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” :

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
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
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. 

“What else did I fail to ask?”: Negotiating Conversation in Beverly Jenkins’ Tempest.

Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash

For today’s blog post, I’m talking about my favorite Beverly Jenkins novel: Tempest. Here’s a plot description and cover from the author’s website. 

What kind of mail-order bride greets her intended with a bullet instead of a kiss? One like Regan Carmichael—an independent spirit equally at home in denims and dresses. Shooting Dr. Colton Lee in the shoulder is an honest error, but soon Regan wonders if her entire plan to marry a man she’s never met is a mistake. Colton, who buried his heart along with his first wife, insists he only wants someone to care for his daughter. Yet Regan is drawn to the unmistakable desire in his gaze.

Regan’s far from the docile bride Colton was expecting. Still, few women would brave the wilds of Wyoming Territory for an uncertain future with a widower and his child. The thought of having a bold, forthright woman like Regan in his life—and in his arms—begins to inspire a new dream. And despite his family’s disapproval and an unseen enemy, he’ll risk all to make this match a real union of body and soul.

Cover image, description, and buy links from the author’s website.

What draws me in to how Regan and Colt are written is that they are both very direct speakers, yet right below the surface of their words are complex negotiations for conversational – and relationship – power. The directness of their speech betokens emotional honesty rather than narrative simplicity, and allows the couple to maintain the importance of truthfulness while working through their misunderstandings.  I want to take a look at exactly how that dynamic works in an early passage from the novel. Colt and Regan are at the beginning of their relationship, and so far things have started off badly. She’s accidentally shot him, and he has yet to accept her apology. In the process he also intimated that she may have had a sexual relationship with the man who taught her to shoot guns, an assumption that Regan does not appreciate (and which she references in the passage below): 

She sat and he followed. Colt wasn’t sure where or how to begin the conversation, so he simply plunged ahead. “Your letters made me believe we’d be compatible.” 
“And now?” she asked frankly. 
He wondered how long it would take him to get accustomed to her blunt way of speaking. “Now, I’m trying to reconcile the woman I thought you to be from your letters with the woman seated here.”
“They’re one and the same. I answered your letters truthfully. You never asked if I knew how to shoot.” 
She had him there, he admitted.
She continued, “I was raised in Arizona Territory, a sometimes dangerous place. My sister and I were taught to carry a firearm for protection.” 
“By this neighbor?”
“Yes. His name was Mr. Blanchard and by my Uncle Rhine, who insisted we learn. Mr. Blanchard was a dear and honorable man. He died recently. I didn’t appreciate you casting aspersions on what I may or may not have learned from him.” 
Her displeasure was plain. 
“My apologies for being disrespectful. Being shot tends to make a man short-tempered.”
She held his gaze unflinchingly as if to remind him she’d already offered her apology, more than once. Colt found himself drawn to the determination she radiated. “What else did I fail to ask?”

Beverly Jenkins, Tempest, 2018.

The passage is written from Colt’s point of view, but as we’ll see, Regan subtly dominates the conversation. The first two lines show Colt following her lead (“She sat and he followed”) and expressing uncertainty over how to direct the conversation. Already this setup reverses important elements of Colt and Regan’s relationship dynamic. As a mail-order bride, Regan is the one who has had to come to Colt, to meet him in the position he’s already taken as a resident of the town of Paradise. In these first two lines, we see Colt meeting Regan where she’s at, and plunging ahead without a road map.

One of the most significant disadvantages Regan faces is how much she doesn’t know about Colt’s life. So it’s significant that when Regan maneuvers the conversation, she does so not by force, but by subtly controlling gaps in information, asking for more when she needs it, and leaving out information in a way that forces Colt to seek more knowledge of her.

The conversation starts out simply, with the two characters feeling each other out. Colt makes a statement (“Your letters made me believe we’d be compatible”), Regan asks a leading question for more information (“And now?”), and Colt follows up with an answering statement (“Now, I’m trying to reconcile the woman I thought you to be from your letters with the woman seated here.”) 

While Colt hasn’t asked any questions yet, he indirectly solicits Regan’s help in reconciling the gaps he’s perceiving between her letters and her reality. Regan, however, has little time for his indirectness. She first corrects him (“They’re one and the same”), defends herself (“I answered your letters truthfully”) and then, critically, points out his fundamental conversational flaw: he assumes rather than asks (“You never asked if I knew how to shoot”).

