Archive for ‘romance’

January 23, 2013

Sarah Gorely, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron

Yes, well. I apologise?

Last week’s column. On the site here; worth reading because they went with the most entertaining pull quote and because of Chris Braak’s comment.

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It is “a dark and windy night” when we first encounter Miss Priscilla Butterworth. Miss Butterworth is no stranger to tragedy—she was born in a town ravaged by pox, a disease that robbed her of most of her family including her father. Her mother would eventually follow him, pecked to death by pigeons. Priscilla also breaks both legs, and is nearly sold into slavery. Worse, she appears to be persecuted by a mad baron.

Naturally, Priscilla Butterworth is fictional. She’s the protagonist of the cliché-ridden Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, a romance novel by one Sarah Gorely. Sarah Gorely does not exist.

Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron first makes its appearance, as far as I can tell, in Julia Quinn’s 2005 comic Regency romance novel It’s In His Kiss (readers of this column will by now have gathered that I read a lot of romance fiction), as the sort of lurid novel enjoyed by an elderly countess. The book surfaces again in the same author’s later Regency novel What Happens in London, in which it plays a part in averting an international diplomatic incident. In her Ten Things I Love About You we discover not only the true author of this volume, but also a list of her other works.

So far, none of this is that surprising. For an author to spoof a genre within a book that is purportedly within that genre itself is something that writers have been doing since at least Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s funny and self-aware; it’s a way of sending up both the genre itself, and those who condemn it based on stereotypes. What is perhaps more unusual is that Quinn’s fictional book shows up again, but this time in a book by another romance author, Eloisa James.

Fans of horror fiction will be familiar with the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose universe was populated with ancient and terrifying intelligences far beyond the comprehension of man. Later writers built on these stories so that nowadays what is considered the Cthulhu Mythos (Cthulhu being one of Lovecraft’s most memorable creations) consists of the work of several authors. These are not mere sequels, this is the sharing of a universe. Horror writers are neither the first nor the last to do this; comic books from the same publishing house are often set, broadly, in the same universe with characters from one series often crossing over into another. To those of us who are mere casual observers the plot gymnastics needed to keep all this making some sort of sense are mind-boggling. Somewhat more recently, writers of fanfiction have embraced the crossover, creatively manipulating plot so that characters from one book or movie may find their lives plausibly intertwined with those of another.

Readers of the Regency romance often complain that novels in this genre are historically inaccurate in their language and attitudes, particularly with regard to such areas as sexuality and politics (you’ll find few Regency heroes in support of the slave trade, for example). Modern language often creeps in, including Americanisms. To be fair to these authors, many of us (myself included) are probably basing our ideas of the period entirely on Georgette Heyer anyway. Nowadays I find it easier to simply see the Regency romance as a specific sort of fantasy novel instead—to imagine these books set in an alternate universe where there’s less slavery and more cunnilingus. When authors initiate their own crossovers, when they pay these small tributes to one another, it’s easy to conceive of all of these stories as existing in one, densely populated world.

A prominent feature of the Cthulhu Mythos is the Necronomicon, a book that contains terrifying and dangerous knowledge about Lovecraft’s universe and the beings that populate it. Lovecraft’s contemporaries cited this book as well, and it has since often been referred to in popular culture. Lovecraft approved of this; apparently he felt the multiple references gave it “a background of evil verisimilitude.” Perhaps Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is Regency romance’s Necronomicon.

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September 15, 2012

Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Team Human

A couple of months ago I wrote this. Readers of the Left of Cool column must think I spend a significant portion of my time thinking about the ethics around discussing Twilight. It is possible that they are right.

 

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No one who has been anywhere near a bookshop over the last few years can have remained ignorant of the glut of vampire novels that those years have brought. The success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books led to a situation where, it seemed, the majority of books for teenagers involved the beautiful undead. Things seem to have died down for the present, though it’s worth noting that the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey books seem to have started out as Twilight fanfiction.

Where there is a big literary trend there follows a series of widely recognised tropes. Obviously these tropes didn’t come out of nowhere; Meyer too was drawing on particular literary traditions. What the Twilight books gave us, then, were a popular set of widely recognised ideas about vampires for future writers to play with.

