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REVIEW: Children of Liberty by Paullina Simons

Dear Ms. Simons:

When I saw this book available online, I snapped it up without a second thought. I am a huge fan of The Bronze Horseman and its two sequels, and I also enjoyed The Girl in Times Square. I’ve avoided some of your other, earlier books because online reviews have indicated that they are different in tone and style and perhaps a bit downbeat. But Children of Liberty sounded like a vibrant historical novel with a love story at its center, so I was hopeful that it would be somewhat similar to The Bronze Horseman.

Children of Liberty by Paullina SimonsAs it turns out, this book is actually a prequel to The Bronze Horseman trilogy. For some reason it took me a while to figure that out – the mention of a character’s last name, “Barrington”, niggled at my memory but not enough to really turn the light bulb on. But when I did figure out that the Harry and Gina (later called Jane) of this book are Alexander’s parents from The Bronze Horseman, I was dismayed.

Why? I guess I should spoiler-mark this for anyone who hasn’t read the earlier books and thinks they might someday:

[spoiler]Readers of The Bronze Horseman know that Alexander’s parents died in the Soviet Union, killed by the regime they had once idealistically idolized. Furthermore, in my hazy recollection, Alexander’s memories of his childhood featured a kind but weak father and a bitter, alcoholic mother.

I’m not, as romance readers go, an absolutist on HEAs. I can accept a sad ending, when it’s appropriate to the story. (See: The Time Traveler’s Wife. Sniff.) But this is just depressing. I don’t want to read a whole book about two people who are going to get to know each other, fall in love, and then wreck everything with their bad decisions and personal foibles.[/spoiler]

Anyway…

Gina Attaviano arrives in America at Boston Harbor in 1899, along with her mother and older brother Salvo. They have emigrated from Naples, an emigration that was long the dream of Gina’s father, who died before they could leave Italy. Immediately upon arrival, the Attaviano family encounter Harry Barrington and Ben Shaw, who troll the docks hoping to set arriving families up in apartments owned by Harry’s father (this set up seemed kind of unsavory and potentially exploitative to me but it is never suggested that Harry’s father is any sort of a slumlord, so I guess it’s okay). The Attavianos are bound for Lawrence, Massachusetts to stay with family, but Ben, who has taken a shine to Gina, lobbies hard to change their minds, and when that fails, insists that he and Harry (who’d rather just move on to another arriving family) accompany the Attavianos and their worldly goods to Lawrence to see them settled.

Ben persists in his moony-eyed attraction to Gina even when he finds out she’s only 14 years old (he and Harry are both 20) and in spite of Gina’s mother and particularly her brother’s protective attitudes. Gina, however, only has eyes for Harry, for reasons that weren’t especially clear to me.

Ben and Harry are Harvard students and lifelong friends. Ben has been pretty much raised by his aunt Josephine after his free-spirited mother found she couldn’t really take care of him and live life the way she wanted to. Harry lives in the family manse with his father and sister and suffers under the weight of his father’s heavy expectations for him. It is expected that Harry will join the family business upon graduation, though Harry’s interests lie in literature and, later, political thought. Ben is obsessed with the Panama Canal (in the planning stages in  1899). The Panama Canal business is oddly shoehorned into the story and at times reads like a lot of historical info-dumping. In general, Ben is kind of an odd character; he’s absent for a lot of it but his supposed love for Gina lingers over the story. It feels almost like parts of Ben’s story were edited out or perhaps like he’ll come up as a more significant character in future books (assuming there are future books, which seems like it will be the case). But he could have been removed from the story entirely without altering it significantly.

Anyway, Ben loves Gina (though he hardly knows her), Gina loves Harry (ditto, but at least she has her tender age as an excuse), Harry is indifferent (and has long been practically engaged to his father’s business partner’s daughter). Gina chases Harry by enlisting his help in getting her brother Salvo a business loan so that he can open a restaurant. Harry and Gina become friends of a sort while the restaurant is coming together, but when he realizes that he is actually sort of attracted to her (Gina has turned fifteen at this point), he abruptly breaks off contact and they don’t see each other for five years.

Cut to five years later: Gina is a politically active college student who now goes by the name Jane. Gina/Jane’s transformation from moony teenager to political firebrand and Emma Goldman enthusiast is unconvincing. When Harry encounters her again, he wonders “When did she get so fiery?” which only highlighted for me the change in her character. Sure, people change, and teenagers mature – but it would have been more plausible and interesting if there was some sort of reason given for her political awakening.

I also just wondered at this juncture in the story – what was the point of first half of the book? It’s a lot of pages in which not too much happens; the characters are introduced and their situations established, but I was left wondering if the story could have just started with the “five years later” part and introduce Harry to Jane then. A lot of the early plot goes nowhere. For instance, Salvo briefly works for and flirts with Harry’s soon-to-be-fiancee, and quits after offending her, but it never comes up again (in fact, Salvo disappears in the second half of the book).

Simons’ writing style has always been unique; I’ve wondered if it’s partly a result of learning English as a second language. It’s not a style that works that well for me, oftentimes; in fact, it’s a tribute to just how much I love the Simons books that I do love that I’m able to put aside my issues with her prose, since prose is generally a pretty important factor to me when I’m reading. In Children of Liberty the writing quirks were more noticeable and aggravating, since I wasn’t caught up in the characters and plot so much. Some examples:

“To say she looked unreservedly pleased would be to under-define her expression.”

Very awkward.

