Close Reading Snapshot: A Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

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.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website.

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”
  • Aching, eerie atmosphere.
  • A literal one-sitting read, at 84 pages.

Close Reading Snapshot: Big Boy by Ruthie Knox

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.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

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.

Lady Chance/The Luckiest Lady in London: Reading Sherry Thomas in Translation

Photo by Amy-Leigh Barnard on Unsplash

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?

Image and blurb from the author’s website. Link to the French translation here.

Moving from “vous” to “tu”

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. 

Lady Chance

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. 

Lady Chance

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. 

Lady Chance

“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. 

Close Reading Snapshot: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

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.

Buy links at the author’s website. CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

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).

Enjoy!

Mirrors and Bemazement: For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale

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.

Buy links at the author’s website. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

First Meeting

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. 

Close Reading Snapshot: You, Me, U.S. by Brigitte Bautista

I can think of no better way to start 2021 at Close Reading Romance than with the first book to knock me off my feet, in the good way, in 2021: You, Me, U.S. by Brigitte Bautista. This book is short without sacrificing depth, bracing and innovative while still speaking with the language of romance tropes. I’m hard pressed to think of another romance I’ve read recently that has taken so seriously that it is a challenge to fall in love and to put yourself – your needs and your happiness – first.

I will absolutely be returning to this book for a full-length post eventually, but I’m also excited for it to kick off a (hopefully) more regular feature: Close Reading Snapshots, quick 2-3 paragraph readings of a passage from a novella and or novel. I’m hoping these Snapshots will offer a little taste of a book’s writing style, maybe encourage folks to pick up something new, and allow me to share a broader picture of what I’m reading this year. While these posts won’t be entirely spoiler-free, they’re still meant for readers unfamiliar with the book, who want to know what they’ll find from the writing if they pick it up.

So, before I make this “snapshot” too unnecessarily long, here’s a cover image and book summary:

Best friends Jo and Liza are as opposite as night and day. Sex worker Jo swears by the worry-free, one-day-at-a-time dance through life. Salesclerk Liza has big plans for her family’s future, and there is nothing bigger than a one-way trip to the U.S. But an almost-kiss, a sex dare, and news of Liza’s engagement to her American boyfriend unveil feelings Jo and Liza never thought they had. Deciding between staying together and drifting apart puts Liza’s best-laid plans and Jo’s laidback life in jeopardy.


When love clashes with lifelong ambitions and family expectations, someone has to give in.


Question is: who?

Buy link here. Author’s CWs listed here.

The snapshot quote comes from the low moment of the book. It’s in Jo’s POV, as she faces the reality of Liza leaving Manila for the US:

She didn’t know if she wanted to set fire to her memories of Liza or build a dictionary of apologies and I love yous and change your mind, please.
I can give you the life you want. I love you. Please come back.
Backspace, backspace, backspace.

I picked this line out of all the others I could have highlighted because I loved the metaphor of a dictionary of ways to bring back someone you love, as well as the idea that such a dictionary would need to be built, not just consulted.

There’s a beautiful rhythm to the first sentence that comes out of packing three disparate elements into the grammatical framework of “a dictionary of” :

apologies
I love yous
change your mind, please.

I appreciate the choice NOT to separate these elements with commas, or to wrap the latter two in neat quotation marks (“I love yous”) or italics (change your mind, please) to make them fit into the sentence as a unit. Instead, like Jo’s emotions, they run together chaotically, suggesting just how eclectic and broad-ranging her “dictionary of getting Liza back” will need to be.

This book accomplishes a rare thing in romance: while it offers a happy ending, along the way it fully commits to the possibility that Liza and Jo might not get back together. We have that possibility in the passage: it’s just as likely that Jo will burn her past down as it is that she’ll rebuild with Liza. That tension isn’t resolved yet, which you can feel in the knife-edge tension of the next two lines: admissions of love crafted from Jo’s dictionary, I can give you the life you want. I love you. Please come back… and their immediate destruction. Backspace, backspace, backspace.

Some other things you’ll find if you choose to pick up this book:

  • Friends-to-lovers pining and angst
  • Two MCs who enjoy sex lives with other partners while slowly falling in love
  • Prose that makes great use of the setting and surroundings (there are a number of passages where Jo is so deeply denying her feelings that she projects them onto the objects and setting around her and it’s a *fascinating* bit of character work)
  • A portrait of sex work that isn’t shame-y
  • Clever subversion of romance tropes: particularly toxic ideals of cis male capitalist saviors as a means to HEA.

