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.
This post is the first in a three-part series about romance paratexts.
Paratext is a catch-all term for the parts of a book that aren’t the narrative itself. This includes the obvious elements that come along with a book – front cover, back cover, blurbs, dedications – and the less-obvious things that live separately from it – reviews, things the author has said in interviews, artsy bookstagram photos, etc. The term originated in the work of Gerard Genette, who titled his French-language book on the topic “Seuils” or “Thresholds.” Essentially, paratext is everything that meets the reader at the threshold of reading : what they encounter once they already know the book exists, but before they start to read it. Genette argued that paratexts affect how readers receive the books they pick up. What I’ll be looking at over 3 weeks are particular kinds of romance paratexts that do just that – influence how individual readers consume novels – but also how paratexts shape the way romance exists in the world.
The most obvious and often-discussed type of paratext is book covers. While I thought about including that topic in this series of posts, I ultimately decided not to wade into the Cover Wars. I don’t think it’s necessarily more complex than what I’m planning to discuss, but it’s ground that has already been covered (heh) frequently. Plus, I certainly feel more comfortable discussing words than images.
So I’ve decided to start with a post on what I naively thought I could just call “blurbs” – the 1-3 paragraph description of the plot and characters that you can find on the back of a book if you have a physical copy, or at online book vendors or “about this book” pages for ebooks. But I realized via an online conversation that calling these paragraphs “blurbs” wasn’t entirely accurate, as that word also defines publicity quotes about the book. Other options floated were back cover copy – somewhat dated with the advent of ebooks – and jacket copy – back from when books had jackets. I’m going to be an insufferable academic and call these descriptors abstracts, as they fulfill more or less the same function of condensing the contents of a piece of writing to a paragraph-sized summary.
Ideally, romance novel abstracts have a pretty straightforward job: they should tell readers who the characters are and describe their central conflict. But beyond this basic information, all kinds of other communication can get encoded. Reading between the lines, especially for those well-versed in the genre, good abstracts divulge information about mood and trope and even a book’s relationship to its predecessors. Taken together, the style of romance abstracts also tells us a lot about how romance conceives of itself as a genre distinct from others on the literal and virtual shelves.
Doing an informal survey of romance abstracts (and I should clarify, from an exclusively reader perspective: I have no idea how these things get made and I’m not qualified to talk about this from a process or marketing standpoint) I found that they generally follow a three-part structure. First, at least in romances between two people, we meet the two MCs in sequence, each via a paragraph or section devoted to their personality and central character arc. Then a final section explains the circumstances under which the two MCs will come into contact, and why falling in love is a Bad Idea. My shorthand for that structure here is going to be [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict]. Here’s a good standard example, from Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You:
When shy and secluded author Sara Fielding ventures from her country cottage to research a novel, she inadvertently witnesses a crime in progress—and manages to save the life of the most dangerous man in London.
Derek Craven is a powerful and near-legendary gambling club owner who was born a bastard and raised in the streets. His reputation is unsavory, his scruples nonexistent. But Sara senses that beneath Derek’s cynical exterior, he is capable of a love more passionate than her deepest fantasies.
Aware that he is the last man that an innocent young woman should ever want, Derek is determined to protect Sara from himself, no matter what it takes. But in a world where secrets lurk behind every shadow, he is the only man who can keep her safe. And as Derek and Sara surrender to an attraction too powerful to deny, a peril surfaces from his dark past to threaten their happiness . . . and perhaps even their lives.
Together they will discover if love is enough to make dreams come true.
There are, of course, almost as many variations on this theme as there are books, and in the right hands these variations are rich in information. For example, I love how readers can pick up on the cutting humor and classic enemies-to-lovers trope as early as the [MC1] section of the abstract for Christina C Jones’ Getting Schooled:
When 26 year old Reese accepts a position as a grad assistant, she has no idea an unpleasant encounter with a student will lead to the discovery of what she calls “the trifecta”: fine, intellectual, and a little bit rude – three qualities she finds irresistible in a man.
The abstract for Hate to Want You, Alisha Rai’s childhood-friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-sex-pact-to-lovers romance uses the words “illicit pleasure” before we hear who Livvy and Nicholas are, signaling high heat up front. And the inversion of the classic structure into [Contact and Conflict] [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict] reflects the twists and turns of the couple’s relationship, as well as the plot-focused nature of this 3-book family saga.
One night. No one will know.
That was the deal. Every year, Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler would share one perfect night of illicit pleasure. The forbidden hours let them forget the tragedy that haunted their pasts—and the last names that made them enemies.
Until the night she didn’t show up.
Now Nicholas has an empire to run. He doesn’t have time for distractions and Livvy’s sudden reappearance in town is a major distraction. She’s the one woman he shouldn’t want . . . so why can’t he forget how right she feels in his bed?
Livvy didn’t come home for Nicholas, but fate seems determined to remind her of his presence—and their past. Although the passion between them might have once run hot and deep, not even love can overcome the scandal that divided their families.
Being together might be against all the rules . . . but being apart is impossible.
There are a million small tweaks that happen within the formula once you recognize it. Beverley Jenkins’ Tempest, which starts with the heroine shooting the hero, also uses an atypical interrogative opener:
What kind of mail-order bride greets her intended with a bullet instead of a kiss?
The abstract of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It evokes the style of the celebrity gossip magazines that propel the plot of the book.
Sources say the mismatched pair has been spotted at multiple events, arm in arm and hip to hip.
The abstract for Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels contrasts Jess and Dain by presenting Dain’s [MC2] paragraph in free indirect discourse of hysterical exclamation-point-y worries, in contrast to Jess’s more staid statements of fact in her [MC1] intro.
Tough-minded Jessica Trent’s sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain.
Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him… and then forcing him to salvage her reputation!
In Band Sinister, KJ Charles sets up a tongue-in-cheek relationship to genre predecessors (which I’ve written about here) with an aside inserted into an otherwise mostly- traditional [MC1] intro.
Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)
When it comes to most romance abstracts, there’s clearly an identifiable formula (as Twitter pointed out last week, first person abstracts are a whole different thing that I don’t have space for here). Part of the potential of that formula, though, as I hope I’ve shown above, is that small changes can encode a wealth of information about tone, subgenre, tropes, and character traits. A good abstract provides transparent basic information to anyone who reads it, but can also offer a kind of inside communication to romance readers, who know the form enough to appreciate the variation.
