REVIEW: False Colors by Alex Beecroft
Dear Ms. Beecroft:
Rarely, oh so rarely, I’ll read a book that is so sublime, so transcendent, I actually come away from it a little melancholy, because it’s over and I can never read it for the first time ever again, because I know I’ll never be able to do justice to it in my review or analysis, and because I know I won’t meet its equal for many a year. But the process of devouring the book, of eking out its layered, textured meaning, of savoring its descriptions, and the emotions–oh, the emotions!–leaves me flying for days and the melancholy only makes it all the sweeter.
This is one of those books. It ravished me. It scoured my insides. I feel like I’m stuck in it and I don’t ever want to get out.
False Colors is one of two debut releases (April 12) for Running Press’ new M/M Romance line that is being shelved in Romance in bookstores (and my mother, who works in Barnes & Noble [30% off all the time, baby!], checked for me–yes, it will be shelved in romance, at least in B&Ns across the country, and her store has five copies on order). I think it’s fascinating that they’re marketing it as “M/M Romance,” rather than as “Gay Romance,” thereby speaking directly to the mostly female online m/m market and ignoring (?) any potential gay male audience who probably aren’t often seen in the Romance aisle.
The book is set in 1762/3, in the Age of Sail (a la Patrick O’Brian–although I’ve never yet managed to get through a PO’B). John Cavendish is a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy who has just been given the captaincy of a French prize ship. But he is being used as a sacrificial lamb on the Barbary Coast, an excuse for the British to declare war when he’s sunk, and even though he knows this, he accepts his mission, as he must. Lieutenant Alfie Donwell volunteers to go with him, and they begin what John thinks is an unusually close friendship, but what Alfie knows is a slow seduction. Alfie’s seduction, in fact, is so gradual and tentative that John is still completely clueless when Alfie’s first captain, Charles Farrant, Lord Lisburn, a completely flamboyant gay man and Alfie’s first crush, arrives on the scene. John misreads the situation and assumed that Farrant abused Alfie as a young teenager. To avoid John calling Farrant out in revenge, Alfie reveals himself to John, who withdraws from his best friend in immediate and violent disgust. Alfie runs to Farrent’s ship and although John and Alfie actually spend very little of the rest of the book together, I almost didn’t notice, because they are so much in each other’s thoughts and motivations and actions as they slowly find their way back to each other.
Alfie understands his own proclivities. He knows and accepts, even appreciates, that he prefers men in a world that would see him hanged upon discovery. His pain lies in that he’s a romantic and the secretive life and anonymous encounters his preferences force him to accept will never allow him the companionship, love, and faithfulness he yearns for. John, on the other hand, is religious, resourceful, smart, and a natural leader, and doesn’t understand why the rest of the world has such problems with the chastity that’s so easy for him to achieve. He’s innocent only because he’s ignorant, and he’s a bit of a prig, although an adorable one. Farrant is older, wiser but so much more cynical than the two primary characters. He is married and loves his wife, platonically, but despairs of his own sexuality, except when he’s reveling in it. His life shows us what Alfie and John could end up as, without each other.
The true beauty of this book is its sweeping scope, both geographical and emotional, that reminds me of my favorite Laura Kinsale romance, Seize the Fire, also about a sailor (although set in the mid-nineteenth century). False Colors roams from Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, to Jamaica and pirates, to the Arctic and icebergs, back to Jamaica and reconciliation. But that physical geography pales in comparison to the mental and emotional journey both John and Alfie undergo. What makes the emotional landscape so broad, so devastating, is how the perfection of the characterization allows the barriers to and conflicts in their relationship to arise during the book, in reaction to their individual experiences and to the changes in the relationship. The best romances do this, I find. The characters must deal with the effects of their past on their present, but they must also deal with the new problems that arise in the present. John’s emotional journey, for example, is his discovery and acceptance of his own sexuality, done in his own personal way–that is, in accordance with his own understanding of his religion and his honor–that only arises because of his betrayal of Alfie when Alfie reveals himself to John. Alfie’s journey is more adapting to how he changes because of John’s betrayal and because of his affair with the self-destructive but sympathetic Farrant. John must realize, once he actually understands his own desire, that he is as fallible as anyone else in matters of the flesh, and that he loves Alfie enough to not only lie and cheat for him, but also to believe that lying and cheating are the right and honorable thing to do. Alfie must accept and forgive both John and Farrant for being who they are and relearn his acceptance of his sexuality and his joy in life.
