Some Recent Reading

It’s been quite the week, in all kinds of ways. I can’t say I’ve felt like blogging. On the other hand, I’ve continued to have a run of good books, which have consoled, distracted, and engaged me. So I pay them tribute in the form of some sketchy thoughts that are less than they deserve, but all I can summon at the moment.

Non-book reading that’s been on my mind all week: this post on the treatment of (well, the hatred of) female characters in female-majority fandoms (via Sunita). I don’t know much about fandom, but I recognized some of the same issues in Romancelandia, including something akin to, though not identical to, this: “7) Women attach themselves intensely to only the male characters, then loathe women who inconvenience these men or have different goals from them.” I’m still working out what I think about this.

Victoria Holt, The India Fan

This book surprised me. I have assumptions about “Gothic romance” shaped by reading of a couple of “real” Gothics years ago and theories of the Gothic from both the Romantic era and our own. Vulnerable ingenue heroine in peril, dark broody hero who might be the villain, right? The India Fan reminded me instead of Jane Eyre or Great Expectations, novels where you can clearly see the influence of the Gothic, but which I’d describe as Bildungsromans. This was really the story of Drusilla’s coming of age. While her relationship with the Framling family is central to the book, her relationship with Fabian Framling is less so, thought he’s always there in the background, a vague and fascinating (to Drusilla, if not to me) figure. The romance HEA seemed more the confirmation that she’s become her own person than something the whole plot works towards. 

It wasn’t as spooky or suspenseful as I expected a Gothic to be, either; there’s no over-arching suspense plot, and the curse of the peacock fan never gathered real menace. But The India Fan does share a focus on class and familial politics with classic Gothic novels (all those usurping aristocrats forcing young women into marriage). I liked the way Holt used childhood memories to create a sense of mystery, something Brontë and Dickens do as well. Drusilla only partly understands her early interactions with the Framlings and their house; as she matures, mystery gives way to insight and she more than earns an equal relationship with them. The novel is quite frank about female sexuality, and though lascivious Lavinia Framling meets a fate common to bad girls in 19th-century novels, she also challenges the sexual double standard and is not entirely unsympathetic, either to Drusilla or to the reader.

I had a hard time pinning down the historical setting at first. Honestly, it’s a bit wall-papery, and often felt late-Victorian or early 20th-century. The reference to Prince Albert clued me in, so I was expecting the mutiny when we got to India. India never fully came to life (Drusilla is always more interested in the Framlings and their doings). It’s mostly exotic, mysterious Eastern backdrop and an excuse for high drama, with plenty of unexamined colonialism thrown in (“why can’t they just get that we want to make their lives better?”). That somewhat lessened my enjoyment of the book. Still, I’ll happily take more Holt suggestions from fans.

Rebecca Rogers Maher, Hurricane Lily 

The author kindly offered me a copy of this book, no strings attached, after she read my post on angry heroines. The hero is angry, and the heroine is anxious in part because she’s repressing anger. Storms are brewing within and between them; there’s a real hurricane, too. As Wendy said in her review, Cliff and Lily appear at first to be types: Working Class Hero (with chip on shoulder) and Poor Little Rich Girl. I mean c’mon, could there be any more romance-archetypal names than Cliff and Lily? I wouldn’t say they transcend their types, exactly; rather, they conform to them, but are also self-conscious about them and are more than they first appear.

Cliff is the carpenter (with a Vassar degree) hired to do repairs on the Cape Cod house where agoraphobic Lily has retreated from the world. Initially, they resent each other, judge each other, feel the other judging them. Cliff finds a carpenter figure  Lily sculpted (somewhat magically, before she met him):

He felt small. As small as the figurine. Pinned down and examined . . . and seen. It made him want to lash out at her, to hurt her. “This is what you see? When you look at me? This . . . caricature? . . . This is not a human being. It’s an icon. A fucking . . . stereotype.” One he himself played with. With his metal lunchbox and the pseudo-intellectual working class hero bullshit attitude he liked to wear. But he–he had a right to play with it. It was his history and his life–not hers.

Slowly, they come to see how much they have in common (lust jump-starts the realization) and begin to help each other grow past the anger and anxiety that initially consume them.

I thought this longish novella took on more than it could fully explore in the space. The ending felt rushed, especially given the severity of Lily’s phobias. It’s very claustrophobic. Almost every scene takes place in Lily’s house, there are few secondary characters, and Cliff and Lily spend a lot of time in their own heads. That suited the book’s themes and worked for me, but might annoy some readers.

Cliff and Lily sometimes felt too much like evidence for the author’s argument (as Ruthie Knox’s Wonkomance post puts it), as if she were making a point with them rather than telling a story. That might be an effect of the shortish word count and need for narrative short-cuts, or maybe my reading was colored by the fact that the book came to me via a discussion of anger. Though I wasn’t always lost in the story, I was engaged by its themes. It’s both a typical romance and something a little different, just like its characters. I must dig up the Maher book that’s somewhere in my TBR.

