Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Angela T

http://www.twitter.com/lazaraspaste

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

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REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James

REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James

This review is being posted in lieu of a morning opinion piece because it is an opinion piece of sorts and because, well, it is verbose. So you get three reviews today. Yay!

Dear E.L. James,

So I’m pretty much in the minority when it comes to this book as I hated it.

Fifty Shades of Grey came to my attention during a Twitter conversation. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was apparently once a Twilight fan fiction piece entitled Master of the Universe and featured a BDSM relationship between the main protagonists. I was told that there was a high level of WTFery but I ignored this warning. I’m usually a fan of WTFery. If I was not a fan of WTFery, I would not have enjoyed afternoon soap operas for most of my teen years. After all, WTFery is simply the absurd taken to new heights of, well, of absurdity. But this was not WTF in an absurd, adorable way. It was infuriating. I wanted to scratch my eyes out or maybe the characters’. I’m not really sure. At one point, I had to start drinking heavily. But even gin didn’t dull the fury.

Fifty Shades GreyIn writing this, I’ve been thinking of alternate titles, something that plays on the title of the book, what it is about, and how I feel about it. Something succinct like: “50 Shades of Grey, 7 Shades of Scarlet, & 372 Pages of Dumb.” Or maybe: “120 Days of Boredom.”  What about: “The Story of Oh . . . My! Perhaps, “Where There’s a Will, There’s an Ellipsis” or “The Whiner, the Witch, and the Wanker”? No, I’ve got it: “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” but I wouldn’t want to associate X-Ray Spex with this book. So let’s call this after my favorite safe word: Julie Andrews!

I should state, for the record, that I was did not buy this book. I was lent it and I am very grateful to that person.  Yes, I am very grateful despite the fact that I ended up loathing this book. So, what’s it all about?

Anastasia Steele is on the cusp of graduating from Washington State University. Before she can do that, though, she’s got to get through finals, a task which would be made easier if she didn’t have to drive up to Seattle to interview some billionaire named Christian Grey for the student newspaper. But she does have to, even though she isn’t technically on the student paper. Her BFF Kate is sick, and being sick she is incapable of driving the three hours or conducting the interview. So Anastasia does it instead. It’s a last minute thing and honestly, she’s just not prepared for it (or for anything in life, really, but we’ll get to that). She doesn’t know anything about Christian Grey. She doesn’t know how old he is or what he does. All she knows is that he’s rich and he donates to the university.

Whatever she expected, it wasn’t the reality of Christian Grey. He’s young, for one, and he’s intense, really intense. Anastasia knows that she’s no match for him looks-wise, so it baffles her when he starts pursuing her: showing up at her work, sending her a first-edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, rescuing her from a drunken evening out. She can hardly believe her luck when this perfect man whisks her away to his penthouse in Seattle. Only Christian Grey has a dark secret. No, he isn’t a vampire or a spy or Batman. He’s kinky. He’s into BDSM. He likes to whip and chain it. GASP!

That’s pretty much the plot. Ignorant young woman with virginity still intact and a case of low self-esteem meets a controlling, manipulative, hot, young billionaire who identifies as a dominant in order to justify the fact that he’s a paternalistic control freak. Yay! Oh, yay! It’s just such an original and imaginative take on heterosexual relationships, don’t you think? It really offers some new insight into sexuality and power.

I am, of course, being sarcastic. Fifty Shades of Grey does the exact opposite. Not only does it perpetuate damaging untruths about BDSM as a sexuality and a sexual identity, it also manages to do so in the most clichéd and hackneyed way possible. It is a thoroughly uninteresting book. The characters are as flat as a thing can be without entering the first dimension. The plot has only a single conflict: that Christian is BDSM identified and Anastasia is vanilla. E.L. James has managed to take the worst aspects of Twilight, the worst elements of a Mills & Boon circa 1977, and the worst of BDSM erotica and combine them into one glorious whole (or should that be hole?). She deploys the tropes and clichés with a heavy hand—tropes and clichés that, to be fair, are everywhere in romance. But it is the thoughtless use of these clichés that makes them problematic for me. And this is coming from a person who has just written and presented an academic paper defending the cliché and clichéd language!

