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REVIEW: The Charm School by Susan Wiggs

Dear Ms. Wiggs,

Your book, The Charm School (1999), was suggested to me one night whilst I was prowling around on Twitter looking for answers. I had asked for suggestions of books with ugly heroines. Ugly, mind you, not plain. Plain means that at some point in the novel there will be a paragraph in which the hero realizes that the heroine is actually beautiful. Much like in a 1960’s sex comedy where the fussy and frumpy secretary will take down her hair, remove her glasses, and in the process, become a sex bomb, so too do plain heroines have the infuriating tendency to become lovely with a minimal amount of gestures. Well la-di-da. I have been taking down my hair and removing my glasses for years and not once have I ever transformed into a sex bomb.

The Charm School by Susan WiggsThat said, I am so damn tired of beauty being the primary characteristic of romance novel heroines. Yes, I realize that the heroes are all smoking hot, too. This does not bother me. What can I say? I’m a reverse sexist in this particular matter. I am very much interested in reading about heroines who are not just simply plain, but heroines who are actively ugly. Moreover, I’m interested in reading about how heroes fall in love with heroines and are attracted to them for something other than their physical appearance, because beauty fades. People get sick. People get old. People get fat. And sometimes, people get their hair dyed. Is it really HEA if the main virtue and quality of the heroine is her beauty? I think not.

So, having put this request out on Twitter, I received many suggestions, this book being one of them. Fortunately, it is now available as an ebook, so I didn’t have to go hunting at my local USB for it.

Isadora Peabody is the awkward, ugly child in a family full of the beautiful and the socially adept—an ugly duckling as it were. And Wiggs’ uses that Han Christian Anderson tale as a frame to her tale, aligning Isadora’s journey—both literal and figurative—with that of the ugly duckling.

The book begins at a ball celebrating the betrothal of Isadora’s younger sister. Feeling out of place is nothing new to Isadora and the best she can hope for is to endure the festivities with a minimum amount of humiliation. Alas, this is not to be accomplished. Two incidents happen to push Isadora into a desperate move, a move that will ultimately change her life. The first is that she turns over a potted plant. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is. Much in the same way that tripping in the high school cafeteria leaves one vulnerable to attack, so too is Isadora’s clumsiness become another of her weaknesses to be laughed at and ridiculed by society. The second humiliation comes from Chad Easterbrook. I was hoping Chad was not the hero—mostly because he is named Chad. I’m sure there are lovely people out there named Chad, but I grew up on 80’s teen comedies and anyone who’s seen any 80’s teen comedies knows that Chad is the name of the local douche. I picture Chad with light blonde hair slicked across his bullet shaped skull and wearing a letterman jacket. This Chad has dark hair and the year is 1851, the setting is Boston, so he hasn’t got a letterman jacket. He is, however, still the local douche. He is also not the hero. But Isadora doesn’t know this. She is in love with him. When Chad asks Isadora to return an item to another girl, but in such a way that for a moment she thinks he is making a declaration, Isadora is beyond heartbroken. Humiliated for the umpteenth time, Isadora sees her chance to leave the party when she meets a Mrs. Lily Calhoun.

Mrs. Lily Calhoun is looking for her son, Ryan, who is the captain of one of Abel Easterbrook’s ships. Knowing that this particular ship—the Silver Swan—is currently docked (is that the correct term? I don’t know anything about the sea other than she is a jealous mistress) in Boston Harbor. Thus, we meet our hero. Ryan Calhoun is introduced in flagrante delicto with a dockside hooker. But he’s not really a rake. Calhoun is more of an idealist and a romantic. He went against family tradition to move to Boston and go to Harvard, not because he had any dreams of intellectual achievement, but because he wanted to free his boyhood friend, Journey. Ryan is an abolitionist despite, or rather, because he was raised on a plantation. The money that Ryan and Journey earn on their next run down to Rio de Janeiro will be enough to buy Journey’s wife and children from the neighboring plantation to the Calhoun’s.  Ryan isn’t going to let anything get in the way of accomplishing this goal, not even Isadora Peabody.

