I still don’t know what I really think about this book.
The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.
But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.
I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.
She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as
Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in
the C minor concerto.
Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.
One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.
Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.
Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.
I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.
I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.
Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.
I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.
The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.
I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.