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REVIEW: A Fallen Star by Janie Summers

Dear Ms. Summers:

When it comes to retro romance there’s “charmingly dated” and then there’s “should have been left buried.” This book, originally published in 1987, is of a time and place that I really did not enjoy visiting.

fallen2The story concerns Holly, a photographer still mourning the accidental death of her mountaineer husband. Her family persuades her to take a job as a “girl friday” at a center for outdoor sports in Scotland; her godfather tells the director, Torquil, that Holly is “lost like a fallen star. The life’s out of her.”  We don’t see much of Torquil’s point of view, but he apparently makes it his personal mission to fix her, which in classic style takes the form of sneering and criticizing at every opportunity, and forcing her back into mountain climbing when she’s not ready.

Torquil is one of the most crazy-making heroes ever: he sets Holly up to be shocked and upset, then tells her she’s overreacting, and then tells her, “You will care, Holly… Even if I have to teach you myself.” In other words, you will care about what he thinks you should care about.  Somehow while he’s playing his little mind games they fall in love, and she is magically cured of wanting anything other than what Torquil thinks she should want.

But astonishingly enough, that was not my biggest problem with this book. It started off in an annoyingly sexist vein, but since I often read old romances, I’m used to running into characters who talk about women’s libbers and girl fridays. (Though “lady instructress” was new.) Then we were introduced to a minor character named Dan, aka the Golliwog:

Golliwog was an apt description for Dan. Another sturdy Scotsman but with curly black hair that stood out from his head. Even his beard threatened to curl. Dan’s eyes went heavenwards for an instant, revealing the whites of his eyes, completing the golliwog image.

I was still in culture shock from that when we got to the Hogmanay costume party, which Dan attended as “an African native,” with “blackened face and torso.” Yes, you read that right — this book has a character in blackface.  After that, the introduction of a “half-caste” girl named Affreka barely shook me.  The Great Britain of 1987 was certainly very different, to put it as politely as I can.

I sincerely tried to find something of worth in this story, and I did enjoy the sections about Holly’s photography, and her growing ambition to start a new career as a children’s photographer. (Which all goes by the wayside at the end, as far as I can tell.) A heroine who climbs mountains to take photographs is cool, even if she (understandably) makes a rather poor job of it her first time back, and I thought it interesting that, unlike most current romances, this passes the Bechdel Test. But when I wasn’t finding the book offensive, I was finding it baffling. It seemed to be written in some kind of narrative shorthand that I just didn’t get, and there are numerous subplots taking up space that the primary romance desperately needs. I don’t know what was really going on with Holly, I don’t know what was really going on with Torquil, I have no idea when or why they fell in love.  The casual attitude towards grammar didn’t help; it was often hard to tell what was an editing error and what was just the colloquial style.

Even without the offensive elements, this book would not score high with me; it failed as a romance as well, and I honestly can’t recommend it at all. F.

~Willaful

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Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. About seven years ago she finally gave in and started reading romance again, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. She loves exquisitely written historical romance, intense m/m, and crazy, over the top categories about equally, and hopes to be buried with her e-readers. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

10 Comments

  1. Darlynne
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 12:44:48

    I wonder if re-releasing older titles is always a good idea. Certainly we enjoy looking back at books we loved and read until they disintegrated, but maybe there’s a cautionary tale here, too. As my SIL says about clothing from the 80s, yes, we wore it then, but that doesn’t mean we should be wearing it now; neither we nor the clothes fit today.

    It’s easier with beloved books to overlook those ideas or situations that make us grind our teeth now. Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote some of my favorite mysteries from the early 1900s and I wouldn’t change a word, despite the sexist and elitist attitudes portrayed there.

    Appearing “dated” has to be a real pitfall for contemporary fiction because–as with clothes, hairstyles, architecture, attitudes–something too much a part of its time and not a classic in the sense we have of classics–isn’t going to age well. Bungalows from the 30s? Still gorgeous today. That white brick 60s two-story that seemed so cool? Ugh. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles? For all their flaws, these characters transcend the time and attitude they were written in/with, IMO anyway.

    All of which makes me wonder if recent contemporary fiction should be re-released, or whether we should look back at the 80s and 90s to appreciate that some things have changed. I’m thrilled that older books are becoming available digitally and maybe that’s the takeaway here. Updating them to reflect modern sensibilities doesn’t seem like a worthwhile or honest solution (yes, Mr. Spielberg, you should have left ET alone).