If you have read this, or plan to, let me know in the comments! My head is still full of this book, and I can’t wait to talk about it more.

A Close Reading Top 10 of 2020

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

It’s been a very strange year, but one of the constants has been that reading romance, as well as discussing and writing about it, has brought me a lot of joy. Seeing everyone else’s celebratory year-end Best-Of lists made me want to put one together myself. But something about ranking everything I loved seemed daunting to me. Rather counterintuitively, it was way less difficult to pick 10 passages from books I loved in 2020: I highlight like a fiend, and when I love a passage, it sticks with me for ages. These are also, to be fair, among the 10 best 2020 releases I read, so it’s still kind of a best-of list. Enjoy!

Sweetest in the Gale, Olivia Dade

Not everyone could decipher subtext. Not even if they noticed its presence, which many people – too enmeshed in their own thoughts, their own concerns- did not. Not even when it was pointed out to them by, say, a longtime teacher who wanted his ninth graders to pass their end-of-year English proficiency test, and also wanted them to take pleasure in the way simple words could contain multitudes. Universes secreted away, but open to explorers with sufficient curiosity and persistence.

Dade’s novella is a beautiful extended metaphor of love as a kind of close-reading, which is obviously right up my alley. I love how, reading this quote in context, it’s so clear that Griff is both talking about his joy in teaching students, and his realization that he, too, has the curiosity and persistence to discover the hidden subtext in the people he loves. 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown, Talia Hibbert

…the only passions Dani typically permitted herself were sexual and professional. Anything else had to make it past the committee, and the board had not approved Feeling Intensely for Zafir. The board had approved Shagging Zafir, which, more to the point, was the only proposal Dani had actually submitted.

It can be really, really hard to write a believable character who is lying to themselves about being in love. Because, after a while, if you can see it as a reader, you have to wonder why the character can’t see it themself. Dani Brown handles this beautifully by deflecting every moment of nascent emotion with sarcastic humor. That humor, on display here, helps define Dani as a character, and makes her journey enormous fun for us to go on as readers.

The Rakess, Scarlett Peckham

The loss of you reduces me. 

This quote is from the end of a letter the hero writes to the heroine in the low moment. I’m always intrigued by how romance can express the idea that it would be devastating for the main couple to be apart, without veering into alarmingly codependent “I would die without you” territory. The idea that being alone “reduces” Adam is a perfect expression of that balance.  

“Yes, And,” from He’s Come Undone, Ruby Lang

But worry over Joan aside, he’d enjoyed himself, sitting knee-to-knee in a warm, crowded bar on a weeknight with a woman who had laughed at him and with him, whose hands cut gracefully through the air, who interrupted him when he was about to be his worst, most patronizing self, who’d smiled at him always like he was his best self.

I adore how Darren’s POV is on display here. Having already seen him freak out, in Chapter 2, that his accidental attendance at an improv class might involve “touch[ing] knees with another human being,” we know that “knee-to-knee,” “warm,” “crowded,” and “weeknight” are all descriptors Darren should not enjoy. Yet here, he does. It’s a descriptor of place that’s infused with character, and it’s specific in a way that contrasts beautifully with the broad strokes of Joan’s understanding of his worst and best self. 

The Love Study, Kris Ripper

Their nose crinkled up. Adorably. In a vaguely intriguing way. 

Here’s another great take on sarcastic deflection of one’s own emotions, with a clever use of strikethrough that I’ve never seen before. This book does a great job of taking the online environment that’s so important to the plot (one of the MCs is a successful YouTuber) and translating it into the way the prose is written. It felt fresh without being forced, a kind of internet idiom that was still organic to novel-writing as a form. 

You Had Me at Hola, Alexis Daria

Having seen what was within, she could even love the walls for keeping him safe, even though she thought he was being a royal jackass for locking her out again. 

The idea that romance MCs put up walls to keep love out is a metaphor we use so often we hardly think about what it means, and this line breathes new life into that metaphor by making it concrete. In the process, Daria crafts a beautiful statement about loving someone’s flaws, even those that keep you apart. 

Boyfriend Material, Alexis Hall

“Who are you wearing?” someone yelled from the crowd. 

 Okay. They were definitely not talking to me. My clothes were much closer to a “what” than a “who.” 

