend to finish eventually), I have read and reread a bunch of other titles. Some quick comments on the new ones (or the ones that were new to me):

I really enjoyed Kate Clayborn’s¬†Beginner’s Luck. Right away I liked that its leads had unusual jobs, meaning there was a fair amount of “neepery”: the heroine is a lab technician with the potential to be a research scientist of a different kind if she saw her life a bit differently, and the hero is a corporate recruiter but also hangs out in his family’s salvage yard, so on top of the science stuff there are also lots of details about things like old light fixtures. The title refers in part to the premise of what is presumably going to be a trilogy about three best friends who have won the lottery, but while Kit’s financial fortune is certainly part of the context for the story, I appreciated that it is a fraught part–it has not by any means solved all of her problems. The story is well told and the relationship (including its “big mis”) is believable.

I’ve also enjoyed the two I’ve read so far from Ruby Lang’s¬†Practice Perfect series. I liked¬†Hard Knocks better than¬†Acute Reactions, and neither of them really delighted me; I think both of those reactions are about my own preferred angst-to-wit ratio–which is probably why I liked Jennifer Crusie’s¬†Manhunting, which somehow I had missed before in my Crusie reading, better than either of them.

Not all of my romance reading has been very successful. I’ve DNF’ed three historicals in the past couple of weeks: two by Eloisa James, including¬†Wilde in Love, and Loretta Chase’s newest,¬†A Duke in Shining Armor. They all felt perfunctory to me, from their starting premises to their characters, and I just didn’t care enough about how we were going to get to the inevitable HEA to keep going. I was trying to put my finger on why Chase’s Carsington novels interest me so much more (they are among my most frequent rereads).¬† Part of it is because so much more is at stake in them than the feelings of the leads (the dispute over the planned canal in¬†Miss Wonderful, for example), but there’s also something different in the quality of the characterization, and in the pace and wit of the dialogue–something that just seems to be missing in the new ones. As I set these three books aside (and remembered, too, how uninspired I was by recent books by Tessa Dare and Sarah MacLean, who have written other books that are among my favorites), I¬† found myself thinking with renewed appreciation also of Cecilia Grant‘s excellent historical romances, not one of which has given me that sense of just going through the motions.

At least I know better now than to assume that a bad run (for me, of course – YMMV etc.) is not a reflection on the genre, which like all kinds of books will have hits and misses for any individual reader. I think I am a bit quicker to abandon genre fiction (including mysteries) if I’m not really enjoying it, whereas I tend to persist to the end of “literary” novels in case the payoff there just takes longer to emerge. Is that snobbery, or a reflection of the different reasons I read, and the different expectations I bring to, different kinds of books? I also read mysteries and romances quite differently when I’m reading them for other purposes, such as teaching. But sometimes I want to read without thinking all that hard–maybe the way to put it is that sometimes I want the book to do all the work, and to carry me along. I’m pretty sure some people do¬†all their reading that way! At any rate, for me the books that serve this purpose for me when I need it are among those I treasure the most.

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s¬†The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s¬†By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s¬†Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project,¬†Sarah Moss’s¬†Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard,¬†Sarah Perry’s¬†The Essex Serpent, and now¬†The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s¬†The Wonder¬†would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s¬†Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels¬†from, rather than¬†about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat¬†stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s¬†We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she¬†is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer. ¬†Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in¬†“The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s¬†Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s¬†The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series,¬†but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess¬†is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s¬†Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself¬†too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s¬†Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that teaching Lord of Scoundrels at the end of a term that has also included Bleak HouseAdam Bede, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a good way to bring home the truth of  Jennifer Crusie’s remark that a lot of great literature is really toxic to women. In romance fiction, as she points out, “you can have sex without dying horribly,” which is indeed, as she says, “a plus.”

Crusie isn’t the only person to emphasize this contrast between romance fiction and the parade of great novels in which women’s sexuality brings them shame, isolation, desperation, and even death, of course. In fact, the sex-positivity of romance is a recurrent theme in most of the books I’ve read about the genre, or at least in those that are as much (or more) about advocacy as about analysis. Here’s Sarah Wendell, for instance, in Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels:

One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about sex in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even assertive about her sexual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of sex were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn’t mean giving yourself away — and it didn’t mean you were done for once you did the deed.

And here’s Maya Rodale in her Dangerous Books for Girls:

Romance novels came to provide a safe place for women to explore their desires, free from the risk of rape, guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, unplanned pregnancy, or regret. In contrast to so many other depictions of sex, from literature to porn to movies, romance novels are completely and unabashedly focused on the woman’s feelings and pleasure. And, most revolutionarily of all, romance heroines can enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.

