I’m plotting my Reading Year in Review and Reading Resolutions post(s), but in the meantime, my Holiday Reading. I’m never sure whether I really like Christmas. I love seeing family, cooking, and giving presents. But it’s also a very stressful time of year–end-of-term grading, next term’s prep, Christmas shopping, and preparing for guests all squeezed in to too little time. And since I’m an introvert, I need quiet time away from a house full of people, even if they’re all people I love. This Christmas season, I spent that time with some great books.
Helen MacInnes, Friends and Lovers
Helen MacInnes’ books are all being re-released. I read and loved a couple of her spy novels two summers ago, and this one was highly recommended by both JanetNorCal and Sunita. My library hold on it finally came in just at the end of exam period. What a treat! It’s a slow-moving book, so I took a break from it right before Christmas when I wanted things with more action, then became totally absorbed in the second half in the quiet of Boxing Day.
Set in the early 1930s, and first published in 1945, Friends and Lovers is the story of David Bosworth and Penny Lorrimer falling in love and figuring out how to be together. It is, in fact–though the sensibility is very different–a New Adult romance, because David is in his last year at Oxford and Penny about to begin studying painting at the Slade School when they meet. Interwoven with their love story are their relationships with family and friends and their decisions about their future careers. Technically, this meets the RWA’s definition of romance and I think it probably has all of Pamela Regis’ eight elements, too. But it doesn’t “feel” like today’s genre romance at all: the pacing, the voice, the “beats” of the plot, the conflicts are all very different, both because MacInnes was writing in a different time and because she was writing “general” fiction, not bound by the stylistic conventions of a genre. Despite the wide variety of the romance genre, I think there are certain kinds of love stories, and ways of telling them, you don’t find there.
This is a lovely and very romantic story. MacInnes captures the desperate intensity of new young love (heightened by the fact that Penny and David live in a time when college students don’t just hook up if they’re attracted to each other) and its insecurities. They slowly learn to be honest with each other about just how deeply they love, and how vulnerable that makes them: “How afraid we all were, and out of fear how we held back what should be given without asking,” Penny thinks as she sits down to write her first real love letter to David. The main conflicts are external: Penny is from an upper middle class Scottish family that expects her to make a “good” marriage, and David, though brilliant and enterprising, is poor. The question of whether–and how soon–he can support a wife is a significant one. One thing I loved about the book is that I really wasn’t sure how these issues were going to be worked out.
Penny and David don’t exactly make sacrifices or compromises to be together; rather, their ambitions and dreams change because they love each other. Building a life together becomes as important to both of them as building a career does. That’s one way that Friends and Lovers feels quite contemporary, even though its attitudes to class, gender and sexuality can also feel very much of its time. David–encouraged by Penny’s grandfather–comes to see that love is just as important as work in his life, that it isn’t just women who should put love at the center of their lives.
Although it isn’t at all explicit, the novel also seems ahead of its time in its attitudes to sex. David definitely wants to sleep with Penny, and while Penny is slower to be ready (as she rightly points out, convention binds women more than men), she ultimately doesn’t wait for marriage. “We are our own conventions, our own morality. If we keep faith, then nothing we do is wrong,” she tells David. And part of his response is, “Marriage is a house you build, not a hotel room you can rent and move into.” They’re not advocating free love, but they are crossing many of the boundaries that existed in their parents’ lives and reaching for a freer, wider life–something that is especially poignant when the novel alludes to the growing threat of Nazism in Germany. You know that Penny and David will eventually need all their belief in the possibility of a better, happier world.
Fast and Fun
When I needed a break, I dipped into the Kindle app on my iPad to see what I’d been neglecting. Inspired by Jorrie Spencer, I began with a traditional Regency: in my case, The Nomad Harp by Laura Matthews. I liked the slightly older, pragmatic hero and heroine and the way they seriously considered the advantages and drawbacks of marriage. They plan a sort of marriage of convenience, break it off when the hero unexpectedly inherits a title, and then slowly discover they were perfect for each other all along. Although I like the brisk pace and wit of trad Regencies, this felt a bit too emotionally flat to me.
I’ve had Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge in my TBR forever because several reader friends liked it. This fast-paced, action-filled fantasy adventure was just right for the hectic days before Christmas. Heroine Amaranthe just wants to be a successful Enforcer (kind of the city police), but everything goes wrong when she comes to the attention of the wrong nefarious general. Soon she’s putting together a ragtag band of misfits, including the notorious assassin Sicarius, to carry out her plan to save the Emperor. There are a lot of familiar elements here, but that’s what this kind of story is for, and they’re put together in a fun and skillful, if sometimes credulity-straining, fashion. I liked watching Amaranthe come into her own and figure out how to be a leader. I’m interested in the world Buroker is building, too: since the Empire values warriors above all else, women run the businesses, and slowly they’re becoming a political power. I look forward to more in this series.