A Book Unreviewed: On Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone

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.

Author-Reader “Fit”

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. 

Characters

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.

The Plot

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.

The Prose

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.

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18 Responses to A Book Unreviewed: On Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone

  1. Ros says:

    Aaarrrrrgh! I can’t bear that this book still isn’t on sale in the UK! CANNOT WAIT until June 20th. Seriously. It sounds SO GOOD.

  2. willaful says:

    Great comments. I hadn’t thought about fit in that way before, but it strikes a chord in me. I actually bought Unlocked because I liked one of Milan’s blog posts so much, and that worked out very well.

    • lizmc2 says:

      It doesn’t always work out, but often if I enjoy an author’s thoughts on Twitter, blogs, etc, I find I like their books, too. (I should probably have noted that Cecilia comments here sometimes. Possibly that contributes to my feeling that there’s something in her books that’s in tune with my brain! Or just confirms that we have common ground).

  3. victoriajanssen says:

    I just finished this one, and liked it a lot!

  4. dajanine says:

    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.

    You can add my signature to this! And I love her prose too. I’m a fan of un-straightforward prose, though, if that’s the right word for it. I’m not sure that it is.

  5. I have to be in the mood to read extremely descriptive prose, because I sometimes “see” the author’s hand in crafting their sentences (and then I feel like my emotions are being manipulated), but based on my peek at ALA, I don’t find that’s at all the case with Grant. But let me escape from talking about AGU–I’m supposed to get my book done so I can read it!

    • Janine Ballard says:

      A lot of readers seem to feel that way, but I “see” the author’s hand no matter what kind of prose it is, and that may be why I don’t have that prejudice.

      • I don’t always see it (for example, I marvel at the prose of Edith Wharton, Judith Ivory and A.S. Byatt, but I still see the story and characters inside of the writing) but when I do, I get annoyed. Mostly, because I’m arrogant enough to feel that reading is about me and my experience whilst reading the text, not about the author’s skill. *g*

    • lizmc2 says:

      I don’t always mind seeing the author’s hand; I think that becomes more an intellectual than an emotional thing for me, so just a different kind of enjoyment.

  6. kaetrin says:

    I’m a very hero-centric reader so I fell for Theo in A Lady Awakened. I liked Martha but I was more struck by how Theo had to learn about intimacy as opposed to how to have sex and how he came to appreciate that a womans passion is/can be roused by the mundane being done well (land management!) etc. I liked that regardless, he was like able the whole way through the book too.

    I fully expect to enjoy A Gentleman Undone when I finally get my hands on it but I also expect that I will enjoy Will more in some way, even if it is just the way he reacts to Lydia’s profession and intelligence.

    I enjoy a wide variety of authors. Mary Balogh writes spare, Meredith Duran writes dense – I love both styles like I like different desserts, depending on my mood. I try and give each book I read the best chance for success by being in the right mood for the writing style of the book I’m reading. That’s why I sometimes wait to read a much anticipated book.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      Hmm, that is interesting — I don’t see Balogh’s writing as spare because she’s fond of repetitions and of starting sentences with and’s or but’s that aren’t strictly necessary. But one writer whose writing I love and whose prose I do see as spare is Anne Stuart — though I think her prose especially suits her contemporaries. I love the tightness of her writing.

      These things are in the eye of the beholder. I once heard a reader describe Judith Ivory’s prose as spare, and IMO Ivory writes the most showy, lavish prose of any writer I can think of in this genre,

      • willaful says:

        I guess you could say Balogh is spare in that she’s not flowery. But I agree, she’s very repetitive, to the point of feeling inflated in recent books.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Will is lovely. I think you’ll like him.

      I think my mood was why I read this one slowly. It requires attention to appreciate, in a way that a less densely written book doesn’t. Sure, you could zoom through reading for the plot, but you’d be missing something. I couldn’t wait, though, because I’d almost spoiled my enjoyment of ALA by reading so much about it before I was done. This time, I wanted to lose myself in the book unfiltered.

      • kaetrin says:

        I’m trying not to read too much about the book so I don’t get spoiled.

        Writers like Jo Bourne, Meredith Duran and Cecilia Grant have such lovely but dense prose – it take time, IMO to enjoy it – kind of like the difference between a rich chocolate pudding and a light meringue – both lovely if your appetite is right :)

  7. Bookworm says:

    Lizmc2,

    Just loved your ‘non review’! I rev’d it for another site and just had to give it a special post after. You can come and check it out!

    http://bookworm2bookworm.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/cecilia-grant-rocks-my-romance-world/

    Mel
    BTW: You have an awesome blog!

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