A lot of the jokes in this book are BIG laugh-out-loud moments, but I’m partial to this slightly smaller one. It crafts humor out of an understanding of idioms: “who” are you wearing is a question for classy, rich celebrities; “what” are you wearing is a question for someone who has taken some very serious wrong turns. “Closer to a ‘what’ than a ‘who’” helps build our understanding Luc’s particular brand of minor-disaster-celebrity, and sets up this book’s clever take on celebrity romance as a trope. 

Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Gray

“Let’s get takeout,” Daniel suggested. “That way you won’t even have to stop reading for dinner.” 

“Yes,” Gennady agreed. He added, with an attempt at American overstatement, “That sounds perfect.” 

Matching a meaningful gesture to a couple who barely know each other yet is no small feat, and Daniel suggesting they get takeout so Gennady can read a book he’s excited about hits that sweet spot. And I love how Gennady can both skewer American habits and want to try them on for himself  – a tension maintained throughout the book in a really sharp, observant way. 

Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn

I would say that a woman stood next to me on the subway and I think she used the same shampoo as you, and I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you.

I love an early declaration of emotion as a hypothetical or counterfactual: like right here, when Reid tells Meg exactly what he would say to her… if he told her the truth. And then tells her the truth and gives away that he knows what her shampoo smells like and is already coming to think of very NYC places as full of her. Also, “I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you” is just ACHINGLY romantic. 

The Sugared Game, KJ Charles

He trusts me with some things, but not everything by a very long way. He loves me, but he doesn’t tell me about what matters most. He holds onto things that hurt as if it would be cheating to let anyone help.

Like all of KJ Charles writing, this passage has a gorgeous sense of how much rhythm and structure matter to a good sentence. The first two sentences have a “but” that emphasis the push and pull of Will’s love for Kim… and the last one leaves you waiting for the “but” that never comes: a perfect expression of how insurmountable some of their conflicts seem. 

Well, that’s my end-of-year list! I’m hoping to be back in 2021 with more close readings, and a more-regular “Favorite Words Friday” feature. Hope you’ve enjoyed, and feel free to share any books/words/passages you loved this year too!

I bet you’re wondering how I got here: Starting from the end in Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

‘Tis the season where many romance readers are indulging in holiday novellas, and today I’m writing about one of my favorites, Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong. In addition to being a trope-filled, masterfully-written delight – with one of the best MC meeting scenes in all of romance – it is available for free! Here’s the cover, and a quick plot description excerpted from the author’s website:

With one more errand to go—the purchase of a hunting falcon—Andrew Blackshear has Christmas completely under control […] He has no time to dawdle, no time for nonsense, and certainly no time to drive the falconer’s vexing, impulsive, lush-lipped, midnight-haired daughter to a house party before heading home. So why the devil did he agree to do just that?

Lucy Sharp has been waiting all her too-quiet life for an adventure, and she means to make the most of this one. She’s going to enjoy the house party as no one has ever enjoyed a house party before, and in the meanwhile she’s going to enjoy every minute in the company of amusingly stern, formidably proper, outrageously handsome Mr. Blackshear […]

When a carriage mishap and a snowstorm strand the pair miles short of their destination, threatening them with scandal and jeopardizing all their Christmas plans, they’ll have to work together to save the holiday from disaster. And along the way they just might learn that the best adventures are the ones you never would have thought to plan.

Full blurb and download links here.

The novel starts with two introductory paragraphs of two sentences each, and that’s what I’ll be looking at today. This opening gambit exists in a liminal space – after the Chapter 1 marker, but also set off from the rest of the narrative by a row of asterisks (which today I learned is called a dinkus) and a date. Here’s the passage, and a picture of what it looks like laid out on the page of my Kindle.

The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road. His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth. 

But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour. The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.

The first thing I love about this opening is how the heroine inhabits it without being named or introduced- in fact, she’s only referred to via association as “the trouble.” However, Lucy is present, in particular, in the way she unravels Andrew’s thinking. He tries to hold on to his composure in the first and third sentences: they are short, straightforward, unembellished with adjectives.

“The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road”

“But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour”

And she unravels it it as he starts to think about her in the second sentence of each couplet. 

“His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth.”

“The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.”

