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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.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

16 Comments

  1. Tara Marie
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 05:25:45

    I passed on this book because of all the negative reviews, but I can tell by your thoughts that this one will work for me. This is why I shouldn’t read more than a synopsis before ordering a book. I loved Ms. Rosenthal’s other books, I should have just ordered this one last month.

  2. Karen Scott
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 07:46:03

    This books sounds right up my alley. Will be putting this on my Amazon Wishlist!

  3. Meljean
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 10:56:27

    Sounds like one I’d like, too. Adding it to my list.

  4. Bam
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 11:27:53

    Weird. I couldn’t finish this book at all. I got up to Chapter Three and gave up. But then again, I can read page after page of the dreck that Laurell K. Hamilton puts out, so… Hmm… I wonder what that says about me.

    “Almost a Gentleman” by Pam Rosenthal is one of my favorite books of all time, though.

  5. Janine
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 11:42:16

    I passed on this book because of all the negative reviews, but I can tell by your thoughts that this one will work for me. This is why I shouldn't read more than a synopsis before ordering a book.

    Were there a lot of negative reviews? I saw the one on AAR, but not the others. I’d be interested in reading them. I also saw on Amazon that Booklist gave it a positive review.

    I expect not everyone will love this book, because it has a lot of romance no-nos like adultery and a long separation. And the style isn’t traditional because the story isn’t told in linear fashion. But these were all things I loved.

  6. Janine
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 12:01:35

    Karen and Meljean, I hope you enjoy it.

    Weird. I couldn't finish this book at all. I got up to Chapter Three and gave up.

    Actually that doesn’t surprise me, because as I said in the review, early on I didn’t think there was much hope for the characters and even for the book. It has a slow buildup and at first Kit and Mary don’t show their best sides. It took me a good hundred pages to warm to them and to begin to care deeply about their relationship.

    But to me that was part of what made the book brilliant — that Rosenthal could start me out thinking these were a couple of jerks and then get me to realize that they were worth caring about after all. It’s a writing strategy that won’t work for every reader. Because the story isn’t told in linear order, it starts out with the awful part first. There’s a slow climb from awful to better, and then a wonderful ascent from better to deeply moving.

    So for the people who haven’t read it yet, I recommend persisting. As I said in the review, it’s not always easy or comfortable to read, but I thought it was completely worth it.

  7. shuzluva
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 12:35:42

    Wow. I couldn’t disagree more. However I think it fair to mention that I got half way through the book and gave up. I was well into Kit and Mary’s healing. It was also obvious to me that Kit and Mary’s relationship would be mended, because it was clear that they truly loved each other.

    What bothered me most about the book isn’t the lack of linear movement, but the slow movement of ascent. I felt that Ms. Rosenthal spent time in the weeds, so to speak, which weighed an already heavy story further. Having gotten half way through the book, it was obvious that Kit and Mary were on the mend, but the story dragged due to a lack of plot movement. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gravitas in romance, but as a reader I felt that the light at the end of the tunnel was going to occur on the second to last page, and I couldn’t face any more.

    Your review was a refreshing counter to my opinion. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

  8. Devonna
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 15:45:04

    Well, I loved The Bookseller’s Daughter, so I seriously think I need to read this one. What a wonderful review!

  9. Janine
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 16:24:36

    I felt that Ms. Rosenthal spent time in the weeds, so to speak, which weighed an already heavy story further. Having gotten half way through the book, it was obvious that Kit and Mary were on the mend, but the story dragged due to a lack of plot movement. I don't think there's anything wrong with gravitas in romance, but as a reader I felt that the light at the end of the tunnel was going to occur on the second to last page, and I couldn't face any more.

    Shuzluva, it’s true that this book is more character driven than plot driven, and perhaps I should have mentioned that in my review. I often prefer character driven books, and when the characters are complex and interesting I don’t require a lot of plot. But not every reader is like me.