Of course, if “knowing the form and appreciating the variation” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s true of romance as a genre on the whole. Not unsurprisingly, the structural touchstones of romance have given rise to a concomitant structure for describing the book itself. The presentation of [MC1] [MC2] reassures that the “central focus on the love story of two or more characters” requirement will be met. And the end of the abstract – the last sentence in particular – addresses the need to deliver on romance’s other primary task: an original and compelling journey to HEA.
What intrigued me about the final sentences of most of the abstracts in my survey is that they focus more on the obstacles to HEA than the HEA itself. In a lot of ways, this makes sense: having an HEA is what makes romances similar to each other; the obstacles are what makes every novel different. These final sentences fall into five broad categories.
The rhetorical: asks a question about threats to the HEA. The answer is yes.
Can their love survive their countries’ enmity? (Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Grey)
The contingency: an “if” or “maybe” statement that suggests the uncertainty of the HEA.
With every minute they spend under the same roof, this working mom can’t help but wonder if Rafe can handle all her needs… (Rafe, Rebekah Weatherspoon)
The either/or: presents the options that either will or will not lead to HEA.
Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . (Forbidden, Beverley Jenkins)
The obstacle: this closer presents an obstacle so great, its threat to the HEA is understood.
Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love – and freedom – before they even cross state lines. (A Hope Divided, Alyssa Cole)
The prize: more common in old-school histrom, this one focuses on how great the HEA will be, rather than the obstacles to it .
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. (Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale)
Almost every romance abstract ends on some kind of statement proclaiming its capability of pulling off the fundamental tension between structure and struggle. But does that really set it apart? Lots of books ask leading or enticing questions about the plot. But I was curious if abstracts for other genres – particularly the somewhat vaguely-defined “literary fiction” – have different sets of codes and constraints from romance, and what that paratextual difference might tell us about how romance is positioned in the literary world.
Consulting my shelves of non-romance fiction, I found a significant number devoted their final sentence to a citation of the title followed by a statement about what the book is like, rather than what it’s about. Here are four examples, all of which I read in the last year:
In Daisy Jones and the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid brilliantly captures an unforgettable place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.
Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters – strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis – survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.
The Bone Fire is a political gothic, carried along by the menace and promise of a fairy tale.
The Other Americans is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture.
These are markedly different from the closing line of romance abstracts- so why is that? An obvious answer is that these final sentences narrow down genre in a way that romance doesn’t need to. However, indicating genre isn’t all that these portions of litfic abstracts are doing, nor arguably is it their most important function. These sentences also (justifiably!) laud the quality of the books, marking their contribution to broader discussions. They are “unforgettable” and “utterly distinctive” and expose the “fault lines of American culture.” They’re serious. They’re well-written. The end of these abstracts shift from the “plot summary” mode to “book review” mode, preparing readers to think of the contents as having measurable value.
Citing the title directly also invites readers to think about the book as an object: something we might display on our bookshelves, or tell people we’ve read. That’s something I and many readers do with romance novels. But I’m suspicious that others might have past experiences mirroring mine, of having to wade through a swamp of societal judgment before reaching that point. Romance has a reputation for readers who go through books quickly and don’t want others to know what they’re reading (part of the putative reason we were early adopters of ebooks), which is the opposite of the kind of visible materiality suggested by talking about your bookas an object in a blurb. I don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that quick and private consumability is somehow inferior but… I do wonder about the way we’ve been conditioned to not to think of romance novels as objects of permanent value and as subjects of serious critique.
So, is the fact that romance abstracts rarely cite the book as a book a sign of broader reticence to consider romance novels as something appraisable and praiseworthy?
I don’t think this difference is exclusively down to internalized messaging about quality. To begin with, there are other places on romance covers (endorsement quotes, “from the bestselling author of” intros) where such evaluation takes place. Furthermore, like any other semi-closed literary system, romance has evolved its own codes to mark itself as distinctive: they conclude with an estimation of the nature of the book, we conclude with a commitment to plot and conflict. Not citing the title betokens a kind of unselfconsciousness, too. The book just needs to be about something compelling, not announce to readers what their opinion should be before they’ve started.
In a lot of ways, romance abstracts have a different kind of knowledge of, and trust in, the reader. So it really is the farthest possible thing from my mind to make the argument that romance should be marketing itself like litfic. I do think, however, that this difference opens an opportunity to look at how we talk about romance: to both celebrate the codes we’ve created, and find spaces for evaluating quality and legacy and importance alongside plot and character and structure.
Mostly what this initial survey of abstracts brought home to me is that paratexts are about a lot more than the meeting of reader and text at its threshold. They also reveal where and how the text lives in the world. That’s what the next two posts in this series will look at as well. Next week I’ll be talking about front matter – specifically content warnings, dedications, and epigraphs – and how they build bridges between the text, the reader, and other works of art and moments in time. Then the last stop will be a close reading of Twitter promo – both the kind authors create deliberately for marketing, and the kind readers create incidentally to push favorite books on people – and how they’ve created a more dynamic space of paratextual negotiation than anything Genette probably imagined.
The third book in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, delivers a tropey take on an unlikely love story between two apparent polar opposites. Eve is a “purple-haired tornado of a woman,” a “natural-born nemesis” to stiff and orderly Jacob. However as the blurb promises (making every romance reader sit up and pay attention) “the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else.” Classic enemies-to-lovers, opposites attract? Well, yes and no. Today’s post is going to look at how right from the very beginning – in fact, from the first moments Eve and Jacob meet – this book plays with how much common ground love can find in opposition.
Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It’s time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she’s not entirely sure how… Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right. Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.
Because so much of this book is about seeing and being seen, it stands to reason that a lot rides on the moment the reader first sees Eve and Jacob, and the moment they first see each other. Eve Brown is written in alternating 3rd person POV, and it’s organized such that both Eve and Jacob are introduced individually to the reader in their own POV sections. Shortly after that first introduction, we then see Jacob through Eve’s eyes and vice versa.
In the two short moments where Eve and Jacob present themselves, they focus on how they are misunderstood by others. But in so doing, they come across to the reader as two people with a very similar struggle to be seen and understood. It’s when they first meet that their distinct personalities – an order-loving grump and a chaotic ray of sunshine- snap into place. But just as Eve and Jacob start to appear differently to the reader, they move to an interesting piece of common ground, as neither one of them yet fully perceives who the other one is.
Let’s start with our first introduction to Eve and Jacob: the very first sentences we get about each of them in their own POV. These occur in Chapters 1 and 2 respectively:
Eve Brown didn’t keep a diary. She kept a journal. There was a difference.
