This post is mainly about my response to Miranda Neville’s Confessions from an Arranged Marriage (short version: loved it). If you’d like a more conventional review, I’d recommend Janine’s at Dear Author; I also enjoyed SonomaLass’s “Tale of Two Minervas” post.
I feel like I’m in the eye of the storm today, a momentary lull. Yesterday, Good Friday, I went to church twice, then out to dinner and a play with friends. Tomorrow, it’s church again and family Easter brunch. I’m also resting up for the piles of end-of-term marking that arrive next week and the week after.
It’s a sunny spring day, the kind that almost makes up for the dark, wet Vancouver winter. I took the dog for a long walk through the neighborhood, admiring the spring flowers and glimpses of snow-capped mountains against blue sky.
Yesterday, I took my daughter to church, where the kids heard the stories of Holy Week and then dyed a ton of Easter eggs. These are a sample of her work. I love dyeing eggs. Even the ones dipped into a slew of random colors by three-year-olds turn out beautiful. I’ve got a bag in my closet full of equally colorful candies to fill the kids’ Easter baskets (with some left over for adults).
The play we saw last night, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, was a kind of Easter confection itself, with female characters in bright, beribboned late-Victorian dress; a clever, cartoony set; and Wilde’s witty, frothy dialogue (the play is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People). I love this play and haven’t seen a live production for years; it was so much fun. This morning I finished Miranda Neville’s latest novel, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, which I also loved. Watching Earnest, I thought about Neville, and finishing her book, I thought about Wilde.
That’s partly because Neville’s next book is titled The Importance of Being Wicked, and this sparked a Twitter conversation about her enjoyment of Wilde. And because Neville’s books are often funny, her dialogue witty. But it’s also because Wilde’s play is about artifice, among other things, and part of what I enjoy about Neville’s books (and she’s definitely on my shortlist of favorite historical romance writers) is that they seem self-consciously “artificial,” calling attention to their play within the constraints of the genre. I don’t mean that they are parody (or that the emotions aren’t genuine), but that there’s an awareness of working in a tradition, a relish for classic tropes: in her last book, Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Neville used a highly artificial, romance-novel version of amnesia to great comic effect, for instance.
Confessions makes good use of one of my favorite tropes, the forced marriage or marriage of convenience. Blake accidentally debauches Minerva in a library, a setting that’s both highly symbolic of the issues in their marriage and a classic romance-novel scene of seduction. Given a hero named Blakeney whose intelligence is underestimated by everyone, and who’s tasked with a little spying on his honeymoon in Paris, I saw an allusion to The Scarlet Pimpernel, too; Neville said on Twitter that she didn’t intend that, so I’d chalk it up to an upwelling of the Romance Collective Unconscious. In any case, the echo of a book I’ve loved since high school added to my enjoyment of Neville’s version of one of my favorite romance tropes. Minerva and Blake dislike, even despise, each other, and seem entirely opposite. Watching them figure out how to make a marriage work and learning to respect and love each other was a delight.
The book felt deliberately constructed, too. The last line in Earnest is Jack/Ernest’s famous “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Last night, the actor playing Jack paused in the middle and said “wait for it. . .” an acknowledgement of the artificiality of the theatre, the existence of the audience (something the production did in a number of ways), and that many members of that audience would be familiar with the line. Neville ends each of her chapters with a line that isn’t quite punchline and isn’t quite teaser, something that summed up the chapter and made me want to turn the page: “His moment of wielding his inherited influence might be only too brief” or “Blakeney has ruined me. I have no other choice.” After a couple of chapters, I did come to “wait for it;” it felt like a little joke of the author’s I was in on.
Some readers–even those who enjoy Neville’s books–comment that they feel distanced from the characters, and I know what they mean. It’s hard to explain where that feeling comes from. I think in part it’s that Neville uses exposition (and brisk, concise exposition) to bridge the novel’s scenes more than many other romance writers today. I find a lot of contemporary (i.e. written now) romance novels highly cinematic: scene, scene, scene. Neville’s book is more scene, bridge, scene. The result of more reliance on exposition is somewhat less deep point of view–the account of characters’ feelings is often brisk and concise. This, too, is part of what makes Neville a comic writer for me; her narrator isn’t as distant from the characters, or as ironic about them, as Austen’s, but there is some similarity. I like it fine, but I’m a low-angst reader.
That’s not to say I didn’t find the book moving. I thought Blake’s anxiety and shame about his secret, his desperation to conceal it, were well drawn, but I didn’t feel them deeply (though I think other readers might). I did really identify with Minerva’s feelings after the first sex scene, though. I loved this whole scene. Minerva enjoys herself very much until the actual consummation, which is painful. I liked the realism of that scene–not that the first time is that painful for everyone, but it varies a lot, while romance first-time scenes seem awfully similar (just a little pinch, as the doctor says about a shot, then ecstasy). The aftermath is even better: Minerva notices (and resents) his weight on her, his hairy legs, the stain on the bed’s canopy. She’s not in the moment. She worries that sex can never be a path to affection for them, that’s she’s doomed to be disappointed and to disappoint him. This realism about how painful it can be when sex goes wrong I found very moving. Since this is a romance novel, Minerva’s fears eventually prove groundless, of course, and that’s part of why I could bear to share her suffering.
Confessions from an Arranged Marriage is smart, funny, and moving. A perfect Easter treat. Not that that will stop me from eating chocolate and jellybeans too.