The second sentence turns on the word “allure,” not coincidentally the first one that suggests Andrew’s desire. Before that we have orderly descriptions betokening harnessed control: indoors, seated, hair bound “tidily.” What comes after allure, though is… well, swooping. A very un-Blackshear-like effusion of three adjectives (great, swooping, clean-edged) for a single noun, and a “prodigal” mouth which evokes the biblical to describe the profane. I also love the sheer amount of alliteration to match the word “trouble” that stands in for Lucy herself – tidily, tedious, temper, turned, towering, trouble, torrents. Trouble is everywhere, tapping on Andrew Blackshear’s door, and he’s really a fool to think he could escape it when it has literally already baked itself into the structure of his thoughts. 

If the trouble is already there, it is because at the moment of narration, Andrew has already met Lucy; we just haven’t heard about it yet. The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” places readers into the narrative with a reminder of how things will turn out. I want to focus most of my post on how this opening sentence plays with time, and more generally with reminders of romance’s foregone conclusions. 

Reading this passage had me thinking about one of my earliest grad school readings: Philippe Lejeune’s idea that a book’s genre is, to some extent, determined by a “pact” between the reader and the author. Lejeune did most of his work on autobiography, so he talked about how that genre comes into being when an author makes a “pact” with the reader to tell the story of their own life, as faithfully as possible. Another way Lejeune puts it is that autobiography as a genre happens when author = narrator = character. In fiction, however, the author is very much not identifying with the narrator, and the narrator doesn’t have to be a character within the novel (though in certain narrative styles they are). I have a very clear memory of expressing this idea with little triangles in the margins of my grad school notes. Here’s the narrative triangle for most of 3rd-person extradiagetically-narrated fiction, including A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong :

It got me thinking about how one of the ways romance works is that, in part via this separation, we are allowed to have a VERY different pact with the author and with the narrator. I’m going to tread carefully here, because one of the main premises, for me, of doing close readings is to not bring “the author” into it at all. But when you pick up a romance, particularly from an author you trust, the one pact you’ve made is that you both know how it will end – happily – and the book will be consumed and enjoyed under that assumption. However, for narrative to be propulsive, to draw you in, it has to set up a different “pact” for you and the narrator: you both largely pretend you don’t know how it ends. Expressed as a triangle, because why not, it looks like this: 

Because of the pact of mutual ignorance we maintain with the narrator, romance often doesn’t have (to borrow a meme) the record-scratch “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” conceit of starting at the end and then rolling back to tell you how it happened. Once we’ve opened a romance novel, the primary pact that governs our reading has shifted from the one we made with the author – we both know how this ends – to the one we’re making with the narrator and characters – How this is ever going to work out? 

Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple: this strict division of HEA foreknowledge/ignorance takes on a lot of variation. For starters, it’s not like the HEA pact ever goes away. A lot of the comfort in romance reading comes from the fact that we can remind ourselves throughout that everything will work out fine. Even narrator ignorance is a deliberately fragile construct. In fact, I’m guessing a close look at just about any romance would suggest a lot of subtle ways in which the agreed-upon unpredictability of the reading is governed inside the narrative by the predictability of the outcome – foreshadowing, narrative tense, tropes, etc. Each romance novel has its own way of navigating the tension between two kinds of pacts with the reader, and it’s part of what makes the genre itself unique. In the case of A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, even just the first few sentences offer a glimpse of this novel’s take on that tension.

The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” is an unusually stark invasion of the novel’s end right at the beginning. As such, it’s a fun meta-reminder that we’re reading genre romance, which is thematically consistent with a book as unabashedly tropey as this one is (tiniest spoiler alert: at one point the fake-engaged virgin hero has to share a bed because he and the heroine have been snowed in. I mean.)

If holding on to the HEA even just a few words longer is a way of insisting on the peculiar joys of romance’s predictability, it’s also a bold act of narrative confidence. It’s rare to actually be inside the narrative and still reminding readers this clearly of how everything will turn out. And in fact, just as surely as this opening leans hard on the promise of HEA, it also flips it upside-down by reframing falling in love as “trouble” and disorder. This gesture, I think, is part of the narrator pact: the promise to keep the story interesting, even if we already know the ending. 

Even within romance reading, there’s a sense that narratives with an HEA progress towards order. We start with narrative “chaos”: the couple is apart, they may not even have met each other yet, even if they don’t know it something is missing. Slowly, they reach greater proximity and harmony until they end up together. A lot of the idioms we have around this moment are about order (even if I don’t love some of them): a couple getting together could be seen as “settling down;” once they find love “everything falls into place.”  Andrew, on the other hand, experiences the path leading up to HEA in the rather contradictory way of things falling apart, of increased disorder.

