Anatomy of a DNF

Since I discussed the opening chapter of Jo Manning’s Seducing Mr. Heywood, I wanted to explain why I stopped reading (at about 60% in; I skimmed the rest). This book was just OK for me, and I have other books waiting that I’m excited to read, so I set it aside. Where my Chapter One post was an argument about how the book works on its own terms, this one is a comment on how it worked–or failed to–for me.

The basic concept of this book–notorious, rakish heroine and country vicar–appealed to me because it flips romance conventions, and I love a redemption story. Widowed for a third time and abandoned by her lover, Lady Sophia Rowley goes to Yorkshire to nurse her wounds; there she’s gradually reminded of the real self she’s lost sight of thanks to the fact that her father repeatedly sold her into marriage, in one case an abusive one. This is a great plot, but Manning pulls too many punches and over-stuffs the novel, leaving too little room to portray the changes in Sophia’s character in a way that feels believable and satisfying. The scenes are short (often just a couple of pages) and jump around among the characters, and that choppiness contributed to my sense that the novel lacks emotion and believable character development.

There’s one way in which Manning doesn’t pull her punches: Lady Sophia really did have affairs (she gave her much older husband, still in love with his first wife, the heir and spare he needed, then went off to live her separate life with his blessing). I liked that. But I thought she changed too quickly and without the struggle that real redemption requires. For instance, at the novel’s start, Sophia hasn’t seen her sons for several years. But suddenly she’s remembering how much she loved them as babies. They come home from Eton, hugs all around, and ta da! she’s a loving mother from then on.

In the first chapter, Sophia is rude, selfish, doesn’t remember servants’ names, and curses like a sailor. But that woman disappears almost immediately. There’s the loving mother thing. There’s the fact that, though she didn’t make it home for her husband’s funeral, she’s soon going to his grave to discuss their sons. From there, it’s a short step to nursing the poor through an outbreak of putrid sore throat (and I just didn’t find this saintliness historically plausible). We’re told that Charles Heywood works with the boys “to devise ways of letting their mother know that the servants liked to be complimented,” and we see that suddenly she’s doing it (and is promptly beloved by the staff and taking an interest in all their concerns), but there isn’t a scene where we see her boys changing her, nor any intermediate steps. A lot of the things that interested me most happen off page or are briskly narrated; instead, we get a pointless kidnapping plot and the search for a lost governess.

Here’s the kind of thing that made the book feel emotionally flat to me. Sophia has just found out that her children were kidnapped:

She shuddered, then made a decision to carry on. There was nothing more she could do. She was in despair; weeping and wailing and tearing her hair was what she wanted to do, but she could not, not in front of everyone.

Sophia knew she must regain control of her emotions and carry on, for her sake and for the sake of her distraught staff. Telling stories to Chloe [a farmworker’s child she’s been nursing], keeping her promise to the child, would erase this horror from her mind for a short time.

The sequence here is totally plausible–she makes up her mind to be calm because losing control will help no one, and she finds a useful distraction. But there’s no detail that makes me feel it.

By contrast, here’s a passage from Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone, the book I picked up instead, that worked better for me at conveying the character’s feelings:

She moved her thumb infinitesimally over the fine stitching of the waistcoat’s armhole, her only outward manifestation of unease. What would she do if he should bid her come and kneel? She’d never refused him before.

No. I don’t want to. The novel words loitered just at the back of her teeth. She could taste them.

The little details–like Lydia’s feeling the stitching of the waistcoat she just wants to put on her protector so she can get him out of the house–made me feel the constraints her role of mistress places her under and her longing to be free.

Finally, I found Manning’s prose uneven. There are some lovely descriptive passages: “The moon and the night were communing, or so it seemed to Charles when he rushed into the garden and saw Sophia’s pale hair brushing against Brent’s dark head” (picking up on the opening chapter’s association of Sophia with the goddess Diana). But then there’s stuff like a modiste who won’t let just any woman “ply her custom” at her shop (you ply a trade; it’s the modiste who’s plying). Or “a rush of unpleasant memories crowded Sophia’s mental processes.” Awkward phrasing like that jerked me out of the story.

If you’d like to hear from readers who finished Manning’s book, try reviews from Rosario, The Romance Reader, or All About Romance. For me, Seducing Mr. Heywood was like the outline of a more engrossing book: the great ideas were all there, but in execution, they weren’t developed.

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9 Responses to Anatomy of a DNF

  1. Kaetrin says:

    I’ve read a few books like that lately. They make me feel overly picky. But, when I’m noticing sentence structure and mentally re-writing them, it’s a strong sign the book isn’t working for me.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I usually can’t help not-picking any book a little. Too many years grading student papers. But if I’m constantly aware of writing that bothers me, it’s usually a sign the story-telling isn’t grabbing me either.

  2. Kaetrin says:

    Isn’t it funny when a book is grabbing you, you can give some of those other things a pass?

  3. anna cowan says:

    from your description, this hits ALL the wrong buttons for me… I agree – great premise, if it had been pulled off. A woman reuniting with the sons she’s left others to raise is such an incredible opportunity – I can feel how shy and defiant and awkward she would be, and how wary they would be, and how she would seem to them, which is different to how the reader would know her – but somehow a true facet of her, all the same. (Ha! Yes, this premise gets my writers brain going, LOL.) Reverting instantly to motherly and “good” just makes me feel all itchy and gross inside.

    Also with adding on an external plot to a premise that already seems to rich – I’ve been noticing this so much lately. All I want is for the characters to talk, and then talk some more and to see them go through the difficult process of change that meeting certain people makes possible. I want writers to let their characters play out within the premise, I guess.

    • lizmc2 says:

      My feeling about the maternal thing (the boys’ reaction was explained by saying the husband had kept her alive in their memories, but that wasn’t convincing enough for me, and also, did he have to be a saint??) was that a bad mother is seen as too unsympathetic for romance readers. I wondered if the author or editor was afraid to go there. It did really feel like a lost opportunity for depth.

      I can see that it is very hard to write a gripping story based just on the relationship and the characters’ growth, but I do feel like I’ve read a lot of books with bad suspense-type plots when I really just wanted to see more of the characters interacting. Or where the extra plot comes from their other relationships or everyday social milieu, not EVENTS.

      I see that complaint from a lot of readers. I really think “quieter” books can do well, but what do I know?

      • anna cowan says:

        It’s a while since I read it, but I think the mother-son relationship in Sherry Thomas’s Delicious was done so well – the mother came out looking very flawed, but very sympathetic. And Sherry Thomas is actually an excellent example of how a book with less external plot doesn’t have to come across as a “quieter” book – I think as long as your hitting the big emotional punches, it will feel like a big book to the reader!

  4. Rosario says:

    I think the fact that I finished it and gave it a good grade, in spite of all the problems I had with it, was all about when I read it. People still complain about all the rules about what makes a heroine acceptable in romance, but things are much better now, and we are getting a much wider variety of heroines (and heroes, actually). Back then, Sophia was so unique that just that was enough to keep me reading.

  5. Pingback: the unlikeable heroine ; the unanswerable question | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

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