Contrary to popular belief, Jacob Wayne did not create awkward situations on purpose.
These sentences differ in a few noticeable ways. Eve – a born performer with a self-assured personality – kicks things off by offering her own full name, making her the star of the show. Jacob, slightly more shy of the spotlight, emerges a few words into his sentence from behind the weight of “popular belief.” This difference is echoed in the chapter structure too: the first chapter starts with Eve’s perspective, whereas Jacob doesn’t take over the POV of the second chapter until several pages in. They also display a different level of formality in their speech. While they use the same basic negation structure, Eve’s is a contraction (didn’t) unlike Jacob’s (did not), reflecting Eve’s more casual style and Jacob’s adherence to proper formalities.
However, all things considered, their first introductions have more fundamental commonalities than differences. To begin with, they both make categorical statements establishing themselves as people with a clear vision of who they are. Eve is a journal person, not a diary person. Jacob does not create awkward situations on purpose. What strikes me the most is that the use of categorical statements coupled with negation suggests that they share a history of being misunderstood. Eve’s addition of “there was a difference” to her first statements suggests that she, like Jacob, feels compelled to amend popular belief about the fundamentals of who she is. There is an element of self-justification to their introductions, a correction of the record that implicitly asks readers to understand them better than others have. The need to be understood turns out to be central to both characters, when it comes to how they socialize, how they relate to their families, and how they move through the world.
As readers, we have 375 delightful pages full of chances to understand Eve and Jacob better. We also get to watch them learn about themselves through their relationship to each other, one of the best journeys a romance novel can take. When Eve first presents Eve, and Jacob first presents Jacob, they sound pretty similar to each other – categorical and record-correcting and clear on who they are. When they first see each other, however, they sound like fundamentally different people.
Here’s Jacob’s first look at Eve, when she shows up unannounced to interview for a chef position at his B&B:
After a moment’s hesitating an unfamiliar face popped itself through the gap in the door. Jacob assumed the face was attached to a body, but all he could see right now was a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids.
“Hello,” the floating head said. “I’m here for the interview.”
Assertive and straight to the point: good. Complete stranger, unscheduled: bad. The kind of crisp accent Jacob usually heard from the guests themselves: potential issue. Hovering in the door like a supernatural creature: undecided.
And Eve’s first impression of Jacob, as she reflects on how different he is from what she expected from a charming B&B owner:
Jacob Wayne should, by rights, be an old married couple with a twinkle in their eye who looked upon the world at large with kindness and goodwill and would be happy to hire Eve so that she could start her journey to self-actualization in a job she’d never get too attached to.
Instead, Jacob Wayne was a single man, not much older than her, and the twinkle in his eye was more of a steely, judgmental glint. Or maybe that was just the light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses. Those glasses were balanced on a strong, Roman nose that someone should probably break, because all his features were strong and Roman and that likely had something to do with how he’d become so arrogant. The man was disgustingly, inescapably, thoroughly handsome, and as Gigi often said, A handsome man is a fearsome liability to everyone but himself.
Jacob’s first glance at Eve shows how reliant he is on order, as well as on concrete, observable phenomena. The second half of the passage, in particular, reads as a kind of hybrid between the notes Jacob might be taking as he meets job candidates, and the more general way he approaches the world. The statement “complete stranger, unscheduled” suggests a mental record of encounters structured like an academic book index: by extension, we can assume that the previous interview fell under the pre-established category of “complete stranger, scheduled.”
Jacob perceives Eve mostly as a list of what is physically apparent “a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids.” Rather endearingly, he reins in his powers of imagination so strictly that he only “assume[s]” the face is attached to a body, a conceptual leap that most people would be ready to make. That being said, his strict observations create surprising spaces for creativity: because he’s not willing to surmise what Eve’s head might or might not be attached to, we are treated to the slightly fantastical descriptions of Eve as a “floating head” and a “supernatural creature.” This lets us see early on how Jacob’s order and literal-ness can hold space for Eve’s whimsy.
In contrast to Jacob’s adherence to the observable realties of Eve, Eve’s first impression of Jacob gives almost as much space to imaginative speculation as it does to physical appearance. She starts by devoting an entire sentence to who she thought would be running Jacob’s B&B, spinning out a fanciful portrait of two twinkly-eyed elderly owners that ends in musings about her own career woes. Indeed, her sentences rarely end up in the same place they started, with a looping logic that sits in start contrast to Jacob’s listing and order.
But just as Jacob’s lists make space for whimsy, Eve’s creative imaginings are open to revision. She sees Jacob as judgmental, but also admits that it might be a trick of perception created by the “light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses.” She recognizes both his strong exterior and, in a subsequent section, its vulnerability to being broken. While others often perceive Eve as off in her own world, untethered from reality, in the presence of Jacob we can see how she keeps herself open to other ways of seeing the world.
Eve Brown uses its fundamental tension between similarity and difference in so many ways throughout the novel. The novel itself is both a loving homage to the “opposites attract” trope and a clever book-long deconstruction of it – and thus a masterclass in how romance tropes are as much about exploration and change as they are about formula. The book also uses similarity and difference to ground a truly moving moment in which Eve comes to realize she is autistic, in part through talking to Jacob about his diagnosis. She inches towards this realization because of a few traits that she and Jacob share, but more importantly she learns that the same term holds space for experiences as different as Jacob’s and her own.
Part of the satisfaction, to me, in reading Act Your Age, Eve Brown was how deftly the book moved Eve and Jacob towards each other without every straying from its knowledge of- and commitment to- who the two characters are as individuals. Which, in itself, says a lot about love : as an act of growth into oneself rather than fundamental change, as a search for space and compatibility rather than a resolution of binaries. And the book unfolds all these journeys so deftly, taking readers beyond where they thought they’d be going at just the first look.
I picked up this novella on a whim after seeing it on this Twitter list of under-sung novellas. It’s a lightly-magical contemporary romance between two older women who play in the same orchestra: Heledd is a violinist, Rosemary is the conductor she’s been in love with for ages. I won’t give away too much more, because one of the pleasures of reading Duet was watching it unfold in tone and genre with an amplitude that far exceeded expectations for such a short read. Here’s the cover and blurb:
Heledd, leader of the first violins, has been in love with her irrepressible conductor Rosemary for years.
A secret from her past means she must hide how she feels, but the time they spend working and performing together is enough for Heledd – until a near miss with a speeding car forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.