These generalizations certainly wouldn’t hold up for all examples of a genre that goes back as far and ranges as widely as romance, and I think there are also some problems with arguments about romance that focus too much on sex — as if there’s no HEA for people who are asexual, for instance, or no such thing as sexual trauma that might complicate that “unabashed” focus on pleasure. Still, after following the tribulations of yet another tragic woman who learns that “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings” — after Lady Dedlock’s forlorn fate, and Hetty’s wanderings, and now Tess’s catastrophes, it is a breath of fresh air to turn to Jessica and Dain. As Jess tells her appreciative grandmother after their first reckless, swoon-worthy kiss,

“If we had not been struck by lightning — or very nearly — I should be utterly ruined. Against a lamppost. On the Rue de Provence. And the horrible part is . . . I wish I had been.”

After Jessica and Dain are caught passionately embracing in the garden during Lady Wallingdon’s party, “though her face heated at the recollection, she refused to feel ashamed at what she’d done.” It’s not that Chase ignores the potential for scandal and worse from such a compromising event, but she writes her heroine out of the trap her desire has landed her in, and Jessica’s HEA builds on, rather than overcomes, her “unabashed” hunger for and pleasure in Dain’s “big and dark and beautiful body.”

And yet, while the overt and (ultimately) happy sexiness of Lord of Scoundrels is indeed “awesomely excellent,” it’s not entirely fair to set up modern romance fiction as the positive alternative to punishing Victorian fiction, which I think can actually be quite “sex positive,” albeit usually in a much more subtle, and sometimes perverse, way. For one thing, the women who pay such a high price for breaking society’s rules are very often portrayed as victims: the novelists direct our disapprobation not against them but against the world that treats them so cruelly for something so understandable or natural. Lady Dedlock should not have died cold and alone reaching for her lover’s grave: all the moral and emotional force of Bleak House is directed against that outcome. It’s true that the implication may still be that she has sinned, but she deserves to be forgiven and brought back into the loving embrace of her long-lost daughter, our moral exemplar. Eliot and Hardy make it particularly clear that their “erring” heroines are participating (more or less willingly, of course) in a natural process made shameful and dangerous by social codes, not because it is intrinsically wrong. If only some reconciliation could be made between flesh and spirit, between nature and law — so much shame and fear and violence could be avoided!

Still, these ruined women provide vivid and memorable (and sometimes uncomfortably aestheticized) spectacles of the price of unauthorized sexuality, so my case for the defense rests more on the importance placed on sexual attraction for the happy endings 19th-century novels do themselves provide. Over and over, after all, the unsexy match is rejected in favor of the one that promises that the heroine will “enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.” Think of Mr. Collins, Mr. Boarham, Mr. Casaubon, St. John Rivers, Seth Bede, Philip Wakem, Mr. Phillotson … there’s a long parade of obviously unsuitable suitors. Think, too, of the blushing (Dinah with Adam), the racing pulses (Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth), the sweating horses (Stephen Guest visiting Maggie), the fixated gaze (Mr. Thornton and Margaret), the nearby lightning strike (Will and Dorothea) … so many signs in so many cases that the right match is the exciting one, that the happy ending (if it can be achieved) brings the promise of sexual satisfaction, if safely within the (constantly tested and expanded) boundaries of social acceptability.

I realize that these examples of HEAs based on sex that is socially safe could be seen as missing the point — outside that boundary, after all, is still all that same old “guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, … [and] regret.” I guess I just want to complicate the implication of the romance advocates that we had to wait for romance fiction to open up a space for acknowledging, imagining, depicting, or even celebrating women’s sexuality. It’s not as if there aren’t bad examples in romance fiction too, after all, and even more to the point, it’s not as if it only counts as positive if the sexual aspect is made explicit. Romance heroines also still have to find a way, a place, to live in their world: it’s not as if the space they create for all that sexual assertion and exploration is outside society.

That doesn’t mean Lord of Scoundrels isn’t still refreshing, though, in both its frankness and its fun. “If you think I could not . . . make you eat out of my hand, if that’s what I wanted,” says Jessica to her obstreperous new husband, who so far has shied away from actually making love to her, “I recommend you think again, Beelzebub.” “I should like to see you try,” he responds — and by that point, so would we all.

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates¬†between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s¬†No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of¬†Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult¬†review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s¬†Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for¬†Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s¬†Bodies of Light, which is backround¬†reading for the review of¬†Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to¬†Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s¬†Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my¬†Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s¬†The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s¬†Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer¬†and is expected to show up, at long last, in¬†The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately¬†trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out¬†what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise¬†is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s¬†Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s¬†Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to¬†Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s¬†Seven Minutes in Heaven¬†and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was¬†a bit let down by¬†the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers!¬†I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they¬†don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s¬†Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read¬†something¬† else again. I picked up¬†Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.