I usually skim descriptions in books. That’s why I like Suzanne Brockmann so much–her books are mostly dialogue, very sparing with description. But the descriptions here are included so seamlessly and are so rich and rewarding that I savored each one, reveling in your wording and imagery. Light plays such a huge part in the atmosphere of this book. And smells–it’s the eighteenth century after all. There’s lots of smells. And temperature. In the Arctic:
Cold water dripped in a steady patter of drops from the orlop deck above and trickled down the stinking, filth-daubed bulkheads. A faint light shone through the two layers of canvas wrapped about the bow, drawing him to the hole in the hull. The greasy sails bowed inwards there, held in place against the gap by sheer pressure of water. Runnels, squeezed through the fabric, slid in the shifting light down into the ballast — it sucked marsh-like beneath his feet. Flickering light, and the deep, underwater silence, made him think of the stories of Davy Jones’ locker; of the cities beneath the waves, where mermaids dragged their captive souls to live damp and fishy lives far away from human love.
The battles and ship maneuvers are brilliantly depicted. Even when I didn’t know half of the words that were being thrown around, nautical as they were, I could figure out what’s going on, because the focus of the scenes–the focus of everything in the book–are the men, not the shipping terms. These men are men, tongue-tied and completely unable to articulate what they feel:
Bowing his head into his hands, he swallowed, rubbing his eyes. Damp under his fingertips seeped through his eyelashes. He sniffed to clear a nose that had unaccountably become blocked. His breath caught in his throat with a soft “ah”, and at the sound he dipped his pen again, angrily, drew it back to hover over the page.
In fact, the emotional weight of the story is in the internal thoughts of the characters not the dialogue. There’s so little these men can say aloud, not only because they don’t know how, but because, if they do, they might be killed. And usually, if books focus so much more on the internal that the dialogue becomes almost superfluous, I get very bored, very quickly. But this book is so well-written, so compelling, so rich and layered and textured, it was impossible to get bored, even on the third read-through. And even though John and Alfie spend almost half the book apart, I didn’t notice the lack of interaction, because their emotional lives, their primacy in each other’s thoughts despite their separation, was so well-demonstrated.
Additionally, I love how the politics of a one scene, apparently pertinent only to that scene, reverberate throughout this perfectly plotted book. That John succeeds at his mission on the Barbary Coast, for example, means that he loses his ship because his orders weren’t official and it looks like he attacked a neutral nation unprovoked. But later he is able to call in a life-saving favor because of this mission. But this plotting is all so subtly and naturally done,that I didn’t see it coming and could only marvel at it afterwards.
I have to quote what is, for me, the one most sublime moment in the whole novel:
It had seemed so simple. It had, after all, always been so simple before to curb his thoughts, to lose himself in mathematics or music, and emerge feeling purified. The mere knowledge of his desires should not make them ungovernable. Now it was as if his eyes had been opened. Blind, he hadn’t seen the beauty that surrounded him, but Alfie had given him sight.
On the first day afloat he had come out on deck and stopped dead, ravished by the turn of Lt. Oxford’s throat. Looking away, flushing, he saw the men of the lower deck with their shirts off in this mild weather, hauling on the ropes, their muscles limned in gleaming sweat.
Oh God no! he’d thought. God, no, please! But God, if he was watching, must have been laughing up his sleeve, because the sudden awareness had only grown.
The one problem I had, and I had to look hard for this, was that, on my third reread, Alfie’s final feeling of betrayal seemed the slightest bit contrived. Yes, my third reread, because I could not stop reading this book again and again. John betrays Alfie once, and then, Alfie thinks, betrays him again. And Alfie finds the second (non)betrayal as difficult to overcome mentally as the first. But to me, his perspective of the second betrayal seems slightly less natural and slightly more forced because necessary to the narrative than all the other emotion in this book. But the game of “will they or won’t they find their way back to each other” at the end of the book more than makes up for this minor flaw.
This stunning book is not an erotic romance. It’s a romance between two men, sure, but that doesn’t make it an erotic romance. It’s not focused on sex, even though it’s all about their sexuality — because the book does NOT shy away from dealing with the fear and shame and hatred of being a sodomite, an “invert” in the eighteenth century. This book is romance, pure and simple. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that John and Alfie don’t even kiss until the end, although there is one incredibly hot sex scene between them. But the emotions are so rich, so bright and hard and painful, even the good ones, that this book can be considered nothing less than the best of romance, heart-wrenching and perfect.
Sincerely and desperately looking forward to your next book,
This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon. No ebook format.