Hello and welcome to the first Close Reading Romance* post of the new year: a snapshot look at Heather Fawcett’s Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries. Why the asterisk? Well, the book I’m looking at today isn’t exactly a genre romance. It’s a fantasy novel with a lovely little romance plot running through it, but I’ve been seeing it discussed and enjoyed in a lot of my online romance spaces. So that little disclaimer is how I’m going to justify writing about it here, because it’s either that or rename the blog “Close Reading Genre Fiction with Strong Romantic Elements” and while the blog periodically heads off in that direction, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
My strongest impression from reading this book was the vividness of its sense of place: it’s set on the fictional nordic island of Ljosland, where Emily Wilde has come to research local faeries for the encyclopedia she’s compiling. The setting is deeply evocative, and the book remains compulsively readable despite long scenic descriptions in relatively dense prose. That’s what I’ll be looking at in this “snapshot” post: how Emily Wilde uses thickly descriptive prose to create a feeling of estrangement- one that’s suspenseful and eerie and invigorating for the reader, rather than distancing or alienating.
A quick note before I begin: these “snapshot” posts are meant for folks who haven’t yet read a book, so you can get a sense if the prose style is likely to appeal to you. The spoiler level on this post is thus rather mild, though I do allude to something important we learn about one of the protagonists by around the 25% mark. Proceed, or don’t, accordingly!
Here’s the cover and blurb:
Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people. So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her. But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.
Cover image via the publisher (with thanks for the high-res image and ARC). Blurb via Goodreads. For CWs, see Leigh’s always-helpful list here.
Let’s start with a look at two of my favorite wintry-nature descriptions of the book. These give a sense for the prose, and a chance to talk about why I think “estrangement” is an unlikely but useful word to describe the work Emily’s nature descriptions do.
The mountains themselves were lightly ensnowed, though there was no threat of a sequel in that cerulean canopy. Within the hinterlands of the prospect heaved the great beast of the sea with its patchy pelt of ice floes.
The afternoon held the sort of borrowed, ephemeral warmth that interrupts the advance of winter sometimes, and I found myself wondering what summer was like in this place.
So, why estrangement? Well, to begin, one thing I love about the prose in the book is how much it tells us about Emily Wilde as a character. She’s a scholar, she’s very prickly (I love her), and in particular, she doesn’t enjoy having out-loud, public feelings. You can see in these passages, which putatively belong to her academic journal, how she hides both her feelings and herself behind flowery and overly-ornate prose. Saying “there was no threat of a sequel in that cerulean canopy” instead of “the sky was blue, so it probably wouldn’t snow again” arguably tells you more about the character writing than it does the sky. In this case, it mostly tells us about how Emily wields estrangement – from her listener, from her own feelings – like a literary weapon.
But I also think that “estrangement” applies to how the prose makes the reader feel about the setting. Ljosland is meant to be a strange and somewhat forbidding place, and the use of complex terms like “cerulean canopy” or “ephemeral warmth” alongside the full-cloth invention of words like “ensnowed,” give the reader a sense of the harshness, and the strangeness of the environment.
Another thing that makes the landscapes seem strange – and maybe even a little unsettling- is how the prose imbues them with movement. In the first passage, the use of the word “prospect,” which can mean both “the possibility of a future event occurring” as well as “an extensive view of a landscape” makes the sentence feel like it’s moving with shifting meanings, even before we’re told the water moves like an animal with “its patchy pelt of ice floes.” In the second passage, we can see how the life within the landscape – its surprising moments of warmth – prompts feelings-averse Emily to muse wistfully about other seasons. There’s movement in the prose, and glimpses of how the settings move Emily emotionally.
Part of what I think prose work like this can do is “train” readers, even unconsciously, to have heightened emotional reactions to certain metaphors and techniques when they’re deployed at important moments of the text. Below is just one such moment, where the experience of estrangement – both around natural settings and around Emily’s emotions – comes to the forefront of the text. It’s a moment where Emily describes Wendell, her colleague, her rival, and (as it turns out) a part-faerie prince who has been deposed from his realm. He’s using mirrors to show himself images of the landscape that he’s been exiled from for most of his life:
After we ate, I watched him play with the mirrors. When he touched them, strange things appeared- for an instant, I saw a green forest reflected back at me, boughs swaying. I blinked and it was gone, but some of its greenness lingered around the edges of the glass, as if a forest still lurked somewhere beyond the frame.
“Are those the trees you would see in your kingdom?” I asked.
He let out his breath and drew his hand away. “No,” he said quietly. “That was merely a shadow of my world.”
I gazed at him a moment longer. His mourning was a tangible thing that hung in the air. I have never loved a place like he has, and felt its absence as I would a friend’s. But for a moment, I wished I had, and felt this as its own loss.
Having established how alive the landscapes of Ljosland can be, the text is better able to underline the poignancy of Wendell only being able to see his home reflected, as in a mirror. I also love how we see Emily’s estranged forms of speech crack, just a little bit, under the weight of her emotions towards Wendell. She still makes readers work for her meaning: I can almost feel the spaces around the missing words in the fragment “felt its absence as I would [feel] a friend’s [absence].” “Feel” and “absence” being, well, absent from the sentence allows it to echo with loss, but I find it really beautiful how Emily is able to relate to Wendell’s homesickness by feeling the absence of what she doesn’t understand. It’s a gorgeous passage, and one that gains in depth because of how, as readers, we’ve already been trained to experience the estrangement of Emily’s writing, and the movement of her settings.
If this kind of dense, slightly-enchanted prose appeals to you, I would certainly recommend Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries. Since I finished it, I’ve been missing it not like I miss a book, but like I miss a place. And I think this quick look at the prose has helped me understand a little bit better why that is. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Hello! It’s been a little while. But I’m back, returning to a short novel I read during the early days of lockdown: Charlotte Stein’s Sweet Agony. Its vivid imagery and the unique way the main characters describe their world have stuck with me in the intervening years. This is a high-heat erotic romance between a reclusive touch-averse hero, and the woman who responds to his advert in the paper for a housekeeper, getting more than she bargained for. It’s also a really vivid exploration of the eroticism of words, both written and spoken, which makes it particularly open to the joys of close reading. Here’s the cover and blurb.
New job, new boss, and he’s cold, strict, but terribly attractive. Does Molly Parker stay or does she go? Because beneath Cyrian’s chilly front, there may be a heat that’ll burn her up.
Giving in was vicious bliss.
The live-in position is an opportunity for Molly to earn and escape a problematic family. There’s just one drawback. Her employer is the most eccentric, aloof and closed-off man she’s ever encountered. His rules are bizarre and his needs even more so, and caring for his ramshackle Dickensian home is far more than she ever bargained for. Only their increasingly intense conversations stop her heading for the door. Cyrian Harcroft is a man of many mysteries and secrets, and the more she learns the greedier she is for each and every one. Especially when she discovers his greatest fear: any kind of physical contact. Now all she has to do is dig a little deeper, to unearth the passion she knows he can feel…
The opening two chapters of this book offer a fresh take on a common trope: opposition that attracts. In the case of our hero and heroine – Cyrian and Molly – it’s not so much a case of having opposite personalities, because they are, in fact, very similar people. Instead, the opposition is technical. Through opposing sets of metaphors and stylistic approaches, Molly and Cyrian come into the reader’s world in very different ways.
Molly inhabits the text in ways that focus on physicality: not just descriptions of her body (though those are there), but also in her technique of imbuing everything she sees and hears and experiences with a human form. We first get a glimpse of both her vivid imagination, and her tendency to give bodily shape to feelings, moods, and inanimate objects, as she contemplates Cyrian’s house. She describes it as a “bad tooth in a mouth of pristine white ones” and, later, as having windows like “blank, black eyes” that she can “almost feel… pressing into [her] body.” Right off the bat, even though she’s just looking at a rundown house, we get a sense that Molly longs for physical closeness, and seeks it by imagining the embodiment of things around her.
In contrast, for the first two chapters, Cyrian appears only as a voice. At first, the circumstances of his physical absence seem fairly mundane. Molly knocks on his door, and he tries to dismiss her, claiming he no longer seeks responses to his advertisement. Her active imagination and tendency towards chattiness draw him in, however, and they spend the majority of the first chapter bantering from across a closed door. Even after he invites her in, he hides whenever he speaks to her, and it takes several chapters before he allows himself to be seen in her presence.
In response to Cyrian’s disappearing act, Molly starts off with her usual attempts to accord a bodily form to disembodied things. The metaphors she uses are increasingly vivid, as if she knows she has to work harder to find a body for the sounds made by a man who won’t let his own be shown. She starts with his laugh, and doesn’t seem to struggle to imagine exactly what kind of privileged, assured embodiment Cyrian’s laughter would take:
You could stick that awful noice in the House of Lords and have it shout at the Prime Minister. It could attend a swanky soiree entirely independent of the person it comes out of, and no one would blink an eye
Things change when he begins to speak however, in a way that allows us to learn a bit more about Molly’s relationship to physicality, and why her role in this book isn’t as simple as a woman who teaches a touch-averse man to inhabit his body more comfortably.
One thing we learn about Molly early on is that she has lived a fairly isolated life, keeping company with books. As a result, she feels a great deal of comfort with words on the page, but has comparatively little experience with words spoken by a person. This tension destabilizes her tendency to give physical form to things: she has to let go of the kind of words that feel familiar- words manifested physically on pages of books- in order to explore the kinds of words she’s always longed for – spoken words that have no physical form, but rely on a body in proximity to hers in order to be experienced. This paradox of embodiment/disembodiment comes to a head in what is probably my favorite passage of the book, when Molly first hears Cyrian speak:
He uses the sorts of words I’ve waited all my life to hear spoken aloud- words I barely know how to pronounce because the only time I’ve ever encountered them has been in books. I had no idea that ‘reprobate’ curled that way, or that ‘disillusion’ sounded so small to begin with and then so big at the end. Though, granted, part of that might be down to the way he talks. His tongue practically makes love to each syllable. I feel like his sentence should smoke a cigarette, directly after the full stop.
This passage pays gorgeous tribute to those of us who learned words by reading them first, long before we ever heard what they sounded like. It also contains a perfect example of Molly’s efforts to grant physicality to everything around her, as she imagines Cyrian’s sentence smoking a cigarette in an embodied, deeply eroticized metaphor. What interests me the most here, though, is not so much the metaphorical specificity as the moments of vagueness in the passage. Molly tells us that reprobate curls “like that” and that disillusion sounds “so small” and then “so big” without indicating the scale or scope of her measurement. I don’t think this is an oversight or a failure of specificity (just a moment ago, Molly was able to tell us Cyrian’s laugh could shout at the PM in the House of Lords). Rather, these words hold a place within the text for sentiments and experiences that inevitably escape the written word.
Even when Molly gets more specific about Cyrian’s voice, later on, she does so in a way that remains evocative yet – curiously – just a bit inaccessible to the reader. Of his pronunciation of the word “reprobate,” Molly tells Cyrian “You turned the letter R into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. People will probably be playing that letter O at funerals.” This comparison is beautiful, but it’s also noticeably hyperbolic: so much so that it precludes concrete comparison. Even if readers say the word “reprobate” out loud, we are unlikely to actually hear the symphony that Molly hears. This heightened, exaggerated comparison reinforces, as a reading experience, the point that Molly is trying to make about her connection to Cyrian: it’s powerful because it cannot be encoded into the printed texts she’s used to consuming. Cyrian’s words escape familiar physical forms and rely on presence: a body in proximity to another.
