When Isabel Cooper’s No Proper Lady was listed in the deals post at Dear Author, I snapped it up (it appears it’s still on sale as of this writing). I’d been wanting to read it since I read Lazaraspaste’s review. I pretty much agree with her take on the book, so, what she said, and rather than write a proper review, I’m going to see if I can pin down why despite being great in theory, it lacked a certain “spark” for me. Really, I should call this blog “my narcissistic reading.”
No Proper Lady is a time-travel fantasy historical romance. Joan travels back from a post-apocalyptic future, knowing that she is leaving for good the people she loves, to save the world from an evil magician, Alex Reynell. In late-nineteenth-century England, she meets Simon Grenville, a former friend of Alex’s, and Simon’s sister Eleanor, whose reputation was called into question when something happened between her and Alex (Alex got a demon to possess her, but as most people don’t know about magic, that’s not what they guess; Cooper parallels possession and sexual assault in really interesting ways). Together, the three save the world (that’s not a spoiler, surely).
I loved the opening chapters:
In Joan’s first encounters with Simon, Cooper seems to challenge all kinds of historical romance tropes. Joan falls on Simon, for instance, and he thinks:
[He] had imagined the general situation in his youth; it was not nearly as pleasurable in fact. . . .
Joan was all angles, and one of her elbows was practically stabbing him in the ribs. Up close, she also smelled: not dirty, but rather acrid and sharp, as if she’d washed her hair with lye. . . .
She got off him quickly. It wasn’t a moment too soon.
How many scenes have you read where for some reason the hero and heroine fall down together, and he’s aware of her soft breasts crushed against him and her tantalizing fragrance of strawberry and “woman,” and he’s strangely reluctant to let her go or maybe gets hard and she notices. I so enjoyed a breath of realistic air let in on that scene.
Whenever the book was in this mode, looking at historical romance and its world through Joan’s stranger’s eye, I enjoyed it tremendously. Joan’s blunt assessment of women’s role in Victorian England (in my time, she says, “women are people”) is part of what helps Eleanor recover from the shame of her possession and insist on an active part in their mission.
So often, we (at least, my students) want to see history as progress. But Joan’s future world is one where they’ve lost not just safety and luxury (she’s overwhelmed by the abundance of Simon’s world, things like planting flowers just because they’re beautiful) but knowledge. Joan has never seen a map of the world, for instance, and has very little sense of geography. I loved Joan’s “garbled” versions of legends and fairytales; they have become stories that make sense for her world, and show how those tales belong to everyone, to be made and remade. They reflect, too, the way Cooper’s novel plays with genre. In Joan’s world, everyone is named for a hero: she’s “Joan, daughter of Arthur and Leia.” History, legend, and pop culture all mixed up together.
So far, so great, but after the first few chapters some disenchantment set in. There was still enough to keep me reading, but the spark was gone. I was bothered that Joan’s view of the Victorian setting wasn’t really challenged. She sees it as “a world in the summer of its time,” where people don’t really have to struggle. It makes sense that she’d see it that way initially, but I’ve read too much Victorian literature, non-fiction, and history to be comfortable with letting that view stand. Joan, honey, you’re living with rich people. Walk around the corner one day, and you’ll see some desperation. This wasn’t a real Victorian world, it was the world of wallpaper historical romance.
The bigger issue was that I didn’t feel the romance, and this book is definitely romance with fantasy elements rather than the reverse, so that matters. Someone recently said to me about a different book that it didn’t work because she could “see the hand of the author” or “the gears of the machinery moving to produce the emotional response.” That’s often as much a matter of what the reader brings to the book as what the author does, but it was the case for me here. I found both Joan’s and Simon’s relationships with Eleanor more moving than theirs with each other. I believed in their friendship and partnership, but as a love story, it felt flat. The emotional development wasn’t there for me.
The lust, however, was, and I think that was part of my problem. A book that began as cliché-busting fell into them in the sex scenes. “Alex was hard almost instantly.” Simon worries that he “didn’t have anywhere near enough control to do her justice. Another few minutes of this and he was going to spend in his trousers like some clumsy sixteen-year-old with his first woman;” once they start to have sex, though, he manages to go for long enough that she comes first. Joan is the tough warrior, but when they have sex Alex rips her bodice and “claim[s] her mouth with almost painful violence, startling himself.” Typing these out I see that the latter two, especially, can be read as playing with conventions of the genre, but when I was reading they felt tired; I thought “yeah, yeah” and started skimming. The sex scenes didn’t seem to advance character or relationship development. For the most part, I saw no emotion in them except desire.
I think this says something about the point I am at in my romance reading. I may be becoming the kind of reader who skims most sex scenes, because too many seem formulaic and add nothing to the story. If all they’re doing is titillating me, well, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s usually not what I’m reading romance for.
Still, there was a lot I really liked about No Proper Lady, and especially because this is Cooper’s début and because my experience may have been colored by my mood, I’ll definitely try the next in the series.