This disorder comes through in a lot of ways in the opening paragraphs. The heroine is obliquely referred to not as the solution, but as “the trouble.” There are images of storms, torrents, and squalls. Every suggestion of restraint and stillness turns out to be a counterfactual : if Andrew had stuck to the straight path, everything would have happened quietly, indoors, tightly wound. (I also appreciate the “would have” of this alternate, orderly history echoing the “would later reflect” of his actual, disorderly ending.) As mentioned above, disorder also works its way into the sentence structure, as each set of sentences progresses from control to effusion. It sets the book up as a narrative about love as losing control and embracing disorder, even as we’re reminded right away of the narrative’s orderly ending.

In addition to serving as a tantalizing opener, these first lines also prove that you can lay bare the constraints of the HEA plot and still find moments of novelty and renewal. And it’s also, just generally, a pretty neat encapsulation of how romance balances respecting and confounding expectations. Sometimes reaching the end isn’t about following the “main road” to get there. 

(To kiss her again): parentheticals and confessionals in Scarlett Peckham’s The Lord I Left

Today’s post is about Scarlett Peckham’s The Lord I Left, and its treatment of desire and faith. (And parentheses.) Here’s the cover and description adapted from the author’s website:

Lord Lieutenant Henry Evesham is an evangelical reformer charged with investigating the flesh trade in London. His visits to bawdy houses leave him with a burning desire to help sinners who’ve lost their innocence to vice—even if the temptations of their world test his vow not to lose his moral compass…again.

As apprentice to London’s most notorious whipping governess, Alice Hull is on the cusp of abandoning her quiet, rural roots for the city’s swirl of provocative ideas and pleasures—until a family tragedy upends her dreams and leaves her desperate to get home. When the handsome, pious Lord Lieutenant offers her a ride despite the coming blizzard, she knows he is her best chance to reach her ailing mother—even if she doesn’t trust him.

As they struggle to travel the snow-swept countryside, they find their suspicion of each other thawing into a longing that leaves them both shaken. Alice stirs Henry’s deepest fantasies, and he awakens parts of her she thought she’d foresworn years ago. But Henry is considering new regulations that threaten the people Alice holds dear, and association with a woman like Alice would threaten Henry’s reputation if he allowed himself to get too close.

Buy links, and CWs at the author’s website. Some of these themes are discussed in the blog post.
This post also contains discussion of the full plot of the book, including events that take place at the end.

When I first read this book, I was immediately struck by a strange feature of Henry’s 3rd person POV chapters: a large number of parenthetical asides. And almost all of his chapters – and none of Alice’s –  contain passages like the following: 

“I haven’t a taste for them,” he said. (A lie.) 

pg. 35

Did he not enjoy counseling, worshiping, preaching? 
(He did! He did!) 

pg. 47

Of all the things. It was a sacrilege to put an altar in this place. A fake church in a house of sin. What kind of person would- 
(He would. He would.) 

pg. 49

Nor was it her fault that all he could think about was sneaking away and up to Alice’s rooms to hold her hands and pray with her. (To hold her hands.) 

pg. 144

“You look…” (Enchanting.)

pg. 163

Henry was not yet over the disorientation of imagining Alice being courted or – (stop!) – and fumbled to form words.

pg. 186

I read the book back in February, and then put it aside intending to return with a more careful eye. I especially wondered what was going on with those parentheticals. What kind of thoughts were they meant to represent? In whose voice? And to what purpose? My memory from the first time reading – which shaped how I initially conceived of this blog post – was of a self-consciously stylized prose element, one that promised an interpretative key to the text. On closer examination, I assumed, these parentheticals would turn out to be the voice of Henry’s anxiety, or an expression of his hidden desires, or a kind of internal manifestation of the voice of his God, or of his conscience.

