REVIEW: Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas
Dear Ms. Thomas:
I know your debut book, Private Arrangements, has already been reviewed well here and elsewhere, so I don’t know if I can add anything new to the chorus, but this book made such a positive impression on me, especially in your crafting of the heroine, Gigi, that I wanted to review it simply to articulate my appreciation for such supple and nuanced characterizations.
Philippa Gilberte Rowland is a young woman with no particular confidence in her womanly charms but a strong and practical faith in the appeal of her considerable fortune. Saved in a most bizarre fashion from marriage to a dissolute duke, Gigi becomes quickly captivated by the duke’s young cousin, Camden Saybrook, who may be at least one death away from the dukedom but who is intelligent, handsome, and as immediately taken with Gigi as she is with him. Between the strong mutual attraction, however, lies a promise Camden has made to another woman, an incredibly shy beauty who continued to waffle on a final decision to marry Camden, despite his honorable intentions to wait her out. Gigi is not so patient, however, and despite Camden’s refusal of her proposal, she ultimately schemes to bring Camden’s attraction more directly into alignment with her intent to marry. It is a ruse Camden discovers before the wedding, and his anger morphs into a plan to humiliate Gigi without sacrificing his access to her considerable fortune. Thus, after one night of wedded life, Gigi and Camden are separated for a decade, still married but fully estranged. When Camden arrives at Gigi’s doorstep demanding an heir in exchange for the divorce she is now seeking, all the unsettled emotion between them flares, bringing the civility of ten years’ separation to a quick, blessed end.
Here’s how impressed I was with Private Arrangements: for most of the book I forgot I was reading a Romance. That statement is not to be construed as an insult to the genre; obviously I choose Romance because of its unique generic characteristics. But many of my favorite books in the genre are those that categorically identify as genre but also transcend it in particular ways. Private Arrangements is such a book for me, crafted very definitely within the overall pattern of Romance but in such a way that it feels as if the story and the characters could stand independent of genre classification. In other words, it feels to me, as a reader, that the characters demanded this particular story rather than the other way around.
For me it all starts with Gigi. Here is no false intellect, no half-hearted schemer. Gigi does not recognize her own beauty or innate sexuality, but she is very confident in her industriousness and understanding of money. Composed of an incredibly strong will, she is a complicated young woman who allows her mother’s ambition to become hers, but largely, one suspects, because she shares her mother’s practical world view and determined nature. When Gigi meets Camden’s intended, for example, she is immediately repelled by the young woman’s indecisive nature and overall uncertainty. That disgust convinces her conscience in the plan she eventually effects to win Camden’s hand, although it does not fully eclipse Gigi’s sincere feelings for Camden and a hidden desire for his true affection. Gigi understands that – as a wealthy woman — she is a certain type of prey, and responds by trying to be a smarter predator, ruthless but not unfeeling. It would be nice to have personal happiness, but she tries to convince herself that it doesn’t have to be packaged in romantic love. Until Camden awakens Gigi’s romantic side, that is.
Camden is a handsome and engaging young man who has single-handedly kept his family from financial ruin, and, like Gigi, understands the importance of wealth and the value of hard work. As a man who will someday assume the dukedom, though, he has far more social options than Gigi. The true power of Camden’s position becomes apparent after he discovers Gigi’s deception and cultivates a plan he believes is grounded in honor rather than the same impetuous immaturity that drove Gigi to her desperate machinations. Despite his strong feelings toward Gigi, many of which reside beneath the flies of his trousers, Camden convinces himself that Gigi deserves whatever he chooses to bestow on her. That Camden cannot see a blow to his pride for what it is, and cannot, subsequently, embrace the maturity he sees Gigi lacking, initially puts the course of their relationship in his hands (which makes sense in that her sin is in trying to steer it all by herself). That we can see these things is a large part of what makes Private Arrangements so compelling. Here we have two very imperfect, very independent characters who are more alike than different, and who are both victims of youthful immaturity and passion-driven mistakes.
The early chapters of the novel proceed as a dual unfolding of Gigi and Camden’s relationship, past and present. The strategy works well, helping build the emotional tension in the couple’s current estrangement by slowly revealing the events leading up to it, including the incredibly strong connection between Gigi and Camden at the beginning of their relationship. I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be on Camden’s side of the argument, but very early on my sympathies are engaged with Gigi, first because I want her to subvert her mother’s ruthless ambition for that coronet of strawberry leaves (marriage to a duke) and then because I believe that Camden’s revenge is so much immature cruelty. Yes, Gigi does something terrible, but no more terrible than what Camden does to her, and frankly, I thought his actions even more selfish (I mean, at least Gigi was driven by love, however twisted her plan). Anyway, the side-by-side storytelling invests me quickly in the prospect of Camden and Gigi’s reconciliation, despite his apparent disgust for her and her insistence that she really wants to marry the steadfast young man who currently seeks her hand.