This begins Regan’s process of redressing the information gap between herself and Colt. She takes the next turn in the conversation, and it’s also a conversational turning point. Regan is a direct speaker who doesn’t often use the passive voice, which makes her use of it in the next exchange stand out, particularly the sentence “My sister and I were taught to carry a firearm for protection.” By leaving out the active subject – about whom she knows Colt is curious –  she makes Colt ask for the information he wants, rather than continue in his assumptions. And the subtly-placed but powerful passive construction has the desired effect. Colt is now the one asking questions (“By this neighbor?”). 

Colt does, however, make one last attempt to out-maneuver Regan in their conversational battle of wits. His statement (“Being shot tends to make a man short-tempered”) seems an attempt to ask for an apology- again, without actually asking. Here Regan uses silence – another form of missing information – to remind Colt that he’s already received the apology, and can do with it what he will. 

Significantly, I think, for the continued success of their relationship, Colt not only seems to enjoy this verbal chess match, he also learns from it. The final question of the passage – “What else did I fail to ask?” – is pivotal. He realizes the problems in his conversational approach, and remedies them by doing exactly what Regan needs him to do: he asks her a question that recognizes his previous conversational gaps. In fact, Colt remains in interrogative mode nearly exclusively for the rest of the passage, asking Regan about her education and her family. (I had to excerpt a bit for length, but in the remainder of their exchange he does all the asking.)

Getting Colt to ask her questions is pivotal for Regan in a couple of ways. As previously discussed, doing so begins to redress the information imbalance between the two. However it also, very tentatively, starts Colt on another important path : openly recognizing his desire for Regan. Colt is still mourning his deceased wife, and has been painfully denying himself the opportunity to desire anyone else. In guiding Colt to seek information from her, Regan is also subtly drawing him in to accept one more form of desire: the desire to know her. 

I want to look at one last bit of this exchange, where Regan finally decides to give Colt a bit more information about herself than he has explicitly asked for. Here, her negotiations for place in the landscape of Colt’s desires, past and present, become even clearer : 

My sister, Portia, and I are both considered unconventional by the men back home. She enjoys working with numbers and handles my uncle’s ledgers for the hotel. I enjoy seeing what’s over the next hill, which is one of the reasons I responded to your advertisement. But as I said in my letters, I can also cook, set a proper table, and have impeccable manners. I speak English and Spanish. I hunt, fish, swim, and ride. I’d hoped to find a husband who’d view these qualities as assets, but if you’re seeking what society considers to be a proper wife who’ll defer to you in all things, and spend her days in a rocker with an embroidery hoop in her hand, you should say so and I’ll return to Arizona. 

This short monologue represents Regan’s attempt to define who she is, but also to more generally redefine parameters of femininity. Throughout the few days of their acquaintance, it has become clear that Colt holds his late wife up as a paragon of female docility. Upon Regan’s arrival, he seems unable to see his new bride as anything other than a stark contrast. Part of Colt’s journey is coming to see all of the women around him – not just Regan and his late wife but also his daughter and his sister – in their full complexity, and not just as polar opposites of rebellion or docility. What’s more, an overarching theme of the novel itself is finding female solidarity despite differences. 

All of this is seeded in the way Regan thinks about herself and describes herself to Colt in this passage. While putatively answering questions about herself, Regan sets up a lineage of female solidarity with her sister. She also reframes difference between women as more of a plurality than an opposition: she and Portia are both unusual, but in different ways. 

Regan also presents her talents cannily, starting with the domestic skills that Colt surely sought in a mail order bride, continuing with the intellectual skills that he likely sees with ambiguity as both proof of a good education and (possibly) a bit of a threat, and ending with the skills he almost certainly sees as unbecoming. Regan presents herself as multiple without being contradictory, and proud of what makes her different. She also, in holding forth for this long in their conversational back-and-forth, shows her capacity for knowledge of herself and control of the unfamiliar, a worthy partner and a match for Colt. 