However, as I reread The Lord I Left this weekthis time maniacally cataloging and tagging all 47 parentheticals in an AirTable spreadsheet – I quickly realized how difficult these parentheticals are to classify. Very little unites them: 3 are in first-person

(We won’t be compatible, however, and I will not do what you ask.)

pg. 134

7 are in second-person

(Yes. Phrasing it as a question will not excuse your intellectual dishonesty.)

pg. 163

21 are in third-person

(He had. Nay, he still did.)

pg. 70

and 16 are undefined. Some are truncated statements

(Because you-)

pg. 75

some also contain italics

(Liar, he’d dutifully accounted to himself as he’d done so.)

pg. 5

Parentheticals occur in response to dialogue, action, and thought; they both ask questions and answer them; they express moods as varied as desire, self-reproach, prayer, honesty, and sarcasm. Their frequency doesn’t linearly increase or decrease over the course of Henry’s narrative, though they do disappear for a while. By the time I reached the end of the book, I was pretty sure these parentheticals were not something about which my spreadsheet (aesthetically pleasing as it was) would be revealing any great truths. 

Despite their refusal to line up neatly into a coherent narrative, though, the parenthetical breaks in the text still form a whole: they define Henry’s speaking voice, shape his character, and echo the novel’s key themes of sacred space and internal contradiction. In fact, their very alternation and inconsistency is arguably key to their textual effect. Given that all the parentheticals take place in Henry’s POV, their sheer variation creates the impression of a man divided, in turmoil. They alternate between the convictions of a preacher who knows he wants to follow a religious path, and the desires of a man who knows he wants things condemned as sinful by his church. 

Of course, Henry is also on a trajectory to better self understanding. And while I didn’t find the linear progression I sought from these parentheticals- becoming more declarative, say, or decreasing in frequency – they do have an overall movement. Parenthetical statements are present in every one of Henry’s POV chapters from 1-27, disappear entirely for chapters 29-35, and then reappear in the final chapter to behave in slightly different ways. 

The section of the book where the parentheticals are absent is all about Henry’s growing certainty: first that he wants to sleep with Alice and then, eventually, that he wants to marry her, even if that means losing his position as Lord Lieutenant. They drop away to reveal a Henry who knows his mind “utterly and without hesitation” (232) and progressively feels “more certain of himself” (252) . As the couple enthusiastically verbally consent to their first intimacies together, the narration tells us “the answer was yes, he was certain, so certain, no parenthetical” (227) – the only time this narrative feature is directly referenced. Instead, when Henry feels moved with desire by his experience with Alice, he repeats a verse from the Song of Solomon “in his mind” without walling it off behind punctuation. 

Yet once Henry reaches his HEA, the parentheticals return: a fact that is somewhat confusing given their role of denoting uncertainty. There are four in Henry’s final POV chapter, which depicts Alice fulfilling his request to recreate Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus’ feet. Alice asks if he is ready for them to begin their role-play, and the parentheticals respond (He was. He was.) I would argue that this parenthetical is subtly different from any of the previous. It’s the only instance where Henry’s parentheticals respond to someone else’s dialogue, and it’s one of the few times they’re used to express a desire that Henry also then verbalizes. They form a lovely bookend with the last parenthetical of the book: Alice asks Henry “Shall I wash more of you?” which is followed by (Yes. But not yet, my love). This is the only instance in which Henry uses parentheticals as a direct address to someone else. The parentheticals return, I think, because Henry is fundamentally the same man he was – still introspective, still self-examining – but he’s willing to put those things he kept separate out into the open, and even into dialogue, with the woman he loves. 

The parentheticals do more than lend texture to Henry as an introspective character fighting inner battles. They also echo a more subtle theme in the book about the use of space: to hold contradictions, or to keep people apart. The novel starts with a description of Henry visiting Alice’s place of work – the house where she is apprenticing as a whipping governess – and his shock, not only at seeing a mock chapel for patrons with interest in religious kink, but also at the realization that this is an interest he shares. Much of Henry’s ensuing struggle is to reconcile the fact that his religion and his sexual desire share space – in the church where he kisses Alice, and in the whipping house where they reenact biblical scenes – but more importantly within himself. This is a book that deliberately does not ask Henry to abandon his religion even as he marries a whipping governess, because his struggle is to allow faith and desire to coexist in the same spaces. 

Towards the end of the novel, Henry writes of his personal journey “I burn for two things: I burn for grace, and I burn for the natural pleasures of the world that God has made. My faith resides between these impulses, and will never be perfected.” (252). This journey Henry evokes – of containing faith between two contradictory impulses – resonates in the textual act of containing a diverse range of thoughts, words, moods, and grammatical persons between two parentheticals. It’s also an important moment of expansion: this journey is about religious faith for Henry, but it certainly does not have to be about that for the reader (and wasn’t for me). The parentheticals serve as a reminder that we all seek spaces that welcome the cohabitation of our contradictions. 