At its most elemental level, this passage offers a new way to think about words and physicality, which in and of itself is valuable (and beautifully rendered in the text). But I also think that there’s important resonance here for Molly and Cyrian’s character arcs in the rest of the book. Sweet Agony is an erotic romance, between a woman who craves the comfort of physical connection and a man who needs to develop trust before he is comfortable being seen or touched. This aspect of the relationship is negotiated through discovery of what kinds of bodily contact they do – and do not – have with each other. On that interpretative level, Cyrian sets most of the boundaries and defines the limits of their physical relationship, while Molly provides the understanding he needs to do so. As such, Cyrian appears to go through the more active change of the two protagonists. We see him move from fearing Molly’s proximity, to feeling safe enough to admit his desire for her touch. While it’s a rewarding and emotionally moving storyline, it also appears a bit unidirectional, if the parameters of “comfort with physical contact” are the primary consideration.
I think it’s worth watching the text, though, for Molly’s own evolution away from her insecurities. This evolution is perhaps a bit more subtle, because it happens through her relationship to words rather than to touch. Just as Cyrian takes tentative steps to allow closer and closer physical proximity, Molly also becomes more and more comfortable experiencing words in their embodied form: a change which is aided by Cyrian’s careful understanding. In the early days of their relationship, Cyrian communicates with Molly mostly through letters, and readers can see her joy and her comfort in the physical word-forms familiar to her from reading books: the “fancy swirling script” and “beautiful envelopes and little cream cards” with wax and a seal. Slowly but surely, though, she takes steps towards Cyrian as he leaves her books to read, and then reads reads books to her aloud, before finally she is able to hear him voice fantasies that they can share. All of this renders their relationship a negotiation of partners, and Cyrian does equal narrative work to help Molly move towards the kind of embodied words she was denied all her life.
Taking into account both the physical and the verbal, Sweet Agony much more clearly becomes a book where the characters meet each other halfway, and where words are just as erotic, and just as important, as touch. The early passages around Molly and Cyrian’s meeting draw the readers eye there, and attune their ears, and make the rest of the reading experience all the richer.
My blog post today is about a book I devoured just this last weekend, and had to write about immediately to try to deal with my obsession with the prose : Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty. While the author is already established in other genres, this is (I believe) their first romance, and I was completely blown away by it. Here’s the cover and blurb to start:
Feyi Adekola wants to learn how to be alive again. It’s been five years since the accident that killed the love of her life and she’s almost a new person now—an artist with her own studio, and sharing a brownstone apartment with her ride-or-die best friend, Joy, who insists it’s time for Feyi to ease back into the dating scene. Feyi isn’t ready for anything serious, but a steamy encounter at a rooftop party cascades into a whirlwind summer she could have never imagined: a luxury trip to a tropical island, decadent meals in the glamorous home of a celebrity chef, and a major curator who wants to launch her art career. She’s even started dating the perfect guy, but their new relationship might be sabotaged before it has a chance by the dangerous thrill Feyi feels every time she locks eyes with the one person in the house who is most definitely off-limits. This new life she asked for just got a lot more complicated, and Feyi must begin her search for real answers. Who is she ready to become? Can she release her past and honor her grief while still embracing her future? And, of course, there’s the biggest question of all—how far is she willing to go for a second chance at love?
Sometimes when I read, I decide partway through the process that I want to do a blog post, but have a hard time picking a passage, for one reason or another. Not the case here. The passage I’ll be looking at jumped out at me immediately, practically demanding analysis. At this point in the novel, Feyi has been working on an art installation exploring her grief over losing her husband in a car accident (from which she escaped virtually uninjured). She has hung hundreds of wedding rings by wire from the ceiling of a gallery: hidden among them is her late husband’s actual wedding ring, stained with his blood from the accident. In this scene, Alim shows up to see the installation for the first time. I think it’s important to know here that both Feyi and Alim have lived through the traumatic death of a spouse, and a part of their instant connection comes from recognizing something about each other that most people don’t. Here’s the passage:
He was standing on the other side of the mirrored room, his eyes lined with kohl, shocked and wet as rings floated around his head. Feyi couldn’t breathe. His face was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and she knew he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this, in a forest of forevers, the one that didn’t happen. As Feyi stared at him, Alim’s hand drifted to his neck, his fingers coal dark against his white tunic. Feyi knew what lay against his throat underneath, that silver ring. It was either his or Marisol’s. She’d never asked which, never said anything about it, really. It was too private, something like that. Unless you were Feyi, and alive, in which case you displayed it to strangers because something inside you had never stopped screaming.
The whole time I was reading this book, I kept returning to the word “sensual” to try to define what impressed me so much about the prose. Certainly it came to mind because the novel is very sexy: there’s a lot of sex in it, a lot of physical attraction, and sensuality is a concept that covers both of those things, for me. But moreso I think that this is a novel that engages the reader’s senses actively. It has prose that asks the reader to think not just about what things look like, but how they sound, taste, smell, and feel. That kind of prose can be lush and beautiful, but it can also be overwhelming, and part of what intrigued me about Emezi’s writing was how they kept so much raw feeling fresh and sharp and structured. This passage was key for me understanding that, because it couples the sensations present on the page with notable absences, and a rigorous approach to sentence structure. So that’s what I want to look at here: the senses that are evoked, and (just as importantly) the ones that aren’t, and how the structure of the prose both highlights and restrains the emotional experience.
The beginning of this passage establishes an emphasis on the visual right away, with its mirrored room. The first thing Feyi notices about Alim’s entrance is his eyes: their lining with kohl seems to echo the rings around the room, and connect him visually to the installation, just as Feyi is connecting visually with Alim. The majority of the images in the passage are visual observations as well: Alim’s face, the blood-marked ring, Alim’s hand and neck, the color of his fingers against the color of his tunic, his throat, his silver ring.
Right underneath these visual descriptors, however, is something very tactile. Alim’s face is “raw” and “flayed open” and his eyes are “wet” – all of which are as much about how a face might feel as how it looks. The ring is marked by blood, which evokes the physical sensation of pain. The rest of Alim’s physical description comes from a moment where he places his hand on his own throat, and presses a ring to it, motions that carry an impression of touch with them. Like so much of this book, each sense that is evoked carries another sense underneath it, layered in with it, making for a rich reading experience that doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a surfeit of individual details.
It’s sometimes harder to pin down, but whatever keeps writing from being too much, whatever makes it what it is not, is just as important as the more visible beauty that makes it what it is. In this case, the sensual omissions from the passage are equally as meaningful as the tactility and visuality that are present for the reader. There are no mentions of either taste or scent, for example. In part, that omission simply corresponds to the way Feyi planned her installation: the rings are meant to be looked at and to brush against the visitor, and so obviously those are the predominant senses with which the reader experiences Alim’s entrance. But also, scent and taste are associated with Alim’s art – his cooking – throughout the book. Excluding them here keeps the passage tight in its focus on Feyi, omitting the things that belong to anyone else, as she explores this intense feeling of finally belonging to herself.
On its own, this kind of sensual engagement, thoughtfully and judiciously presented, can make for truly remarkable prose. But I also don’t want to give the impression that this book is just a pile of feelings to be waded into and sifted through. There’s a rigorous structure to the prose on a sentence level that lets all the soft and less-structured feelings shine, almost like a setting for a stone. Within this passage, there are two sentences that have a distinctive shape to them – one linear, one more iterative and circular – and I want to take a look at both. Here’s the first:
His face was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and she knew he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this, in a forest of forevers, the one that didn’t happen.
The sentence is my favorite of the passage, possibly of the entire book. Part of that is the image of a “forest of forevers,” a metaphor that stands out in prose that is otherwise more focused on the hyper-reality of sensation. And at 46 words, the sentence takes up a whole 1/3 of the paragraph. It has an incredible sense of weight, yet that heaviness is counterbalanced by a brisk sense of linear forward motion. It’s a bit hard to visualize the way I think about the linear movement in this sentence, but my best attempt is below. To start, I’ve bracketed what I think of as the backbone of the sentence- the individual pieces that provide structure, each of which is modified by the clauses the follow them.
[His face] was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and [she knew] he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew [what it meant] that she’d kept it, that she was showing it [like this], in a forest of [forevers], the one that didn’t happen.
If you break the sentence down into component parts, it becomes clear how towards the end of the sentence, each modifying clause contains the next piece of backbone to be modified, so that the prose builds slowly on itself as it moves forward. This is a little bit clearer (I hope) laid out like this:
[she knew] he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it
[what it meant] that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this
[like this] in a forest of forevers
[forevers] the one that didn’t happen
The author writes a lot of beautiful chained-together sentences like this throughout the book, which is a kind of structure that takes a lot of control if you don’t want to lose the reader halfway through. But there are also moments where the linear structure is abandoned for a more iterative mode, circling back to the same idea over and over with subtle and meaningful variations. The most striking one is the repeated idea that Feyi is “herself, and alive.” This formulation appears over and over, mostly concentrated in the chapters leading up to the passage I’m looking at :
“She was hers, she was alive; there was so much to do” (Ch 8)
“And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no” (Ch 10)
“… because Feyi was herself, and she was alive, she kept going, holding the books like a secret” (Ch 11)
One of Feyi’s main struggles in the is book how her guilt at surviving the accident, at simply being alive, makes her feel intensely absent and separated from herself. Accepting that she is still herself, and that she is alive, is the heart of the journey that she goes on in this story. I loved seeing that highlighted by this simple iteration, which becomes familiar to the reader the more often it appears. However, iteration for the sake of iteration isn’t necessarily great writing: there has to be something going on behind it. Looking at these iterations of “Feyi, and alive” together, it strikes me that something very different happens at the end of the passage we’re looking at. All of the previous iterations use “she/Feyi” as the primary form of address, but the last one uses “you.”
Unless you were Feyi, and alive, in which case you displayed it to strangers because something inside you had never stopped screaming.
The English language allows for an interesting slippage here, because “you” can be used both as an impersonal and second person address – basically, the word can both mean “one, someone in general” and “you, the person I’m speaking to.” The impersonal “you” offers a kind of alienation from the individual; the second-person “you” brings the reader immediately into the world of the narrative. On one level, the last sentence represents the liminal moment Feyi is at in this passage, deciding whether to retreat from human connection into further impersonality, or let others into her world.
Really, though, what I might love the most about the conclusion of this passage is that there’s instability that demands participation of the reader. I have to decide – I get to decide – if I read this as an impersonal “you,” or if I feel like the passage is talking to me. It’s a grammatical structure that brings me right into the world of the novel just as surely as its sensual images do. This entire book is a masterpiece of judicious application of reflection and feeling, structure and sensuality, and it all works together for one of the most unique bits of prose I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend picking it up.
One of my most memorable reading experiences of last year came courtesy of Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light. It’s a fantasy romance with a mystery plot and magical families and enchanted estates, which is not usually my jam. But I was truly impressed with how the author layered together a slow burn romance with a gently-building suspense plot, and doled out information about an entire magical system without info-dumping. And part of what made all this work was the way the book is written. The prose has so much of its own rhythm that propels the reader just as much as the romance or the mystery or the magic.
Here’s the cover and blurb:
Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known. Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else. Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.