Writers like Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, whose Team Human involves a high school romance between a vampire and a human girl. Except that Cathy, the girl in question, is not the protagonist here. The story is told from the perspective of her best friend Mel, who naturally has her doubts about this relationship. “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”, says the book’s caption, and it’s not hard to see Mel’s point.

Or is it? A big part of what makes Team Human interesting is an unspoken assumption that its readers have engaged with the debates around Twilight and feminism that have been so prominent in recent years. This is unsurprising –Larbalestier and Rees Brennan are both writers of young adult fiction who have consistently engaged with the politics (particularly of gender) around literature. So it’s taken for granted that we readers have heard jokes about why a vampire going to high school would be a stupid idea, and that we’ve had occasion to think about the problematic nature of a teenage girl deciding that she wants to, essentially, end her life based on her feelings for a high school boyfriend. Even the title is a reference to the “Team Edward”/ “Team Jacob” divide among Meyer’s fans. But the book also assumes that its readers have struggled with the issue of giving even lovestruck teenagers agency, and have come down on the side of letting people make their own mistakes.

Of course the Twilight books aren’t the only vampire novels that Team Human refers to. This is a world in which vampires are very much a recognised part of society, though they tend to live in particular parts of town and are avoided by humans. Unlike a lot of vampire novels, these creatures aren’t obviously superior to the humans around them – they may be better looking and immortal, but the inability to go out in the sunlight is a major disability. Worst of all, they are said to have no sense of humour. This is also a world in which they have historically faced persecution and Larbalestier and Rees Brennan use this setup to refer to various other forms of prejudice.

Team Human is, ultimately, “team Human”, in that it endorses Mel’s views over Cathy’s. But it also undercuts her constantly. We’re allowed to see that Mel is capable of both deliberate cruelty and unthinking prejudice, as are those around her. We’re even given reason to believe that some of the ‘facts’ about vampires that the book presents as true are not. There are no easy, obvious answers here.

Twilight and the whole sexy vampire phenomenon are easy targets for parody; even people who have read none of them feel entitled to dismiss them. It hasn’t always been easy to tell how much this dismissal of the works has been due to their inherent flaws, and how much of it is simply due to our culture’s disdain for anything made for or consumed by young women. Team Human manages to engage with these books critically but with respect.

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July 9, 2012

Georgette Heyer, Venetia

There’s a school of thought (and it’s not one I agree with, but it’s also not one I feel able to entirely dismiss) that suggests that one reason Twilight isn’t entirely a failure on the feminist front is that it respects Bella’s choices. On the face of it, from any reasonable point of view, these choices are extremely stupid – we’re told that this character is intelligent, that she has any number of choices before her, and as a teenager she still has time to decide what she wants to do with her future. Instead, she chooses to tie her fate to this vampire. She goes into an almost catatonic state when he leaves her, ignores the multiple people who care for and worry about her, and abandons plans of college in favour of marrying him and becoming envampired as soon as possible. And yet.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how close to this my argument for Venetia as a potentially feminist text comes. I think the big difference, though (apart from the fact that Venetia is an adult woman) is in Heyer’s focus on the fact that her protagonists are friends – that we’re able to see substance and lasting value in that relationship. It’s also the case, of course, that there’s a difference between something set in the 1800s (and written in the 1950s) and something set and written in the early 2000s.

I’m sure all of this sounds like shameless justification. It probably is. Anyway, below is my column from last Sunday.

 

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The Russian author Boris Akunin claims, according to a friend who saw him speak at a bookshop last year, that he can sort people into sixteen ‘types’ based on which of his Erast Fandorin books they like most and least. I’ve often wondered if one could make a similar claim for the works of Georgette Heyer, but this throws up an immediate problem. Not one of my acquaintance has ever managed to satisfactorily choose a Heyer novel to be their permanent favourite.

My own favourite Heyer novel is a constantly shifting entity. Does The Grand Sophy win the spot for its wonderful heroine, or does the unpleasant thread of anti-semitism taint all the rest? Which is better, These Old Shades or its sequel-of-sorts The Devil’s Cub? A Civil Contract is realistic and touching but does not always make me happy. Friday’s Child is a failure when I’m in the mood for romance, but I adore its Wodehousean side characters. I am all but alone in my love of the delicate, gendered play that is the focus of Powder and Patch. And what about Cotillion, with its subversion of the romantic tropes of the genre that Heyer herself helped to create?