Partner and match are words that keep coming up as I read this passage. Regan’s use of conversational control is still about partnership: she knows that a successful partnership with Colt will involve her being an equal match for him- a dynamic he clearly enjoys as well. And while the memorable opening gambit of “mail order bride shoots her fiancé” sets Regan up as a match for any man she meets, it’s conversations like these that really do the work. They show that her power can be both as overt as a gunshot and as subtle as quietly confident self-knowledge, and more broadly that a single woman can contain such contradictions, rather than being either/or. Throughout the rest of the book, Regan and Colt slowly negotiate their way from imbalanced power to a more equitable union, and from one-dimensional impressions of each other to a nuanced love in all its complexity. The book also mirrors this commitment to understanding the broad complexity of women’s experiences (specifically Black women living in the Wyoming Territory in the 1800s) with a cast of supporting female characters of great depth and nuance, particularly Colt’s sister Spring and his daughter Anna. Just like there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of Regan’s simple conversational style, there’s a lot more happening past the eye-catching opening moment of this book.

“That’s what it feels like”: Emotion-centered structures in Kate Clayborn’s Luck of the Draw.

Hello there! It’s been a while. With everything going on, I’ve been slow to pick up new books, but really enjoying revisiting old favorites with new eyes. I’ve done just that here with one of my most-loved contemporary romances, Kate Clayborn’s Luck of the Draw. It’s book two of the Chance of a Lifetime series, but can be read on its own. Here’s the cover and a description from the author’s website:

Sure, winning the lottery allows Zoe Ferris to quit her job as a cutthroat corporate attorney, but no amount of cash will clear her conscience about the way her firm treated the O’Leary family in a wrongful death case. So she sets out to make things right, only to find gruff, grieving Aiden O’Leary doesn’t need—or want—her apology. He does, however, need something else from her. Something Zoe is more than willing to give, if only to ease the pain in her heart, a sorrow she sees mirrored in his eyes…

Aiden doesn’t know what possesses him to ask his family’s enemy to be his fake fiancée. But he needs a bride if he hopes to be the winning bid on the campground he wants to purchase as part of his beloved brother’s legacy. Skilled in the art of deception, the cool beauty certainly fits the bill. Only Aiden never expects all the humor and heart Zoe brings to their partnership—or the desire that runs deep between them. Now he’s struggling with his own dark truth—that he’s falling for the very woman he vowed never to forgive.

Image and description from the author’s website, which also contains buy links. CWs for the book include loss of a family member, grief, and addiction, none of which are discussed directly in this blog post.

Rather than a close reading of one particular passage, I wanted to talk about a particular type of sentence structure that stood out to me as doing some really specific emotional work in Luck of the Draw. The kind of sentences I’m talking about are essentially split into two halves. In the first half, the topic of the sentence is introduced as a pronoun. The second half of the sentence fills in the contours of that pronoun with more information. In the cases below, the pronoun is bolded and underlined, and the clarification is in color. 

He’s so stern, Aiden

It’s a funny thing about the campground: I haven’t felt lonely there, not really” 

“There’s no reason why it should hurt, what she’s said” 

We’re so well matched, me and Aiden– I can feel it, how good we’ll be together.” 

I have two different ways of thinking about these sentences. The first is my best attempt at a technical definition, the second is more about how I experienced the sentences as a reader. The best standard definition I’ve found (and please feel free to correct me if there’s a better name for this) is that they’re a variety of periodic sentence. Periodic sentences are defined as sentences where “the essential elements… are withheld until the end.”  These sentences don’t quite fit the classic definition, which often assumes that the sentence will remain grammatically incomplete until its final clause. However, the writing here uses a particular type of subordination that leaves the most essential act of the sentence – putting a name to the feeling previously designated by a generic pronoun – until the end. (In so doing they also resemble cleft sentences). It’s not so much that the thought is incomplete until the end, but rather that the general experience of an emotion precedes the ability to name it. Which, as we’ll see shortly, is not just structurally significant, but also thematically relevant. 

The other way I’ve thought about this kind of sentence comes from my experience learning foreign languages, and what’s often called the “topic-comment” structure. Whereas English commonly uses Subject-Verb-Object structures, many other languages start with a topic, and follow with comments about it. (This structure is used in several East Asian languages, and there’s a good explanation here, although my experience with it comes from learning American Sign Language, which also uses a version of topic-comment structures).  I think about the sentences from Luck of the Draw as a reversal of topic-comment sentences, in which commentary about the thing precedes the introduction of the topic. Again, the sentences I’m looking at don’t fit the topic-comment/comment-topic mold perfectly. Topic-comment is a full grammatical structuring of a sentence, whereas sentences in Luck of the Draw start with a standard English SVO structure as linguistic scaffolding, and build it out with a comment-topic order of detail that subverts our expectations.  