I’m writing about this book after a recent re-read. One of the things I love about re-reading is that knowing where the plot is going can make you read differently at the beginning. Case in point: this time around, a passage in the third chapter jumped out at me:
Edwin ran his eyes twice more over the page and then when the words refused to line themselves up and be seen, replaced the sweep of his sight with that of a fingertip, finding pleasure in the tiny roughness of the paper. Edwin’s collection of small enjoyments was carefully cultivated. When he exhaled his worry he imagined it going up in the snap of the fire. He thought about the meticulous cogs of the Gatling’s clock, and the particular hazel of Sir Robert Blyth’s eyes.
In the gaps between small things, Edwin could feel his quiescent magic like a single drop of blood in a bucket of water: more obvious than it deserved to be, given its volume. He could breathe into the knots in the back of his neck. And he could feel out the edges of the aching, yearning space in his life that no amount of quiet and no number of words had yet been able to fill.
I’ve come to think of this passage as an interpretative key for the rest of the book. Not in the literal sense that the author inserted a few lines on page 26 to show readers how to read. Rather, this passage contains in microcosm things that make the writing remarkable across the whole book. There are powerful and slightly unsettling metaphors, descriptions that engage all the senses, and a fictional world so rich in detail that characters can draw on internal references to create metaphors. But even more than that, this passage describes the very feeling of reading itself. The writing of this book feels exactly as Edwin’s reading is described above: a carefully cultivated collection of small enjoyments. Writing textured enough I imagine myself closing my eyes and running a finger over it. So that’s what I’m looking at here: digging in and picking apart exactly how this book’s prose gets its layers and textures and movement.
The most obvious way of lending texture to writing is the insertion of the unusual or the unexpected: fragmented sentence structures, or words that seem out of place. Using the guiding image of Edwin running his finger over the page, they’re the tiny roughnesses of the paper. In the case of A Marvellous Light, these moments are often more lexical than structural. The sentence construction remains largely standard, but often we find words that don’t quite fit dropped into the middle of those sentences. Often these roughnesses involve a word that readers associate with one context, placed into another. Maude, Robin’s sister, is described “taking pins from her hair and dropping them one by one into a jar with tinkling sounds like the overture of rain.”
The idea of opening in “overture” helps the word fit in, as it could refer to the beginning of a rainstorm. But overture is also associated with grand musical productions, and pairing it with the delicacy of hairpins in a jar and raindrops makes the sound all the more vivid, like it’s been Foley-ed into the reader’s brain.
Often these texture-words incorporate senses usually not involved in processing the information given. One of my favorite lines of the book describes people speaking cruelly about others as “gossip with a sort of aniseed edge to it.” Gossip doesn’t have a taste, but the taste of aniseed has an edge that fits vividly, but not quite perfectly, into the discussion of gossip. Many of the texture-words insert movement and ascribe motivation into an otherwise- static image: a messy office is described as a “tantrum of spilled paper and overturned furniture”; an elderly woman’s face when smiling displays “a tissue-crumple of dimples.” These little incongruities are echoes of the author’s broader facility with metaphor, but I think they have the most power in their smallest form, infusing tiny roughnesses into the prose.
Of course, texture isn’t only about moments that stall or disconcert the reader. A book full of tiny speed-bumps would eventually become tedious, losing the reader’s attention and investment. Part of what makes the textures of A Marvellous Light remarkable is their variety, and that includes moments that smooth together elements of the story so that the reader barely realizes they’re reading about two different things at once.
A first example that comes to mind is from this passage :
Control was a word that hung on Edwin like a half-fitted suit. In some places it clung to him; in others it gaped, in a way that made Robin want to hook his fingers into the loose seams and tug. He didn’t want Edwin to stop talking.
The idea of a word hanging on a person like clothes fits with the comparisons we saw earlier: combining emotions with tactile images. But watch what happens in the rest of the sentence: Robin takes that clothing imagery and slowly revolves it into a sensual image of undressing, while still functioning as a metaphor for encouraging Edwin to talk. The sexual tension between Robin and Edwin is a current of slow-burn emotion in the novel, surfacing in fleeting touches or moments of understanding. But on an even deeper level, it runs through the prose, often infusing mundane moments with barely-perceptible references to physical attraction. The blending of elements adds depth to the sustained infusion of romance throughout the entire book’s plot.
Beyond the mixing of plot, character, and romance, I think what makes this book truly unique is its ability to incorporate metaphors entirely from within the world of the novel. As a casual SFF romance reader at best, I often find info-dumps about magical systems frustrating, because they feel like the author is speaking to the reader and around the characters. In A Marvellous Light, by contrast, characters fully embody a world of magic, integrating it into their perception of their surroundings. Take this passage that draws on the concept of “cradling.” (Apologies for the unavoidable tiny info-dump: cradling, in the novel, is the means of casting spells. Think the children’s game Cat’s Cradle played without the string – except for Edwin, who relies on string for added precision in the absence of more powerful magic). Here’s Robin, not quite ready to vocalize his affections for Edwin:
Robin managed to hold his tongue on something truly unwise like You look like a Turner painting and I want to learn your textures with my fingertips. You are the most fascinating thing in this beautiful house. I’d like to introduce my fists to whoever taught you to stop talking about the things that interest you. Those were not things one blurted out to a friend. They were their own cradles of magic, an expression of the desire to transform one thing into another. And what if the magic went awry?
This passage draws together so many pieces of the novel’s world. Robin is a connoisseur of art, making the Turner painting reference clearly his, while “learn your textures with my fingertips” evokes Edwin’s method of reading. Edwin’s cerebral introversion and boxer Robin’s love of action are contained within his desire to punch anyone who overlooks Edwin. But the real beauty of this passage is in the nearly-effortless use of cradling – a method of physical transmutation – as a metaphor for verbalizing feelings of love, and how that can transform a relationship for better or for worse. There’s a massive amount of weight behind this metaphor, in terms of information about magic systems, but it’s weight that disappears under the smooth surface of the prose.
Ultimately, when it comes to creating this “texturized prose” the smoothly blended moments are just as important as the tiny roughnesses, and this book executes both masterfully. But perhaps most impactful of all is book-wide topography of both those elements: a knowledge of when to deploy which approach.
We can see that knowledge at work three short passages. The first is my favorite line of the entire novel, because it contains some of the only disjointed syntax in the book. In it, Edwin contemplates the loss of Robin’s affections :
Even with or without all the magic in the world, you couldn’t charm a person to stay. Not for long. Not truly. Not and keep you safe.
This set of sentences offers a perfect example of the gorgeous roughness of A Marvellous Light’s prose. I tripped happily over the addition of “or without” to the first sentence, considering that Edwin’s meaning is fully conveyed by the hypothetical “even with all the magic in the world.” But it’s the last bit that I love the most. “Not and keep you safe.” All three of the final clauses are incomplete, but that last one is incomplete in a different, noticeable way. The “not and” is only legible via the pattern of the previous two utterances, so that it makes sense without sounding quite right. It possesses a beautiful breaking quality to it that echoes Edwin’s emotional state.
Take, as a point of comparison, this sentence from a much-less-emotionally-central part of the book, during a meeting with a tertiary character:
Anne nodded. She looked tired and stiff. She looked like a doll enchanted to do those exact things in response to those exact words: to sit, to nod, to say thank you.
In structure, it somewhat echoes the line above about Edwin. Here, however, there’s some lexical repetition (those exact things/those exact words) to reinforce the impression of mundanity. And unlike “Not and keep you safe,” the fragment repetition here falls into a strictly grammatical series of infinitives separated by commas. The texture of Edwin’s passage draws attention to his feelings of brokenness and hurt with finger-rough prose. This second passage smooths the way for Anne’s feelings of exhaustion – and reserves standout prose for standout moments.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments where the smoothness of the prose packs a knockout punch. Consider, for example, this set of three fragments in the final chapter – and final love scene – of the book:
Robin kissed him, kissed him, drank him in like water.
The prose here flows beautifully, but also noticeably; the choice of “kissed him, kissed him” draws more attention through its grammatical loosening than “kissed him and kissed him” might. It echoes the loosening of inhibition between Robin and Edwin, the relief of their coming together and the smoothing of the road in front of them. It’s exactly the right sentence for the right moment, something this book has a knack for from start to finish.
In closing, I want to circle back to where I started, to re-read two sentences from the opening passage and enjoy how marvelously it works as a key for reading this novel :
Edwin ran his eyes twice more over the page and then when the words refused to line themselves up and be seen, replaced the sweep of his sight with that of a fingertip, finding pleasure in the tiny roughness of the paper. Edwin’s collection of small enjoyments was carefully cultivated.
I hope you’ve found some pleasure in this trip through A Marvellous Light’s rough textures and small enjoyments, and if you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend picking it up.
Today’s post is about Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. As some of you may know, over the past two years I’ve been reading through Kinsale’s backlist with a group of romance-reading friends. Flowers was my first Kinsale novel, and we decided to make it our final Kinsale buddy read. It’s a complex book – one that I’ve been waiting to talk about on the blog for a long time. It’s both wildly innovative, and very much of its time as a 1990s historical romance. I’ve done my best here to think it through and talk about both of those elements carefully. Before we get going, here’s a cover image and blurb, with a link to more detailed CWs at the bottom.
The Duke of Jervaulx was brilliant – and dangerous. Considered dissolute, reckless, and extravagant, he was transparently referred to as the “D of J” in scandal sheets. But sometimes the most womanizing rakehell can be irresistible, and even his most casual attentions fascinated the sheltered Maddy Timms.
Then one fateful day she receives the shocking news – the duke is lost to the world. And Maddy knows it is her destiny to help him and her only chance to find the true man behind the wicked facade.
But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love.
Cover image and blurb from Goodreads. A complete list of CWs can be found at the end of Leigh’s review here.
A note: while I usually try to keep my blog free of major spoilers, this post is an exception, and will talk about plot points from the beginning to the end of the book. If you prefer to enter a book totally unspoiled, you may want to stop here.
Language is a huge part of what fascinates me about Kinsale’s work. Not just in the sense that I enjoy the author’s prose, although I do, but because in so many of her books, language is foregrounded as a theme. In the Kinsale literary universe, mastery of language allows characters to exert power, create intimacy, and express desire. And so it might not be surprising that Flowers from the Storm is my favorite Kinsale novel, because it’s the book of hers that is the most linguistically innovative, and the most directly concerned with language as a theme.
I think if you were to ask most people about what stands out in the language of Flowers, it’s the speech of the hero, Christian, the Duke of Jervaulx. In the third chapter, Christian has what modern-day readers can identify as a stroke, and Kinsale writes his inner dialogue, conversations, and understanding of others’ speech to reflect various phases of his recovery. I will get to Jervaulx’s relationship to language in this post, but I want to start at a different point. If we are to take language as an important determinant of social relations and the way characters experience the world, it’s important not to bypass the heroine, Maddy.
I get the sense that Maddy is a divisive character for readers of this book. Her 19th-century Quaker religious faith informs her behavior in ways that can make her seem alien to a modern audience; yet at the same time, her overarching concerns are incredibly familiar: the way speech and dress cause her to be judged, her commitment to caring for others, her feelings about sexual intimacy, her view of wealth and social class.
The crux of Maddy’s character arc is that, is that choosing to marry Jervaulx – a wealthy duke – she leaves behind her Quaker religious community, a radical commitment to class equality, and a learned feeling of shame around sex. I argue that one of the ways we can make sense of this confusing combination of sexual liberation and economic normalization is via a through-line Kinsale creates around Maddy’s language use. Control of speech means control of desire, intimacy, and power, an interpretation that depends on reading Maddy and Jervaulx’s relationship to language in tandem.