Because what Isadora has done is to talk her way onto the ship as a clerk and a translator.  An exceptional education with an eccentric aunt has given Isadora fluency in several languages including Portuguese, a very handy language to have when dealing with Brazilian bureaucracy. So she’s convinced  Abel Easterbrook to hire, not only for her language skills, but so that she can act as eyes and ears for him on this journey. Part of Isadora’s motivations is to prove to Chad, Abel’s vacant son, that she is worthy o his love. Thus, our motley crew—along with Lily Calhoun and her lady’s maid, Fayette—embark on their voyage to Brazil.

What follows is a romp at sea. Isadora takes to life aboard a ship like a duck to water—or is that a swan? In any case, she is eager to learn and enjoys asking questions of the crew, who—it will not surprise readers in the least—soon come to love her and accept her as one of their own. Meanwhile, Ryan Calhoun is not pleased to have her there. But he isn’t a jerk to her—or at least, he’s not a jerk to her in the same way that everyone in Boston was a jerk to her. Suspicious of her motives and leery of her ability to cope with life at sea, Ryan nonetheless feels for Isadora, even likes her. Even before they leave Boston, he has already recognized her as a kindred soul. Someone who, like himself and like Journey, could not fit into the role that they were born into. And he is attracted to her.

What I liked best about the book is that during the course of Isadora’s adventures on board the Silver Swan, her appearance becomes negligible. That is, we the readers do not get much in the way of physical descriptions of her. What descriptions there are mostly revolve around the slow abandonment of Isadora’s Bostonian clothing in favor of the more practical garments suited to shipboard life. But these descriptions do not wax poetic on Isadora’s beauty. Even when they arrive in Rio and Ryan and Isadora finally consummate their romance, we do not see the changes in Isadora directly but filtered through Ryan’s dialogue and Isadora’s acceptance of his words. Furthermore, that love scene becomes an extension of conversations that began much earlier, when—just like in the aforementioned 1960’s sex comedy—Ryan gets rid of Isadora’s glasses and instead of letting her hair down, he cuts it off. The process of their relationship is not so much giving Isadora a make-over as it is stripping her of her preconceptions about what beauty is:

She waved her hand absently in the crystalline water. “It’s not that I dislike Boston” she said. “I think it’s more that Boston dislikes me. Society favors women who are witty, charming and amusing.”

He swam toward the cascade. “You are all of that. I never laughed so much as I do with you.”

“But you’re the only one.” She experimented with her hands If she paddled them away from her, she drifted backward. “All the young women who are socially successful in Boston are not merely witty and charming. They’re also extremely pretty.”

“So are you,” he said.

She laughed. “Whatever it is that we smoked has made me quite drunk. But not nearly so drunk that I would believe that.” He started to speak.

She held up her hand. “I am untidy and ungainly, with no sense of all of how to dress or comport myself. I have a unique gift for making others feel awkward. I—”

He dove beneath the water and surfaced in front of her, so close she could see the way the myriad droplets magnified his pores. “You are absurd. Absurdly adorable.  Isa-dorable. I wish I could make love to you.”

She watched his face, his mouth, mesmerized. “I think you already are.”

What I liked best about Isadora’s transformation was that it wasn’t from ugly to beautiful, from plain to pretty, but from a woman constrained and defined by a narrow set of social parameters to one who became free of other people’s—people like the douchie Chad—judgment. Though she, like the Ugly Duckling, turns into a beautiful swan, Isadora’s real triumph is in finally learning how not to give a damn (frankly, my dear) about the opinions of others. Her sudden popularity on her return to Boston or the scandal that she causes is far less important than the love she found with Ryan, Journey and the rest of the crew of the Silver Swan. Because who really wants the approval of a group of shallow people who condone slavery and value beauty over substance?