This type of sentence appears with some frequency in Luck of the Draw and, like any good writing, its form serves a function of taking the reader along the emotional journey of the characters. To see how this structure mimics emotional arcs, let’s go in-depth with one of my favorite examples. This passage comes from Aiden’s perspective at around the halfway point of the novel, when he’s surprised himself by putting his arm around Zoe. 

“There’s a shock of something familiar that runs through my body, and I almost jolt with it, this need to chase down what I recognize. It’s like when you catch the smell of something delicious cooking in the air, something you haven’t had in forever. That half second where your memory syncs up with your sense and you realize, Oh right, cinnamon rolls. I drop my arm from around Zoe’s shoulders when I’ve realized it. It’s family. That’s what it feels like.” 

This passage is essentially one long ride up to the act of naming a feeling with the noun “family.” It’s significant that Aiden would use this word at all, given how much of his history with Zoe involves conflict with, and even opposition to, his family. Unsurprisingly, then, Aiden repeatedly misdirects the reader on the way to associating his feelings for Zoe with the word “family” – a series of misdirections that rely on versions of periodic structure. 

As previously discussed, these sentences usually start with a “placeholder” pronoun or other word that will wait to be filled by a particular emotion: in this case, the word “something” stands in at the head of the sentence. But before Aiden can clarify “something” with the definition of “family,” he has to confront the need for a definition at all.

“I almost jolt with it, this need to chase down what I recognize” is, itself, a periodized/cleft sentence: “it” is belatedly defined by a “need to chase down.” The verb “chase down” requires an object, but “what I recognize” remains deliberately vague. Aiden isn’t quite there yet, and while he started off trying to define a feeling (family), he then takes a detour into defining what it’s like to have a feeling you can’t define. So we get two more placeholders waiting for definition (something delicious/something you haven’t had in forever) which he delightfully defines as “cinnamon rolls” before finally arriving at the topic we’ve been waiting for since the comment that “something familiar” has shocked Aiden: 

“It’s family.” 

Essentially, Aiden’s sentence structure mirrors the difficulty he has placing the name “family” on the feeling he has for Zoe. The simplicity of the final statement conveys the moment of clarity, the inescapable nature of the definition Aiden has reached. 

I’m generally hesitant to make sweeping claims about certain kinds of sentences always, or necessarily, or even purposefully being applied to specific circumstances. One of the best feelings of reading is letting prose work its magic, the ineffable sense of the right sentence at the right time (something this book seems to do perfectly). However, once I started chasing down the comment-topic sentences in this book, I also started to notice that the reverse exist too: there are a smaller but not insignificant number of two-part sentences where the topic comes first. While both Zoe and Aiden use both structures, and in a variety of circumstances, I did find that they had a very different effect on me as a reader, and wanted to try to understand why. Let’s compare a few familiar comment-topic examples with some topic-comment sentences: 

Comment – topic

It’s a funny thing about the campground: I haven’t felt lonely there, not really” 

“I don’t want to confront this again, this distrust he has for me

We’re so well matched, me and Aiden– I can feel it, how good we’ll be together” 

Topic – comment 

“But that small, innocent point of contact – my arm around her chair, her hand on my knee- while we watched this thing unfold? Somehow, it’s the first time I’ve really felt we’re on the same team” 

Me and Zoe, we’re not the same”

“Because your money and mine, those are two different things”

“This moment- this funny shock she’s had, it could have happened to anyone” 

This affectionit’s new for us, and I’m surprised at how good it feels”

I do sense a kind of principle governing the topic-comment/comment-topic swap. The topics often occur at the end when they express a feeling that’s hard to name, a broad concept, or something that the characters are shying away from. In the cases above, distrust, family, and feeling lonely, are not entirely concrete, and might be easier to feel before they can be named. Conversely, in topic-comment sentences, you’ll often see something concrete that the characters could notice or visually perceive or touch without assigning meaning to it, and then the sentences unfold as they “comment” or assign it a meaning. In the examples above, people (Aiden and Zoe), things (money, a point of contact), previously observed events (this shock), or – later on in the story – already-recognized affection all serve as topics to be commented on. Again, these are by no means a strict division, and there are certainly counter-examples to be found. However, my reading experience suggests that the sentences convey different shades of meaning: opposing structures for the converse struggles of, on the one hand, feeling big, unquantifiable emotions before you have a name for them, and, on the other, experiencing a physical sensation before you are able to describe the emotion that flows from it. 