Worse, the prose itself is stuttering and robotic. Sentences are rendered in a childish sing-song structure (subject verb predicate) and overwhelmingly they are in the active voice. Moreover, the prose beats you over the head with its intended meaning. James clearly doesn’t trust her readers to pick up on nuance, to infer traits and qualities from the characters dialogue and interactions, or to remember events from mere paragraphs prior (God knows Anastasia doesn’t). Instead, she spends a great deal of timing telling us all sorts of things about Anastasia and Christian but somehow manages to demonstrate the exact opposite.

What I hated about this book are certainly issues and problems that I have disliked in other novels. However, as I said above, by separating the clichés from the original forms and contexts (particularly in the case of Twilight), James loses the subtlety that made these problematic clichés at the very least tolerable in their other contexts. For instance, in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Wicked Intentions the hero’s desire for kinky sex is “cured” by his relationship with the heroine. However, the central conflict of that book does not revolve around the hero’s sexual identity nor does the heroine find it any way monstrous. As such, I was able to overlook it enough to enjoy the rest of the novel. That simply was not the case for me in Fifty Shades of Grey.

In order to address the multitude of problems in the narrative, I have divided the review into three sections. I have not written a thesis statement, which I’m sure will disappoint Maggie Stiefvater. C’est la vie! We can’t always get what we want. I certainly didn’t whilst reading this book.

Prose

The prose is dull, but it isn’t unreadable. It’s competent. The best thing I can say about it is that vast majority of sentences are grammatical. More problematically was what I shall call the rhythm of the prose. Like Gertrude Stein, I believe the sentence is the basic building block of narrative. The sentences in this book did not help me enter the world of the story. They were an obstruction. A series of pedestrian, pre-chewed sentences only slightly more sophisticated than the ones found in my 2nd grade reader:

The drive to the heliport is short and, before I know it, we arrive. I wonder where the fabled helicopter might be. We’re in a built-up area of the city and even I know helicopters need space to take off and land [Reviewer’s Note: No. They don’t. That’s their advantage over the plane!] Taylor parks, climbs out, and opens my car door. Christian is beside me in an instant and takes my hand again.  (p. 63) Kindle Edition.

By pre-chewed, what I mean is that every sentence, every piece of dialogue is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect in a book like this. Like in a James Cameron movie where every character says exactly what such a character always says at such a moment. It is uniformly predictable and because it is uniformly predictable it doesn’t convey any subtle or nuanced meaning to the story. Its uniformity on a sentence level shapes the superficiality of the rest of the book—the plot, the characters, and the underlying themes. This is what I mean by clichéd.

The prose is further made awful by James’ weird and arbitrary use of the italics. Italics are used to emphasize certain words or phrases. They are also used, on occasion, as a way of setting off a character’s thoughts. By using the italics all the time, which she does, the emphasis loses all meaning and force. Quite frankly, the italics make Anastasia look dumb—not that she needs any help with that. They create a constant sense of Anastasia as a person easily startled, like someone suffering from short term memory loss who forgets she just saw you ten seconds ago and then jumps when she sees you again. It’s fucking ridiculous. For example:

“I assume you’re not on the pill.”

What! Shit.

“I didn’t think so.” He opens the top drawer of the chest and removes a packet of condoms [Reviewer’s note: the pill doesn’t protect from STDs, yo!]. He gazes at me intently.

“Be prepared,” he murmurs. “Do you want the blinds drawn?”

“I don’t mind.” I whisper. “I thought you didn’t let anyone sleep in your bed.”

“Who says we’re going to sleep?” he murmurs softly.

“Oh.” Holy hell.

He strolls slowly toward me. Confident, sexy, eyes blazing, and my heart begins to pound. My blood’s pumping around my body. Desire, thick and hot, pools in my belly. He stands in front of me, staring down into my eyes. He’s so freaking hot. (p. 82).

Why are these in italics? What is the purpose of the emphasis? What does it tell us that the context doesn’t? That the words themselves don’t? We don’t need them if they are just supposed to be setting off Anastasia’s thoughts because the story is told in the first person and we are already occupying her headspace. We don’t need to be told that this is what she is thinking via italics. They emphasize nothing. And at one point, dialogue coming from another room is in italics (Location 2842 of 10541). So to me, there is no rhyme or reason for this usage. It just takes the reader out of the story. Let’s not even get into the plethora of ellipses (oh my god . . . the ellipses!).