The most complicated thing about Private Arrangements is the characters themselves, and in the grand tradition of Judith Ivory’s Black Silk, the trick is in making two somewhat selfish, conflicted, and difficult individuals fit in a successful romantic engagement. Gigi may have been humbled by Camden’s long-ago rejection of her, but she is still independent and intensely focused on her business pursuits. Camden claims disgust with Gigi, but he is clearly resentful of his own overwhelming feelings for her, something I suspect drove him powerfully in his original punishment. That he is so obviously still besotted makes me root for him over the perfectly lovely but even-tempered Freddie, but his persistent blindness to his own need for control (disguised as honor) makes me want to smack him upside the head. A man who would sit contentedly waiting for a beautiful but penniless girl to finally decide she wanted to marry him – when she could barely stand the most casual of human interactions, let alone intimate contact – is a man who strikes me as unsettled by some of the implications of his own passionate nature. I both love and hate this about Camden, because while it reveals the depth of that passion (and Gigi needs someone who can match her in this respect), it also demonstrates the stamina of his prideful idiocy (in sacrificing ten years of marriage all the while capitalizing on loans he received based on his marriage to Gigi).
As Gigi and Camden renew their attachment, the novel does slip into somewhat familiar Romance terrain, especially with Gigi’s martyred attempt at honor in choosing to go through with her engagement to Freddie despite Camden’s articulated desire to start their relationship over. It is the one move in the novel that feels artificial and somewhat inconsistent with the idea of honor Gigi claims for herself. Despite that stumble, though, the novel proceeds on the strength of these two flawed characters, the lack of technology facilitating quick remedies (this relationship could only proceed the way it did because there were no cell phones, rapid transit, and other innovations facilitating instant communication and connection), and a unique narrative voice.
Whether it’s the “defoliated willows,” that look “like naked old spinsters, all thin and droopy,” or “the somber melancholy of a high-born woman who could only afford to have a parlor maid come in every other day, who moved in the dark after sunset to save on candle wax,” there is a lean elegance to the prose. Gigi’s passion for Camden is expressed as much in the way she long ago designed her home to reflect his tastes as it is in the repeated attempts she makes to win his affection back after he abandons her. Camden’s sensitivity is expressed in the youthful gift he makes to Gigi of a Corgi puppy named Croseus (knowing how much she wants one) and in his effort (he’s a mechanical engineer) to make his sister a ball gown during the lean family times before he meets Gigi. There is an incredible amount of detail furnished in the prose – the way the rooms and the clothing looks, the smells and sights of the various settings — and yet it is not overly ornate or excessive, and the nuances of the characters are communicated indirectly. The sensuality, while not expressed with clinical exactitude, is potent and abiding.
Despite the faltering of the later part of the book, the unexpected romance between Gigi’s hard-edged mother and the reclusive Duke down the road buoys this section of the novel, largely because Victoria Rowland is just as eccentric as her daughter, and the reluctant Duke just as enigmatically aloof as Camden, providing a lovely mirror for that other very complex pairing. The relationship humanizes Victoria in ways that finalize her status as more than a genre-element (the scheming mamma against whom the romantic daughter must rebel, blah, blah, blah) and provides a much-needed respite from the inanity plaguing Gigi and Camden’s relationship at that point in the book. Plus it’s great fun to watch Victoria struggle to maintain her famous composure (the scene with the kitten was wonderfully rendered and skillfully revisited later). With Gigi and Camden almost fully revealed by this point in the book, the parallel unveiling of Victoria as so much more than the scheming mother reminds us that every character has the potential to be an interesting person in the hands of someone who cares and is interested in crafting them as such.
Private Arrangements is not a perfect novel. I felt at times that the passion between Gigi and Camden was more prominent than their emotional connection, especially during their reconciliation. I was a bit surprised at Camden’s insistent disgust with Gigi given what we eventually find out about his actions in Copenhagen several years earlier (although I can chalk it up to his incredible sense of pride). And of course there is the later relationship conflict, which arrives as a dull thud in an otherwise delicate production. But the book has so many moments that struck a perfect pitch for me that the overall effect is really sublime, and the wonderfully romantic ending reminded me fondly of one of the final scenes in Black Silk, making me aware of how often I ignore or forget the endings of Romance novels. In this book, though, the ending was vivid and reflective of the very best in these two colorful characters. Overall, I feel that the strengths of Private Arrangements are strengths of talent and craftsmanship and will therefore persist across books. The particular strengths of this one make it difficult for me to grade it less than an A-.