Ultimately, as I reached the end of my reading, these parentheticals said more than I realized precisely because they didn’t display the set patterns I was hoping for. Their contradictions are their meaning. As someone who consumes books and writes about them, I deeply enjoy the process of making meaning out of what I read. But texts don’t have plainly discoverable secrets lying in wait to be found, just as they can’t be squeezed and prodded and made to fit preconceived interpretations either. The very act of reading is about generating something from what the text is willing to give you, and what you are able to take from it. Both of those have limits – maybe a little bit like the walls of a parenthetical – but inside them is a back and forth that makes each reading of a text its own creative process. And, in a way, sitting with the contradictions of the parentheticals, letting them speak to me as a reader in the way they wanted to (rather than in the order I wanted to impose on them), was a part of figuring out what they meant to me. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit about it too.

Flipping the telenovela script in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me At Hola.

Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

Alexis Daria’s new novel, You Had Me At Hola, tells the story of Jasmine Lin Rodriguez and Ashton Suarez, two actors who meet on the set of a telenovela, and fall in love despite their reservations about the celebrity-couple limelight. Today I’ll be looking at how the novel cleverly blends its main love story with scenes from Carmen in Charge, the telenovela that the protagonists work on together. Here’s the (gorgeous) cover and blurb:

After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez.

With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.

Cover, blurb, buy links from the author’s website. CWs are listed in this review, none of them are discussed in this post.

One of the most intriguing choices in You Had Me At Hola is that interspersed with the story of Jasmine and Ashton are chapter-long scenes from their telenovela Carmen in Charge. On the show, they play a divorced couple who rekindle their love as Carmen (a publicist) works to rehabilitate the public image of her ex Victor (a singer). 

The telenovela chapters are framed like a TV script, with the first “telenovela chapter” opening as follows:

Carmen in Charge

Episode 1

Scene: Carmen and Victor reunite for the first time. 
INT: Carmen’s office- DAY. 

However, instead of continuing in the style of a TV script, the chapter proceeds to describe the episode’s events in third-person past-tense narration, a voice and style similar to that used in Jasmine and Ashton’s alternating chapters. The scene opens with the word “Action!” and continues with the sentence “Carmen bustled into her office…” from there describing Carmen and Victor’s first reencounter in prose narrative.

About halfway through the scene, we encounter the following surprising line:  “On a network show, this would have been a prime commercial break, but since this was being filmed for a streaming service, the scene continued.” Up until this sentence, the prose has suggested no awareness of the world outside the show: we’re led to believe that Carmen has its own internal 3rd-person narrator just as You Had Me At Hola does. Clearly, however, the reference to “commercial breaks” suggests that whoever is narrating the telenovela doesn’t live inside its the world.

So who is this narrator?

In terms of point of view, the very first Carmen scene is narrated neutrally. Carmen is the focal point, as she is described more often than any of the other individuals on camera. But every time readers think they’re about to get insight into the inner workings of Carmen’s head, the narration pulls back, reminding us that we know nothing of Carmen that can’t be seen by the camera. We’re tempted with sentence-openers like “A myriad of emotions raced through her…” only to have them end with “…all visible on her face.” There’s virtually no deep point of view, no access to any of Carmen’s thoughts and feelings.  By the end of the first scene, it seems reasonable to assume that we’re watching Carmen as the camera – or a director – might watch it, with periodic reminders of the mechanics of filming. 

Which makes the subtle tweaks of the second Carmen scene all the more striking. It opens in much the same way :

Carmen in Charge

Episode 2

Scene: Carmen and Victor attend a red-carpet event.
Ext: Red carpet- night.

However, by the third line, we are told of Carmen that “butterflies fluttered in her belly” – a statement that eliminates the possibility of a fictional director/observer as narrator. No outside eye could see Carmen’s butterflies. And, indeed, we get a surprising bit of internal narration in a mystery voice, with the italicized line “Go back to sleep, butterflies. This isn’t real.”