A final, but by no means last, word on the prose is the use of the word subconscious. The subconscious plays a large role in Anastasia’s life. Almost as large as her inner goddess, which I can only assume is some kind of euphemism for vagina. The subconscious is constantly berating and admonishing her. The problem is that this is not what the subconscious does. That’s what the conscience does or the superego, if you are going to be Freudian about it. You are not actually consciously aware of the subconscious because it is sub conscious; it is below the level of consciousness. This may seem like mean-spirited nitpicking, but it isn’t a singular instance of wrong usage. It is a constant refrain within the book. Every time the subconscious spoke, I thought to myself: No. Wrong. No.

Because the prose is so weak, it ends up highlighting and accentuating the book’s other weaknesses, which are as follows:

Plot/Character

The plot in this book is the characters. And that’s the problem. There is no other conflict or story other than the fact that Anastasia wants a normal relationship and Christian can’t give her one. He gives it the old school try, I’ll tell you that. Theoretically, this could be a really interesting story. What happens to a kinky person when/if they fall in love with someone who is vanilla? Is it bound (ha!) to be a doomed relationship? Or is there a way to make it work for both people? There’s a good story there. That’s a good premise. Unfortunately, that is not the story in Fifty Shades.

Going in, I had heard rumors to the effect that Christian gets “cured” of his BDSM kink and to me it was fairly clear from the beginning that this is trajectory of the story. This because of the way the narration—that is Anastasia as the first person narrator—characterizes Christian’s kink and the presumption that the reader is going to or ought have her same perspective about BDSM. But let’s talk about Christian first.

Christian is an asshole of the first order. At the outset of the story, he employs the classic move of mind-fuckers and bad boyfriends everywhere, “Anastasia, I’m not a hearts and flowers kind of man, I don’t do romance. My tastes are very singular. You should steer clear of me” (p. 52). Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ooohhh god! What girl hasn’t heard a version of that before? Am I right, ladies? Regardless of what language it is uttered in, this is the first tip off that you are dealing with a manipulative fuck. But you know what? Let’s give credit where credit is due, Anastasia actually takes him at his word, something Christian never manages to do when it comes to her word. No, no. He just steamrolls right on over every one of her objections. But Anastasia doesn’t pursue him after he tells her this. No, he pursues her. He sends her a first edition. This is not the action of a man who wants a woman to stay away from him. When she calls him drunk to ask him why he would do that, he tracks her down and takes her back to his hotel. Nothing happens, but again, his actions say something different than his words. I would call him a stalker, but he doesn’t have that level of subtlety

The mind games really set the scene for when Christian takes Ana to Seattle where he has her sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement prior to revealing the fact that he’s a dom. There is so much wrong with this I don’t know where to begin. First, Anastasia has no effing clue what BDSM is. Second, she has no sexual experience. Third, the agreement says she can’t talk about this to anyone, which means that she cannot ask anyone bedsides Christian anything about BDSM. Thus, Christian gets to be the one who controls the interpretation of what it means to be a submissive. Does that not strike anyone else as abusive? This is such a violation of kink ethics, of ethics period.

Fine. Whatever. Let’s move on. So then, he hands her a contract. Surely you jest? I mean, dude. Just . . . wow! For god’s sake, he doesn’t even give her a chance to find out what BDSM is or whether or not she wants to pursue something with him. No. He just hands her a contract that’s basically structured to be a 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationship. I mean, I’m not kinky but it seems to me to be common friggin’ sense that you ought to at least play with someone, do a few scenes with a new partner before you go all 24/7! Let’s hire a U-Haul! Forevah, Babes! Not the mention the fact that he’s totally pressuring her to say yes immediately. Argh!

Anyhow, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Ana’s virginity would not stop him from just steamrolling right on over that issue and continuing with his plan to have her as his sub. Oh! And did I mention he blames her for not telling him she was a virgin. Douchewad! So then we get this romantic and touching scene:

“We’re going to rectify the situation right now.”