I listened to Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice, a great adventure tale and another of the author’s intriguing reflections on heroism. I wish there were a whole series of books about Miles’ mother, Cordelia, because I liked her so much in Cordelia’s Honor and Barrayar. But I don’t hate heroes! I think I’m starting a long love affair with Miles Vorkosigan.

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18 Responses to Some Recent Reading

  1. Merrian says:

    One of the things to love about the Vorkosigan books is how LMB uses bodies and embodiment to tell her stories. They are often dismissively called space opera as if there is no science in the fiction, yet they are all about how things like reproductive technologies change worlds. They are an engagement with how we respond to and care for people with disabilities from Dubauer to Simon Illyan. Miles and Mark are people whose lives have been determined by the bodies they were born into.

    • Merrian says:

      Also Ivan is a disabled character even though he has perfect physical health. Ivan’s position as potential heir to the Imperial Throne and to the Vorkosigan Countship means that he has had to choose a path of least resistance as the best way to navigate this dangerous political reality. He has not been able to be his best self in an ego/capabilities sense but is supremely loyal and heroic in that loyalty and in living well, the life it has led him to.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One of the things that interested me about this book was how Miles had a certain concept of “a hero” (or “a warrior”) and could not even see how he was a hero in other ways. There’s a great line something like: “Heroes sprang up around him like weeds. He could not catch the contagion he spread.”

      The only reason I regret the series being about Miles is that I think Bujold, in both Cordelia and Ista in Paladin of Souls, does such a good job writing grown-up women who still find they can grow more, women who know themselves and are firm in their beliefs and yet still have things to learn about themselves and the world. That’s a kind of character I’d love to see more of, for obvious reasons.

      I thought the interaction between bodies and technology, and the limits of technology to “fix” bodies or allow people to transcend them, were an interesting issue in this book, too.

      And yet, it was also highly satisfying on the level of a rip-roaring, implausible, space opera adventure. Win!

  2. Holt’s gothics are more coming-of-age than what we associate with gothic romance–there are the stand-bye tropes, but Holt uses them to push the heroine into realization and recognition of herself as a woman. In a way, they are historical chick-lit! My favorites are The India Fan, The Landower Legacy, The Road to Paradise Island, The Curse of the Kings, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, The Devil on Horseback, and The Pride of the Peacock. The Demon Lover is controversial since the love interest drugs and rapes the heroine, but I can’t help but enjoy the story because Kate is so compelling and Rollo eventually grovels but remains vivid and strong. For some very unconventional Holt gothics, try The Legend of the Seventh Virgin and The Shadow of the Lynx. Stay far, far, far away from Secret for a Nightingale–just thinking about that book makes me rage.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you! I thought of the chick-lit comparison too, though the tone is quite different. I don’t read much chick-lit, but one thing that struck me about The India Fan was Drusilla’s growth in self-confidence and competence. In the chick-lit I’ve read, the heroine’s life often improves, but she is still kind of bumbling through and lacking in self-confidence at the end. Especially because it begins in her childhood, it is far more closely patterned on classic 19th-century novels than on any contemporary “women’s” genre. I really enjoyed those aspects of it.

      • Barb in Maryland says:

        For a fairly typical romance (in the 1960’s version of Gothic) you can’t miss with the first Holt book, “Mistress of Mellyn”. Heroine is governess in mysterious big house in Cornwall. Brooding owner is believed to have murdered his first wife. And that’s just for starters. The growing romance between the hero and heroine is just a treat.
        It is my favorite of hers-partly because I was an impressionable 8th grader when it first came out. (Yes, that makes me officially older than dirt). I avidly gobbled up each new one as it came out for the next ten years or so and then lost interest. But I still have my hardback copy of “Mistress of Mellyn” on my keeper shelf.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Thanks, Barb! That sounds more like what I expect from the Gothic (and also kind of Jane Eyre-inspired). In early high school I found my way from Joan Aiken’s children’s books to her adult ones, and then to her sister Jane Aiken Hodge. Definitely some Gothic influences there, and all the brooding emotion certainly appealed to my youthful self!

      • Seconding Barb’s recommendation for Mistress of Mellyn. It’s one of the first adult romances I read and I loved it.

      • Thirding MISTRESS OF MELLYN. Happily, I found it in my grandmother’s stash when I was about 8th grade too… (Oh joy) …along with TREGARON’S DAUGHTER, which is, IMO, a true gothic. Both are on my DIK.

  3. Oh, and interesting Tumblr post! My experience with fandoms is sporadic, but I wonder if these responses are more common in TV shows/books/movies where there are more male characters than female (or the female characters are more prominent)? Because the Buffyverse fandom has always been pretty solid about responding to male vs female characters, and in the Nikita (CW version) fandom, so many of the guys are gung-ho for Nikita and Alex and just view the male characters as secondary to them. However, on the flip side, the Smash fandom makes me gnash my teeth over the propping up of Karen Cartwright and wanting her to be with Derek “Sleazeball” Wills, while calling Ivy Lynn every name but what her mama gave her. And the Downton fandom’s deification of Mary Crawley is like nails on a chalkboard.

