If you’re like me, you’re starting to wonder, “Does this Liz person read? These posts are all on books she hasn’t read, books she didn’t finish, and audiobooks! Call this a book blog?” Yes, I seem to be in a bit of a slump. This makes me sad, because I just read and loved Cecilia Grant’s second novel, A Gentleman Undone. I’d like to give it a review commensurate with my enjoyment of it, but I can’t, because I read it in bits and pieces and don’t have a coherent overall response. Scattered thoughts will have to be enough.
There are tons of proper reviews around, including two at Dear Author and a (spoilery, I thought) A+ from AnimeJune. Kelly at Insta-Love has a great quote-heavy side-by-side review with Julia Quinn’s latest. For a blurb, see here.
Some authors just seem to click for a reader. It can be voice, storytelling, ideas, themes or the world the author creates: something “fits” with the reader’s own imagination. Cecilia Grant is one of those authors for me (if you can say that on the strength of two books). I like the way she talks about the genre and her own writing in interviews, in comments around Romancelandia, and on her blog. I like the way I can feel her mind working in her books. Even when I find her books imperfect, there’s so much that’s rewarding in them. There’s no happier reader feeling than finding this fit.
I loved Martha, the heroine of Grant’s A Lady Awakened. I identified with her in the same kind of painful, cringing way I identify with Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. She wants so much to do good, and makes so many mistakes. I didn’t feel that intense identification with Will or Lydia in A Gentleman Undone. But I liked that Will, haunted by mistakes that he feels have dishonored him, was recognizably Martha’s brother.
On the face of it, Will and Lydia are straight out of romance central casting: the wounded (emotionally) former soldier and the courtesan. But Grant makes them so much more than stock characters. Drawn together by their desire to escape their circumstances, they become partners in a gambling scam of sorts. Will needs money to support the family of a fellow-soldier whose death he feels responsible for; Lydia wants to keep herself, rather than being kept by a man.
Lydia, with her passion for numbers and her repressed defiance, is wonderful. Like Martha in Lady Awakened, she’s a character a feminist romance reader can love, but isn’t anachronistic. She’s a whole person, aware of the way her society and circumstances limit her but determined to make the best life she can–even though she pretty much despises herself. There’s nothing wrong with Grant’s heroes, but it’s the heroines who make the books for me. They break the romance mold. They don’t have those dainty, “likeable” romance heroine flaws that allow readers to feel good about identifying with them. They screw up big time. I love them.
Will and Lydia may feel shame, but they reveal themselves to readers and to each other as honorable. Both seemed to me to be taking steps to recover their self-respect before they met, but even at the end they still have a ways to go. Luckily, we don’t have to be “cured” to love and get married (I still have the same damn flaws I did on my wedding day).
The romance in this novel made me think of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage (click only if you have a high tolerance for French psychoanalytic theory). Lydia and Will see each other as worthy and honorable, despite recognizing the other’s brokenness. Love doesn’t cure them, but they do offer each other an image of a better self to work towards. Or rather, they offer each other recognition of the goodness and honor that’s already there, an image of the self that each must learn to recognize as being true. Just as true as the worthless self-image each clings to.
Janet’s Dear Author review commented on problems with pacing. I thought those problems were with my mood, not the book, but who knows. At times I was really sucked in. I loved the card-playing and odds-calculating (it made Lydia’s intelligence vividly real). I loved their passionate but despairing first sexual encounter, and that they didn’t get there until well into the book. I loved that Grant didn’t shy away from the fact that their marriage, and some of their other choices, would have social consequences–isolating them from much of Will’s family, for instance–given Lydia’s past.
I thought more dramatic events (to say what would be spoilery) were stuffed into the end than was strictly necessary. They weren’t purposeless by any means, and they moved the plot forward at lightning speed. But I enjoyed the slow, complicated unfolding of the relationship, the great dialogue between Will and Lydia, the tension at the card-table and with Lydia’s protector, more than the larger-scale action.
Generally, I like prose in genre fiction to be clean and straightforward, to get out of the way of the story. Grant’s is not. It’s rich and dense and sometimes over the top. I’m sure it’s not to every reader’s taste, but I love it. I bookmarked 33 pages in a 290-page ePub. Here’s a sampling:
She gave a man’s mind places to go, did such a girl. Let beautiful women air their attractions like laundry on a line, flapping for all the world to see. The woman who kept something back–who wore her graces like silk underthings against the skin, and dared a man to find them out–would always be the one to set his imagination racing.
Here after all was their condition, perched on their separate wind-whipped summits, in view of each other, but to distant to reach.
She stared down at him, his judge and his ravisher, appalling as the eagle who’d feasted every day on Prometheus’s liver, and he as powerless as that Titan, chained to the rock, rent open, his darkest, most unspeakable secrets laid bare to her view.
That last one’s from a sex scene.
Thanks, Cecilia Grant, for novels that have changed my expectations of what romance can do, even as they satisfy my desire for a good courtship story and a happy ending.