“He didn’t want to unpack the reasons why.”

The modern usage of the already annoying phrase “unpack” stood out glaringly for me.

“He smiled rotundly, patting his daughter’s back.”

Rotundly?

And really, there are many more examples I could give.

The biggest problem I had with Children of Liberty, though, is the character of Harry. He starts out as not particularly likable but not really objectionable, either, but by the end of the book he is entirely contemptible. I mean, just a total asshole. First of all, in five years he hasn’t matured in any appreciable way; he’s still engaged (though at least a wedding date is set) and living off of his father; he’s working on his dissertation and seems to have been for a while. He’s also teaching at Harvard but is alternately clueless and rather childishly sullen about the fact that his students don’t like him (he’s too hard a grader and doesn’t connect with them).

He’s sexist: At one point, Harry muses to himself about Jane’s interest in anarchists; “For some reason, women found all that talk of liberty appealing.” He also seems offended that Emma Goldman speaks about free love given that she’s “homely.” He is jealous of Jane’s friendship with a classmate named Archer; at one point Harry, bringing Jane flowers, finds her accompanied by Archer and is so angry that he flings the flowers at her feet and stalks off. I am guessing that this is supposed to show the intensity of Harry’s feelings for Jane, but really, it just makes him seem like a big baby. Furthermore, his indignation is ridiculous given that he has a fiancée. In the end he makes a choice but it’s done in the most cowardly and passive way possible, making the choice (and Harry himself) impossible to respect.

Gina/Jane is a Tatiana-like character in some ways – she has a similar childlike enthusiasm and naif appeal. But she lacks Tatiana’s essential charm and the Mary-Sue-martyr tendencies that made Tatiana weirdly compelling as a heroine.

What it comes down to for me is that without the compelling characters and plotline that characterized the previous Simons books I enjoyed, this is simply a book with many more flaws than virtues. My grade, regretfully, is a C-.

Jennie

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

12 Comments

  1. Janine
    Apr 02, 2013 @ 10:34:22

    Sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you. I purchased The Bronze Horseman when it was on sale for $1.99, so one of these days I’ll give it another try.

    ReplyReply

  2. k8899
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 00:02:19

    I’m so thrown by the cover, which says ‘contemporary; middling angsty but lessons are learned in the end YA’, not ‘gritty (possibly horribly depressing) historical’.

    ReplyReply

  3. Jayne
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 07:33:32

    I keep thinking that one day I’m going to try Paullina Simons. But it sure won’t be this book.

    ReplyReply

  4. Audrey
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 15:51:11

    I loved The Bronze Horsemen and the sequel Alexander and Tatiana but hated the The Summer Gardens. I felt like Ms. Simmons had jumped the shark with TSG and turned two characters I previously loved into people I don’t even like. Knowing the tragic ending of Alexander’s parents I have absolutely zero desire to read their story. She needs to move on and write new stories and create new characters.

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  5. Jennie
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 17:03:22

    @Janine: I’d be curious as to what you thought if you made it through it, but between the prose and your issues with long books (though I don’t think TBH is as long as the sequels), I kind of doubt you’d care much for it.

    ReplyReply

  6. Jennie
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 17:17:35

    @Jayne: I’m surprised you haven’t read her! TBH really is pretty compulsively readable, for all its flaws.

    ReplyReply

  7. Jennie
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 17:19:43

    @Audrey: I know a lot of fans of the first two books didn’t like TSG but it worked for me, even though it was kind of a big mess of a book. I mean, there were a lot of things wrong with it but the emotional hits were still very intense for me, and that kind of counts for a lot for me as a reader.

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  8. Janine
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 17:20:29

    @Jennie: Yeah, I kind of doubt it too. But so many people adore the book, that I felt I should give it another go.

    ReplyReply

  9. EGS
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 20:43:27

    I loved TBH, although I agree that Simons’ prose is something you have to get used to. I’m not sure why you’d want to read about Alexander’s parents, considering what insane choices they eventually make.

    Also agree about TSG: that book was a train wreck.

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  10. Marg
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 23:27:42

    I was really disappointed with this book. When she was touring here she mentioned that it is the first of two books about Gina and Harry. By the time the second book comes out I might be ready to read more about them but if it was out now I wouldn’t read it, simply because there is nothing about Harry in particular that I find that interesting!

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  11. Julie
    Jul 25, 2013 @ 01:21:36

    I am a huge TBH fan and the sequel of Tatiana and Alexander. I also have all of Paullina’s books and each new bookIi find hard to put down but get the end and haven’t really enjoyed the characters especially of her last three books. The last being Children of Liberty (actually this is the first book I have struggled the whole way through), Harry was awful and what Gina saw in him with her zest for life confused me. What I think disappoints me is that the book isn’t loyal to what was originally said about ‘Jane’ in TBH. QUOTE From TBH ‘Alexanders mother, Gina came from Italy at the turn of the century when she was 18 to embrace the American way of life, and when she changed her name to Jane and married Harold Barrington at nineteen, she embraced with with her heart.’ It is quite different to how the Children of Liberty told her story. Come on Paullina stick to your own story and character development. Very disappointed fan!

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  12. jenna
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 08:23:56

    I did enjoy this book but the ending is disappointing, it feels like it hasnt ended so hoping for the next book. I read the bronzehorseman triologywould be a shame if this was a prequel to this. I agree with the other readers that Harry didnt seem like much of a catch and that Ben seemed more attractive!

    ReplyReply

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