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.