Then a few months ago I reread Venetia and decided that perhaps this was Heyer’s best. Since then, unprecedentedly, my opinion has not wavered, though I’ve had to rethink what I mean by “best” a few times.

Venetia is simple enough. A young woman who has been stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire all her life meets the rake next door. Lord Damerel has a long and varied history (starting with his elopement with an older woman in his extreme youth); in typical romantic hero fashion he’s less to blame than he seems. He makes no secret of his attraction towards his beautiful neighbour but this is far less important than what happens next; the two become friends.

A friendship between the protagonists is not unusual in a romance novel, but the importance that the book places on that friendship is. Knowing that she has found a friend, that someone shares her sense of humour and recognises her literary references, is far more important to Venetia than sexual attraction. This is not to say that the attraction isn’t there – and unlike most of Heyer’s heroines Venetia, blessed with a brother who is obsessed with Greek classics, has the vocabulary to talk about it, and about her intended’s past. Venetia probably contains more iterations of the word “orgy” than the rest of Heyer’s works put together.

Naturally, no one thinks that a relationship between a hardened rake and a sheltered young woman is a good idea – particularly when, as we eventually learn, the young woman in question has been so sheltered in order to protect her from unsavoury facts about her family. Societal disapproval is a staple of fictional romance – except here, Damerel is as dubious and as overprotective as the rest.

What makes Venetia special, then, is that it’s not a case of lovers against the world, but one of Venetia herself fighting alone to claim her own choices. She will reclaim her own family history, and decide for herself what her relationship with her parents and brother is to be. She will choose her own partner even if he is foolish enough to let her go. I find it particularly wonderful that there’s no insecurity over Damerel’s reaction to any of this; it’s clear that she trusts him to love her.

I love Venetia for its likeable, flawed characters and the banter between them, and for the presence of multiple Classics geeks. But more than any of this, I love it because it centres its heroine’s desire and agency. I’m sure Heyer didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto (and considering that Venetia’s goal is domestic bliss with a titled gentleman …) but something rather special is going on here.

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June 12, 2012

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

I was going to write a long, self-indulgent thing here about how I read romance novels, but a few hundred words in, even I couldn’t be that interested anymore. Sarah Wendell’s most recent book did make me think about what I do as a reader of this genre, though, and some of this thinking was quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless.

I wrote about Wendell’s book for last Sunday’s Left of Cool column. The mysterious book in question is Sarra Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend (whether it is a Romance Novel is up for debate); my fellow readers will doubtless out themselves in the comments if they feel like doing so.

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A few months ago a new book by an author I like was published. For days afterwards, as we read in our separate cities, two friends and I would text and email one another constantly. Between the three of us we have multiple English degrees and two of us are professional reviewers. Our comments to each other did not reflect this; we were entirely caught up in the heroine’s bad relationship decisions and our own concern and frustration with them.

The whole experience made me think about whether we read differently when faced with certain genres. I was reminded again of this set of interactions by Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels.

Wendell is one of the founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which takes an irreverent but loving look at romance novels. Wendell had previously collaborated with the blog’s co-founder, Candy Tan, on Beyond Heaving Bosoms, a guide to the genre. For all its ostensible purpose as a primer, this was clearly a book for the romance fan. Its flow charts, extended snarking at cover art featuring Fabio, and exasperated fondness for hackneyed plot devices were all addressed to an audience who know and love these books for all their ridiculousnesses.

On the surface of it, Everything I Know About Love … is more of the same sort of thing. Once again we have the irreverent tone. The alarming alpha males of some earlier romance novels are stigmatised as “rapetastic assclown heroes” and the phrase “sword o’ mighty lovin’” appears – strictly in a what-not-to-do sort of sense. But something else is going on here.

The central thesis of Wendell’s book is that readers of the romance novel learn from it valuable lessons that help them to negotiate real life romance – though, as the author hastily informs us, this does not mean that they -we- are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. This isn’t a contradiction but there is a tension here throughout; is romance just another genre that happens to take human relationships for its focus, or is it unique in the way its readers engage emotionally with it?