Ultimately, this is a fun, light-hearted romance with a setting and characters you don’t see very often these days. For being generally rompilicious. B+

Lazaraspaste

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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.

33 Comments

  1. Kate Hewitt
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 14:16:40

    I will definitely have to put this one on my TBR pile. I’ve been interested in plain/ugly heroines too, and ones that are not suddenly transformed into swans!

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  2. Mireya
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 14:36:46

    Same here. So adding this one to my TBR.

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  3. erysimum
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 15:44:37

    I’m a librarian. I gave this book to a patron who was trying to get “back into” reading after a long period of just not being interested. She came back a week later and told me she’d read “Charm School” 4 times and cried at the ending. It was a great library moment!

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  4. Lindsey
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 17:14:39

    I’m tempted to try this again. It was part of a digital pack of books by Susan Wiggs available at my library through Overdrive, and while I loved the ugle heroine premise, I had trouble getting into the story.

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  5. katieM
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 17:26:37

    I used a popular browser to translate comment #4. It seems just mentioning Brazil or Portuguese gets you ads in Portuguese.

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  6. Mireya
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 17:28:33

    A book that I liked a lot that involved this sort of premise is Anne Gracie’s first title in her Merridew sisters series, “The Perfect Rake”. I have read it a couple of times, and now that I think of it, I think I may re-read it after this one.

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  7. Heather Greye
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 17:54:58

    I’ve always liked this book. So glad to see it getting some new readers.

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  8. Charlotte
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 18:05:14

    “That said, I am so damn tired of beauty being the primary characteristic of romance novel heroines.”
    This! I am increasingly annoyed by beauty presented as a character trait. It is not. It can inform your character -vanity, fx -but it is not a trait!
    One of the reasons I enjoyed What Happens in London by Julia Quinn is that it has a beautiful heroine and her beauty has an impact on her life and character. It is not merely a clumsy attempt to make the character interesting or sympathetic to the reader.
    When a heroine is described as beautiful, the author often lose points with me. It can easily be a symptom of lazy writing or stale tropes.

    Also, his name is Hans Christian Andersen. Not important, but thought I’d mention it ;)

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  9. The Romantic Scientist
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 20:24:02

    This is one of my favorites of hers – glad you enjoyed it!

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  10. Kelly in Hockeytown
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 20:28:28

    I loved, loved, loved THE CHARM SCHOOL. Especially since some parts hit close to home for me.

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  11. Kaetrin
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 21:37:41

    Great review Lazaraspaste! :) I’ve heard about this book before in glowing terms but now that it’s available digitally, I might just have to hunt it down.

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  12. Gwen Hayes
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 22:15:26

    I would love to see some of the other suggestions you were given for ugly heroine books.

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  13. Evangeline Holland
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 23:06:32

    I enjoyed this book even though the shipboard scenes featured a trope I find tiresome after multiple shipboard romances (you know, where the heroine wins over the grumpy crew). However, I find the desire for ugly duckling or plain Jane or plus-size heroines in romances bewildering because beauty in romance is never more than a shortcut for the h/h to lust after one another. You can see this in the rather similar descriptions of protagonists in a great majority of books (i.e. slender and full-breasted heroines with long, lustrous hair and thick eyelashes, and tall, tanned, broad-shouldered heroes with full lips and muscular bodies).

    Rarely do we see a full spectrum of beauty and body types–and we never see truly ugly heroines–, so flipping to the other side of physical description just seems like another facet of stepping into the heroine’s shoes, rather than reading about interesting characters. While I’d be lying if I didn’t have preferences for looks, I like romances that focus more on the characters that on looks/lust–which is why your review for The Charm School is so penetrating and astute.

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  14. Megaera
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 00:01:25

    I don’t know if you’re looking for more good ugly heroines, but one of my alltime favorites is Courting Miss Hattie, by Pamela Morsi.