“What do you mean? What situation?”

“Your situation. Ana, I’m going to make love to you, now.”

“Oh.” The floor has fallen away. I’m a situation. I’m holding my breath.

“That’s if you want to, I mean, I don’t want to push my luck.”

“I thought you didn’t make love. I thought you fucked hard.” I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry.

He gives me a wicked grin, the effects of which travel all the way down there (p. 81)

Somebody call the producers of Jersey Shore, because it turns out The Situation is actually Anastasia Steele’s intact hymen. Yes, responsible sex at its finest. This attitude pretty much characterizes Christian throughout the novel. The only difference between Christian Grey and a Greek Tycoon is that Christian isn’t Greek, as far as I know. He also has more contracts. Other than that, his paternalism and general alpha-hole behavior may as well have been stripped from any number of Harlequin Presents, sans the nuanced characterizations or groveling scenes of penance.

Besides being the worst sort of alpha male, Christian’s personality can be summarized thus: spectacularly beautiful man who smirks a lot. There’s not a lot there. He’s pretty much a cipher, not so much enigmatic as empty.

Then there’s Anastasia Steele. She has shockingly little personality for a first person narrator. She’s vapid and dumb, so very, very dumb. She’s TSTL, but not because she chases down villains in London’s worst slums. No, but because she fails to register the blatantly obvious. Right after Christian tells her he’s kinky, we get this gem of an exchange:

My mouth drops open. Fuck hard! Holy shit, that sounds so… hot. But why are we looking at a playroom? I am mystified.

“You want to play on your Xbox?” I ask. He laughs, loudly.

“No, Anastasia, no Xbox, no Playstation. Come.” (p. 70)

Is this supposed to be cute? Endearing? If so, fail. It is one thing to be a virgin, it is another thing to be so flamingly, fantastically ignorant of the universe and the obvious. I mean, good god, Xbox?! Freaking Xbox?! (Note the use of italics, used to emphasize my disdain). Come on, woman!

I don’t have a problem with virgin heroines, because I don’t equate virginity with being a brain-dead ignoramus. Call me crazy, but I don’t think one needs to have had sex in order to be able to connect the dots in basic human interactions. James has Christian constantly praising Ana’s intelligence and bravery and cleverness, but everything Ana does renders these compliments into ironic, nay sarcastic statements. Every time something sexual is mentioned Ana blushes or flushes or gasps. Any time Christian tries to have an adult conversation with her about BDSM, she bites her lip and peeks out from under her hair like Princess Diana used to do at the paparazzi. Then he tells her he wants to fuck her. Ana’s entire attitude towards their relationship is immature and adolescent, while Christian’s is controlling and manipulative.

If only she were just dumb and easily embarrassed by sex, but no. Ana’s also judgmental and shallow. I think her attitude towards Christian is fairly well summarized in the following lines: “The problem is, I just want Christian, not all his… baggage – and right now he has a 747 hold’s worth of baggage” (p. 217). And later she says: “I’m in this fantasy apartment, having fantasy sex with my fantasy boyfriend. When the grim reality is he wants a special arrangement, though he’s said he’ll try more” (p. 269). The sheer immaturity of these statements is awe-inspiring. Ana doesn’t want Christian with all his baggage. She wants the fantasy, not the grim reality of the actual man. The fact that her adolescent crush on him is characterized as true love illustrates the underlying fuckwitted-ness of this book.

In an adult relationship we deal with the other person’s baggage, whatever that baggage is because everyone’s got it. When Ana talks about how she doesn’t have any examples except literary heroines for knowing how to deal with men, her fundamental misreading of relationships is revealed. She says, “My other references are all fictional: Elizabeth Bennet would be outraged, Jane Eyre too frightened, and Tess would succumb, just as I have” (p. 163). Ana seems to be under the misguided impression that Elizabeth was upset with Darcy for having baggage. That Jane was scared of Rochester’s baggage, which like most people he kept in the attic. But this is a terribly naïve reading of those books and the relationships they depict.