Part of the problem is that it’s not very clear what these lessons are that readers are learning. Wendell herself admits that most of these valuable lessons are learned in kindergarten (fitting, since the book’s title is a nod to “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”). Chapters are headed with glib lessons of the type “we … know our worth”, “we know how to ask for what we want”, “we know that happily-ever-after takes work” (Wendell ruefully acknowledges where these spill over into self-help clichés. What about more specific lessons? A reader says she learned “that sex can and should be good for the female,” and I am simultaneously happy for her and saddened that this needed to be said. Another claims “I finally know what a butt plug is for.” This is great, but it’s not exactly an apologia for the genre.

Romance, arguably, does not need to be defended – though the level of kneejerk dismissal it inspires in many makes it very tempting to do so. But the book is framed as a defence; its argument is that the genre is worthwhile because it provides its readers with something useful. Yet this is ultimately a bit pointless. It’s hard to imagine that non-fans would buy this book, and certainly only fans will know the joy of arguing with Wendell’s list of the best romantic heroes. In any case, a spirited defence of a genre needs to do much better than “reading and thinking about relationships leaves people better equipped to handle relationships”. Yet as ultimately toothless as it is, Wendell’s book does have me thinking about my own strategies of reading, and my sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with the Romance. If Everything I Know About Love … needed a reason to exist, (and as with the genre itself, why should it?) this would be a good enough one for me.

 

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July 30, 2011

On the many perfections of Jack Langdon

I’ve been recuperating from illness with the help of tea and romance novels. During the course of my treatment I have discovered that the most restorative romance novel in the world is The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase.

In part this is because it is a Loretta Chase book. I don’t always love Chase – there have been books of hers that I never finished (Captives of the Night), and others that I finished but was disappointed by (The Sandalwood Princess). Yet she’s one of the first romance writers I recommend to people who ask because when she’s good (Lord of Scoundrels) she’s so very good. The Devil’s Delilah is her under-appreciated masterpiece, and this (the masterpiece part, not the under-appreciated part) is mostly because of Jack Langdon.

Langdon is the Regency version of a geek. He really, really likes books and learning and the like – it seems completely normal to those around him that he should be reading about (or babbling enthusiastically on the subject of) the difference in skull shape of different ancient civilisations, or horticulture in Greece. He’s less good at real life; he’s unhappy and anxious in social situations, and he’s particularly awkward around women. He’s also vague and (when his valet isn’t around) very scruffy.

Langdon appears in two of Chase’s books – Viscount Vagabond and The Devil’s Delilah. He’s a minor character in Viscount Vagabond, where he still gets some of the best moments.

 

The probability of finding Jack Langdon in a boxing saloon was approximately equivalent to that of encountering the Archbishop of Canterbury at Granny Grendle’s—though the odds were rather in favour of the Archbishop.
“What the devil brings you here?” the viscount enquired of his friend.
Mr. Langdon stood for a moment looking absently about him as though in search of something he’d forgotten. “Not the most pleasantly fragrant place, is it, Max?” he noted in some wonder. “Odd. Very odd. I count three viscounts, one earl, a handful of military chaps and—good God—is that Argoyne?”
“Yes. One duke.”
“All come, it seems, for the express purpose of letting some huge, muscular fellow hit them repeatedly.”
“So what’s your purpose?”
“I suppose,” Mr. Langdon answered rather forlornly, “I’ve come to be hit.”

 

In The Devil’s Delilah  Jack falls in love with and is fallen-in-love-with and it is all very wonderful. Here are some of the reasons for Jack’s amazingness.

1. He’s genuinely nice. He’s not a ‘reformed’ rake, he doesn’t need to learn over the course of the book to treat other people with respect. He just goes through the book being fundamentally decent.

2. When he protects women he does so geekily. How would you stop someone from making snide remarks about your beloved at a party?

Before Lady Jane had time to counterattack, Jack leapt into the fray.

“Really, it is most gratifying to hear the ladies speak so knowledgeably of Benthamite philosophy,” he said hurriedly. “In order to be good, according to them, the object examined must be useful. The object, of course, refers to the matter under discussion, whether it be an abstract quality or a physical fact.”

