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About Jennie

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

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REVIEW:  Villette by Charlotte Bronte

REVIEW: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

villetteI have been slowly making my way through the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre, having read Jane Eyre twice (in high school and college) and then tackling the frankly batshit Wuthering Heights a few years ago. Since then, I’ve read Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now have returned to Charlotte with Villette.

The opening few chapters of Villette were a little confusing to me, because our narrator, Lucy Snowe, barely speaks about herself or her thoughts and instead focuses entirely on the family she’s staying with and the other young visitor that comes shortly after she arrives. It’s almost like she’s an omniscient narrator; the effect is odd.

Lucy is staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton and Mrs. Bretton’s son Graham. Lucy seems to be an adolescent (Wikipedia says she’s 14), but since she never talks about herself it’s hard to be sure. Graham is maybe 18 or so? Again, I’m not sure; if his age was pinpointed, I missed it. Polly is a young child (maybe 5 or 6?) who is brought to stay with Mrs. Bretton by her father, and at first, in her passionate devotion to her father, is distraught to be left there. (Why Mrs. Bretton’s home serves as a way station for homeless children, I’m not sure; I think it’s just a 19th century English thing.) Polly soon develops a strong attachment to Graham, who treats her devotion with a sort of careless affection.

Polly is a precocious, willful child and Lucy tries to help her deal with her fluctuating emotions: grief when her father leaves and then again when he returns and she’s parted from Graham. Again, it’s hard to know what Lucy is even thinking during this time; her focus is so entirely on the characters around her rather than her own thoughts or actions.

So it’s a bit strange when the action switches and Lucy becomes a more active participant in her story. For unspecified reasons she has to leave Mrs. Bretton’s (it was never clear to me where Lucy’s family was but it seemed they were all dead). She is hired as a companion to an older woman, Miss Marchmont, and passes the rest of her youth there, in quiet but fairly contented fashion.

Alas, Miss Marchmont dies, leaving Lucy again without employment. In an uncharacteristically impulsive move, she leaves England altogether and travels to Labassecour, a fictional country based on Belgium. On the ship over, she meets the spoiled and vain Ginerva Fanshawe, who later turns out to be a pupil at the school in the town of Villette where Lucy finds employment. She is first employed as a nanny to the children of Mme. Beck, the school’s proprietress. Later she is elevated to the position of English teacher at the school.

The rest of Villette takes place here, and eventually the connection to the opening chapters with the Brettons and Polly is revealed.

The characters are what make Villette, in my opinion. There is Mme. Beck, who is controlling and possessive (she frequently rifles through her employees’ possessions, searching for dirt on them), but never entirely a villain, even when her actions are somewhat villainous. Dr. John is an English physician who visits the school to treat Mme. Beck’s children and the boarders, and falls into a shallow love with the flighty, capricious Ginverva. He draws Lucy’s interest for reasons that weren’t entirely clear; I was never sure if she were really romantically drawn to him or interested in him for another reason (one that is a spoiler and only becomes clear later in the book).

Ginerva herself is a familiar but entertaining character. She’s a staple of 19th century English literature – the beautiful coquette who is appallingly self-centered and heedless in her treatment of others. Such characters never quite ring true to me – they are so over the top in their callousness and ego. But they can be amusing nonetheless, and Ginerva amused me (and Lucy, I think, to some degree). We also come to know and slowly appreciate the severe professor, M. Paul Emanuel, first an antagonist and later a friend to Lucy.

Lucy herself is an interesting but also a frustrating character. So self-contained in the early pages of the novel that in her narration she is sometimes referred to in the third person, she opens up somewhat after arriving in Villette. She reveals a character that I think of as very Bronte-ish – sensible and plain-spoken, with an unbreakable core of strength and moral rectitude.