When the orchestra is mysteriously summoned to perform in the Welsh village where Heledd grew up – a village she hasn’t returned to in decades – the life she’s made for herself begins to unravel, and her secrets threaten to escape.
The passage I’ve chosen takes place a few days after Heledd has gone to Rosemary’s home to have pizza and hear her practice a harp piece: it’s an understated and private moment of longing that sets readers up nicely for the concert where Rosemary gives a rare public harp performance:
In the concert hall with its vaulted ceiling, a few days after the pizza and the harp lesson, Heledd kept remembering that night. The memory tangled with the music Rosemary was playing now–an entirely different piece, on a different harp, in a different place, but Heledd was still mesmerised by the way Rosemary made the music fill up the room. Near the climax of the piece there were four bars of silence, and Heledd thought not a single person in the room breathed. When Rosemary’s fingers touched the strings again, the whole place seemed to exhale as one. It made Heledd giddy.
What strikes me about this passage is the way it conveys the meaning and emotion of Rosemary’s music through senses other than sound, which are more accessible to the reader. Rather than telling us what the harp piece sounds like, the passage conveys how it occupies space (filling an entire high-ceilinged concert hall), time (blending together Heledd and Rosemary’s private harp lesson with a public concert), and most importantly, silence: a breathless, collective silence. The power of the music is conveyed precisely by what happens when it’s not audible, involving the readers in parts of the performance they can access more easily than trying to imagine how it sounds.
A particular strength of this novella is its ability to make use of absences, gaps, and silences. There is, of course, the metaphorical silence of Heledd’s unrequited and unconfessed pining for Rosemary throughout decades of friendship. But more than that, Duet leaves a lot of detail unspoken, particularly around Heledd’s dark secret and its fantasy elements. While these absences might frustrate some readers, I found the sparing use of detail to be beautifully constructed. Like Rosemary’s music, the text brings readers into its silences, using them to create a sense of shared wonder and mystery.
I recommend picking up this novella for:
A delicate blending of contemporary and fantasy romance, that layers the two genres for Maximum Pining.
Two professionally accomplished heroines, both over the age of 40.
One particularly gorgeous metaphor for falling in love without realizing it: “It hadn’t happened in a flash of lightning … It was more like she’d been walking along a path, a quiet path on a sunny day, not noticing the gradual upward slope until finally she’d looked around her and found that she was on the edge of a cliff and about to walk right off”
After having it recommended to me by multiple people whose reading taste I trust, I finally picked up Big Boy by Ruthie Knox, and this 77-page slip of a novella has ended up being one of the most impactful bits of reading I’ve done this year. The setup is fairly simple, but delightfully unconventional: the two MCs are strangers who meet up once a month for trysts in a train museum, where they role play characters from different historical eras.
Meet me at the train museum after dark. Dress for 1957.
When Mandy joins an online dating service, she keeps her expectations low. All she wants is a distraction from the drudgery of single parenthood and full-time work. But the invitation she receives from a handsome man who won’t share his real name promises an adventure—and a chance to pretend she’s someone else for a few hours. She doesn’t want romance to complicate her life, but Mandy’s monthly role-playing dates with her stranger on a train—each to a different time period—become the erotic escape she desperately needs. And a soul connection she never expected. Yet when she tries to draw her lover out of the shadows, Mandy has a fight on her hands…to convince him there’s a place for their fantasy love in the light of day.
There are multiple passages I could have chosen that show off the spare lyricism of the prose. But what I kept coming back to with this book is how it fit so much into a one-hour read. By the time you reach the end, you’ve traversed months of timeline and know and care about both characters deeply (despite almost never having seen the hero as “himself” until the end). I tend to assume that kind of temporal and character development is primarily the work of plot and pacing and structure- but in this book, it’s the work of prose, too. Like in this passage, where Mandy thinks back on one of their encounters:
I think about him in the days between our dates. I figure out what I’m going to wear when I see him again, who I’ll be. The anticipation is so sweet, sometimes I wonder if it’ll make my teeth ache eventually, turn my stomach, and that will be that.
We’ve been on nine dates in nine months.
I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date, and I might not have done it then, except it was wartime, and my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater. I’d decided not to waste any more opportunities. When he kissed me in the stateroom of General Eisenhower’s train, I pulled him down to the floor by the lapels and asked him to make me forget.
The first thing I love about this passage is how it juxtaposes the details of Mandy and Tyler’s “real” selves with the characters they role-play. There’s nothing in this passage, stylistically or structurally, that suggests there’s a different truth value to the statement “I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date” (which we assume to be true of Mandy) and “my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater” (which we assume to be true of the character she’s created). The idea that Mandy and Tyler reveal their true selves through role-play is integral to the storyline, and the prose does a lot of work to make the reader feel what it’s like to slip between personalities, what that reveals and what it keeps hidden, by weaving them together in single passages, or single sentences.
This interweaving technique is also part of what makes the book feel so temporally expansive: it recreates the feeling of traversing nine months in only a few pages by telescoping the distant past of the Second World War with the present of the 21st century, through the space of Eisenhower’s stateroom: which existed both in the past of Mandy’s character and the present of the trysts at the train museum.
Another juxtaposition I appreciate is how the sentences can use seemingly-mundane details to set up deep emotional revelations. We see this at the end of both full paragraphs above. “What I’m going to wear when I see him again” is a fairly rote logistical detail, “who I’ll be” gets at the core of Mandy’s struggle to define who she is. Similarly, the last sentence uses the details of the train to evoke the logistics of their lovemaking, but builds to a crescendo of “make me forget,” deftly evoking the real-world problems they are both trying to escape from. It lends real emotional depth to two people readers don’t have a lot of time to get to know.
It’s hard to put my finger on, but something about the way many of the sentences combine logistical details with more poignant notes puts the purely-details sentences into relief. “We’ve been on nine dates in nine months” is an unremarkable declarative sentence, but it stands out to me so starkly- not only the way it’s typeset on its own line, but also how much unspoken weight it carries in contrast to the sentences around it. One of Mandy’s primary struggles in the book is coming to terms with being a single mother to her late sister’s child, and her life is incredibly difficult in a logistical sense. We learn so much about her in just those eight words: that she keeps meticulous track of schedules, that she’s mentally holding on to the time she gets with Tyler, that when she thinks about it directly, she can’t quite say to herself what it means. The starkness of the sentence lends a rhythm to the passage, but it also draws the reader in further, to try to excavate the emotions underneath.