    A wonderful book about a woman whose childhood nickname was “horseface Hattie,” and the two men who start out courting her for her farm. It’s the one who realizes he’s actually courting her because he loves her who wins her.

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  15. Rachel
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 00:40:57

    My problem with ugly/plus sized heroines is that it always seems like ALL their hang ups have to do with their looks. I do not want to hear heroine’s complain about being plain or fat. If I unwittingly buy a book with such a heroine, I wind up throwing it against the wall.

    The ugly/fat thing always seems like a cheap shortcut to relatability. “Look! She’s just like you! She’s fat!” The thing is, no. She’s nothing like me. Not if she doesn’t have bigger problems, depth, and individuality.

    I’m not always the prettiest girl in the room. I get how that feels. And Ok, sometimes it sucks, but I have more pressing problems and insecurities–things a new dress won’t fix. I don’t care what the heroine looks like. I want her to have bigger fish to fry. Because ultimately, if you fix the internal conflicts, if you can figure out how to be happy and daring, then looks don’t matter too much.

    If anyone can recommend a book where the heroine’s looks aren’t given much attention and where she shows good solid emotional development, realizes her own self worth, and finds love in the bargain, I would appreciate it. This might be that kind of book, and I will definitely give it a try. But if it isn’t, I will be royally disappointed.

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  16. Rachel
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 00:55:52

    The above comment isn’t really a comment on this book. (Which does sound pretty good, and maybe closer to the kind of thing I look for.) It’s more of a general rant. I sort of realized that the comment makes me look like I’m just hating on the ugly ones. The thing is I have trouble with the way the heroine’s looks are presented in romance novels–ugly, beautiful, whatever. As you said,

    “I am so damn tired of beauty being the primary characteristic of romance novel heroines.”

    And I totally agree, but for me it isn’t “beauty” as a primary characteristic–it’s appearance. It bothers me that there’s so much emphasis on this. As women, aren’t our lives deeper than that? For writers, isn’t there more to say about the female experience? I should hope so.

    And the men. Why are they all beefcakes? I don’t want a beefcake, and I don’t know anyone who does. I would love to see a romance between two people who are extraordinary for internal reasons. Actually, does anyone know of a romance novel between two charmingly awkward kind of nerdy people? Because I would die of happiness.

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  17. Cassie
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 04:46:55

    I agree that the superficial focus on appearance in romance novels is annoying. I’d like to add that what I really dislike about the plain heroine’s transformation is the idea that she can suddenly become pretty by removing her glasses.

    Glasses don’t make you ugly. Designer eyewear is marketed as a fashion accessory. But this is a historical, so more importantly, contact lenses haven’t been invented yet. If the hero removes the heroine’s glasses, she can’t see, so I don’t find it a remotely romantic gesture.

    That said, the novel sounds interesting, so thanks for the recommendation.

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  18. Gwen Hayes
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 08:00:23

    @Rachel:

    I am so with you Rachel. It’s hard to find those kinds of books because they have been traditionally hard to sell. The “market” used to be hard to break out of, but with the advent of digital and self-pubbing, I am hoping we will see more stories colored outside of the lines. I remember a LaVyrle Spencer book, MORNING GLORY, where the hero and heroine were both awkward and the love story was more about those internal battles.

    And this comment thread has inspired me to write another romance.

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  19. Gwen Hayes
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 08:02:56

    @Megaera: I just looked that book up because it sounds wonderful–$14.99 for the Kindle version. :(

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  20. Keishon
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 09:02:39

    I had to go look for the original cover for The Charm School, to see if I had read this book because my memory is bad regarding the plot details and sure enough, I did when it first came out. I remember it being a fast, good read. The only one of her books I’ve ever enjoyed.

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  21. Jayne
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 09:51:21

    @Keishon: I too read it when it first came out. Loved it – up until they get back to Boston and one of the secondary characters does a 180 degree turn in personality. That was enough to change the grade from a B to a trade in to the USB.