Still, it isn’t until the middle of the novel that some of Lucy’s hidden depths and innermost thoughts are revealed. One summer she driven almost mad by loneliness; the school is closed for summer break and Lucy has no one to talk to except, occasionally, the porter and a mentally handicapped child left to languish there. Lucy takes long walks to try to stem her restlessness; one day she ventures far out into the country and comes upon a Catholic church. Desperate for someone to talk to, she tries to unburden her mind upon the priest there, but he tells her to come back the next day. She resolves not to, wary of being taken in by his wily Popish ways. On the way back she is caught in a storm and finds refuge in a house that happens to belong to old friends.

After this, Lucy’s life opens up somewhat as she renews relationships and begins to come out of her shell. But there are those who have reason for wanting Lucy to maintain her current station, and some (pretty obvious) machinations attempted to accomplish that.

There is a fairly benign strain of anti-Continental prejudice in Villette – the French and other Europeans are portrayed as too sensual, lazy and overly emotional, in contrast to the sober and abstemious English. This seems to be the norm for 19th century novels that I’ve read, and I couldn’t take it too seriously. Less benign is the anti-Catholicism, which has been the subject of some criticism since Villette was published. Again, I placed it in the context of where and when the novel was written, but the “Protestants rule, Catholics drool” theme may offend some. Bronte doesn’t quite accuse Catholics of eating babies, but her view of them is fairly harsh. On the other hand, Lucy does not ultimately let that view interfere with her friendship with Professor Emanuel, even when he advocates for his religion over hers.

If I had to rank the Bronte novels, I’d probably do so thusly:

1) Jane Eyre
2) Villette
3) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
4) Wuthering Heights
5) Agnes Grey

I still have The Professor and Shirley left to read. Jane Eyre has to be first because it’s so iconic and Jane is such a wonderful heroine. I would say Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are pretty much neck and neck, though they are very different stories (they do contain some similar themes, though, having to do with female independence). In some ways Villette is more enjoyable, because TToWH is such a serious book, but neither is a light read. Wuthering Heights could really go anywhere on the list because it such a crazy book; I kind of loved it and hated it all at once. Agnes Grey, compared to the other works I’ve read, is a bit pallid, and I still haven’t quite gotten over what a goody-two-shoes Agnes was.

One note on the ending to Villette: it’s ambiguous, leaning towards unhappy. I don’t think I have a really strong prejudice towards unhappy endings if they fit (and after all, Villette is not a romance, where an HEA is more or less promised). But this ending seemed unnecessary and not quite right. It didn’t mar the book for me, but I kind of wish it had ended differently.

My grade for Villette is an A-.

Best regards,


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REVIEW:  Thrown for a Curve by Sugar Jamison

REVIEW: Thrown for a Curve by Sugar Jamison

thrown for a curveDear Ms. Jamison:

I picked up this book based on a couple of fairly shallow factors: 1) I liked the colorful, poppy cover, which seemed to signal to me that the book fell nicely in the convergence between chick-lit and contemporary romance and 2) your name. Why your name? Well, Sugar (Sugar Beth, to be exact), from Ain’t She Sweet, happens to be one of my favorite Susan Elizabeth Phillips heroines. I think there was an almost subliminal process that happened in my head that went:  sorta-SEP-style-cover+author with SEP-character-name=SEP-type book. What’s weird is that I don’t even always like *SEP* (she’s uneven for me), but still, the association (along with the book blurb) was enough to make me interested in reading this book.

Anyway, the plot: 22-year-old Charlotte “Cherri” Rudy has lived all her life in a small town in New York state. She lives with her grandmother and works in a dress shop with her best friends (one of whom was apparently featured in the first book in this series). She likes her life, but it has its stresses and disappointments. For one, her grandmother, who is the only mother Cherri has ever known (Cherri’s mother took off when she was a child) is getting older and frailer, and having episodes of dementia. Their financial situation isn’t great, and the house they live in is falling down around their ears. Also, Cherri got an advanced degree so she could teach art to children – a longtime dream of hers – but the only job opportunity she’s found is too far away; even if Cherri could commute she’d worry about leaving her grandmother alone for that long each day.

Then there is Cherri’s love life, or lack thereof. She is described as six feet tall with long blond hair and a curvy body. Yet she’s never been on a date and believes she’s fat, unappealing and freakish (due to her height). Yes, Cherri is one of *those* heroines – the clearly hot ones who are somehow convinced that they are hideous.