And this naïve attitude toward sex and romance is reiterated in the way that Ana repeatedly characterizes Christian as a monster, as depraved, as a nut-job, as scary, and as dangerous. At one point she says, “This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight – or the dark knight as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?” (p. 259). And that pretty much sums up the problem with Ana, Christian, and the plot. BDSM is something you do when you don’t know how to have a “real” relationship. Something you use when you don’t know what “real” love is. “Real” love being two flawless people with no baggage loving boinking. And that’s bullshit.

Spectacle

Oh BDSM! Up Yours! Kink serves three contradictory purposes within this story: it is a justification for Christian being an alphahole (He’s damaged! He’s dominant! He doesn’t know what real love is!). It is the erotic titillation and tension in the sex scenes—which, FYI, are so boring they could have acted as general anesthesia. I could have had a tooth drilled during and not realized it. And it is the obstacle or conflict the hero and heroine must overcome in order to be together.

The narrative wants to occupy a position where we get to take the moral high ground sexually speaking but at the same time get to be thrilled by the eroticism of BDSM. It wants us to think of Christian’s BDSM as something that’s wrong with him, a symptom of his inner, childhood demons. But it also wants us to get off on it. Like teenage girls giggling over pictures of penises, it seems to say of BDSM, “Tee he he he! That’s so gross!” But secretly loves the titillation it gets from viewing the forbidden.

Nowhere is this made clearer than in the depiction of Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson is the name Ana gives to the older femdomme who introduced Christian to BDSM when he was but fifteen years old. Ugh! But friends, it gets worse. Ana, in her typically sensitive and insightful way, refers to her in front of Christian as Mrs. Pedo. To which Christian responds, “She’s a dear, valued friend and a business partner. That’s all. We have a past, a shared history, which was monumentally beneficial for me, though it fucked up her marriage – but that side of our relationship is over” (p. 314).

Cue stunned silence.

I don’t even know where to begin with this: the fact that one of the few, and certainly the most important, femalez involved in BDSM is depicted as child molester. Or the fact that she gave Christian the only kind of love he would accept and saved from a life of darkness and drugs. Oh my! Or the fact that it basically justifies Ana’s view of BDSM as “scary” and “dark” . . . like Christian’s eyes. This is just so, so, so WRONG.

The characterization of Mrs. Robinson as a pedophile is followed by Ana getting turned on, for the umpteenth time, by Christian and then trying to use sex to get him to tell her about his past. Followed by BDSM being characterized as some kind of therapy. Followed by another mind-blowing orgasm. This is fairly typical as far as this book is concerned. One minute BDSM is wrong, wrong, wrong. So scary! So dark! Then the next it is hot, hot, hot! Then it is therapeutic. Then it is wrong and dark again. Then Ana’s getting off on images of Christian with a riding crop, and so on and so forth. In short, the depiction of BDSM as an identity and as sexuality is careless, inconsistent, and rests on common myths and misperceptions about it. And I haven’t even gotten to the contract, yet!

It is entirely obvious to me that this used to be Twilight fan fiction because James manages to capture the vibe of the original: the shoe-gazing, eye-gazing, pseudo-angst of Bella and Edward’s tumultuous love affair. Yes! It’s all there from the zero conflict to the zero chemistry! However, as it turns out—and believe me I’m as surprised to be saying this as you are to hear it—Twilight turns out to be the more sophisticated version. If we were to characterize Edward and Bella’s relationship as BDSM, then unlike Anastasia, Bella eagerly and unconditionally accepts Edward and his darkness. She embraces him and his baggage wholeheartedly. She is happy to go into his world. She never thinks of saving him from his darkness. She never thinks of him as a monster. Edward is the one in the closet, so to speak. Edward is the one who fears his desires. This book has completely missed that aspect of its source material.

For all that Twilight normalizes the Gothic, the monstrous, and the kinky it never “cures” it. It never tries to “drag it into the light” and reform it from its bad, bad ways. Instead, and I’m quite startled to realize this, Twilight posits a world in which the “monstrous”, too, can be happy. Even the villains experience real love and true love. In fact, Victoria’s pursuit of Bella is based upon the fact that she did love her partner and mourns his death. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, persistently characterizes kink as abnormal except when it uses it to excuse bad behavior or to titillate its readers. It is exploitive and appropriative in the worst sort of way. More importantly, it separates the “hearts and flowers” sort of romantic love Anastasia wants as being distinct from and incompatible with BDSM.