Apparently oblivious to the bafflement of most of his audience, Jack soared into the empyrean realms of the most abstruse philosophy, citing Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and others with no regard whatsoever to relevance or coherence, and with a great deal of Greek and Latin thrown in for good measure. He continued in this vein for at least a quarter hour, at the end of which time most of the company had withdrawn from the battlefield to less mystifying conversations.

Yes.

3. When he does lapse and do something Regency-hero-ish, like kiss the heroine without her permission, he is very penitent. That this is remarkable says a lot about the genre, but it’s nice to have a hero who at least theoretically believes consent is a necessary thing.

4. He can write. Without giving the plot away, it requires him to display considerable literary skills. He also has considerable intelligence

5. We’re told that he’s awkward around women, but that seems to be to do with social situations rather than women as a gender. He has genuine, mutual-respect-and-understanding friendships with some women, while characters who we’re told are good with women seem not to know how to do anything but seduce them.

6. I just like scruffy, vague, gentle, geeky men. And in a genre that spends most of its time depicting them as powerful, suave, etc., Jack is unique.

 

There are plenty of reasons to love this book other than its hero. The fact that the heroine is allowed to kiss other men and enjoy it; that Jack’s rival is allowed genuine feelings; that Delilah’s father is a bit like a less snobbish version of Justin Alastair. But it is the greatest of modern regencies, and its recuperative powers rank right up with Georgette Heyer.

May 24, 2011

Suspicious Bulges II

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that this post (along with a couple about the hotness of Marat Safin) is one of the most searched items on this blog. Still, for those who are here because of it, some further reading on the subject.

This is from Stephanie Laurens’ Captain Jack’s Woman. Laurens writes terrible fatally addictive (to me) Regency romances. I don’t know how much research she does – therefore I don’t know to what degree her statement of the problem below is accurate. But clearly she has also given thought to the issue.

He supposed he should give her some brandy, but he didn’t really want to get closer. The table was a protective barricade and he was loath to leave its shelter. At least he was wearing his “poor country squire” togs; the loosely fitting breeches gave him some protection. In his military togs, or, heaven forbid, his town rig, she’d know immediately just how much she was affecting him. It was bad enough that he knew. (pg 72)

January 4, 2011

2010 Books

A complete list of everything I read up until June is available at the 2010 Books tag. Then work and life got a little overwhelming and now the thought of doing a detailed review of everything I read in the second half of the year is intolerable. But here is a list, at least.

M.D Lachlan – Wolfsangel
Julia Quinn – Ten Things I Love About You
Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson – Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
Gwyneth Jones – Imagination/Space
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan – Confessions of a Listmaniac
Vishwajyoti Ghosh – Delhi Calm
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Shane Jones– Light Boxes
Celine Kiernan – The Rebel Prince
Rama the Steadfast
(Penguin edition)
George Orwell – Books vs Cigarettes
Brian Lee O’Malley – The Scott Pilgrim series
Tishani Doshi – The Pleasure Seekers
David Foster Wallace – Consider the Lobster
Tom Shippey (ed) – The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Searle and Willans – The Molesworth books
Margo Lanagan – White Time
Terry Pratchett – I Shall Wear Midnight
Gail Carriger – Blameless
Jai Arjun Singh and Nisha Susan (ed) – Excess
Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze
Pradeep Sebastian – The Groaning Shelf
Francisco X. Stork – The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
Richard Marsh – The Beetle
E. Nesbit – The Enchanted Castle
E. Lockhart – The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Wrede and Stevermer – Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician
Loretta Chase – Last Night’s Scandal
John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Angel of Death
Ian MacDonald – The Dervish House
Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast
Victor Watson – Reading Series Fiction
Michael de Larrabeiti – The Borribles
Sarah Caudwell – The Shortest Way to Hades
P.G Wodehouse – Ice in the Bedroom
Samit Basu – Turbulence
Kate Lawson – Mother of the Bride
Salman Rushdie – Luka and the Fire of Life
Paul Jessup – Werewolves
Walter Moers – The Alchemaster’s Apprentice
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay
Zoran Zivkovic – 12 Collections and a Teashop
Kate Bernheimer (ed) – My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
Mark Gatiss – The Devil in Amber
Edmund Crispin – The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Pullein-Thompson – Pony Club Cup, Pony Club Challenge and Pony Club Trek
Rick Riordan – Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero
Jeff Vandermeer – Finch
Talbot Baines Reed – The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s
Antonia Forest – Autumn Term
JoSelle Vanderhooft – Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories
John Masefield – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights

Also odd chapters from academic works, a bunch of regency romances by various authors, Pamela Cox’s sequels and fill-ins to the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books, and I lost the notebook where I list these things for a while in between, so I think I may be missing something. Probably not anything important, since I’d remember it if it was.