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  22. Janine
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 09:57:56

    Great review. I remember loving this book back in the day, though I think what touched me most was the subplot about Journey and his family. After reading it I tried a some other romances by Wiggs and the only one I had a similar reaction to was Lord of the Night, which I loved mostly the wonderful setting (Renaissance era Venice).

    Re. books with ugly heroines, have you read The Proposition by Judith Ivory? It’s probably the best book I’ve read that has that premise.

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  23. Rachel
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 11:08:51

    @Gwen Hayes thanks for the rec. I’ll definitely have a look. And please write that book! I could use a little more variety in my heroes.

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  24. Susan/DC
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 11:27:08

    Another book with a heroine who is not transformed with a new hairdo and wardrobe is Grace from Eileen Dreyer’s “Never a Gentleman”. The hero does come to love certain aspects of her physicality (and, while I don’t care if the heroine is beautiful or not, I do have to believe that the hero is attracted to her), but she never becomes a swan. It’s one of the reasons I liked this book, that Grace has a life and a personality apart from how she looks.

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  25. chris booklover
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 12:17:30

    It’s great to have plain or even ugly heroines – as long as the author makes the story dramatically plausible. Like it or not, looks DO matter very much to most men. And in most cases the hero is presented as being not only handsome, but also wealthy and powerful. Such men generally have a wide range of romantic options.

    If looks are not what attract the hero to the heroine, then what? It could be that she is especially charming. By all accounts Cleopatra was not an exceptionally beautiful woman, but she nevertheless managed to attract and retain the attention of intelligent and sophisticated men such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. This type of charm is, however, as rare as great beauty.

    The plain heroine works best when she has those personality attributes that you would expect to appeal to the hero. If the reader asks “What does he see in her?” or “What does she see in him?” the plotline does not work, at least for that particular reader. As one blogger commented, there is fantasy and there is never gonna happen.

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  26. chris booklover
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 12:18:38

    Please delete my first post. I hit the enter button prematurely.

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  27. lazaraspaste
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 14:39:23

    @Charlotte Yes. The problem for me is that beauty is presented as a character trait or as the primary reason that the hero falls in love with the heroine and vice versa. That explains nothing, as far as I’m concerned.

    @Evangeline Holland I don’t find it bewildering since everything in our culture suggests that what makes someone worthy of love is beauty. Having a book in which the opposite opinion is presented can be very desirable for those of use who feel we fall short of the ideal. I do agree that appearance is often used as a short-cut for characterization. Moreover, it is often a short cut for why people fall in love.

    @Rachel My problem isn’t so much that she’s beautiful or that the heroine who is plain is more identifiable. No. Rather, my problem is that the heroine’s beauty is presented as the reason the hero falls in love with her. That I have a problem with. Further, I don’t think problems in one area of our lives are necessarily disconnected from feelings of inadequacy about our appearance. Usually they bleed into each other.

    @chris booklover Well, yes. I suppose looks do matter to most men. Although, I do think that looks matter to most women as well. I know I prefer a pretty face and nice body. But what is attractive is not necessarily always limited to looks and looks are not always representative of the current standard of beauty, so I’m really not quite sure what that means that looks matter to most men. It reminds me of that woman on the Bravo TV show The Millionaire Matchmaker who seems to think that men are their penises and nothing else, an attitude I find quite sexist actually. I know plenty of men who are not their penises or their penises response to stimulus. As for wealthy and powerful men having a larger romantic pool, I guess so. But speaking of Millionaire Matchmaker that show has taught me two things: one, rich men are ugly and stupid. And two, guillotining our upper classes was not such a bad idea afterall. :)

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  28. Mireya
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 15:19:35

    Another favorite with a similar premise: “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton”- Penelope Featherington has never been a beauty. Initially, when she first appeared in the series, she was very self-conscious. She’s a recurring secondary character up until this book. By the time her story is told, she has grown up, she’s smart, witty and as far as I can remember, she doesn’t let her not being a beauty be a hang-up when she becomes an adult. It is precisely because of this that I initially didn’t remember about it, but then it dawned on me that she has never been a beauty. She’s not flat out ugly, more like average.