I could say a lot more about this book: the use of musical references as status symbols, the weird relationship to food the narrative has, the weird relationship to appetite generally the narrative demonstrates, how the text defines love and normalcy, etc. Not to mention the hoops E.L. James has to jump through to keep Ana innocent of the world. I mean seriously, what student doesn’t have an email address? Or a computer? And there is a helluva lot more to say about the depiction of BDSM. But I will refrain.

While I recognize that there are two other books in this series that I have not read and have, therefore, not completed the narrative arc, I have no confidence that the problems that were so garishly on display in this first book have, in any way, been resolved in the subsequent installments. And I will not be reading the others to have my suspicions confirmed. I’m quite positive that my predictions will come true: Jack Hyde will turn out to be some kind of bad dom; Mrs. Robinson will play the role of jealous, glamorous older lover that Christian has to break free from in order to be with Anastasia; and finally, Christian will be set free from his need to be a dominant once he has fully come to terms with his dark past.

But why did this infuriate me so? Why? I think, after much contemplation, it was because the way in which the clichés and elements of genre romance were deployed served to reveal a troubling and repugnant worldview. Troubling for the very fact that these are not issues isolated to 50 Shades of Grey. The artless way in which they were written simply laid bare the problems, exposing a terrible underlying ideology. Whether James realizes it or not, intended it or not, she has written a book whose ultimate message is this: the only people who deserve love are those who are perfect and normal. Redemption is nothing more than learning that you were always already chosen, always already perfect.

How Calvinist! I find this message foul and damaging. Because of that fact and because it is rendered in dull, robotic prose, I hereby give this book an F.

Lazaraspaste

You can read more about Fifty Shades and its origins here along with recommendations of other books here.

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REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

Dear Ms. Livesey,

The cover song has always occupied a precarious position in the annals of music lovers. On the one hand, it is quite a safe thing to do—cover someone else’s song. One already knows that it is beloved. One already knows what sort of person might like that song. It has a brand, a mark, a name already stamped upon it. You, as the musician, can rely on people’s nostalgia to bring to the song you are playing emotions you might not be guaranteed to evoke through your own work. If you are a really excellent musician, you may even bring to the original song something that wasn’t there before. You may make it better. You may, like Jeff Buckley singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” create an entirely new song.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot LiveseyBut there is also a risk in covering a song, especially a beloved song. You may just make people wish they were listening to the original. You may just make people sad that they never got to see the Beatles the first time around. You may expose your own mediocrity by attempting a song that is beyond your abilities. You may, like a cover band at a wedding, make people’s skin crawl with your rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Yes, the cover song is a dangerous thing to do.

So, too, are books that re-tell classic works of literature. There’s something both naive and arrogant in supposing you, as an author, can say something more interesting about, for example, Lolita, than Nabokov did. It’s rather an act of hubris, isn’t it? Of course, when it is done well . . . but there’s the rub. You’ve got to do it well. And if you don’t? There’s a lot more to lose.

In the book description on Amazon.com, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is called a “captivating homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre” which is rather misleading. Homage? Is that the word to use? I would not describe this book as an homage to Jane Eyre. No, that book would be Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This book is Jane Eyre—Jane Eyre dressed in the slacks and cardigans of the 1960′s, Jane Eyre missing all its teeth and replacing them with wooden dentures—but Jane Eyre, nonetheless. There are, of course, differences. But those differences are in the details rather than the plot structure, the themes, or the characters. The differences are either superficial, amounting to just mere costume changes, or they are substantial in such a way as to make the plot simultaneously absurd and dull. This is, in my opinion, merely a bad cover version of Jane Eyre.

The book is divided into five parts roughly corresponding with the parts in Jane Eyre. The first two sections focus on Gemma’s childhood, the loss of her only friend Miriam, and her years at Claypoole School. The third section focuses on her time as a nanny to a young girl, the niece of a wealthy banker and landowner, Mr. Sinclair on the Orkney Islands. Part four focuses on her flight from Mr. Sinclair upon learning his secret and Gemma’s recovery of herself during that time period. The last part focuses on the discovery of the remaining family she never knew she had—a family that lives in Iceland—and her eventual return to Mr. Sinclair.

