REVIEW: The Slightest Provocation by Pam Rosenthal
Dear Ms. Rosenthal,
What a wonderful, challenging, envelope-pushing, smart and astonishing book you’ve written. Reading it wasn’t always easy or comfortable, but in the end, it was more than worth every penny of the $14 I spent on it and the effort it demanded of me as a reader.
At first glance, the relationship between Kit Stansell and his estranged wife Mary seems beyond salvaging. After nine years apart, Kit and Mary have a brief encounter at an inn in Calais, France. They manage not only to have sex, but to get into a raging argument about their political difference of opinion and the considerable pain they caused each other in the days when they lived together as husband and wife.
Kit and Mary both grew up together in Derbyshire near the village of Grefford. Kit was one of the Marchioness of Rowen’s illegitimate children, passed off as her husband’s third son. Mary was the daughter of a wealthy brewer. To make matters worse, their fathers hated each other because of a land dispute. Despite that, Kit and Mary befriended each other as children, fell in love as teenagers and later ran off to Gretna Green to get married.
The marriage failed quickly; Kit cheated on Mary and even got himself an actress mistress; Mary, in revenge, took Kit’s best friend Richard to bed. When Kit caught them together, his relationship with Mary disintegrated completely. Kit joined the army and nearly got himself killed in the war. Mary kept herself busy by befriending poets and reformers. And nine years passed.
During the years of their separation neither Kit nor Mary slept alone. But now Mary’s lover, a wealthy manufacturer, wants very much to marry her and is willing to stand by her through the scandal of a divorce. Therefore, just before Kit and Mary part company in France, they agree that Kit will sue Mary for divorce on the grounds of adultery.
I admit that at this point in the book, I wasn’t sure there was much hope for Mary and Kit, and for the book itself, at least as a romance. But I kept reading, partly because I was impressed the unfailingly British-sounding dialogue and the unusual literary techniques you use, such as the nonlinear flashbacks, the brief section in present tense, and the inclusion of snippets of dialogue within the narration. These weren’t always easy to keep up with, but I can’t complain, because I was ultimately so richly rewarded.
Kit and Mary return to England, Mary to visit her sister and niece in Grefford, Kit hoping for a job with the Home Office in London. But instead the Home Office sends Kit to Grefford, to investigate rumors of a political conspiracy that poses a danger to England. And once they are both in Derbyshire, Kit and Mary not only realize they need to combine forces to find out more about the conspiracy, they also find it hard to stay away from each other.
Meanwhile their flashbacks take us from the ugly breakup to the newlywed giddiness to the childhood friendship and further, so that the first negative impression of Mary and Kit is supplemented with new evidence.
And that’s the genius of this book. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the flashbacks of the past are put together piece by piece, just as Kit and Mary’s relationship is put back together little by little, so that the true picture of their feelings for each other emerges only gradually. As I read, I began to understand how wrong I had been about Kit and Mary, how much there was to them and to their feelings. How long they had loved each other, and how much they needed to make restitution, to help one another heal, to (figuratively speaking) kiss the scars from the wounds their younger selves had inflicted.
I love being won over in this way. It was a wonderful surprise to discover all the layers of the characters and of the book, and to follow The Slightest Provocation down its intersecting paths (rather like those on Kit’s family’s estate). I love its meanderings into the minds of other characters such as Peggy, Mary’s pregnant maid, or Elizabeth, Mary’s niece, and her cousin Fannie, which give context to Mary and Kit’s relationship by exploring class differences, the impetuousness of youth, and the community life of an English village. The conspiracy subplot touches on an issue that is a part of our lives, the tension between our need for freedom and our need for security, and moreover, shows how gradually Kit and Mary both become more willing to listen and less quick to judge.
Finally, I feel that this book is also about memories and the passage of time, growth and maturity, and the power of love (even physical love) to heal.
Thank you for giving me so much to think about. Thank you for challenging me and for moving me. Thank you for having the courage to break so many conventions, to write something so complex and unique (I almost feel I should thank your editor as well, for giving you such free reign, and the cover designer for one of this year’s loveliest covers). You have created what is in my opinion a remarkable book, and so I give The Slightest Provocation an A.