If you pick up Big Boy, you’ll also find:
A story you can truly read in one sitting, and that will stay with you for days (and I’m guessing probably weeks) afterwards.
Reflections on the classic romance themes of knowing yourself/knowing others that are baked right into the structure of every chapter and every sentence.
A heroine who is unsparingly honest about herself in a way that is both uncomfortably real and yet somehow comforting in its relatability.
A hero who seems like a classic mysterious romantic enigma, until a turn-on-a-dime final reveal makes you realize how much you knew about him all along (truly, it’s remarkable).
Hot train sex, and some really great clothing descriptions.
I am very excited to share this most recent post, which is a product of a read-along and blog collaboration with Felicia Davin over at Word Suitcase. As we both have studied and worked in French, and consume tons of romance novels, we decided to pick a historical romance out of J’ai Lu’s collection of works translated from English. We settled on Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London, translated into French by Nicole Hibert as Lady Chance. I highly recommend subscribing to Word Suitcase, where this week you’ll find Felicia’s etymological exploration of chit/ingénue, and an insightful discussion of Thomas’s narrative voice.
Personally, I went into this project with very few preconceived notions : I read in French for my job, in English for fun, and I’ve never read a romance in French before at all. Lady Chance was my primary text, which I read start to finish while referring frequently to The Luckiest Lady in London for comparison. It was a fascinating experience, and while I’m not sure I extracted any overarching truths about reading romance in English and French, the two books did feel incredibly different to me. In a few places, the translator was able to take advantage of French’s unique features and add layers to the text- in many others, I felt the loss of the brightness and complex tone of Thomas’s work. I wanted to start by exploring a few instances in both of those categories – where I felt things were gained or lost in translation – and close with some more general thoughts about the experience of reading two very different versions of the same romance. To start, here’s some info on the original text, as well as a link to the French, for those so inclined.
Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix knows very well his golden image is a hoax. But no one else suspects the truth, until Miss Louisa Cantwell comes along. From their first meeting, Louisa has mistrusted his outward perfection. But even she could not have imagined that The Ideal Gentleman would propose—to make her his mistress. Yet she cannot ignore the pleasure his touch ignites. Nor can she deny the pull Lord Wrenworth exerts upon her. But dare she get any closer to a man full of dark secrets, any one of which could devastate her?
One linguistic feature the French translator had to play with is the distinction between formal “vous” and informal “tu” address. Because that distinction doesn’t exist in English, the translator had to identify when a couple who started off as strangers in proper society (using “vous”) would switch to greater intimacy (using “tu”). In Lady Chance, that occurred right after Felix and Louisa sleep together for the first time, marking it – rather than the moment of their marriage ceremony- as the spark of true closeness between them.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, is how the translator continued to play with this register, taking the couple back to using “vous” when they fought – and even having them make the shift at different times, so that there are sections where Felix is oblivious to the extent of Louisa’s anger and still using “tu” while she keeps him at a distance with “vous.”
The use of “vous” between a married couple is brilliant at reinforcing the emotional register of “I am freezing you out while I absolutely burn you to the ground” that is the hallmark of Thomas’s angsty marriage-in-trouble stories. Let’s look at one example, a line Felix says to Louisa:
Permettez-moi de vous donner un conseil, ma chère: il ne faut jamais croire ce qu’un homme vous raconte quand il vous baise.
Let me tell you something, my dear: You should never believe what a man says when he is fucking you.
The Luckiest Lady in London
This line is a fairly straightforward translation (except that in French he gives advice instead of telling). But, to me, the last three words of the French “il vous baise” land much harder than “he is fucking you” for the simple reason of register: if you are a reasonably polite person, there is almost never a scenario where you’re employing a word as vulgar as “baiser” with someone you address as “vous.” The seeds of the formality are planted in the English with “he is” instead of “he’s,” and the French takes full advantage of that tension.
There are also a few interesting moments where the translator takes license to choose – and even to add – words and phrases that reinforce Thomas’s themes. One of these happens when Felix is brooding over his marital feud with Louisa. (Because the French is significantly different from the English here, I’ve provided a more literal translation of the French for non-Francophones in smaller script below)
Le dos voûté il gagna son observatoire. Les nuages masquaient l’éclat des étoiles. Il y demeura pourtant jusqu’à l’aube, à scruter inutilement un ciel noir d’encre.
With his back stooped, he reached his observatory. The clouds masked the shine of the stars. Yet he stayed there until dawn, to uselessly examine a sky black as ink.
When he finally took himself to his observatory, clouds had already rolled in. But there he remained until dawn, under a sky he could no longer see.
The Luckiest Lady in London
At no point, in Sherry Thomas’s original scene, is Felix’s back stooped. So what is it doing in the French? The adjective used to describe his back – voûté – derives from voûte, or arch. La voûte is commonly used in the expression “la voûte céleste” or “the celestial arch” – referring to the sky or the heavens. So to describe Felix, an astronomer who shares his love of the stars with the woman he has lost, as having a “dos voûté” as he walks up to his observatory, takes advantage of the specificity of the French while reproducing the rich thematic work that Sherry Thomas maintains throughout the book.
I do have to say, though, that moments like this – where the translation is creatively dialoguing with the style and thematic complexity of the novel – are few and far between. My overwhelming impression was of a work of interpretation that, in most cases, didn’t trust the reader as much as Sherry Thomas’s writing does. This issue is likely, in part, circumstantial: it’s impossible for me to know at what pace – and for what kind of compensation – these translations are produced. But overall, reading the translation heightened my awareness of what characterizes Thomas’s writing, because those things often disappeared: suggestively ambiguous phrases, deliberate double meanings, and poetic abstraction of the individual from their own emotions.
The joys of ambiguity
One issue that came up frequently was that, in an effort to render Thomas’s references and metaphors understandable, the translation flattened some of their delightful ambiguity. This passage shows it happening in two different ways.
– Je sais pourquoi je t’aime, ma douce. Et je t’aimerai encore plus lorsque les braves gens viendront chercher avec leur fourche la sorcière que tu es. Elle éclata de rire puis, reprenant son sérieux, plongea son regard dans le sien – Et moi, je sais qu’aucun homme au monde ne pourrait me rendre plus heureuse.
I know why I love you, my sweet. And I’ll love you even more when the good people come with their pitchforks looking for the sorceress that you are. She burst out laughing, then, becoming serious again, plunged her gaze into his. – And me, I know that no man in the world could make me happier.