Gemma Hardy is an orphan. Her beloved Uncle has died leaving her in the care of an aunt who, she is coming to realize, hates her. When the village doctor suggests that perhaps she might be better off at school, she sees this as her chance to escape the increasing misery and grief that seems to be her lot at Yew House. Much like the titular character of the book upon which this novel is based, Gemma finds that school is not at all what she expected. Claypoole is a school with an inordinate number of scholarship girls, but they are not there to learn. They are there to earn their keep. Gemma finds no solace at Claypoole but she does find a kind of freedom. When the school closes, she takes a position as a nanny for the Sinclairs in the Orkney Islands. It is there she meets the handsome, brusque Mr. Sinclair and promptly falls head over heels in love with him. But Mr. Sinclair has a secret that seems to be connected to the steward, Seamus Sinclair. Despite this, Gemma feels as if she has finally come home. But this feeling is shattered when, on her wedding day, a secret from the past is revealed and forces Gemma to find her own way in the world.

So, ya know, like I said, it is pretty much Jane Eyre. The names have been changed, but the problems are real, as they used to say on Mathnet part of Square One.

And the book is problematic. It wants to retain all the elements of the original whilst modernizing the plot. What this means is that Ms. Livesey has to jump through some very difficult hoops in order to sustain the original plot structure. Her decision to set the story in the 1960’s makes certain elements of Jane Eyre nearly impossible to deploy with any kind of verisimilitude or believability. I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it is a fact that orphaned young women in the 1960’s had advantages and opportunities that orphaned young women in the 1840’s simply did not possess. I hope that we can all agree that this is the case. It certainly seems like it ought to be the case. I suppose it is important that as a reader I certainly felt it ought to be the case. Getting a job in the 1960’s, even without references, wasn’t nearly as difficult as getting a job in the 1840’s, surely? But in order to give to Gemma the kind of isolation and alienation that is the hallmark of Jane’s character, Livesey has to do a lot of work in order to make that come off in the setting she has chosen

We see this problem first on the announcement that Claypoole School is closing due to financial difficulties. As such, Gemma finds that her dreams of university are unlikely to manifest themselves. She must find other employment until such a time as she can gain entry into a university. On the advice of a professor she takes a job as nanny. Well this seems all fine and dandy. I accept this. I find this believable. However, it makes her about 18 years old when she meets Mr. Sinclair (42!), which granted is about the same age Jane was when she met Mr. Rochester but 18 in 1966 seems a hell of a lot younger than 18 in 1846. Also, there is no reason that Mr. Sinclair should be that old except for the fact that the author needs to have had him fight in WWII. It all seems so forced, this plot. Where Jane’s involvement with Rochester is rife with inequalities (age, class, education), these differences are superficially dealt with in The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Nor are we given the kinds of conversations between Gemma and Sinclair that occur between Jane and Rochester; conversations that are essential to the establishment of these two people’s connection and love for each other. The age difference between Sinclair feels out of place and anachronistic within the confines of the setting. More importantly, it seems superfluous to the rest of the novel, an unnecessary holdover from the original that doesn’t make any sense in this new book.

Because the fact of the matter is, Gemma has more long term opportunities than Jane did. She still could to University. She can go to University. She could get another kind of a job. She could become a doctor or a lawyer or a spy. Jane Eyre didn’t have those choices. Where Jane comes off as having a valiant integrity—albeit an idealistic and at time impractical integrity—against a society that inexorably attempts to degrade her, Gemma just comes off as spoilt and foolish and unaware of the world around her or the possibilities it has to offer.  I could have forgiven the acrobatics Livesey employs to maintain the “homage” to Bronte had they had any emotional weight within the narrative. But they didn’t. A book that I was finding rather innocuous became really annoying to me when Sinclair reveals his great, dark secret.