Not the most challenging year, judging by the quantities of fluff I read, but I think it was a good one.

December 22, 2010

Gary Shteyngart. Super Sad True Love Story

I’m rarely as irritated by a book as I was by Shteyngart’s dystopia. I’m also rarely as respectful of one. When I reviewed this book for The Sunday Guardian I had to hold myself back. Because however fine a writer he is (and he is one) and however well-conceived his dystopia (and it mostly is, very) he’s still the sort of writer who needs you to know that he knows that he’s writing yet another love story about a middle-aged man and a beautiful young girl.

This doesn’t stop Super Sad True Love Story from occasionally being quite gorgeous, though.

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It is perhaps rather obvious that dystopic fiction should structure itself around the fears of its contemporary society. Orwell’s 1984 (the dystopia everyone has read), for example, deals with constant surveillance by an all-powerful state that has taken over even language.

One of 2010’s biggest theatrical releases was The Social Network, a film whose reception said a lot about the centrality of Facebook to our lives. In India, 2010 also saw the release of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha, a film about social voyeurism and the media. In 2010 it’s not Big Brother who is watching you: it’s everyone.

This is certainly the case in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian satire in a world where all information about a person is constantly available to those around him. People own apparats, devices to link them to social networks wherever they are. Everyone around you knows your financial status, personal history and “fuckability” rating. It is in this world that middle-aged, hopelessly unfashionable Lenny Abramov falls in love with the much-younger, beautiful Eunice Park. As their relationship progresses, so do larger world political events. Until America falls apart.

The novel uses various formats in order to tell this story, shifting from Lenny’s diary entries to Eunice’s emails and chat transcripts. Lenny’s keeping of a written, personal diary is, like his habit of reading physical copies of books, very unusual in a world where books may not be banned, but are unfashionable enough that most people believe they smell bad. Both Lenny and Eunice experience genuine difficulty in reading, and Lenny has had to re-train himself to write. Interestingly Shteyngart has said (in an interview with the Paris Review) that one of his reasons for choosing this particular narrative style, with the text broken up into short sections with different formats, was that he believed people nowadays find it hard to read a book cover to cover – that we’re no longer as equipped to read books as we once were. This will become the novel’s biggest flaw.

Lenny is an interesting narrator. His many flaws are visible throughout the text. This is the sort of man who uses the word “eponymous” a page into beginning his narrative, and a couple of pages later is gushing about “the Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks”. He is attracted to women with tragic pasts – particularly victims of child abuse.

His feelings for Eunice arise naturally out of the sort of person that Lenny is. Early in the book he describes her as a “nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent”. He attempts to convince himself that “the woman I had fallen for is thoughtful and bright”, but it comes across merely as an attempt to convince himself of his own lack of shallowness. He claims that “for me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks”. When the tragedy comes, however, it is not the loss of this relationship that is affecting but the loss of many others.

Lenny’s relationship with his friends, for example. One of the few positives that Shteyngart’s dystopia allows for is that this “permissive” age allows for more physical closeness among men who “grew up with a fairly tense idea of male friendship”. With the rest of the world constantly tuning in honest conversation becomes difficult, but there’s never any doubt that there’s love there.

Eunice’s emails to her family and her friend “Grillbitch” (real name Jenny Kang) are equally moving. Perhaps because she’s younger and better able to communicate with technology, Eunice never seems to feel, as Lenny does, that the modern world makes it harder to communicate with her friends and there’s more honesty in her emails and chat transcripts than there ever is in Lenny’s private diary. Eunice grows and changes over the duration of the novel, and is in the end a far more sympathetic character.