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  29. tae
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 18:39:05

    this sounds exactly like the type of book I love, thanks for reviewing it

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  30. Rachel
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 21:36:53

    @lazaraspaste I completely agree with you that a hero should never fall in love with a heroine for her looks. That isn’t romance. That’s something else–something mind rottingly boring and frustrating. I’ll admit that I’ve not read too much of that. The books I find are usually “She’s pretty, but she doesn’t know and when the hero tells her she’s pretty, she doesn’t believe him for a good 15 chapters or so,” or “She’s plain, only the hero doesn’t think so because he has a hard on for virgins.” Or whatever. If I read more of the kind you’re talking about, I’m sure I would be just as annoyed by the trope as you are.

    I agree too that our insecurities about our looks bleed into other areas of our lives. Still, when was the last time you read a book about a man where a significant portion of the story was devoted to his feelings about his inadequate pecs? Never. It has never happened, and it isn’t because men don’t worry about that kind of thing. It’s because men are expected to have fuller lives.

    And I think our lives are fuller too. I’m sure my friends have body issues, but sitting here now, I can honestly tell you I don’t know what they are, because aside from some minor complaints about the unruliness of our hair, we don’t talk about it. Maybe we’re vastly more interesting than all the other women out there, but I doubt it.

    I’m sick of books being ruined by this paranoia about looks. I tried to read Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie because so many people recommended it, and I couldn’t get through the first 5 pages. The main character’s complaints about her weight, and her seething jealousy over her friend’s hot bodies, made her insufferable and thoroughly unlikable. If I wouldn’t hang out with a heroine because she’s too damn whiny, I don’t want to read about her falling in love.

    This idea that we shouldn’t care about anything but our looks is shoved down our throats every day, in TV, movies, magazines, and books. Whatever you look like, it’s probably not good enough. The sad thing is that I think a lot of women–maybe even most–believe in that lie. I would love it if books were one outlet where we could let that idea go, where we could build a plot around something else. I don’t mind a little anxiety about looks. It’s natural, and it can add to the realism. But when it takes over I just wind up rolling my eyes and moving on.

    Look at me. Ranting again.

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  31. Blonde Ambition
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 08:44:03

    @Rachel: Vicki Lewis Thompson has a nerd series. I loved all of them! The heroes were all tall, skinny, and super-smart and adorably clumsy. Some of the heroines were the average-girl gorgeous and others were nerdy. Fun reads!

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  32. Barb in Maryland
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 17:53:26

    I just finished reading this(thanks to the original post!), so the details are fresh in my mind.
    Rachel–I think you will like this–Our heroine starts the story as tall(where her sisters are petite), really fat(sisters normal size), very unflattering hair-do, and a self-loathing so deep as to be crippling. Her family doesn’t really love or value her at all, and she knows this! Nor does she value herself–even though she is quite intelligent and well-educated.
    She is dying by inches in Boston and going on the voyage is an act of escape. The cosmetic changes she undergoes over the next months are a mere reflection of the changes in her view of herself. You can understand why Ryan gradually falls in love with her, and one of the reasons is that she comes to believe(on her own) that she is a worthy person.
    @Cassie(#17)–not to worry about the spectacles! They were forced on her by her mother–the point being that she really didn’t need them to see but was using them as one more thing to hide behind(like the dark,matronly dresses and the poor, hunched over posture).

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  33. Susan Wiggs
    Jun 13, 2011 @ 14:57:56

    Thank you for reviewing this book, which came through on my Twitter feed. For interested readers, here is a blog post about the cover art, featuring the “real” Isadora: http://susanwiggs.wordpress.com/2008/04/30/the-3-faces-of-isadora/

    ReplyReply

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