To get a sense of how Maddy’s faith informs the narrative, let’s start with her first spoken lines :
“I’ve yet to fathom it. No doubt I never will. How canst thou expect any real consideration from a person of his -” Archimedea Timms paused, searching for a suitable word. “- his ilk, Papa?” “Wilt thou pour me a cup of tea, Maddy?” Her father asked, in just the sort of amiable voice that left one with no room to start an effective argument. “He is a duke, for one thing, “ she said over her shoulder…
Throughout the narrative, Maddy employs Plain Speech with a consistent set of linguistic markers, including the second person pronouns “thee” and “thou” and the present tense conjugation of verbs with -st such as “canst” and “shouldst,” and the refusal of honorific titles such as “your Grace.” Being a Quaker shapes the way Maddy understands her place in the world, and it also conditions how others understand her (Christian is constantly referring to her as a “thee-thou spinster.”)
A core value that readers come to associate with Maddy’s Quaker speech is the rejection of wealth and ostentation. Maddy articulates a critique of Jervaulx’s financial power as a sign of broader social inequality, in a way that feels unique among 1990s-era romances. It’s not entirely unexpected, of course, for a heroine from a humble background to be awed by a duke’s wealth, to perhaps even be vaguely suspicious of it. But Maddy finds it specifically immoral, and resists it in practice and in speech. She fights her husband constantly on his “vain and profitless” displays of wealth. Her resistance also takes linguistic forms, including telling Christian’s household staff “I am not to be addressed as Your Grace, but simply as your mistress. I am – I was raised in the principles of the Society of Friends, and I cannot be easy with the other.” She refuses to change her manner of speech before Christian’s wealthy family, or even the King of England when she meets him at a ball.
The end of the story, then, where Maddy leaves her faith community to become a duchess can, I think, reasonably be read as a story that prioritizes romance over structural critique of society. It’s a part of the book that has always frustrated me, in part because Kinsale allows Maddy to be so stalwart in her social critique right up until the very end. As I’ll discuss shortly, Maddy retains a lot of forms of individual resistance, but any broader systematic critique of ducal wealth is essentially subsumed by the novel’s HEA.
Another confounding element of Maddy’s Quaker faith in the novel is that it imparts more than resistance to economic power. It also – at least as it’s presented in the narrative – gives Maddy a deep sense of shame around her own sexuality. This is why I think we have to read the economic and social elements of Maddy’s HEA, which I think are profoundly normativizing, against the sexual and linguistic elements of it, which I find more liberatory and radical.
Maddy’s sexual arc involves overcoming internalized shame from what the book presents as a 19th century religious purity culture. And I will say right up front that this is hard to discuss. The sex scenes in the book, particularly the first one, reflect a 1990s sensibility around consent, particularly the idea that social shame might force a woman to refuse sex when she “really” wants to say yes. Because of this, I honestly hesitated to discuss the first sex scene between Maddy and Jervaulx, and I encourage readers to skip this section of the blog post if that’s something that is likely to be hard to read about. Ultimately I decided to talk about it because I want to be honest about the problematic nature of these complicated old-school approaches, and consider what messages they’ve perpetuated around purity culture and consent.
Leading up to their first sex scene, Maddy has told Jervaulx that she doesn’t want to consummate their marriage, because doing so would remove the possibility of annulment, an option that would allow her to return to her religious community. But her resistance to sex isn’t just about the legal state of marriage. She also clearly has learned that sex is shameful: the book presents this as coming from society in general, but primarily from her immediate religious community. She refers often to her own desires making her feel “guilty and ashamed,” and deems the moments she nearly acts on them as “weakness.” She does not know how to process the fact that she feels drawn to her husband, and seeks out physical connection with him. When Maddy invites Jervaulx to sleep in her bed, he says to her “You tell… when to stop […] You say… you don’t want.”
This request that Maddy say no to stop their encounter puts her in a significant linguistic bind. She talks to herself throughout the scene, and there’s a marked contrast between what I read as the voice of her religious society in her head, set apart by italics which simply repeats “Say stop,” and the voice of Maddy’s desires, which describes what she’s supposed to be stopping in the tender, sensual, florid language of romantic longing.
Say stop, because I know thy face so well, even in the dark, thine eyes that turn to mine in bewilderment, in arrogance. They’re blue – dark, like clouds that cross the stars; they laugh without words […] Oh- stop my hands from holding thy face between them, from pulling thee closer to kiss me, thy mouth on mine- deep and passionate. Stop; it cannot be; we are impossible…
This scene is clearly participating in a long and problematic romance tradition of assuming that physical desire tells a “truth” that verbal consent might not capture. It also portrays how effectively Maddy’s learned shame around sex strips from her the ability to affirmatively consent, leaving her instead with only a “stop” that she does not desire to say out loud. It’s a troubling scene, not an easy one to read by any means.
Personally I read it as an early point in a journey, one that runs alongside her journey of becoming a duchess. Maddy ultimately finds agency to give affirmative consent, in part by leaving a sexually repressive community. A later sex scene with Christian, for example, finds him explicitly asking for affirmative consent: he wants to hear Maddy verbalize that she wants him, and while she initially struggles with self-censure, she finally proclaims “I want thee […] I want thee” at the climax of the scene.
I think there’s a legitimate reading of the novel wherein – by centering Maddy’s sexual blossoming and economic mainstreaming via her marriage to Jervaulx – Flowers suggests that readers should see acceptance of capitalism as a precondition for personal sexual fulfillment. But I also think that what’s going on at the end of the novel involves a competing narrative about power, in addition to sexuality and economics, which is mastery of language. And to understand language in this book, we have to understand exactly what the book is doing with the Duke of Jervaulx.
The Duke of Jervaulx
There are, broadly speaking, four different ways Jervaulx’s language is rendered after his stroke. One is a straightforward, close third person POV, which remains largely unchanged across the novel, whether before or during Christian’s recovery. This, for example, is how he describes the restraints he’s forced to wear in the asylum his family has placed him in:
It touched off a nightmare dread Christian had never known he had inside him, a fear that went past reason and pride straight to a well of primeval impulse that made him fight it every time, long after he knew himself damned, long after he’d learned he could not win.
However, in the chapters immediately following the stroke, there are also interruptions to this inner monologue, in the form of italicized series of words that represent his struggles to pin down language to describe the world around him.
After a moment’s hesitation, she walked across the cell. Her hand startled him; as she held it out it seemed to come from nowhere- things did that, jumped up at him from nothing, blast sound sudden make noise didn’t know- Hide things- Pop out there not there WHY! It made him furious.
As Christian gradually recovers his ability to speak, we see less of this italicization. It’s replaced by dialogue that starts out focused on individual words and sentence fragments. Over the process of his recovery, a pattern emerges: we still see ellipses representing hesitation, deletion of prepositions and smaller words, and instances where Christian changes the course of a sentence in order to prioritize the words he has access to in the moment.
Then he said “I was… I write… Daily. At Monmouth. Send for here… write settlements […] He doesn’t come. He writes. He will not… act.”
The other element of Christian’s experience of language that changes is how he hears other people speaking to him. Early in the novel, the sounds of what other people say are rendered in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to separate them into words.
She said his name so sharply, with such decisive emphasis, that he stopped and stared at her. “Morrow. Lord Chansor hear. Thamus show cam sense.”
Later on, we experience progressive change in Jervaulx’s ability to understand others’s speech, with only some small deletions.
“I believe- would be wise” She kept her eyes on him, level. “But I will stay thou art well enough”
It’s worth mentioning here that I can’t speak to the clinical or medical accuracy of how Kinsale portrays aphasia. While her approach to writing Jervaulx feels, to me, to be respectful of his agency, emotions, and subjectivity, other readers might feel differently about the representation of that experience.
What strikes me about Jervaulx’s POV chapters is that Kinsale carefully modulates what readers have access to and what they don’t, in a way that sets important boundaries around his subjective experience. The first thing the novel is careful to do is to not give readers access to more linguistic information than Jervaulx has when listening to others speak- it rejects any linguistic moves that put the reader in a place of power over the character.
It’s also significant that we do have access to an inner monologue that is unchanged by Christian’s aphasia. With the exception of Maddy, almost nobody in the story initially understands that Christian’s restricted linguistic access is not a sign of diminished intelligence or changed personality. The novel, however, ensures not only that Christian has a space of mastery and autonomy within his own mind that transcends the outer trappings of spoken language, it makes readers aware of that space. The novel also asks that we work to understand Christian, regardless of the forms his language production takes: the onus is on the readers to adapt to him, in a world which is otherwise trying to force him to adapt to its exclusionary standards.
If the book is insistent about balancing the reader-character power dynamics within Christian’s POV, it’s also very canny about the ways society attempts to disempower Christian solely on the basis of his language use. Over and over again, Christian’s access to the power he supposedly “inherently” holds as Duke – his title, his funds, his home – is barred via demands of different types of linguistic performance. Christian has to understand verbal questions and write his name to pass his competency hearing; he has to read and write letters in order to deal with his creditors; he has to be able to speak vows at his wedding in order to secure his title and access to his estate; he must converse fluently at society events to convince society to accept him as the Duke. It’s clear, particularly in this last instance, that Christian’s production of comprehensible language is seen as a transaction, on which depends others’ financial investment in his power and social standing.
So, I think, as I suggested earlier, this reading of Christian’s arc gives us access to a different way to think about Maddy’s, as taking place in a universe where language is a significant form of social power, and where understanding those who don’t speak the language of power is an important act of interpersonal intimacy. Within a world that equates not just access to language but choice of when and how to speak with power, the fact that Maddy continues to use Plain Speech until the very end of the book is meaningful. This doesn’t happen only through language. We learn in the epilogue that Maddy has retained her belief in social and economic equality – both in her individual refusal to spend money on personal adornments, and by pressing Christian to donate his money and to work for legal changes to workers’ rights. But I do think that if we understand Flowers as a book where the way a person expresses themselves is meaningful and intimate, and that asking others to take them on their own linguistic terms is powerful, Maddy’s continued use of Plain Speech represents an important marker of individual values and faith. Her retention of her Quaker language indexes the fact that she still has the control to act with her values individually, even if she has been removed from the social movement in which she previously enacted them.
And in some ways, that’s not entirely satisfying. There is, quite simply, no structural interrogation of the system of power into which Christian is re-integrated. No discussion of what Maddy loses, socially, by joining him in it, and very little examination of its morality, nor of the sources of Christian’s wealth. In some ways, it is a stereotypical narrative in which the heroine loses sexual inhibition and gains access to capitalist comforts via her romantic relationship to a wealthy man. And I think the narrative very much wants us to see this as a fair exchange, perhaps even one worth celebrating.
This dynamic is actually rather revelatory about romance as a genre, and the way it balances (or doesn’t) individual narratives of personal and sexual freedom with the overarching social structures in which the characters operate. On some level, I think romance is relatable because it prioritizes the affective experience of the individual actor within the system, which is, ultimately, the way we experience the world. Very few of us, as readers, are in a position to make institutional change, and there’s an allure to narratives where the trajectory of the individual can feel revolutionary despite their actions taking place in an unchanging system. An uncharitable reading is that romance reassures readers that getting to have good sex with a duke while still calling him “thou” is worth giving up a broader anti-capitalist fight. But I do think there’s something more complex going on than just “the individual” and “the real-world” in this book – in part because romance as a whole constructs a universe where the individual is particularly meaningful, and in part because of the way this book in particular imagines language as both an individually and socially determined system of power.