    BTW, thanks for the link about the Bechdel test; I had no idea, but I love it, and the fact that too often, in fiction, it is alarmingly true. If I ever write a novel, I’ll remember.

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  2. Willaful
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 12:57:56

    @Darlynne: I don’t exactly think it’s a bad idea to bring them back. I mean, maybe there are people who genuinely love this enough to overlook its flaws and will be happy to have it in digital. More power to them, if so. But I doubt many readers unaffected by the haze of nostalgia will appreciate it.

    I’m actually very fond of older books, which is why I’m interested in reviewing reprints. I could find very little current fiction that appealed to me for much of my life, and haunted the library stacks for classic humor and plays and short stories. Now I enjoy Harlequins from the 1990s, ironically enough — during the actual 1990s, I refused to read them.

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  3. Lori
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 13:18:25

    Oh, I love the Bechdel test.

    I remember reading the old skool Harlequins back in the 80s when they came out and they annoyed me then with their attitudes. I couldn’t stand spineless women then and I can’t stand them now.

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  4. J.K. Hogan
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 15:10:57

    This is kind of off topic, but the cover models look like brother and sister…

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  5. JL
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 16:02:40

    I admit I know zilch about the publishing industry, but why on earth would the publisher not tweak some of the offensive bits of a book they are re-releasing? A tiny part of me accepts that books of a different generation might be offensive because of ‘the times’ or whatever. Heck, I can’t even watch Saturday Night Live Reruns from ten years ago because they are so shockingly homophobic. But I cannot get behind a publisher in this day and age putting their stamp of approval on this kind of thing.

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  6. Iola
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 16:53:05

    It sounds more like 1967 than 1987. Not that I was alive in 1967, but I remember learning in the early 1980′s that many people considered half-caste to be an insult (I was surprised. I’d first heard the term in the 1970′s when I started school and my new best friend introduced herself as a half-caste. She said it like it was something to be proud of, so my assumption was that it was a good thing).

    And even in 1987 we knew that Golliwogs were offensive – that was the time when all Enid Blyton’s Noddy books were being taken out of print and recast. We didn’t necessarily know why they were offensive (I grew up in small-town New Zealand, and until university, the only Africans I’d met where white South African immigrants).

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  7. Willaful
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 17:38:51

    @JL: I don’t know, I have really mixed feelings about such changes. When the Dr. Dolittle and Oz books were edited I was pleased, because they had made me so, so uncomfortable when I was a child. (Dr. Dolittle, anyway; I don’t think I had the cultural background to be offended by Oz. My mom was, though.) But then when I compared some of the Dolittle rewrites to the originals, I was taken aback — they seemed set on removing any mention of race whatsoever, which seemed a very different thing from removing racism. (Especially Dr. Dolittle’s Post Office, in which slavery is a plot point.) The Oz books are more successful because they simply make a few minor changes and remove a few illustrations, but then, they were less problematic to begin with.

    So even editing children’s books is kind of iffy, and when it’s adult books… I’m not sure whitewashing is the way to go. Though it would not have been at all difficult to make a few small changes in this case. I’m undecided.

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  8. Sunita
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 18:56:51

    Oh dear. There is no excuse for half-caste and Golliwog in 1987. This is supposed to be Britain? Good grief, this feels more like the 1950s than the late 1980s.

    I don’t believe in rewriting books to erase the past, whether it’s genre romance or Mark Twain. Our history is our history and we need to own it, not pretend it didn’t exist. It’s hard enough to teach the past even when we have the evidence.

    Like you, I read a lot of old romances, but I think your opening sentence nailed it, Willaful. This should have been left buried.

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  9. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 20:25:38

    I’ve never heard the term golliwog and I had no idea what it meant. I assumed (wrongly) that half-caste had something to do with India’s caste system. Ugh. Double ugh. I don’t see a problem with editing offensive words and content as long as it doesn’t change the story. Either that or leave it buried, like you said. Re-releasing this as is reflects badly on the publisher.

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  10. Shelley
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 09:27:04

    Thanks for taking one for the team, I guess? Honestly, when I reread an oldie (as late as mid to late-2000′s) I spend the whole time going nuts because there are no smart phones. :O)

    ReplyReply

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