    For what it’s worth, the second half was my favorite part of the book. There were some moments of lightness in there among the touching attempts on Kit and Mary’s part to reconnect, and when I read it, that part of the book flew by because I was so absorbed in Kit and Mary’s reflections and interactions, and moved to see them gradually overcome their difficult past.

    Your review was a refreshing counter to my opinion. Perhaps I'll give it another try.

    I hope you enjoy it if you do.

  10. Janine
    Oct 11, 2006 @ 16:29:34

    [quote comment="4650"]Well, I loved The Bookseller’s Daughter, so I seriously think I need to read this one. What a wonderful review![/quote]

    Thank you, Devonna. I hope you enjoy the book. It was exhilarating for me to read it, because I felt that Rosenthal was writing without a safety net. It’s something I have to admire.

  11. Marg
    Oct 12, 2006 @ 06:48:18

    Another one added to my TBR list!

  12. Bev (BB)
    Oct 12, 2006 @ 11:17:59

    this book is more character driven than plot driven

    Uh, does this mean more character than action driven or no plot at all? I ask because so many seem to think two people working out their relationship isn’t plot, period, so I never know which is actually meant.

    Who published this? Because after all the recent discussions about genre limits, I’m curious as to who took the risk. ;p Small risk, I’d think, since there’ve been others with similar set-ups, but it’s still an uncommon one. What’s the name of the book by Jo Beverley where the heroine had an affair while her husband was off at war/crusade?

    This one doesn’t sound like my cuppa but surprisingly that’s because of the flashbacks rather than the other. I’ve completely blanked on the title of the book that absolutely ruined me on flashbacks but now I twitch every time I hear them mentioned. Oye.

  13. Janine
    Oct 12, 2006 @ 12:35:48

    I hope you like the book, Marg.

    [quote comment="4668"]

    this book is more character driven than plot driven

    Uh, does this mean more character than action driven or no plot at all? I ask because so many seem to think two people working out their relationship isn’t plot, period, so I never know which is actually meant. .[/quote]

    No, there is a plot. It’s just not a fast-paced plot. It takes some time to unfold, but it’s there.

    Who published this? Because after all the recent discussions about genre limits, I’m curious as to who took the risk.;p

    NAL / Signet.

    Small risk, I’d think, since there’ve been others with similar set-ups, but it’s still an uncommon one.

    When I mentioned the risk-taking, I was partly referring to the set up but also to other things, like the nonlinear flashback structure and some small character and style details that I haven’t mentioned in the review.

    What’s the name of the book by Jo Beverley where the heroine had an affair while her husband was off at war/crusade?

    I think it’s The Shattered Rose. That book was more conventional in its style than The Slightest Provocation, if perhaps not in its content.

    This one doesn’t sound like my cuppa but surprisingly that’s because of the flashbacks rather than the other. I’ve completely blanked on the title of the book that absolutely ruined me on flashbacks but now I twitch every time I hear them mentioned. Oye.

    If you don’t care for flashbacks, this probably isn’t the book for you. A shame that a book ruined you on them; it must be frustrating.

  14. Karen Scott
    Aug 05, 2007 @ 16:06:42

    Hey Janine, I finally got round to starting this, and I have to say, I’m on page 56, and I don’t actually think I can finish it. I find the language cumbersome, and from one minute to the next I’m totally losing the plot. I’m finding it very sluggish, and I’m not feeling any particular empathy to either of the lead characters, and that’s usually a kiss of death in a book for me.

    I think I’ll leave this for a while, and see if it improves with age.

  15. Janine
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 23:50:21

    Hi Karen, sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I just found your post. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t a book that swept me off my feet right away. It was more of a slow, gradual epiphany that I was falling in love with it.

    The characters don’t start out empathetic. I think we’re meant to see them at their worst first and only slowly realize that they are worth caring about and that their marriage is worth saving.

    To me, that was part of what was brilliant about The Slightest Provocation – the way Rosenthal took Kit and Mary’s relationship from what seemed like the point of no return and showed that those early impressions were misleading, and that there was more to them than each (and we the readers) thought there was.

    I hope your second attempt works out. It’s worth sticking with, in my opinion.

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