No Rule but Love
I think this reading comes through most clearly in the final scene, which is one of the most iconic I’ve ever read, and it centers around two competing linguistic acts. Maddy has been told that in order to re-enter the church, she has to publish a letter in which she condemns her own actions in marrying Jervaulx. The way she frames this – the way the book does – is primarily as a social censure of sexual liberation. Maddy is meant, essentially, to repent for having given in to her desires and had a sexual relationship with Jervaulx. We watch her struggle to write the letter, in part because doing so is asking her to lie. Christian comes to the meeting house where her letter is to be read, and gives an impassioned speech where he confronts her with her words, and how they run contrary to what he knows to be the truth of her feelings for him:
Turning his back, he lifted the paper toward the solemn men in the gallery. “Who wrote this? You?” He brandished it at the sober faces. “Or you? Not her. Not her… say I’m – enemy” Christian shook his head and made a disbelieving groan. “Maddy… ‘fornication’?” He was halfway between laugh and tears. “I called it… love for you. Before God… love… honor… my wife… cherish all my days. I said it. Still truth, Maddy. Still the truth… in me, and always.”
Linguistically, this speech is noteworthy because the markers of Christian’s aphasia are closer to what they were halfway through the book. Both realistically and diegetically this makes sense, because we’ve seen that in moments of great stress or particularly high stakes, Christian struggles with mastery over his own speech patterns. Thematically, though, it also represents a manner of speaking that is socially devalued and personally vulnerable: Christian has often refused to speak in front of people if he can’t do it “correctly.” It’s immensely exposing and truthful, and it represents what he’s asking Maddy to do, which is to renounce the type of speech in which society wishes her to engage (in her case, lies about her physical desire) and join him in the intimacy of the way they speak to each other.
The moment where she choses Christian – choses individual union over social censure – takes place not in the meetinghouse but just outside it. The couple exchanges vows of love that echo the ones given at their initial wedding, of “no rule but love between us.” It’s an ending that prioritizes the individual and the sexual over the institutional and social, but one that attempts to use language as the tie that binds all of those together. That can make for a confounding reading: I find that at the end of this book it’s not necessarily easy to figure out how to weigh, in particular, what Maddy has lost and what she’s gained. What somewhat reconciles the fractured reading of this book, for me, is the way Kinsale treats language. Language is the material of individual desire and of social power in her work, and her writing resists separation of the two. Maddy and Christian arrive at a place where they can fully command and understand language as an expression of their desire – sexual desire, certainly, but more importantly a fully-expressed desire to come together and love each other. Part of what I find most challenging, and most exciting, about this book is the way it asks the reader to think about both the value and the limits of that act.
Over the course of the last couple of months, I found myself picking up two books that had something rare in common: both were written in third-person present tense. I hadn’t encountered that combination much in romance, and while I enjoyed both books immensely, those narrative choices felt extremely noticeable to me, never really fading into the background of my reading experience.
In some ways, this goes against the conventional wisdom about narrative voice. I often hear it said that any tense/POV combination is acceptable as long as readers don’t notice it, and that the best writers can make even an “unconventional” narrative choice fade into the background.
To the extent that I like immersing myself in a story without sweating the mechanics, this makes sense. I don’t want thoughts about verb tense to get in the way of the plot or characterization or feelings. But reading these two novels, I realized that there’s something intriguing about a tense/POV combination that wants to be noticed, that creates some rough edges in the narrative. How can third-person present – which I’ve seen described as “distracting” and “relentless” – use its unconventionality to good effect? That’s what I’m going to talk about today: two novels where the tense and point of view live close to the surface in a way that adds to, rather than detracts from, the reading experience.
I’m going to start with Morgan Rogers’ Honey Girl, and a disclaimer: while I usually stick to genre romance on this blog, Honey Girl is not one, as the author herself has stated. In this case, the “Romance” in Close Reading Romance represents the presence of strong romantic elements in the plot: which I underline not because it had anything to do with how much I loved the book, but to be clear with readers and respectful of how the author herself classifies the book.
Here’s a cover photo and blurb:
With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that. This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her parent’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows. In New York, she’s able to ignore all the constant questions about her future plans and falls hard for her creative and beautiful wife, Yuki Yamamoto. But when reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood.
Buy links and content warnings can be found at the author’s website here.
Honey Girl opens on its main character, Grace Porter, in a moment of fundamental instability. Always a meticulous, reliable person, she has suddenly awoken in Vegas with the vague recollection that she married a woman she doesn’t know. The use of the present tense for the primary narration provides a stark contrast with the past of a marriage that doesn’t seem like it happened to the same person:
The hotel bed smells like sea salt and spell herbs. The kind people cut up and put in tea, in bottles soaking into oil and sealed with a little chant. It smells like kitchen magic. She finds the will to roll over into the warm patch. Her memories begin to trickle in from the night before like a movie in rewind. There were bright lights and too-sweet drinks and one club after another. There was a girl with rose pink cheeks and pitch-black hair and, yes, sea salt and sage behind her ears and over the soft, veiny parts of her wrists. Her name clings to the tip of Grace’s tongue but does not pull free.
The highlighted parts of this passage occur in a kind of temporal “high-contrast”: while of course it’s possible to talk about previous events in past-tense narration, Honey Girl‘s use of present-tense as the primary narration brings the past into starker relief.
Given the novel’s themes, it makes sense that the prose is constantly soliciting the reader’s awareness of time. A fundamental journey of this novel – perhaps more so than the romance – is about reconciling Grace’s past to her present and her future. There’s a moment, for example, where we learn how Grace met her two best friends. Unlike most other episodes from Grace’s past, which are narrated in the past tense, this one maintains narration in the present. The lack of a break in tense reminds readers of how present these friendships are to Grace: they have formed who she is, they sit with her in the same tense of narration from the very start.
“Agnes is her best friend. Ximena is who she will grab on to when the world ends, and they will watch it burn to ash before they follow. They are two girls with their backs against the wall, and on the very good days, Grace likes their odds. She meets Ximena for the very first time at the hospital where the Colonel is recovering…”
It takes a lot longer for Grace’s Vegas marriage to a woman she eventually learns is named Yuki to become part of Grace’s present (and even longer to imagine it as part of her future). But the text still plays with Yuki and Grace’s relationship to time, leaving open all kinds of possibility. The first time that Grace listens to Yuki’s radio show, for example, she deliberately picks an episode from Yuki’s back catalog:
“Are you there?” It’s Yuki’s voice, as clear as Grace remembers.
As Grace listens to Yuki’s previously-recorded present tense narration, we watch her pulling Yuki forward into the future, even as she’s still struggling to imagine a romantic future for them together.
The novel is constantly asking readers to be aware of time: not just in the narration of past and present events, but in the construction of prose passages as well. Something that struck me as I was reading is how the register of the text is almost aphoristic. Aphorisms are usually written in the present, to signify their timeless value, and often in the third or second person, to make them appear more generalizable. By writing the entire narrative in the present tense, mostly in third (and, in the prologue, second) person, Honey Girl’s aphorisms blend into the mundane details of the text, producing deliberately disjunctive sentences like this:
“The balcony creaks and she makes a decision. There is only so much you can hold until you are holding too much. Grace can let this go. This one thing.”
“Grace is trying to come to terms with her loneliness. It is not as clear-cut as being alone. She is not alone. But she finds herself missing the familiarity of Portland”
The fact that tiny details like creaking balconies and the familiarity of Portland are on the same footing as loneliness and holding emotional weight isn’t just a nice bit of prose rhythm. It’s also destabilizing: it ties the broad and timeless to the here-and-now in a way that’s hard to ignore. The idea that humans are made up of the same stuff as the cosmos is fundamental to Grace’s work in astronomy, and these disjuncts in scale are fundamental to the ideas the novel tries to explore. So there’s something meaningful in the way the novel asks the reader to be as thoughtful as Grace, especially about differences in scale: between the present details of the every day, the pressing weight of the past, and the vast open unknown of the future.
Part of the reason I love Coffee Boy as a companion to Honey Girl is that the exact same tense and POV choices feel worlds apart in tone, yet both novels make the protagonist’s relationship to time and point of view a fundamental part of the fictional world. Here’s the cover and blurb for Chant’s novel:
After graduation, Kieran expected to go straight into a career of flipping burgers-only to be offered the internship of his dreams at a political campaign. But the pressure of being an out trans man in the workplace quickly sucks the joy out of things, as does Seth, the humorless campaign strategist who watches his every move.
Soon, the only upside to the job is that Seth has a painful crush on their painfully straight boss, and Kieran has a front row seat to the drama. But when Seth proves to be as respectful and supportive as he is prickly, Kieran develops an awkward crush of his own-one which Seth is far too prim and proper to ever reciprocate.
Buy links at the author’s website here. Content warnings can be found here.
Both Rogers’ and Chant’s novels deal with characters who are on a journey to find their place in the world, and they have moments of disconnect from their own sense of self which echo poignantly in the third-person present narration. But the differences in the two also highlight the flexibility of what might otherwise seem like a rigid or awkward tense. Just a few glimpses of the narration of Coffee Boy show just how different it is:
He squares his shoulders, gets up, and walks brusquely over to Seth’s door. He ignores Marie’s hurried protest and knocks, hard. Because honestly, fuck this guy’s phone call.
He probably shouldn’t swear in front of his superiors, but his shift ended two minutes ago, so technically this is off the record. Ish.
Scratch that- he doesn’t have the organizational skills to do either of those jobs.
The conversational tone of “Honestly” and “Scratch that” and “Ish” are miles removed from the aphoristic tone of the present tense in Honey Girl. Instead, deep third-person POV in Chant’s novel creates a more informal relationship between Kieran and the readers, giving us the impression that we’re almost being spoken to directly.
It’s that almost that kept floating to the surface of my consciousness as I read, though. I perpetually felt a sense of distance from Kieran that seemed meaningful, even through the temporal immediacy of the present tense.
Take, for example, the way Kieran and his boss – and eventual love interest – Seth are first presented:
Kieran stands in the door for a long moment, his work-appropriate satchel clasped under his arm, feeling altogether more anxious than he wanted to.
A tall, thin guy with black hair – Seth, presumably – glares down at Kieran from the doorway. He has a landline pressed to his ear, the cord stretching away toward a desk across the room.
What struck me here is that third-person ensures that Kieran and Seth are presented on a kind of equal footing. They are standing in similar poses, of course, but they are also described with the same sense of slight remove that the third person permits. Given their relative positions – Kieran as an intern and Seth as his supervisor – narrative moves that put them on more equal footing are particularly meaningful.
While first-person narration’s intense subjectivity allows a character full control of how the world is seen, at times it can feel like the reader has been granted unfettered access to the character’s brain. Keeping readers out can be a form of power as well. Like Seth, Kieran is granted a degree of power to be seen as he wants to be seen, from the outside, with a third-person narration that has a slightly broader mandate to let readers in or keep them out.
There’s another way that the narrative uses the third person to allow Kieran to command respect, and the most important gap between first and third becomes thematically essential here: pronoun use. Keiran talks a lot about his experience of being misgendered by the people in his office. In fact, that’s the first kind of interaction he has at his new workplace. Third-person narration ensures that there’s at least one voice – the narrator’s – getting Kieran’s pronouns right every time. Let’s take a look back at the first introduction of Kieran, just to compare how it would read in first-person:
Kieran stands in the door for a long moment, his work-appropriate satchel clasped under his arm, feeling altogether more anxious than he wanted to.