If you will recall, the great, dark secret of Mr. Rochester is one of the most scandalizing reveals in the history of literature and a large part of that novel’s themes revolve around it. The problem is that it simply does not work in a modern context. Mr. Rochester had very little choice about what to do with his wife. Assuming, as I do, that Bertha had some kind of severe schizophrenia or something then she couldn’t simply be allowed to live in a house like a normal person where she might end up hurting a totally innocent bystander or herself or a servant or something. Nor could he put her in a madhouse. Oh well, Rochester could have but considering the state of madhouses in the 19th century, that seemed a really despicable thing to do. Even Rochester, not known for his upstanding morality, thought it was despicable. I’ve always taken the position that Rochester was doing his best under the circumstances. It’s not like he locked her in the attic and THEN she went crazy. No, he locked her in the attic BECAUSE she went crazy. But even this is an overly simplistic version of the matter.

Bertha’s existence and her insanity bring up a lot of issues in the novel, issues that must be dealt with before the “Reader I married him”. Is Bertha a kind of mirror to Jane? To Rochester? Is she a metaphor for female sexuality? Is Rochester cruel? Is he evil for what he has done to her? For his deception of Jane? Is Jane right to leave him? Does he deserve to be burned in his bed? What does it mean to love the unloveable? Is Bertha any more or less unloveable than Jane feels herself to be? What is forgiveness? What is atonement? How do these relate to things like class and gender and money and sex and death and God? I could go on. In short, the revelation of Bertha in the attic is pivotal to the religious, ethical, and existential questions that weave throughout the book. If you take away the particular of that revelation and replace it with something else, that something else should perform as powerful and visceral a problem to the characters and to the reader as the original revelation. You know, if you are writing an homage and all that.

Spoiler alert: I will in the following paragraphs reveal Mr. Sinclair’s secret.

[spoiler]Mr. Sinclair switched identities with is distant cousin Seamus during the war so that Mr. Sinclair could be an RAF pilot. He did this because he was drafted as a Bevin Boy and since he’s terrified of small, enclosed spaces, he knew spending the war in a mine would make him insane. Seamus agreed to this because Sinclair promised him that he would get his sister (Sinclair’s) to fall in love with Seamus. Both of them came back from the war and then switched their identities back, no problem. But, Sinclair’s sister didn’t cooperate being kind of a loon and then ending up dying in a river for which Seamus resents Sinclair bitterly.

No. That’s it.

[/spoiler]

 

Gemma gets her knickers in a twist, decides she can’t trust Sinclair anymore, etc. etc. just as Jane does. Only this seemed a rather tame secret in comparison to having a mad wife in the attic. And Sinclair wasn’t going to commit fraud or bigamy or anything by marrying Gemma. All in all, the whole thing seemed like a rather unfortunate incident. Even at 18, naïve and arrogant as I was, I would not have considered this to be a big, fucking deal. That Gemma does is baffling to me as a reader. I was expecting something like murder or an actual exchange of identities, like Hugh Sinclair really was Seamus Sinclair. It could have been incest, or God anything that would have a force like the original.

The question I came away with is this: if one is going to re-tell a story, or re-imagine a famous work of literature, a famous song, a famous painting—what does your version of this other story offer the reader? What makes your version of this story interesting or different? What does it add to the original? How does it converse with original? What does it leave out and why? What does it focus on and why?

It seems to me that The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a book that didn’t bother to ask these questions. It simply regurgitates the original story into a different time period without asking any significant questions either of the narrative or through the narrative. This might suggest that this book is badly written. But it isn’t and I struggled with it because of that. In fact, it is quite well-written. The prose is clean and smooth; the setting is detailed in such a way as to paint a picture in your mind’s eye; the characters, both primary and secondary, are complex, well-drawn and interesting; it is what I would call a well-crafted novel. Yet, even as I recognize the craft that went into writing this novel, it lacked a vital spark. I recognize this is a vague criticism. It is not helpful to the author. But readers will know what I mean when I say: This book had no breath. I slide through it with all the ease and expediency of a drive-thru, and I drank it with the same unthinking speed as a chocolate milkshake. It was, in short, forgettable, flavorless, and fast. More so, because it only made me think with regret of the book I’d rather be reading, Jane Eyre.

As such, despite the skill with which this novel is written, I must give a C- for being one of, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, “the sad imitations that got it so wrong.”

Lazaraspaste

P.S. To those interested, the incredible video to Pulp’s “Bad Cover Version” can be found here.

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