“I know I love you for a reason. I will love you even more when they come for you with pitchforks.” She laughed, cupped his face, and looked into his eyes. “And I could never be this happy with anyone else”
The Luckiest Lady in London
Reading this passage, two different things jumped out at me: the appearance, in the French, of “the sorceress that you are” – which doesn’t exist at all in the English, and “becoming serious again” – which replaces “cupped his face.”
“The sorceress that you are” is a fairly understandable addition. While in English, the word “pitchfork” is enough to conjure up images of an angry mob, in French “fourche” mostly just suggests a farmer. A fun – though by no means foolproof – way to test vocabulary-use theories is to run words through Google image search: “pitchfork” brought up a pretty even spread of farmer images and devil images, whereas “fourche” definitely leant more heavily towards the farming end of things. Even more tellingly, “with pitchforks” turned up lots of images of angry mobs. “Avec des fourches” taught me that this word in French is also used for having split-ends.
As a reading experience, adding sorcery to the pitchforks errs on the side of clarity, but I think it also takes something away : a trust in the reader to conjure up images with a single word. Obviously somewhere in French there’s a corresponding metonym for crowds, but it can be hard to turn away from the more direct, explanatory translation.
“Becoming serious again” is an interesting example of an instance where an action doesn’t have a simple, elegant translation into French, and the translator has instead substituted a feeling. While French obviously allows for describing the motion of placing a hand against someone’s jaw, there isn’t a single verb like “cup” that does so quickly. I agree with the choice to substitute something else for “took his face into the palm of her hand” or “pressed her hand to his face,” but there’s a loss of interpretative work for the reader, when the translator preempts the choice of that gesture conveying tenderness or playfulness or attention, and decides it marks seriousness instead.
One of my favorite things about Thomas’s writing is that she isn’t afraid to play with syntax in a way that distances her characters from strong emotions they can’t yet face. Two of my favorite lines in the English describe Louisa and Felix as deeply in love, yet incapable of expressing the sentiment. For Louisa, it’s the first time she sleeps with Felix, which the narration describes like this:
It was like the sky falling. Beyond, the stars.
The Luckiest Lady in London
I love the truncated simplicity of “Beyond, the stars” and how it captures the confusion of falling in love. The focus on things (the sky, the stars) rather than emotions also matches the state of a character whose emotions haven’t yet caught up to physical sensation. The sheer magnitude of the images reflects the grandeur of what she experiences. The French, unfortunately, simply captures this as “Elle voguait en plein ciel, parmi les étoiles/She was sailing across the sky, among the stars” which strikes me as both more simple and more conventional than the original.
Similarly, when Felix first suspects he might have fallen for his wife, he thinks to himself
“Such a lonely feeling, being hopelessly in love.”
The Luckiest Lady in London
There’s an ambiguity there: obviously we as readers know Felix is thinking this because he is in love with Louisa, but Felix keeps distance by not inserting himself into the sentence. The aphoristic quality of phrase is key, as it – artificially – abstracts “being in love” from anything he’s feeling. In French, this is rendered as a fully grammatical sentence, with Felix as its subject: “Il était amoureux, et il se sentait désespérément seul/He was in love, and he felt desperately lonely.”
I think it’s easy to get caught up in this kind of comparison. As I read Lady Chance I accumulated an entire document of side-by-side quotes that ranged from clever additions, to faithful renderings, to absolutely baffling changes and frustrating absences. My reading of the French was haunted by assumptions about the original. I’d come across a word and dash back to The Luckiest Lady in London, wondering where it had come from and how it had come into being. It was tellingly difficult for me to not let the translator stand in between me and the “real” text like an interloping second reader: I was constantly aware of consuming someone else’s reading, rather than the new and independent text that a translation ideally becomes. That’s in part, I think, because of my reading method (I knew I was reading comparatively for the blog), and in part because the style of the translation leaned so heavily into the task of interpreting even the most poetic of ambiguities.
Ultimately, the exercise of reading Lady Chance and The Luckiest Lady in London gave me a new perspective on one of my favorite topics: how much the individual reader brings to the consumption of a novel. It made me think about why I needed “sorceress” to stand alongside “fourche” but not “pitchfork” – and how hard it must be to make linguistic choices as a translator when every word is dragging a suitcase full of historical usage around with it. Ultimately, this experience reminded me that I appreciate authors who trust their readers to do some work with what’s on the page: to decide what cupping a face means, or to revel in the grammatical dark spaces around phrases like “Beyond, the stars.” All the while, though, they also have to have a sense of their readers as a community, with shared understanding of language: otherwise you have a bunch of random farmers showing up to taunt your heroine, instead of an angry mob. Part of what Sherry Thomas’s original accomplishes so well is conceiving of its readership as a community, but one made up of many individual interpretations. Reading these two texts together really drove home why ambiguity, and innovation, and lexical incompleteness are a part of the magic of my favorite writing.
It’s release day for Love at First, the most recent contemporary romance from Kate Clayborn. I’ve already talked a bit on this blog about how much I love Kate’s writing, and I was fortunate enough to get an ARC of this book from the publisher. For those of you who are considering picking it up, here’s a little snapshot of the writing – and loving treatment of romance tropes – that awaits you if you do. First, the cover and blurb:
Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar . . .
No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can’t work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance.
The passage I’ve chosen for this snapshot takes place as Will and Nora sit a veterinarian’s waiting room, as they deal with a pair of kittens that have appeared rather inconveniently in their shared apartment building. It occurs fairly early on in the book, yet we can still see how Nora intertwines the details of a short but meaningful shared history into her description of Will:
He looked down at her, all stubble-faced and kitten-scratched and unwinking, and he may have had a serious expression on his face, but she felt oddly like their shared laughter still lived between them, same as the way their weeks-gone golden hour always did.
Will and Nora first “meet” as teenagers: Nora on the balcony of her grandmother’s apartment building, Will on the ground below. They then reconnect across the space between balconies in the same building – one that has become a home for Nora, and source of conflict for the couple. Thanks to this first half-remembered meeting, Will and Nora have a kind of physical memory of knowing each other that haunts their interactions. That feeling comes through beautifully in this quote, where Nora takes the few interactions they’ve had – sparring with kittens, laughing together, sharing a golden hour – and grafts them onto her description of Will. As will be true of the rest of the book, we find comfortably familiar romance idioms (like the serious, buttoned-up, stubble-faced hero) alongside moments that feel sharply specific to who Will and Nora are as individuals.