This is where things get really interesting. The passage I’ve chosen to focus on comprises the last couple hundred words of the second Carmen in Charge scene. It takes a huge step forward in blending the internal world of Carmen with the details of Jasmine’s workplace in You Had Me At Hola

“We’re next,” Victor said, his voice cold. 
Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. There were lots of reasons why they’d gotten divorced, and one of them was that they just couldn’t stop hurting each other. 
Or at least, that was the back story she’d come up with on her own while reading the script. 
Carmen took a deep breath, fixed a smile on her face, and stepped out onto the carpet, clinging to Victor’s arm. 
Lights flashed. Extras milled around silently. The hum of the crowd would be added in later. Carmen smiled, awash in nerves and the need to appear professional. She wasn’t here as his date, but his publicist. Her only goal was to help repair Victor’s image so she could save the family business. She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it. 
As they moved to their mark, Victor spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “This isn’t so bad, is it?” 
“It’s terrible,” Carmen said through a tight smile. But she didn’t mean the lights or the people. She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 
Focus, Jasmine
“Cut!” 
Oh, thank god.

The mention of extras and added crowd noise, the back story “she’d” come up with, and the return of the italics all suggest that the narration of the Carmen in Charge scenes are coming from a deep-3rd– person point of view, focused on Jasmine, who is herself deep inside the character of Carmen… until the actress’s own emotions poke through.

In trying to analyze the complicated triangular dynamic between a 3rd-person narrator, Jasmine, and Carmen, I’ve split the sentences of this passage into three different categories, which I’m color-coding for clarity : 

1) sentences with at least one clear indicator of Carmen’s world (the names Carmen/Victor, their divorce, her job as his publicist)

2) sentences with at least one clear indicator of Jasmine’s workplace (the names Jasmine/Ashton, scripts, lights, extras)

3) sentences that contain direct indication of neither.  

Let’s take another look:

“We’re next,” Victor said, his voice cold. 
Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. There were lots of reasons why they’d gotten divorced, and one of them was that they just couldn’t stop hurting each other. 
Or at least, that was the back story she’d come up with on her own while reading the script. 
Carmen took a deep breath, fixed a smile on her face, and stepped out onto the carpet, clinging to Victor’s arm. 
Lights flashed. Extras milled around silently. The hum of the crowd would be added in later. Carmen smiled, awash in nerves and the need to appear professional. She wasn’t here as his date, but his publicist. Her only goal was to help repair Victor’s image so she could save the family business. She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it. 

As they moved to their mark, Victor spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “This isn’t so bad, is it?” 
“It’s terrible,” Carmen said through a tight smile.
But she didn’t mean the lights or the people. She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 

Focus, Jasmine
“Cut!” 
Oh, thank god.

Laid out in color, a few things become apparent. First, I was struck by how fluidly and agilely the passage moves between three viewpoints, including one viewpoint where the reader is deliberately confused as to who is talking to them. Second, I noticed how the “uncertain” passages in red take over the text towards the end, suggesting that a blurring of worlds intensifies over time, creating more uncertainty rather than increased clarity. Finally, this categorization allowed me to see that while the “Carmen” and “production” passages contain mostly dialogue and movement, all of the uncategorized passages focus on feelings:  

Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. 

She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it.

She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 

The uncategorized passages focus entirely on emotional states, often zeroing in on oppositions or boundaries (hurt and enjoyment, soft comfort and hardness, “terribly… wonderful”) reminding readers of boundaries that aren’t being kept between Jasmine and Carmen, Victor and Ashton. 

In addition to blending two fictional worlds, this passage also functions on two levels for readers. On an emotional level, internal to the world of the novel, these scenes convey the trouble Jasmine and Ashton are having in staying apart from each other as they portray Carmen and Victor. The blending of point of view, and the crossing of boundaries, mirrors Jasmine and Ashton’s emotional confusion as they try not to cross boundaries with each other, for the sake of their careers.

On a more external, writing craft level, inserting Jasmine’s thoughts into Carmen’s acting creates a kind of “forced proximity” through prose.  Jasmine is kept in physical proximity to Ashton while they shoot, but she’s also kept in emotional proximity to Carmen, a character who is moving towards her ex-husband Victor much faster than the actress can move towards her costar. It allows readers, in short, to consume scenes where Carmen and Victor kiss or confess feelings as if Jasmine and Ashton were doing those things too – even if the characters in the romance novel are not yet at that point emotionally. It’s a brilliant bit of plotting that not only reinforces the world building of the telenovela set, but uses language to propel a couple past some of their most forbidding early relationship barriers into a surprising textual intimacy.