Then there’s Lenny’s love of America. If this novel’s title were intended to refer to its narrator’s relationship with his country it would be quite understandable. Lenny commits himself to loving his country even as it collapses around him, and the sense of what has been, or is about to be, lost pervades the novel.

Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city?
I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is.
And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.

At the end of the novel, however, Shteyngart disappoints. He provides a frame narrative, and in it attempts to forestall a number of criticisms that might be made about the novel. That it is too much in the style of “the final generation of American “literary” writers”. That Eunice’s entries are preferable to “Lenny’s relentless navel-gazing”. It’s the sort of thing that might be intended to intimidate the reader into not making those criticisms herself – yet Shteyngart’s knowledge that these potential criticisms exist does not make them less true.

And this is ultimately my problem with Super Sad True Love Story. It is beautiful, it is smart, it is incredibly moving, but ultimately it does not trust its readers to read it. Shteyngart will cut the crusts and literally break his book into bite-sized pieces for his readers, and make for himself the criticisms they might have made. One of his fictional reviewers describes Lenny’s book as a “tribute to literature as it once was”. Super Sad True Love Story is the opposite; it’s a book for readers who are already in the dystopia that Shteyngart describes.

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Here are a couple of other reviews: Sasha Nova at BSC, Patrick Hudson at The Zone, Deepanjana Pal at Mumbai Boss.

October 17, 2010

I gush shamelessly about Gail Carriger

Some of you may remember that at the end of last year I listed Gail Carriger’s Soulless as one of my most memorable reads of the year. Since then, Carriger has been most obligingly prolific- Changeless came out this spring, and Blameless a month or two ago.

I wrote a short appreciation of the Parasol Protectorate series in yesterday’s Indian Express. Talking about three books in a limited number of words was difficult, but I managed to touch on some of the aspects of these books I love: that they’re funny, fluffy, clever and wonderful at relationships. I wish I’d also been able to talk about how they’re very, very geeky. Romance novels that my boyfriend is as excited about as I am. That is pretty amazing.
My gushfest about the series is below; earlier pieces on the first two books are here and here.
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Everyone is sick of love stories with vampires in them. Most people are well on the way to being sick of werewolf romances as well. And among the groups of people who actually know what Steampunk is, it has for some time been commonly thought to have had its day.

With this in mind, Gail Carriger’s series of steampunk romances featuring both vampires and werewolves ought to feel stale and annoying. Yet three Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless and Blameless) have come out in the past year, I have devoured them all, and I am in no danger of tiring of them.

Soulless introduces us to Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster afflicted with a large nose, an Italian surname and a surfeit of intelligence. She’s also a preternatural, the opposite of supernatural. Not only does she have no soul, but physical contact with makes vampires and werewolves temporarily mortal.

Unlike most well brought up Victorian ladies, therefore, Alexia knows “the supernatural set” quite well. She is especially fond of the vampire Lord Akeldama with his outrageous clothing and harem of attractive young men; and Professor Lyall, the wonderfully sane werewolf Beta. Equally, she feels strong dislike for the gorgeous Lord Maccon, a werewolf pack Alpha with an annoying protective streak where Alexia is concerned. Of course she does.

Romance fans know exactly where this is going.

Soulless is primarily a romance (though with plenty of blood and guts and mad scientists). Its sequels, Changeless and Blameless are closer to adventure novels. Changeless has Alexia traveling to Scotland (by dirigible), while Blameless has her being chased across Europe amongst a gloriously silly profusion of guns, false moustaches and hot air balloons.

These books are ridiculous, and entirely comfortable being that way. But they’re also intelligently conceived. The series is thoroughly grounded in history – in Carriger’s universe the Puritan fathers left England over the decision to welcome supernaturals into society, and werewolf and vampire skills, social dynamics and safety converns are the major reasons for the Empire, the bureaucracy, and the blandness of British cuisine. Real historical concerns are brilliantly woven in; for example the second and third books in the series both address the Egyptian Question in ways that are wholly unexpected.
Alexia is a wonderful heroine. There’s never any danger that falling in love will cause her to lose herself. She’s clever, frequently self-serving, not particularly nice, and fully capable of bludgeoning you to death with her parasol should she feel threatened.