Love at First also makes masterful use of physical space and material items as anchors for its love story. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another romance novel that has so many things that stick in my memory: towel racks and upholstered couches and summer tomatoes and flower crowns. While they all lend texture to the world of the novel, they also articulate so much about how Will and Nora feel about each other. The above quote gives us a quick glimpse of the opposite effect, which is just as prominent: intangible things like laughter that live, in an almost physically embodied way, in ineffable spaces like the golden hour, or the space between Will and Nora. I’m deeply impressed at how the book can make both the emotional and the tangible seem not just intertwined, but anchored to the same type of meaning.
So! If you pick up Love at First, here are some other things you’ll find:
A take on a Romeo-and-Juliet balcony scene as a setup, that informs the novel without taking over it (or its plot! HEAs all around).
Many a familiar romance trope that feel somehow new, because they’re deployed in a way that is so specific to who Will and Nora are as characters. There’s a real “reading your favorite book again for the first time” vibe to this one.
A close sense of space – most of the plot takes place in Will and Nora’s apartment building – that recasts living inside the four walls of your apartment as a comfort, which I found particularly soothing in pandemic times.
A fairly gentle touch of humor that periodically cuts through the angst and longing without disturbing the mood of the book.
Some real tear-jerker moments (I periodically cried because the prose was so good, so if that’s at thing that happens to you too, stock up on tissues).
It’s been just over a year since I started this blog, and it has taken that full time to work up the courage to write about Laura Kinsale’s work. Her backlist includes some of the most complex and intriguing romance I’ve ever read, and I am perpetually astounded with how she plays with the English language. While I do plan to eventually tackle my very favorite of hers (Flowers from the Storm), today I’m looking at a book that’s a close second in my affections, For My Lady’s Heart. Here’s the blurb, cover photo, and link to CWs.
With Princess Melanthe di Monteverde widowed, a political marriage would tip the balance of power to any kingdom that possessed her. Determined to return to England alive and unwed, she hides behind a mask of witchery.
Protecting her is Ruck d’Angleterre, a chivalrous knight who never wavers—and the only man Melanthe wishes could lift the veil of her disguise. He once desired her, but now his gaze reveals distrust. As they flee her enemies, Melanthe’s impossible love for the Green Knight grows.
Ruck has remained chaste for thirteen miserable years, since his wife entered a nunnery, continuing to honor their marital vows. In that dark hour, when the church stripped him of his spouse and his possessions, the princess secretly came to his aid with two emeralds. Her safety is his duty, yet his heart is not pure. Each time he gazes upon Melanthe’s sable hair and twilight eyes, he wants more.
I’m going to examine two passages in this post, starting with Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting. Despite the fact that Melanthe is the focal point of the passage, she’s described primarily in terms of what is absent – particularly noteworthy is the absence of any description of her face, which Ruck is unable to look upon.
A shimmer of color sparkled at the corner of Ruck’s eye. He turned his head reflexively, as if a mirror had flashed. Space had opened around him. At the edge of it, two spears’ length distant, a lady paused.
She glanced at him and the guard as she might glance at mongrels scrapping. A princess—mayhap a queen, from the richness of her dress and jewels—surrounded by her attendants, male and female, secluded amid the crowd like a glitter of silent prismatic light among shadows.
Cold… and as her look skimmed past him, his whole body caught ice and fire.
He dropped to one knee, bowing his head. When he lifted it, the open space had closed, but still he could see her within the radius of her courtiers. They appeared to be waiting, like everyone else, conversing among themselves. One of the men gave Ruck a brief scornful lift of his brow and turned his shoulder eloquently. […] He watched her hands, because he could not bear to look long at her face and did not dare to scan her body for its violent effect on his. The gauntlet and the falcon’s hood, bejeweled like all the rest of her, glittered with emeralds on silver. She stroked the bird’s breast with white fingers, and from four rods away that steady, gentle caress made him bleed as if from a mortal wound in his chest.
She turned to someone, lifting her finger to hold back the gauzy green veil that fell from her crown of braids to her shoulder—a feminine gesture, a delicacy that commanded and judged and condemned him to an agony of desire. He could not tear his look from her hand as it hovered near her lips: he saw her slight smile for her ladies—so cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.
Ruck first sees Melanthe as a shimmer of color “as if a mirror had flashed” and then the empty spaces that open around her. Even the visual cues that Ruck does receive from Melanthe use turns of phrase that over-emphasize absence: “a silent prismatic light” is remarkable for the modifier “silent,” which denotes an absence of sound for an already soundless phenomenon.
The longer Ruck stares at Melanthe’s “silent, prismatic light” the more he sees of her. In the full version of this passage, a section I’ve cut describes various parts of her body and clothing – jewels, embroidery, her hair, a dagger – as Ruck takes them in. But despite the narrative insistence on Ruck’s gaze, the object of it never quite comes together as a whole. Melanthe is fractured, seeming absent despite her overwhelming presence, active primarily in terms of her effects on Ruck.
These effects are described so poetically that the passage almost – almost – lets you gloss over how fully it overturns the romance trope of the hero finding the heroine instantly attractive, although that comes through clearly at the end:
So cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.
I’m going to insist a lot in this post on how closely the language mimics the emotional journey of the novel: the narrative takes the unfamiliar and slowly, carefully, brings it closer to the reader, in ways that echo how the novel presents love as a path to perception and knowledge. “Ferment” is a prismatic term: it’s uncommon, but legible to the reader through a constellation of related words around it. Ferment here is a state of “agitation or excitement,” but in 21st century English it’s almost never used in a nominal form. The word recalls two other, more familiar nouns, though: fermentation, a chemical reaction that gives off heat; and firmament, an expanse of stars as cold and distant as Melanthe. In bringing these meanings together, ferment creates meaning for the modern reader, bringing together the “ice” and “fire” themes central to the passage.
Another word that flies a bit more under the radar here is “comprehend,” but I found it almost equally as strange. What does it mean to “comprehend” a face? We think of physical beauty as demanding perception, appreciation, or desire perhaps, but not comprehension. Diving into a bit of etymology, though, comprehend starts to make more sense. It comes from the latin “com” – together and “prehendre” – grasp. So, to comprehend is to be able to grasp something as a whole: exactly what Ruck fails to do in this scene. He cannot comprehend Melanthe’s face in the sense that he is not able to look upon it and take it in as a whole. In contrast, various etymological dictionaries suggest that to understand (which has a less clear provenance) is about standing among or between. Ruck has no problem with that kind of knowledge: he can be near Melanthe; he simply cannot grasp her as a whole.
