I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning and not really getting along with it. I stopped wanting to throw it across the room, and I did finish it, but I didn’t love it. The book has plenty of glowing reviews and it reminded me of Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, which I liked a lot. So why, I wonder, didn’t this work for me? This isn’t a review but just some thoughts about how we (or at least I) change as readers. I’d be curious to hear about how you have/have not changed over your reading life too.
Here are the things that bugged me about this book, even though in theory it’s exactly the kind of thing I like:
- The heroine, Veronica, is presented (by herself, I guess, as it’s first person) as super special: she’s smart and independent and goes off to exotic places to hunt butterflies and have flings with sexy foreigners. I wouldn’t mind that, but she thinks these qualities make her better than other, ordinary women, who are, for much of the book, presented as stereotypes (the maiden sisters who bring up the illegitimate Veronica, and who only care about gardening, embroidery, and sin; the vicar’s wife who wants to marry Veronica off to a widower with six kids when her guardians die; Salome, the seductive dancer in the circus Veronica spends time with). It was when I heard Veronica had violet eyes that I almost sent the book flying. A heroine can be awesome without being awesome at the expense of other women. This got better when Lady Cordelia was introduced; she’s a brilliant mathematician but stuck in a traditionally feminine maiden aunt role.
- The hero, Stoker (really?), is a dark, mysterious Byronic figure with a troubled past. This mystery was milked long past the point where I had any patience with or interest in it. I was kind of annoyed he turned out to be from an aristocratic family (clear early in the book) even if he was the black sheep. This background provided a convenient escape hatch a couple of times, because he had Connections.
- The hints of romance seemed really obviously telegraphed: oh, he’s cranky because he’s jealous! Those bits were very predictable.
- The circus/freak show. Wow, the fat lady was so fat she needed two chairs, and she ate all the time. The show was run by a conjoined twin whose silent brother communicated through music. I didn’t feel the book really got much beyond late-Victorian attitudes to these characters (“exotic setting!”) and maybe it’s time to stop going there, just like it’s time to stop rewriting colonial settings with Victorian attitudes intact.
- Aside from a scene set at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee procession, this book could have been set nearly any time Victorianish. I guess that’s not exactly true, because the politics of Irish Home Rule come into it, but really, the book is not interested in the historical background except as it relates to the secret of Veronica’s birth. Which I won’t spoil, but learning it reinforced many of the feelings I just described.
But I have loved dark and mysterious heroes and headstrong adventurous heroines who work together to solve a mystery plenty of times in the past. It’s why I got this from the library. And this book was not bad. So what gives?
Maybe it’s just changing moods. If I’d read it a month ago, or a month from now, perhaps I’d have loved it.
Or maybe it’s a more permanent change of mood. The title of my post is kind of a menopause joke–I’m closing in on 50 and my doctor likes to chat with me about my “second puberty.” Look, I’m not saying “time of life” is the reason I didn’t much enjoy this book, but I’m getting old enough to feel my reading mortality (can I get through my TBR before I die?). So it could be that this book reminded me too much of others I’ve enjoyed–both Lady Julia and, a little, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series–and feeling my time is limited, I don’t want to repeat experiences. On the other hand, there are books I loved in my first puberty and still reread with great pleasure today, from A Wizard of Earthsea to Pride and Prejudice. But (do I have three hands?) I tend to find something new in those books each time I read them, and at least for me, A Curious Beginning didn’t offer anything like that kind of depth. It’s a slick commercial package. Maybe that’s a pleasure I’ve tired of.
Or maybe the problem was that it felt too obviously slick to me. Partly because of blogging and romance conversations, I’ve become more aware of what tropes push my buttons (and I have labels for them, and throw around words like trope and button when I read). I’ve become more self-conscious about my pleasure reading. So while I was reading this, I kind of felt “I see you behind that curtain lady, really obviously pushing my mysterious-hero/headstrong-heroine/partnership buttons.” And as a result, those buttons didn’t work. I think a book has to sneak up on them. Or maybe some buttons just wear out over time and stop working altogether. That’s OK. We grow new ones. I certainly haven’t stopped enjoying reading.
Ultimately I can’t explain why I didn’t like A Curious Beginning even though it seemed like it should be just my cup of tea. That mysterious reader-book alchemy didn’t mix into a magical potion. Right after this I read a mystery with a somewhat similar dynamic between the protagonists, and I couldn’t put it down. Go figure.