    • Wow, that was not my experience in the part of the Buffyverse I hung out in at all, which was the Usenet groups for Buffy and then for Angel. The Spikettes v. everyone else became pretty well established by about the 5th season, and the defense of Spike’s behavior, the OTT love for both the character and James Marsters, and the backlash against Buffy and anyone else who made Spike’s life less than wonderful, was intense. A lot of the more interesting fans of the series (IMO) eventually left because they got tired of the conversation revolving around Spike, rather than critical discussions of the series overall, the story arcs, and the acting.

      More generally, I find that one of the unexpected aspects of the blending of the fandoms with non-fandom readers into one community has been the extent to which the fandom way of talking about books and TV shows/movies shapes the overall conversation. And that includes, from my perspective, a disproportionate attention to the men over the women. Maybe it was always thus, but I remember, for example, old conversations about the Gaffney trilogy of which THATH is the second installment. People talked about the first, To Love and To Cherish, almost as much as they did THATH, and in both cases they discussed the heroines as much as the heroes. These days I feel as if I hear a lot more about Sebastian than about Rachel, and hardly anyone talks about Christy, who I think is at least as interesting a character as Sebastian.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I haven’t been around the romance community long enough to see any such shift, but it wouldn’t be surprising to me. And of course some romance writers (not just those doing P2P) have been or are part of fandom. I wonder how the way “we” talk about books (the focus on certain kinds of heroes, talk of “book boyfriends”) feeds back into their writing, because of course authors are part of and observing these conversations. I feel like heroines are very rarely the center of interest in discussions of a book, even when the author is interested in heroines. And a heroine who is the center of a book is often seen as “difficult” and disliked by many readers. I can’t believe these responses don’t constrain at least some authors some of the time. It seems to me current conversations about “old skool bodice-rippers” miss something important because they focus on the hero’s actions. But readers who love those books often talk about how much time and attention they give to the heroine’s journey.

        This tends to put heroes in a narrow box, too, as they must be potential book boyfriends. I was struck by your comments on Tyler in Ruthie Knox’s Big Boy; on the surface, he is quite different from the usual romance hero, but he certainly fits the basic template. I’ve been thinking about virgin heroes, too, and how they are pretty much never fumbling. Their virginity is an accessory but makes no real difference in the story.

    • cecilia250 says:

      I immediately thought of the reactions I’ve seen to Don Draper’s new wife, Megan. I don’t go into fan sites for the show, but all the comments I’ve seen about her in various places have been so intensely hostile to her, it blows my mind. And the great “crimes” she’s vilified for seem so harmless to me.

  4. Las says:

    I’ve always had the same feeling about fandom’s attachment to male characters that I do about the popularity of rape, forced seduction, super-alphas, etc in romance (mostly older ones)….that because these men are “better” than their real-life counterparts–primarily because we get his point-of-view so we know that he has “good” reasons for being an asshole and he really does love the heroine–women should accept them without complaint. Maybe it comes from feeling powerless and not being able to imagine a woman as having real power over her life. That would explain why the heroines in Romance who stray too far from the traditional so often get labeled as unlikable.

    That said–and this could be because I read a very small slice of romanceland–I don’t think there’s as much focus on male characters in romance that there is in fandom. The only time I feel the same vibe in a significant way in the Romance community is from fans of popular series, where the same characters appear in several books. It’s harder to get that attached to characters when you only see them in one or two books. Even when heroine’s are criticized harshly compared to heroes, the focus is still on the women. I don’t often see blind love fests over men.

  5. I’ve never taken part in any fandom of any kind, mostly because I didn’t know they existed and even if I had, I didn’t get that invested in TV shows (well, post-Knight Rider and Dukes of Hazzard). I’m also a solitary reader. So when I first came to romancelandia, I was really rather shocked and dismayed about how heroines were treated and the fandom post you linked to is actually quite horrifying. I just find it so counterintuitive to the way I live my life and the women I know and the romance heroines I’ve read and admired since I was a girl. To me, the bodice-ripper romance heroines were larger than life and embodied characteristics to aspire to, not to hate on for being in possession of an equally fictitious dude. WTF? I can’t wrap my head around that.

  6. The attachment to male characters is interesting phenom. I always find myself identifying more with the men than the women, but I wouldn’t characterize that as attached. I certainly feel more like grumpy, haughty Darcy than feisty and bright Elizabeth. I guess I’m generally attracted more to anti-hero types, and as a bitter, damaged misanthrope, I tend to not identify with the gentle, tender, innocent women who populate much of the genre. It’s one of those things I need to think about more.

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