In addition to doing important emotional work, I think these kinds of sentences are part of why the first person present in Luck of the Draw works so well.  I love how leaving topics to the end allows Zoe and Aiden to convey their emotions to the reader, while still replicating that stumbling-around-your-own-feelings mood that often accompanies falling in love. Secondly, I do think that the combination of SVO and topic-comment structuring allows the narration to balance action and emotion. First person present means that characters tell readers what they’re doing as they appear to be doing it. But the way human beings talk about themselves in the present tends to be more focused on feelings than on the self performing actions: I’m more likely, in my daily life, to utter the sentence  “This person feels like family” than I am to say “I place my arm around them.” The latter, however, is critical to moving plot forward and describing action. So the SVO/topic-comment combination allows for a balance: it conveys plot and describes action while feeling deeply authentic to the way people narrate their own emotional lives to themselves. 

Ultimately, I think there’s a good reason that reading these sentences reminded me of my experience learning foreign languages, even if the topic-comment label doesn’t entirely fit. The sentence structure of good prose is adaptable enough to feel like its own language, created to fit the needs of the characters, plot, and narrative. Reading it becomes a seamless experience of learning to speak along with the characters, and allowing them to gently rearrange how you see the world. Something Luck of the Draw does perfectly. 

Five Different Flavors of Starch: He’s Come Undone

In this anthology, out today, five novellas offer five different takes on a starchy, buttoned-up hero coming unraveled, and they do it via five delightfully different styles of prose. Cover and buy links:

He's Come Undone: A Romance Anthology

For him, control is everything…until it shatters, and now he’s come undone.

Buy links here. Content warnings are helpfully provided before each story.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of using this anthology as a glimpse into stylistic variations on a theme. My original idea had been to pick a single quote from each novella that best exemplified its unique prose style. I’ve done that, but I found that ultimately what intrigued me stylistically didn’t always highlight the best of the breathtaking, big-feelings prose on offer. So instead, I offer you five-bits of geeking out about sentence structure with short explanations, each followed by a stand-alone hit in the solar plexus with feelings. All spoiler-free. Enjoy 🙂

Appassionata- Emma Barry

His envy of virtuosity- it made him feel like an ass. He clung to rules, to politeness, partially because he didn’t want his jealousy to show.

The sentences in this novella have flow and cadence like music. But the other thing that intrigued me is how they often seemed structured to highlight a single key word. In the case of the above sentence, I stopped in my tracks at virtuosity. It’s there to describe what Brennan, a former piano player, admires and envies in Kristy, an accomplished concert pianist. Virtuosity isn’t, to my mind, as common as a word as the other lexical item it’s likely to ping in your brain: virtue. Which is exactly what Brennan tries to use to avoid his feelings for Kristy. Rules, politeness, a refusal to break the codes of his workplace. Virtue, to ward against his passion for Kristy’s virtuosity.

It’s pure reading joy when not just a single sentence, but a single word, can hand you the key to an entire thematic universe.

Bonus feelings-punch:

He had made magic, it just hadn’t been his.

Unraveled- Olivia Dade

He kept his own dark hair neatly trimmed every two weeks and in strict order, despite its distressing tendency to wave.

Simon makes a delightful starchy hero because he starts off this story truly thinking he is in control of everything. Right down to his own hair. What I really love in this sentence is that Simon isn’t distressed about his hair’s “waviness” or “being wavy” but rather it’s tendency “to wave.” He’s not concerned about a state of being so much as he is about an action – one which he is trying desperately to counteract with equal and opposite reactions of trimming and ordering. Simon expends a lot of physical energy on keeping himself inside lines that he has drawn. Watching him unravel for Poppy, a woman who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, is an absolute delight.

Bonus feelings-punch:

If he could, he would bathe in the warm approval of her smile.