I stand in the door for a long moment, my work-appropriate satchel clasped under my arm, feeling altogether more anxious than I wanted to.
Unlike first-person narration, which in English carries few gender markers, the third-person passage uses Kieran’s he/him pronouns three times in one sentence. It’s well-established within the novel how important that is to Kieran: the first time he hears Seth correct someone on his pronouns, here’s how he reacts:
There had been a magical moment of sheer relief when he’d heard a voice that wasn’t his own reminding Marie of his pronouns
The narrative itself, in opting for the third person, acts as that “voice that wasn’t his own.” It creates a space of consistent affirmation and draws the reader’s attention continually to it. This aspect of the narration is where I think the present tense also plays an important role. It reinforces the experience of Kieran being gendered correctly without effort, instinctually. This is something that is explicitly absent from his workplace, where coworkers “desperately try to remember” his gender or pause “for a long awkward moment to restructure a sentence around avoiding his pronouns.” Third-person present tense, in contrast, creates constant affirmation in the moment, without hesitation or retrospection, in a way that subtly builds the world that Kieran is not always able to find.
In reading these two books, I experienced the tense and POV less as unobtrusive vehicles for storytelling, and more as elements of world-building. In Honey Girl, the moments I noticed switches in tense were also moments I was made aware of Grace’s relationship to past, her future, and her self-conception. Hearing Kieran’s third-person pronouns integrated in the moment, at every moment of the text, showed me an alternate world outside his office in which he could experience his narrative arc with safety and respect.
Tense and POV are these novels’ organizing principle, shaping not just how readers understand the characters, but also how they experience concepts as fundamental as time and the self. That doesn’t, of course, invalidate the fact that readers might simply not enjoy certain combinations of tense and point of view, nor does it mean that there aren’t degrees of skill in using them, leading to more or less discordant reading experiences. But reading these two books made me want to push back a little on the idea that tense and POV are best executed when they aren’t noticed. Seamless narration can be magical, but sometimes the seams are there to provide just a little bit of dissonance, a deviation from the norm, a signal to readers how to position themselves in the world of the text.
Hello again and happy (?) 2022! As usual, my blog got a bit neglected towards the end of the year, and once again I’m going to try to pick things back up with a series of slightly-shorter posts. And while close reading of individual passages is always going to be a part of my writing, I also want to open up to talking about themes, tropes, structure, point of view… basically whatever strikes me about the craft of what I’m currently reading.
My end-of-year reading was a glorious streak of absolute home-run five-star reads, and one of those books that has stuck with me the most is Ada Maria Soto’s His Quiet Agent. I picked it up a while back because I was curious to read more books with ace rep, and I’d seen it recommended a few times on Twitter.
What I got was a lovely, well-crafted story of two men who find exactly what they need in each other. While they work together in a secret agency, that’s really only background to this (short) novella, and it doesn’t really play a role in the plot up until the end. Here’s the cover and blurb:
Arthur Drams works for a secret government security agency, but all he really does is spend his days in a cubical writing reports no one reads. After getting another “lateral promotion” by a supervisor who barely remembers his name, it’s suggested that Arthur try to ‘make friends’ and ‘get noticed’ in order to move up the ladder. It’s like high school all over again: his attempts to be friendly come across as awkward and creepy, and no one wants to sit at the same table with him at lunch. In a last-ditch attempt to be seen as friendly and outgoing, he decides to make friends with The Alien, aka Agent Martin Grove, known for his strange eating habits, unusual reading choices, and the fact that no one has spoken to him in three years.
Starting with a short, surprisingly interesting conversation on sociology books, Arthur slowly begins to chip away at The Alien’s walls using home-cooked meals to lure the secretive agent out of his abrasive shell. Except Martin just might be something closer to an actual secret agent than paper-pusher Arthur is, and it might be more than hearts at risk when something more than friendship begins to develop.
Two things this book does really, really well are: one, creating a balanced and nuanced interpersonal dynamic between Arthur and Martin while only letting us inside Arthur’s POV, and two, taking that interpersonal dynamic outside recognizable character archetypes (like grumpy/sunshine, order/chaos). I think there are three key moments from just the first two chapters where we can see this work taking root.
First, there’s the way Arthur’s POV is established in the very first paragraph
There was something about ficus trees Arthur found disconcerting. It was how he could never tell if they were real or plastic. It would irritate him to the point where he would break a leaf trying to work it out, usually just at the moment when someone important walked into the room. He restrained himself this time.
I love how this sets up Arthur: somewhat awkward, easily disconcerted, detail-oriented. He’s someone who struggles with a sense of timing in social situations, who seems easily overwhelmed by his interactions with people and plants.
As a romance reader, I spent the first half of the first chapter fitting Arthur into a “grumpy, buttoned-up” archetype in my head. I mean, the man is irritated by a ficus. The book opens with Arthur getting a disappointing lateral promotion at work because nobody knows who he is and his file is blank. He has exactly two items to move to his new desk: a figurine and a Rubik’s cube. “This,” my romance-fed brain told me “is a man who needs to get undone by a sunshiny social butterfly!”
Instead, just a few pages later, we meet Martin. We meet him because Arthur moves his two items into an empty cubicle, only to realize that the barren cubicle belongs to someone:
“Why are you in my cubicle?” Arthur swiveled around. At the entrance to the cubicle was a pale, slim man in a dark gray, almost-black suit with a dark gray, almost-black tie holding a dark gray, almost-black coffee cup.
This introduction of the man we’ll eventually learn is Martin uses prose economy to extraordinary effect. We’ve already established that Arthur has only two personal belongings: we build a lot of knowledge of Martin via a quick cubicle mix-up that suggests he has even fewer. The repetition of “dark-gray, almost black” works both in the images it evokes (controlled, sober, stark) and in its style and structure (rigid, undeviating, adhering to routine). Martin is the absence of belongings, the absence of color, the absence of variety in description. While it might not seem like much to build a character on, it tells us a whole lot.
This book sets itself up a particular challenge, though, as it upends expectations about the kind of love interest Arthur needs. Rather than a “buttoned-up” mystery man needing a “gregarious” love interest to do all the narrating, this novel is working with two somewhat irritated loners brushing up against each other, often with very little dialogue. Here’s a peek at how the author pulls off making every interaction of theirs crackle, even without direct access to Martin’s thoughts. Arthur watches as Martin eats lunch alone in the agency cafeteria and reads The History of the Peloponnesian War, Volume 3:
It was a Go Away sign, but it was a very specific type of go away sign; it was the kind that said ‘Look at Me Just for A Moment. I’m Weird. If you talk to me you’re going to decide I’m weird and not like me so let’s just save both of us the public discomfort of you feeling the need to reject me.’ He’d used that same trick in high school with copies of The Prince and Art of War. There might have also been some eyeliner involved. He could also remember being desperately lonely and wanting someone else’s weirdness to match with his.
What makes Arthur work as a narrator is how much he can read into Martin’s every tilt of the head, the way he carries himself, the fleeting expression across his eyes. In some sense, it doesn’t even really matter if Arthur is “right” about the message that Martin is communicating. Because we as readers live in the world of Arthur’s POV, what matters is that an exchange has been made: Arthur has seen something, it’s made him feel known and understood and less lonely, and he’s brought that feeling back to the reader as a result of this silent exchange. He’s able to interpret it, imbue it with meaning. It makes the two men’s wordless proximity feel incredibly generative and communicative for readers, almost like a conversation.
It also only works because Arthur sees something in Martin that resonates through similar experiences of his own. Their encounters are a master class in exchange without dialogue, in legible character dynamics without the grounding of archetypal difference. And beyond that, seeing Martin through Arthur’s eyes gives the reader an exhilarating sense of understanding someone better than they think they should.
As for the rest of the novella, in some ways its seeds are right there in the opening gambit. Martin may be shuttered and vacant, but Arthur breaks him open like a ficus and moves into the empty heart of his cubicle. What happens between them is of course nowhere near as violent as I’ve just suggested – really, Arthur just sits near Martin and shows him a little patience – but you can also glimpse, just in these first chapters, how earth-shattering that’s will prove for Martin. I highly encourage you to read on and find out what that looks like.
Hello! It has been… a while. Summer projects and the start of a new semester took over my life for a few months, but I’m happy to be resurrecting the blog with a look at a novella I recently enjoyed. Our Favorite Songs is the second novella in a series (after Sing Anyway, which I also adored) and follows Aiden McCarstle and Kai Andrews- former high-school-nemeses/secret-mutual-crushes- as they reconnect with each other over karaoke and a freak snowstorm. Here’s a closer look at the cover and blurb:
Restless and disillusioned with his life, Aiden McCarstle is ready for a night out at The Moonlight Café with his best friend Penelope: one night to not think about how much he hates grad school, to watch queer people make fools of themselves singing karaoke. A simple, reliable escape.
But when it’s not Penelope who walks through the door at Moonie’s, but the high school nemesis Aiden hasn’t seen in five years—well, things get a little more complicated.
For Kai Andrews, moving back home after his mother’s death has been harder and lonelier than he anticipated. And running into McCarstle again hadn’t been in his plans, either. But he deserves a night out, away from responsibilities and grief. Sure, it appears McCarstle still hates his guts, for reasons Kai has never quite understood. But maybe, with a decent dose of pop music and Moonie’s magic, Kai can finally, finally make Aiden smile. Just this once. Just for tonight.
As a surprising, intimate night at Moonie’s brings Aiden and Kai closer together, a winter storm moves in. And what was meant to be a simple night out turns into over 24 hours of being snowed in together. Through confessions, memories, and favorite poems, Aiden and Kai have to figure out if this unexpected second chance at connection was merely a temporary interlude—or if they can each come out better on the other side of the storm.
Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. A helpful list of CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.
The passage I’ve picked happens at about the 45% mark, and it’s one of my favorite moments in a romance I’ve read in a while. Kai and Aiden are about to have sex with each other for the first time. Aiden has been deploying the classic romance misdirection of “let’s just fuck without feelings,” and suddenly, Kai isn’t having it. He demands to know why they’re about to get physical. When Aiden doesn’t have a ready response, Kai steps in with an answer to his own question. He mentions Aiden’s brilliance, the poems he wrote in high school, how their mutual friends care for him, and this:
“It’s like you only show who you are sometimes. Like you’re scared of it. Or maybe you only show it to the people you trust. Which is fine, but you never, ever let me see it in high school. Until tonight, when you did surprising things, like sing karaoke, and…kiss me […] And when you let yourself go, you’re so…bright, and funny, and interesting. And it makes me want to crack you right open, so I can see that all the time. I bet when you fuck, you let yourself be like that. So that’s why I want to fuck you.”
I like the sound of the prose here – there’s some nice iterative work that builds without seeming repetitive. But what I appreciate the most about this passage is the boldness of it existing in the first place. I’ve talked elsewhere about how one of the hardest marks for a romance novel to hit is proving that the MCs are right for each other, why they make more sense together than they would separately, or with someone else. That might even harder to pull of when it comes to why they’re going to sleep together for the first time. Often that hurdle to first intimacy is cleared through sheer physical desire, a kind of mysterious alchemy of attraction that doesn’t needexplaining. Depending on how it’s done, that can work extremely well, but I think it can also be a shortcut to avoid working out the whys of a couple.