That comprehension, the grasping as a whole, is the business of perhaps the most romantic scene in the novel, and on my list of most moving scenes in all of romance. It takes place at the very end of the book: while there are no plot spoilers here, readers who like to encounter prose for the first time in context might want to put a pin in things and come back after they’ve read the final chapter.
Happily Every After
At this point of the narrative, the plot twists and turns have all been worked out, and Ruck and Melanthe are discussing their future. Ruck promises that even if his career as a knight takes him away for a time, Melanthe need not fear for his faithfulness. She is not entirely assuaged, however, and has a lingering request. Throughout the book, we’ve been reminded that Melanthe is afraid to look at herself in the mirror. This fear works, I think, on at least three levels: there’s basic human insecurity, the fear of finding one’s own reflection less than beautiful. On a more esoteric level, Melanthe has been accused of being a witch, and her fear of not appearing in mirrors reads as a period-appropriate worry over her own unnaturalness and difference. And finally, her fear of mirrors works on a metaphorical level: in the course of fighting to escape the grasp of powerful men, she fears she’s lost her sense of self.
A shimmer of color as if flashing off a mirror, of course, is what first caught Ruck’s eye the first time he was in Melanthe’s presence. He couldn’t take in her face at that moment; but this is the end of the book, and he’s fully able to now. She holds out her mirror to him, asks him what he sees, and here’s how he responds:
He did not even glance at the mirror.
“Sharp wit,” he said. “Valor past any man I know. Foolish japery and tricks worse than a child. Lickerous lust, hair like midwinter night. A proud and haught chin, a mouth for noble-talking—that does kiss sufficiently, in faith, and slays me with a smile. Guile and dreaming. A princess. A wench. An uncouth runisch girl. My wife. I see you, Melanthe. Ne do I need a glass.”
“Look in the mirror!”
“Luflych.” He wrapped his hand about her tight fist. “I see the same there.”
She gave a rasping breath of relief, without opening her eyes.
“Thou art certain? My face is there? Thou dost not say me false?”
“I fear for my life do I e’er say thee false, my lady.”
“Oh, I am lost! I need thee to sayen me true. I need thee to say me what I should be. All is changed, and I know not what I am.”
“Then will we keepen watch and see. And if ye be someone new each morn, Melanthe-—God knows thou art still my sovereign lady. Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in spirit always, and return to thee with my whole heart, to see what bemazement thou wilt work upon me next.
We see so much of Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting come back in this passage. The theme of absence returns in Melanthe’s fear that she won’t see herself in the mirror. That fear casts a slightly different light on their first meeting: the fact that Ruck took her in mostly as an absence suggests that he immediately sensed her deepest fear, “seeing” her emotionally even as he failed to physically.
In this case, of course, Ruck’s gaze doesn’t falter: he looks Melanthe directly in the face, and tells her what he sees. Many of the disparate elements from the first passage are there: her hair, her royal bearing, her mouth, the very contradictions that so confused Ruck at the outset. But this time, not only does he perceive it all under a different aspect, he is able to take all those disparate elements together and grasp them – comprehend them – as a whole: “I see you, Melanthe.”
Another major change between these passages is the movement from mostly-standard-English to Middle-English-inflected dialogue. A great deal of textual work has gone into making the language in this latter passage understandable. By this point, readers are accustomed to many of the grammatical features of Kinsale’s Middle English. Two of the most unfamiliar words in the above passage – lickerous and runsich – have been highlighted earlier, ensuring that readers recall their meaning. Other features have been used so frequently that they’ve become second nature: e’er, thee/though, ne/nought.
The process of making unfamiliar language gradually legible to readers is one that fascinates me, and in this passage I think the language has a lot to say about the way Ruck and Melanthe have fallen in love. “Bemazement,” for example, is a word the strangeness of which passes virtually unperceived. It sounded (to me at least) quite familiar, but in fact the term is so infrequently used that it returns no more than 400-odd Google results (along with a passive-aggressive query if you really mean “amazement.”) It’s clear to readers, though, because it relies on the common prefix be- that turns a verb transitive, as well as proximity to words like “bemusement.” Drawing on our familiarity with similar terms lets us read this uncanny word as if it came from our own vocabulary.
As I was scouring the few actual Google results for “bemazement” I found a quote from a 1903 translation of Dante Alighieri’s Convivio that defines the word “bemazement” as “bewilderment of the mind on seeing or hearing on in anywise perceiving wonderful things.” It goes on to tell us the following:
“For in so far as [these wonderful things] appear great, they make he who perceives them reverent towards them, and in so far as they appear wonderful they make him who perceives them desirous to have knowledge of them”
The Dante is a translation, and there’s no reason to suggest its influence on Kinsale’s text, yet it still offers a lovely bit of intertextual felicity. In a very different context, it uses bemazement to explore the relationship between perception and desire, to suggest that desire is a kind of awe inspired by the very act of seeing. It’s perfect, then, that Ruck and Melanthe seal their love this way: with mirrors and bemazement.
For me, though, the key part of the last passage isn’t this strange word, but what directly precedes it:
“Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in sprit always, and return to thee with my full heart”
If we look at what follows “in” in each sentence, there’s a significant functional difference. “In every moment” is a time marker – it describes when Ruck can (or cannot) be by Melanthe’s side. “In spirit,” by contrast, is a marker of mode- it describes how Ruck will be there. The parallelism functions to highlight the promise of a deeper, spiritual presence in the absence of a physical one. “Return to thee with my whole heart” brings the passage full circle, by reiterating the theme of love as wholeness – comprehending (grasping together) rather than understanding (being close to). By emphasizing the manner of Ruck’s love, rather than proximity in time or place, the book deepens its exploration of spiritual love as equally important to the physical.
In a way, I think of this as another point of connection between language and love in the novel. As a modern-day reader, some of the religious themes in For My Lady’s Heart are hard to read: the text takes seriously things like religious vows of chastity, the Medieval church’s edicts about marriage, and whether physical lust is sanctioned within the bonds of holy matrimony. It can be hard to connect these attitudes to the way many of us think about love and lust in the 21st century. But just as the text does with words like “ferment” and “bemazement,” Ruck and Melanthe’s story takes the strange specificity of the past, and helps us comprehend it through connections to broader, nearly timeless depictions of love.