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REVIEW:  Live For Me (Blurred Lines, Book 2) by Erin McCarthy

REVIEW: Live For Me (Blurred Lines, Book 2) by Erin...

live for meDear Ms. McCarthy,

I managed to make it all the way through the first book in the series without realizing that it was based on Wuthering Heights, even though the hero and heroine were named Heath and Cat. In my defense, it was definitely a loose interpretation. The parallels between Live for Me and its inspiration, Jane Eyre, were a lot clearer, which ended up being both a strength and a weakness in the book.

Tiffany Ennis is only 18, but she’s lived a pretty tough eighteen years. Her father was never in her life, her mother was a drug addict who died when she was young, and she was in and out of foster homes until her grandmother took her in as an adolescent. That was hardly a refuge, though, since Tiffany’s grandmother was both verbally and physically abusive and mostly seemed to want her granddaughter around as an unpaid servant. One day during an argument her grandmother throws Tiffany out for good, which ends up being something of a godsend.

Tiffany is able to stay with friends (the couple from the first book) while looking for employment, and is lucky enough to quickly land an extremely cushy job as the caretaker of a mansion owned by a music producer from New York. She figures she will have solitude on the remote estate in Maine (near the desolate island where she grew up, Vinalhaven), since the owner is rarely there. She can save her salary up for school, where she hopes to get a nursing degree.

Tiffany’s solitude is interrupted on her very first night alone in the house, though, when the master of the house appears. Devin Gold turns out not to be the old man Tiffany had assumed he would be – instead he is 30, ridiculously handsome and something of a savant in the high-powered music world in New York. His unexpected arrival (along with his dog, Amelia, who immediately takes a shine to Tiffany) upsets Tiffany’s equilibrium; she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him and unsure and awkward about it (understandable, since he’s her boss, much older and in every way has far more power than she does).

I’m sure there are readers who will stop right now and decide that this is not the book for them – readers who don’t like big age difference and/or power differential between the h/h in their romances (such readers are pretty common in my experience). Some of those same readers probably disliked Jane Eyre for similar reasons. But what made the situation a lot less icky (to use the technical term) for me, in both cases, was the heroine. In both Jane and Tiffany we’re given a heroine with a very strong sense of self, one that can’t be cowed or manipulated even by an older and more powerful hero. That’s not to say there aren’t crunchy moments, though.

In Live for Me, it also helps that Devin does try to keep his distance from Tiffany, and is clearly troubled by the age difference. This contributes to my confidence that Devin was attracted to Tiffany in spite of, rather than because of, her youth. There is some contrasting of Tiffany’s unspoiled innocence in relation to Devin’s jaded and corrupt NY friends, but that dynamic seemed to have little to do with her age and it’s one that I see in a lot of romances, anyway (too many, IMO; I understand the appeal of the trope but it’s not a favorite of mine, especially as I’ve matured).

Still, as I said, there were some squicky moments; it doesn’t help that Tiffany is very small in stature (as was Jane in JE, but I don’t remember getting the sense that she looked like she was 14, as I do here) and that at one point another character mistakes Tiffany for Devin’s daughter. The issue sort of faded into the background for me as the story went on and the characters (especially Tiffany) became more fleshed out in other ways, but I could definitely see it bothering other readers. I really could’ve done without the hero’s music industry nickname “Gold Daddy” and the way it’s used in an inane and distasteful conversation that Tiffany overhears between Devin and one of his bimbos.

In spite of all of that, there was a point probably halfway through the story where I was really riveted – I had that “don’t want to put the book down” feeling that is really unusual for me. (Is it weird that even as an avid reader I don’t usually have trouble putting a book down? I feel like it is. But I digress…) I don’t know that I can even clearly articulate *why* I was so absorbed, but I think it probably had a lot more to do with Tiffany than with Devin. Sure, part of it is that she is the narrator and the reader is privy to her thoughts; it’s natural under those circumstances to identify with her more. But Devin himself is just not *that* interesting, I don’t think (or to put it a different way, the reader isn’t given enough insight into what is interesting about him). He seems to have had a fairly happy childhood, followed by a super-successful career (one that doesn’t always make him happy, but that’s not so tragic) and an unhappy marriage. The marriage though, in contrast to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre, wasn’t the result of family pressure or trickery (I mean, his ex was definitely manipulative but the marriage itself mostly seemed to be the result of youthful foolishness on his part). There just doesn’t seem to be that much reason for Devin to be the brooding anti-hero who exiles himself in torment on his remote estate. (To be fair, this portrayal of him was rather fitful, so maybe it’s unfair for me to hang it on him, but OTOH, the inconsistency in characterization was its own problem.)

The story started to fall apart for me in the last third or quarter, mostly due, I think, to the characters acting in ways that didn’t really make sense but corresponded, roughly, to the plot of the Bronte novel. First Devin is senselessly and extravagantly cruel to Tiffany for no real reason, except I guess to drive her away by showing her the “real” him.Then she finds out something about him that throws her for a loop, and flees. This is clearly meant to correspond with Jane fleeing Rochester after finding out about his mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre, but the parallel doesn’t work on several levels: first of all, the revelation, while upsetting, is not nearly on a par with the one in JE and 2) she doesn’t flee right away, but rather dithers around some, allowing herself to be taken to Devin’s apartment in New York before deciding she just can’t handle his world and its complications. Which makes her seem flighty and reinforces for me that she’s a goddamned teenager who doesn’t have any business being involved in such a serious relationship with a much older and more worldly man. Which was a fact I’d successfully avoided for a good part of the book; I resented being reminded of it.

As an aside, one (minor-ish) point – Tiffany alludes on several occasions to being biracial. I would have liked to have seen this further explored – as it was we never even find out what ethnicity her father is. I thought that was a little strange; it would seem to me that growing up biracial in a place as white as Maine (94.4%, if Wikipedia can be trusted) would’ve contributed to some of Tiffany’s sense of alienation. Maybe it did, but we didn’t hear very much about it, which I found a little disappointing.

Overall, as a take on Jane Eyre (there are a lot of parallels thrown in – again, way more than I found in You Make Me/Wuthering Heights – but probably detailing them would be spoilerish?) this wasn’t entirely successful, and I couldn’t help but think it would’ve worked much better if the conflict in the last third had been reworked. I’ll also say that to the degree that it was “good” it was more on an emotional level than a literary one (I don’t say that to be snobbish but just to make it clear that there are probably a lot of readers who might not have the emotional connection to the book that I did). And I’ll just reiterate one last time that it was mostly the heroine who made the book for me (which is a big thing, obviously, in a first-person story – liking/relating to the storyteller). My final grade for Live for Me is a sort-of-shaky B+.

Best regards,

 

Jennie

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Dear Author

REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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