This aspect of the book annoyed me (it didn’t help that a lot of time was spent on it) – even if you accept Cherri’s self-esteem issues (which are tiresome but at least somewhat realistic), it’s hard to understand why she hasn’t attracted more (or any) male attention in her 22 years. The only thing that might explain it to some degree would be if she were super-shy and dressed in baggy clothes, but neither of those seem to be the case. Cherri actually has a somewhat bubbly, outgoing personality, and as far as I can tell, she dresses pretty much like an average woman her age – she wears dresses, jeans, etc. So I’m not sure how she’s managed to get to the age she has without apparently getting hit on at all.

Colin O’Connell is 34, an Irish immigrant and the best friend of Cherri’s boss’ new husband. He has a thriving business restoring antiques, and like Cherri, he doesn’t have a bad life but he’s not entirely happy. The woman he thought he loved turned out to be faithless, and in the two years since their breakup he’s gone through a period of being a man-whore and now an extended period of celibacy. He was also raised without a mother; the parallel here was a little odd to me, in that it’s never really examined or discussed between Cherri and Colin – do that many people have their mothers run out on them when they are babies and never contact them again? Colin was raised by his father, a feckless, charming skirt-chaser. He’s at the point in his own life when he’s thinking he should consider settling down and starting a family.

Colin and Cherri have known each other for a while (maybe a couple of years?), but, in one of those romance novel conventions that I just have to accept even though it usually doesn’t feel quite real to me, they’ve never admitted their attraction to each other. Cherri’s attraction to Colin is understandable: older guy, handsome, charming, Irish accent – what’s not to love? She’s never done anything about it, though – she believes Colin is out of her league (insert eye-roll here).

Colin finds Cherri’s figure luscious and her personality adorable, but he thinks he’s too old for her and she’s too innocent for him. That, at least, seemed semi-valid to me. He gets drawn deeper into Cherri’s life though when he meets Baba, Cherri’s feisty Ukrainian grandmother, and then later when he utilizes Cherri’s skills as an artist to help restore a piece he’s working on in his shop.

Before long, Cherri and Colin are working together and not-so-secretly lusting after each other. Each still has their issues (Cherri’s: I’m an unattractive freak and someone like Colin couldn’t really want me; Colin’s: she’s too young and innocent and I’ve been burned by love once already), and some of their friends don’t quite approve, but that doesn’t stop the inevitable from happening.

There’s a lot to like about Thrown for a Curve. I liked Cherri (in spite of her tedious self-esteem issues) and Colin. I liked the setting – small towns seem to work better for me when they aren’t rural and/or Southern. The prose style was smooth and readable (which sounds like damning with faint praise but I’m picky about prose so “competent” is really all I ask for or expect).

What didn’t work? The plot, kind of. Which is odd for me, because usually if the prose, characterization and setting are working for me, the plot doesn’t matter that much. In this case, the story started out fine, but got bogged down about halfway through. How many times can we hear about Cherri’s or Colin’s insecurities? Their situation changes, but the script is the same: he doesn’t really want me; she deserves to live her own life and figure out what she really wants. Wah wah wah.

I didn’t have a big problem with the age difference that bothered Colin so much until late in the book. The two fight on a couple of occasions, and Cherri lashes out rather nastily. She has a couple of reasons for being so vicious (to say more would take me into spoiler territory), but her inappropriate anger still felt like it could well be seen as evidence of immaturity.

I think I was supposed to be more charmed by Baba than I actually was. She wasn’t an unlikable character, but she had a pretty broad shtick that consisted of unlikely malaprops and inappropriate vulgarity (her ogling of Colin got old rather fast). The story of her mental decline was poignant, though. The few other secondary characters were likable enough, though my favorite was Baba’s cantankerous dog.

In spite of my criticisms, I think I may seek out the first book in this series when I get a chance. My grade for Thrown for a Curve is a B-.

Best regards,


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