Equally, as satisfying as Carriger’s rather Heyeresque romance plot may be, the majority of the series’ most moving moments have come from the marvelous cast of side characters. I love Alexia and Maccon but would quite happily sacrifice their adventures if it meant more time with Lord Akeldama and his partner Biffy, or Madame LeFoux (excellent milliner or evil genius?) or (especially) the magnificent Professor Lyall.

Carriger’s language owes a lot to Wodehouse. It’s a difficult style to sustain, and occasionally the author slips up or sounds too forced. But this is easy enough to forgive. These books are unselfconsciously funny, smart, and completely fresh. They’re an absolute delight.

I don’t know how long this series is going to be; a fourth and fifth book have been announced, but there is no information on whether the fifth will be the last. But if Carriger is going to keep producing things at this rate and of this standard, I’d be quite happy for it to be, well, endless.

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July 12, 2010

Charming Gentlemen

(Contains spoilers for multiple books)

One of the great moral dilemmas I struggle with is my love of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub*. However much I adore it, I’ve never been able to ignore some of the sinister opinions in the text.

Vidal is an attractive young marquis who must flee to France after a drunken duel in which he may or may not have killed his opponent. He decides to take with him a beautiful young woman who he has been attempting to seduce. Unfortunately, her older sister decides to come instead in order to protect the younger sister’s reputation. Vidal is furious when he finds out he’s been tricked, and attempts to rape her. She defends herself by shooting him in the arm; he realises that she must be a nice girl if she’s willing to defend her honour like this; a couple of hundred pages later they are in love and able to marry with parental approval. Meanwhile, the mother and sister of our heroine (whose biggest crime is to be crass and lower middle-class) are never redeemed.

Another Heyer book, The Convenient Marriage, has a charismatic aristocrat try to take revenge on an old acquaintance by kidnapping and raping his wife. The wife in question manages to knock him out with a poker and run away before rape occurs. Later, her husband fights him (with swords), wins, and the two men become friends again. The whole attempted-rape-of-wife thing is forgotten, and one imagines the man will be a valued dinner guest in the couple’s household for years to come. One person who will not be invited to dinner is the husband’s former mistress, who aided the would-be rapist in some of his (earlier, less rapey) plans. That bitch.

Moral: pretty much anything an attractive man does is excusable in some way. Forgive and forget, eh?

Devil’s Cub was published in 1932, and The Convenient Marriage in 1934. Heyer’s politics were not progressive (her anti-semitism in a few places is pretty jarring). And I’m not a historian, so I don’t really know how socially acceptable rape was in the late 1700s or the 1930s.

I’ve spoken before of my desire to finish Stephanie Laurens’ books so that there won’t be any more of them for me to read (this is a perfectly logical reason to do such a thing). Yesterday I read The Promise in a Kiss, a prequel to her Cynster books. It was published in (I think) 2002.
This book features an Evil Guardian who manipulates our heroine into attempted theft by threatening to rape her little sister. Things are sorted out, the hero is heroic, and…it turns out the man wasn’t planning to rape the child after all. The threat (and the whole plot, including the theft) was for the lulz, because what else is there to do for fun when you’re a bored aristocrat?

Sebastian humphed. He looked down on his old foe, knew the wound he’d delivered would cause serious discomfort for weeks. Counseled himself that that, together with all that would come, was fair payment for all Helena had suffered—that he couldn’t, no matter what he wished, exact further physical retribution. “You and your games—I gave them up years ago. Why do you still play them?”

Fabien opened his eyes, looked up, then shrugged—grimaced again. “Ennui, I suppose. What else is there to do?”

And it’s so sad that the Evil Guardian Ennui-afflicted Charming Gentleman has no children! And he’s not an actual rapist. And he ends up being a close friend of the hero and heroine, and they’re genuinely sad when he moves to America. So…that’s alright then, I guess? The real villain of this book is the hero’s sister-in-law: she’s pushy, presumptuous, and will later in the series be blamed for her son’s murderousness and general sociopathy.

I suppose it’s progress – in seventy years there’s been a shift from actual rapists being condoned to people who only threaten rape as a manipulative tool being condoned. Clearly the Laurens book is a massive victory for feminism.

*My life is hard.