DUELING REVIEW: The Shadow and the Star, Part II
Note: Jennie asked me to collaborate on this review with her and as it turned out, we had a lot of thoughts. So many that we decided to split this review in three. This is the second part. You can find the first part of our discussion linked below. The third will run in two days. –Janine
Janine: I didn’t find Samuel believable as a character. Despite his extensive exposure to sex as a child, he doesn’t recognize the hymen or its significance. He also believes that sex is always traumatizing to the woman (or more accurately, to the person being penetrated). In all his years with Tess and Gryphon, how did he not notice that Tess has never been traumatized? This though he’s supposed to be unusually observant.
Jennie: I did have to suspend disbelief here. Not about some of his naivete regarding sex, because he was so young when he was abused and it seemed like he deliberately blocked out a lot of what he’d seen.
Some of the other stuff- the fact that he didn’t have any thoughts about Tess and Gryf’s obviously happy relationship, or that he never seemed have gotten to the point of thinking about what marriage to Kai would entail – I could view it as unrealistic or I could just view it as Samuel being massively screwed up. Which for me is both a strength of the book and kind of a problem.
Janine: I viewed it as contrived and inconsistent. When I try to square his naivete and ignorance with his success running two shipping companies, I just can’t. A position like that, with its savvy back-room deals and its attendant familiarity with everyone from sailors to other successful businessmen to Hawaii’s royal family, requires worldliness. I couldn’t picture him occupying these roles at the same time. He read more like a construct than a person, a mishmash of traits that don’t fit together.
Jennie: That’s fair. His business acumen was not something I loved about Samuel’s character, because it put him in the in the realm of being what I call an “-est” hero – handsomest, bravest, most noble, most successful. Samuel doesn’t need to be a great ninja and a great businessman. It’s a bit too much.
Back to Samuel’s trauma, I think what it comes down to for me is that Kinsale does her job almost too well, depicting vividly how a victim of childhood sexual abuse might think and feel about women and sex. Which then has me circling back to the believability of the HEA.
Janine: There’s something to that, although I know a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who is nothing like that. But yeah, I can imagine some of that development (or lack of development) resulting from early childhood trauma. What bothered me was that it read like he clung to his obtuseness purposefully.
Jennie: I think that’s the romance part of it, where the central tenet is that love saves. Samuel needs to cling to his obtuseness so that Leda can transform him.
Janine: I know, but when combined with everything else– with his ignorance of Leda’s virginity even after she bleeds profusely, his lack of thinking about the happiness of Tess and Gryf’s marriage, his failure to realize that Kai would want and expect children, his unlikely business acumen– his obtuseness reads like one more facet of the author trying too hard to shoehorn a character into a plot that doesn’t fit and contorting him in the attempt.
Jennie: The action eventually moves from England to Hawaii, where a subplot involving a Japanese sword, a shark, and Samuel’s mentor, Mr. Dojun, takes center stage. This has always seemed to me to be one of Kinsale’s sillier, messier subplots.
Janine: I didn’t mind that so much because it allowed us to *finally* see Samuel care about Leda’s well-being.
Jennie: I noted this time that the conclusion of the subplot had a purpose that it allowed Samuel to let go of some of the training and discipline Dojun had rigorously instilled in him; the discipline itself was holding Samuel back from self-acceptance. Dojun would always tell Samuel “you want too much”, which allowed Samuel a convenient excuse to cut himself off from his feelings as much as possible.
Janine: I didn’t interpret it that way because Dojun told Samuel that sexual attraction wasn’t necessarily wrong. Samuel was what held Samuel back from self-acceptance. Your words, “a convenient excuse” are astute.
I had other issues where Dojun was concerned, though. His depiction owed a lot to racist tropes. He was a textbook example of the orientalist Magical Asian trope and what’s worse,
Janine: While I’m on this topic, I want to take a moment to delineate everything I found offensive in this book, because there was a lot.
Cultural appropriation—although Kinsale makes the white ninja thing persuasive, it is still appropriative—check.
Orientalism –the aforementioned Magical Asian trope as well as the Old Master trope; like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, Dojun exists to serve Samuel’s growth arc but has no growth of his own – check.
Othering—“The very foreignness of his features was reassuring. Samuel had never known anyone like Dojun: he never looked mad or hungry or eager. The enigmatic Oriental eyes made Samuel feel safe and curious at the same time” – check
Casual racism—the dressmaker refers to the Japanese ladies like this: “it won’t do to bring out the sallow in their complexions”—check.
Slut shaming—Madame Elise, for the mere act of passing on the letter, is a “false, revolting hussy,” and Leda is distressed to have been “ogled as if she were some loose servant girl”—check.
Stereotyping—Tess says, “And I can assure you, Leda, there’s no one more conversant with the physical love between a man and a woman than a Tahitian,”– check.
Possible antisemitism—the greedy dressmaker’s surname is Isaacson and Miss Myrtle’s genteel friends dislike their new neighbors because they are “coarse featured,” because the husband is a successful merchant (at the expense of animals, apparently) and because “You can see her nose beyond her bonnet.” — check
Plain old snobbery—“Of course she must wear gloves, Clarimond. There will be persons of a common class involved in such a post. Runners. Shopboys.” – check.
Jennie: Some of these bothered me more than others. For instance, the reference to the sallow complexions of the Japanese ladies seemed a bad reflection on the dressmaker, if anyone, rather than the author. Leda is uptight and judgmental to a degree about moral matters, because she’s been raised to be. The snobbery of the elder ladies was well established; perhaps it should have been seen as more of a moral flaw but I just saw it as realistic.
Janine: With regard to the slut-shaming, there was Samuel’s disgust of prostitutes as well. I know he had reasons too but when you have slut-shaming in the heads of both main characters, it becomes a bit of an issue. Although Tess’s discussion with Leda on her wedding night is sex-positive, and that helps to offset Samuel and Leda’s views.
With the snobbery of the elder ladies, I might have seen it as you did if Leda hadn’t looked up to them so much. As it was, I felt the novel presented them (and by extension, their snobbery) through rose-colored glasses.
Jennie: Maybe. I think I sort of saw them through Leda’s rose-colored glasses; they’d been the only family she’d known.
Janine: That’s a good point. Maybe I am being too harsh here.
Jennie: I’ll confess I did not note the instance of possible anti-Semitism. Google tells me that “you can see her nose beyond her bonnet” was a Victorian expression, but that of course doesn’t mean that it’s not anti-Semitic at its root.
Janine: Thanks for catching it. I was unaware of that expression. In the context of “coarse featured” it’s some kind of discrimination on the basis of a different appearance, but likely only unattractiveness. I’m definitely being too harsh.
Jennie: Honestly, the single instance that bothered me the most was Tess’s reference to Tahitian women; there was a whiff of that in The Hidden Heart as well, and I didn’t like it there, either. Because, unlike the South Street women or the dressmaker, Tess is supposed to be a heroine, and a mature one at that. There’s no excuse for having her repeat prejudices about sexed-up Polynesians.
In general, though, the othering and cultural appropriation is the largest issue for me, and it does hang over the book. I feel like it should affect my enjoyment of the story more than it does, though.
Janine: It’s hard for me to parse the plethora of the different problematic aspects. There are enough of them that it feels like they are all of a piece. And that’s before we get into the rape.