Kai and Aiden’s story is one that sets itself up as needing an explicit “why.” Kai has expressed concern that Aiden only thinks of him as a “dumb jock.” Aiden struggles with anxiety over the choices he has made in life, particularly his choice to go to grad school. This idea that sex is a choice Aiden and Kai will make together, and not just for reasons of physical attraction, speaks really eloquently to who they are as characters and what they need from each other. The decision to have the characters articulate their why, out-loud to each other, on-page, could have come across as awkward, or heavy-handed. But it works here not just because it’s well-written, but also because it’s been built up as a necessity. It’s something the characters need from each other as much as the readers need it from the narrative, and it pulls both those needs together seamlessly.
I will tease you a little bit by saying that Aiden does, eventually, answer Kai’s question himself. And his answer is nothing like Kai’s – it has to be, otherwise it might sound like a perfunctory copy of the other man’s eloquence. So it’s different. But it’s perfect, too.
I recommend picking up this novella for:
A loving homage to some ultimate comfort tropes: snowed in, second chance, rivals-to-lovers
Really nice use of songs and poems as intertext (even when they can’t be directly quoted)
A quick shot of angst that’ll give you some good achy feelings without destroying you
Lyrical, impressionistic flashbacks that help fill in the MCs’ complicated pasts without overburdening a short narrative
If you’ve read Sing Anyway, a fun cameo from Lily and Sam!
Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter, if you’ve picked this one up and enjoyed it!
Today’s post is the final installment of a 3-part series on paratexts, or all the stuff surrounding a novel that helps prepare us for the reading experience. In case you missed them, you can also check out part 1 (on back cover copy) and part 2 (CWs, dedications, and epigraphs). This week’s post goes a little bit farther afield, both literally and metaphorically: I’ll be talking about Twitter as a place that houses paratext.
Including Twitter in a discussion of paratexts might initially sound like a stretch. The term “paratext” originated in the 1970s and as such, for obvious reasons, didn’t take social media into account. Discussions of paratext, however, have always included elements that aren’t directly attached to the book itself. In fact, Gerard Genette divided paratext into two groups: peritext (things like covers and dedications and prefaces that come attached to the book itself) and epitext (things about the book that are physically separate from it, like author interviews or publisher promo). Twitter book talk lands squarely in the epitext category, and that’s the word I’ll be using for it today.
So, what does Twitter epitext look like, and why is it worth considering as a separate phenomenon? In the broadest sense possible, Twitter epitext could really be anything anyone says about a book on Twitter- so long as another reader might encounter it, and find it influences how they approach their reading. For the sake of manageability and simplicity, I’m going to stick to the kinds of things that people put on Twitter to encourage people to buy books. A lot of what I’m going to say about Twitter epitext might also be applicable to facebook or bookstagram or review blogs, but since Twitter is the only social media platform I regularly use, I’m going to stick to that. For the first part of my post I’m going to try to suss out what makes Twitter epitext unique, both as a means of selling and preparing readers for books. And then I’ll talk a little bit about how Twitter epitext has changed the role readers play in the life of a book in the world.
RIP my TBR
Something I hear a lot from readers (and is true for me as well) is that they pick up books because of what they’ve heard about them on Twitter, perhaps more often than because of blurbs, mainstream reviews, covers, or plot summaries.
This pervasive attitude made me wonder what makes Twitter epitext unique enough that some subset of readers find it more persuasive. To try to get to the bottom of this I surveyed… a lot of Twitter content, very informally. I looked at the feeds of authors who I consider do a good job of promoting their books, and readers who are particularly eloquent in their enthusiasms; I searched key terms on Twitter from the list of people I follow (“convinced me” and “one-click” and “catnip,” among others) and compiled a corpus of tweets that helped me try to figure out some of what makes the way we talk about books on Twitter unique.
One obvious answer is the fairly unprecedented ability to curate what Twitter epitext we see in the first place: promotional Twitter epitext might be more effective for me as a reader than “random blurbs at the bookstore” because I have spent years following people who like the same books as me (and unfollowing some who don’t), allowing me to guarantee a higher recommendation success rate. I still have a sneaking suspicion, though, that if the people I follow simply reposted official blurbs for books they liked, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as when they generate the kind of Twitter-native epitexts I want to look at. So what makes these different?
To some extent, there’s simply a gap between what it’s possible to say on Twitter, and what the publishing establishment deems appropriate to put on back cover copy. An entire subset of Twitter epitext involves statements about the book that are more explicit – or more candid about the sexual content of the book – than what one usually finds on traditional paratext. Take a look at these two tweets, for example, which contain suggestions for some pretty great publisher copy, but would never realistically end up on the back of a book.
It bears mentioning that not all romance readers want books with sex on the page, and not all those who do read sex on the page find it to be their primary motivation for reading romance. However, for the large number of readers who do like such things, Twitter epitext that talks frankly and in unembarrassed detail about the sex in a book mirrors the kind of frank and unembarrassed sex positivity many readers hope for in their novels. For someone in a mood to read a book that has 9 sex scenes rather than 1, Twitter epitext can be one of the most reliable places to learn that information, which is rarely found (at least not clearly) in other places like the front or back cover.
Twitter epitext also allows for a greater degree of granularity than plot summaries. In my post on official back cover copy, I highlighted the fairly formulaic nature of plot summaries, which cover the broadest basics of who the main characters are, how they meet, and their plot obstacles to falling in love. Twitter has its own way of presenting this information – and a little further on I’m going to talk about the list format itself- but I want to dwell on the contents for a moment. In each of these lists, there’s at least one detail that’s small enough, or internet-fandom-specific enough, it would probably be eliminated from an official blurb. I’ve put those as captions underneath the images of the tweets.
I can’t speak for other readers, but for me, these small-detail elements combined with the broader information of a traditional plot summary work exceedingly well. Quirky details evoke more of a reading mood than a summary of events, and mood is more important to me as a reader. The creation of such individual moments within fiction suggests authorial attention to detail and depth of characterization. There’s also a degree of novelty to it: as someone who became a reader long before there was internet, I’m used to learning about books via summaries of plot and character. I’m suspicious that the inclusion of things that wouldn’t go in a regular blurb pings the “novelty” center in my brain, suggesting that this book might be different, and thus more worth a look.
Of course, the content isn’t the only (relative) source of novelty in Twitter epitext: the form is also doing a lot of work. Twitter epitext that works off pre-existing memes or other internet forms and vernacular is surprisingly effective, despite telling readers less about the plot and characters of the actual novel than a summary. Here are a few more examples.
In the cases above, the Twitter epitext borrows from fan fiction and AO3 and memes and AITA posts: all types of reading that we do for free in our leisure time. As such, I think part of this format’s effectiveness is that it subliminally suggests unconstrained and voluntary enjoyment: precisely the kind of reading mode that we might have unlearned through education and other forms of “assigned” reading. It’s a highly effective shorthand for reading as enjoyment.
I would argue that genre fiction like romance benefits particularly from this format. First, without denying the quality or importance of genre fiction, genre reading is more closely associated with leisure time and enjoyment, and is more susceptible to being sold that way. And second, because tropes are, in their way, a kind of literary meme. Both tropes and memes are a shape into which a wide variety of content is repeatedly fitted to create different effects. A good promotional meme might suggest to the reader a good handling of tropes.
Promotion and Paratext
It bears mentioning, of course, that Twitter epitext exists at the crossroads of promotion and paratext. Most literary criticism I’ve read doesn’t seem overly concerned with the distinction between the two: between paratextual functions (framing how readers see, experience, and evaluate the content of books) and promotional functions (getting potential readers to open their wallets and buy a book). In some ways, ignoring the paratextual/promotional distinction is a problem, especially because at times the two are at odds. To give just one example, “rom-coms” are very popular right now, and promotional epitext often seems to suggest something is a rom-com to boost sales, even when it isn’t. This approach seems deeply antithetical to the assumed function of paratext, which is to prepare the reader for the actual contents of what they’re about to read.
The waters of promotional and paratextual function are further muddied by the question of who is producing the content. The most well-known study of paratext (Genette’s) only considers what he calls “authorized” paratext: that is, the kind that’s created by the author or the publisher. This assumption that “authorized” paratext is the only one worth looking at seems short-slighted to me. It suggests that an author always knows the best way to get a reader into the text, or that they know the one “right” way for their books to be read. In fact, I think you could make the opposite assertion: that even though there is no control mechanism, even though there’s no central “authority”, reader-generated epitext might, at the very least, execute paratext’s preparatory function better.
But at the same time, a lot of the epitext readers create looks like promo. Add to that the fact that authors repurpose and interact with these tweets, and you have a whole confusing world of material that is both authorized and unauthorized, promotional and paratextual. I might create a tweet thread about a book I love that mimics author promo (lists tropes, tells people they’ll love it, even inserts a link where people can buy). Readers might tell me they’ve one-clicked based on my description, completing a promotional transaction. All of this still falls under the banner of “unauthorized” epitext… unless or until the author finds and retweets my trope list. This kind of interaction fascinates me because it blurs so many of the lines that our understanding of the literary marketplace is based on.
As a reader, it also makes me wonder about the motivation behind reader-created epitext, in part because it SO closely mirrors in format things that exist on the author/publisher side, with the goals of
1) preparing readers for the text, and
2) selling the texts for financial gain
Reader-generated epitexts serve the first goal as well: we tweet about books in part to prepare fellow readers for what they’re getting into. But is there an equivalent second function – something to be gained from epitextual creation? I don’t think there necessarily has to be, but many readers (myself included) often note how good it feels to make a successful book recommendation, suggesting that there is, ultimately, something in it for us.
In part, contributing epitext for a book online feels rewarding in the way a lot of creative endeavors do: it lets you do something with your feelings about a book, and to contribute to its life in the world, to feel like you’ve put a stone into the building of its existence. It’s also a community-building exercise. Being a good recommender brings more followers, more people to talk to about what you love, and lets you feel like you’ve helped bring a few hours of enjoyment into someone else’s life. It’s also, of course, not entirely altruistic and creative. It’s also an ego-boost: convincing other people to take your book recommendations is a consecration of your own literary taste, a positive reinforcement from the internet of your understanding of good books.
To bring things full circle, this might be the last reason that Twitter epitext works so well on readers: we recognize it not just as a marketing tool, or a way to prepare us for reading, but also as a part of the literary ecosystem that invites active interaction and participation. To extend the original paratext-as-thresholds metaphor, it’s a threshold that’s also a bit of a creative work space. One that, to be clear, is not without its sometimes oddly blurred boundaries – between promotion and preparation, between authors and readers. But it’s one where we can build ourselves a unique kind of readership: enjoyable, free from the pressures of “assigned” reading, and most of all, a site of active construction of the world that books live in.
That concludes my series of close readings of romance paratexts! I hope that you’ve found something to enjoy here, maybe even some new ways to think about all decisions we make and information we consume and create as a prelude to reading. I’ve certainly enjoyed thinking and writing about it. Happy reading!
It’s time for part two of my three-part series on paratexts! Last week I wrote about “romance abstracts,” or the copy that summarizes the plot and introduces the characters. Today I’m examining everything that comes between the front cover and the start of the narrative: dedications, content warnings, epigraphs, and letters to the reader. While these pieces of front matter don’t have a unified or even necessary function (plenty of books exist without them), they still do a variety of preparatory work. Some provide context, some warnings; many evoke relationships to other novels or works of art. It’s also the home of the dedication, where a book ostensibly written for any and all readers proclaims itself to have been written “for” someone we don’t know. So I want to dig in to the kind of ownership model that dedications imagine: the ways that books that aren’t written for us become ours.
But first it’s time to back up a bit: how does front matter get us ready to read? Some front matter acts as an on-ramp to a literary world that moves at freeway speeds, and the author is just trying to make sure your tiny little vehicle doesn’t get crushed. The 2011 edition of Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart begins with the following “Letter to my readers” explaining the book’s language use:
Many years ago, I read a medieval poem full of color and adventure about knights and mysterious ladies. It opened up an unknown world to me, a place of wild, dangerous forests and white castles, of mud and glorious spectacle; a time when blackbirds really were baked in pies. Against this rich background, I wrote a story about a powerful, devious woman desperate to reach refuge, and a knight—a true knight who never wavered once he swore his heart, a man who could not comprehend deceit.
To do justice to their world, I wove the music of their own medieval words into the dialogue. […] I was determined to make my characters’ words clear and understandable in the text, even though readers might never have come across them before. But I’ve also added a glossary so that you can be certain of their meanings if you have any doubt.
(She goes on to casually mention that the current ebook edition contains a condensed version of *the entire novel* in standard English, which is quite the digital extra).
The front matter then eases the reader into the language of the text: first with a poem from The Prologue of The Franklin’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales in standard English, and then the following epigraph:
Where werre and wrake and wonder Bi sythes has wont therinne, And oft bothe blysse and blunder Ful skete has skyfted synne.
Where war and wrack and wonder By sides have been therein, And oft both bliss and blunder Full swift have shifted since
Prologue Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This pairing sets up where the language of the book falls – in the middle of the continuum between the original and its translation – and provides readers with a transition into the world of the novel.
In contrast to these “on ramps” that get readers into the world of the book, some front matter creates space around the reader to let the book in. Talia Hibbert’s Act Your Age, Eve Brown does this in several different ways. The Content Warnings are detailed, and emphasize giving readers tools to create an atmosphere of safety and care while they read.
This book mentions childhood neglect and anti-autistic ableism. If these topics are sensitive for you, please read with care. (And feel safe in the knowledge that joy triumphs in the end.) You should also know that, while writing this book, I elected to ignore the existence of COVID-19. I hope this book provides some form of escape.
“Eve’s Playlist,” which directly follows the content warnings, contains all the songs the heroine mentions listening to throughout the plot, allowing readers to bring some of the atmosphere of Eve’s world into their own while they read.
Front matter can also situate a book within literary traditions or periods of time. This function proves particularly salient for Scarlett Peckham’s The Rakess. The reverse-clinch cover might have suggested (and I think did suggest to some readers) a tongue-in-cheek playfulness with the rake trope, which doesn’t quite match the tone of the novel. The Content Warning page goes a long way to setting the record straight, informing readers that “while this is a romance novel, it is a dark and stormy one.”
Beyond clarifying the mood of the book, the front matter also situates the book’s approach to the idea of a “Rakess.” The dedication “in memory of Mary Wollstonecraft” puts the text into dialogue with feminist forebears, however I think the epigraph is the cleverest stroke of placing the book into historical context.
“Men, some to Business, some to pleasure take; But ev’ry Woman is at heart a Rake” – Alexander Pope
It would have been easy for The Rakess to trade on flippant novelty (“What if a rake, but a woman? How new and different!”) but I appreciate its refusal to abandon thinking about gender throughout history in favor of a “fun romp.” This epigraph reminds readers that the gendering of the Rake trope carries the weight of history behind it.
One of my favorite bits of time-bridging takes place in KJ Charles’ Slippery Creatures: both the “Reader Advisory” and dedication.
This book contains references to a pandemic and the spread of infectious disease.
For the essential workers keeping us going and for everyone who’s supporting them by staying home.
Slippery Creatures takes place in the 1920s and was published in 2020, though I don’t know at what point of its genesis the pandemic actually began. What matters more is that both the Reader Advisory and the dedication construct a bridge between the moment of the novel’s publication and the moment it depicts. This stands in contrast to most novels, where the only information that explicitly marks a historical romance with the moment of its writing is the date of publication. This front matter, intentionally or not, foregrounds a truth about all historical romances: they bear the imprint of the time they were written in – its conditions, its anxieties, its concept of what is right and wrong – alongside and interwoven with the time period depicted. Historical romance takes place, if not in the moment of its creation, then through it, and paratext is just one way that this relationship to the present of writing is affixed into the literary record.
Which brings me to what is often the very first element of front matter: the dedication. Originally dedications were a way of thanking patrons: quite literally announcing who the work was created for, in the commissioned-for-money sense. Dedications have since embraced a much broader meaning of a book being “for” someone, which is an idea I want to explore.
Take a look at a few different kinds of dedications, from the most general to the most specific.
For the readers. That Kind of Guy, Talia Hibbert
This kind of inclusive and general dedication has few variations, because there’s very little that all consumers of a novel share except being readers. It positions the book as being “for” anyone who picks it up and gets as far as the dedication page.
For everyone who’s ever been left. Untouchable, Talia Hibbert
For everyone doing battle. Invitation to the Blues, Roan Parrish
Dedications like this are almost as open-ended as the previous ones, as it’s hard to imagine someone who has never struggled or been left. They become more specific, however, as setups for the content of the books, which deal with getting over past relationships and struggling with mental illness, respectively. The dedications can also be interpreted as being for readers who have those particular experiences.
To everyone who’s ever doubted, as I did: Someone who looks like you can be desired. Someone who looks like you can be loved. Someone who looks like you can have a happy ending. I swear it. ❤ Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade
For all the difficult heroines A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian
For all the people who were told they couldn’t be princesses: you always were one. A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole
These are not unlike the previous category, but perhaps slightly more specific, as they name things like character traits, personal thoughts and experiences, and gendered roles with which not all readers might identify.
For my kids, who always want to know what I’m writing, even when they know the answer will be so unsatisfactory as to involve neither dragons nor magical cats. Two Rogues Make a Right, Cat Sebastian
I grew up a PK (“preacher’s kid”). Emma, the heroine of this book, is a vicar’s daughter. I want to make clear that Emma’s father is nothing like my own. My father was – and is- loving, patient, supportive and understanding. Thanks, Dad. This book’s for you. Please don’t read chapters 7, 9, 11, 17, 19, 21, or 28. The Duchess Deal, Tessa Dare.
This type of dedication is restrictive in its actual intended recipient, but contains jokes or other asides that give readers something to enjoy or interpret.
For Jess. For FD. For my mom.
The hardest kind of dedication to analyze is the one where the book is “for” a specific person, and I’m not going to cite actual examples. My reluctance to do so was telling for me: it felt weirdly interlope-y to cite specific personal dedications for the purpose of “close reading” them. I do not know (and I am fine not knowing) anything about my favorite authors’ relationship to their mom/cat/editor/best friend/favorite barista. Which isn’t to say personal dedications are superfluous: they must be deeply meaningful to the author and the person to whom the book is dedicated. This article rather poetically calls dedications a “private moment in a public object,” which is a lovely way to think about them. It also explains a bit why I find these dedications abstractly poignant, if resistant to analysis.
The thing is, of these different types of dedication – from the most general to the most restrictive – none of them change much of anything about a reader’s individual relationship to the text. All of them assume that some ineffable facet of the book belongs to the author and can be transferred to an individual or group, almost as a gift or offering. It’s a statement of intention and possession, one that might allow us to reframe books as having multiple modes and levels of belonging to different readers.
What do I mean by modes of belonging? I’m about to make obvious distinction, but bear with me. The front matter of books contains several kinds of written statements regarding, broadly, to whom the book belongs. One of the first pieces is a “Copyright [Author Name]” and an “All rights reserved” statement that clarifies a publisher’s right to restrict use of the book. At least part of their enforceability is predicated on those words being written: for fans of speech-act theory and the like, it is a statement that does something. A dedication, of course, is not a legal statement. It does not enforce a paradigm of ownership or transfer any rights to the recipient. The beloved cat to which the author dedicated a book cannot show up and argue that it’s theirs (though I would be very excited and they could definitely have my copy). While “Copyright [Author Name]” and “All right reserved” meaningfully and legally define the relationship of at least two different parties to the text, there is no observable difference in the relationship between me as a reader and a book that is dedicated “To the readers” or “To all the difficult heroines” or “To my mom.”
I’m belaboring an obvious distinction because of the way we sometimes talk about enjoyment of books as ownership or acceptance of a personal gift. To get insufferably granular, I want to tease out what we mean by the various “for”s in dedications, and how they can exist simultaneously. Books are “for readers” in the broadest sense possible, in that readers are the intended audience and purchasers of the product. Consumers also own any physical iteration of a book they’ve purchased (although Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker essay persuasively argues that ebooks are redefining our entire notion of property rights.)
But the concept that we possess books, or receive them as gifts, doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the physical object. In a more esoteric sense, there are a lot of ways readers talk about themselves as designated recipients of book’s content, in ways that have nothing to do with authorial intention (and around here we love it when things have nothing to do with authorial intention). Saying that a novel “wasn’t for me” can be a way of acknowledging that a book was good but not to one’s personal tastes. Conversely, readers often describe loving a book as it having been written “just for them.” This kind of framing comes up if the book’s message is particularly resonant, or offers a recognition of one’s life, experiences, or identity that had otherwise been absent. That we frame emotional connection to a book as ownership or possession – a text that invisibly dedicates itself to the individual reader – is fascinating to me.
It also raises the question of what it means to lose possession of a book. Not the sense of losing your copy, but rather, when something happens that makes the book unreadable. Maybe with the benefit of age you discover that the book had problems you never saw before. Maybe you discover that the story builds itself by fictionalizing the very real pain of others in a way that, once seen, you can’t enjoy. Maybe the author turns out to hate people who are like you, or like the people you love, and employs their wealth and celebrity trying to make the world a worse place. Some people can separate the art from the artist, some can continue to enjoy the art as long as they cease financially supporting it. Still others might take a certain cathartic joy in a boycott or a purging of the books from their life. But a lot of readers just… lose those books. And then don’t know what to do with that loss.
In the first post of this series, I talked about how Gerard Genette conceived of paratexts as “thresholds,” or point-of-entry spaces that prepared the reader for the book. Having read through this front matter, it strikes me more as a set of bridges. There are bridges that allow us to enter the world of a book – with paratextual expectations fairly set – but there are also bridges through which the contents of a book enter our present time or our mental universe. We joke about fictional characters and moments “living rent-free” in our heads, and I’ve often extended that metaphor to imagine really great books showing up to my brain and rearranging the furniture. Like when a mundane object you’ve seen a million times in your life plays a central role in a novel, such that every time you see it you think about the book. That, too, is a kind of ownership, a way a book becomes for you even it wasn’t dedicated to you. So struggling with the loss of a book like that doesn’t, to me, suggest a maladaptive inability to “separate the art from the artist.” It’s just that one of the bridges between the book and the world around you is letting in pain instead of comfort, allowing it to rearrange the furniture in your brain in unwelcome ways.
Despite being the most opaque kind of paratext – a “private moment in a public object” – dedications let us imagine a different paradigm for receiving and possessing books. Regardless of what kind of dedication a book has, or whether it has one at all, there are meaningful ways in which any book you love is for you even while it’s also for someone else. This kind of ownership is deeply rooted yet frustratingly easy to lose, a tenuous possession both individual and shared. I don’t know that thinking about books this way makes it any easier to know what to do when you “lose” one. But it does make me all the more grateful for the ones I haven’t lost, and all the small strange ways they’re mine.