Caught Looking- Adriana Herrera

His was the first real smile I’d seen that morning – it felt to me like it had been the first one I’d seen since I left my family’s apartment in Castle Hill – and my body even then didn’t know what to do with the full impact of Hatuey Sanchez’s smile.

This sentence comes from the perspective of Yariel Cabral, who is in love with his childhood best friend Hatuey Sanchez. It offers up a perfect twist on a pretty straightforward romance motif: I like this man’s smile. Without encumbering the sentence (it reads very smoothly), Yariel fits in references to two of the most important themes of the book: home and family. We learn where Yariel is from and Hatuey’s last (or “family”) name, stated here for the first time. Who these men are to each other, where they come from, and who they are to their families, are themes all worked seamlessly into this novella, just as they are into this brief moment where Yariel sees Hatuey smile.

Bonus feelings-punch:

I loved him in every way I knew how to love.

Yes, And… – Ruby Lang

It seemed not only was he going to have to sit on the linoleum in his pressed trousers, he might even have to touch knees with another human being.

This novella starts off with Darren accidentally showing up for an improv class when he intends to be doing meditation instead: two classes that, among other things, take a *very* different approach to movement. The approach to both physicality and language in this novella is brilliant and unexpected, and I appreciated how this quote brought them together seamlessly. Darren has that delightful starchy-hero quirk of using just slightly outdated language (linoleum! trousers!), but the fact that he boils down his entire range of discomfort with physical contact to “touching knees” just seals the deal. And makes it all the sweeter when, just a few chapters later, Darren takes Joan out to a bar and doesn’t even recall his former knee-touching aversion as theirs brush together…

Bonus feelings-punch:

But it was the dead of winter in Cambridge, and even she couldn’t make the bare branches bloom with her warmth, the way she’d heated his whole body in the car.

Tommy Cabot Was Here- Cat Sebastian

God only knew how many times Everett had tugged Tommy behind the chapel or into a stairwell and insisted on making sense of his tie.

Everett and Tommy are childhood best friends who meet again unexpectedly as adults. Their memories of a childhood love they didn’t quite understand are stitched together beautifully with a present that they don’t quite know how to make sense of either.

I love a sentence with a surprise ending both in content and word choice. We expect Everett to remember pulling Tommy behind chapels and into stairwells to kiss him, not to fix his tie. And I’m entirely taken with this idea that one can “make sense of” a tie. It shows how much Everett associates orderliness with sense and meaning. It also suggests how much meaning we ascribe to the outward appearance of things – and this novella perfectly explores the struggle to understand what love means when we haven’t always been shown all of the different ways love might look.

Bonus feelings-punch:

He was afraid that if he spoke, all that would come out would be a confession, fifteen years’ worth of I miss you.

I cannot recommend this anthology (of which I’m very grateful to have received an ARC) highly enough. Go forth and get wrecked by love!

“He came to her and her pulse quickened”: on calligraphy and commas in Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

One of my favorite motifs in romance is watching two characters come together, and grow their attraction, over unexpected quotidian activities. In Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine, the scenes where Fei Long teaches calligraphy to Yan Ling are some of the most richly detailed and achingly romantic of the book. Before looking at one of these scenes, here’s the cover and a description of the book from Publisher’s Weekly: 

In ninth-century China, Fei Long is a soldier from a noble family whose sister, Pearl, runs away with her lover to avoid becoming an alliance bride. After Fei Long gives his sister all of his money and allows her to escape, he meets the orphan Yan Ling, who begs him for help. He proposes a plan to substitute her for Pearl to maintain his family’s wealth and honor. As Fei Long and his friends undertake the magnificent transformation of the unlearned and outspoken servant into a well-bred noblewoman, fooling even the suspicious Inspector Tong, the teacher and the pupil soon fall in love—jeopardizing the whole scheme. (source)

Buy links and an excerpt at the author’s website.

This scene takes place about halfway through the book, and Fei Long’s attempts to help Yan Ling pass as a princess are hitting a rough spot. Following an evening that had seemed to draw them closer, Fei Long is now treating his protégée with distant coldness. They’re only starting to figure out their romantic feelings, as this passage makes clear in the way they tentatively move around each other. 

He came to her and her pulse quickened, but he was only there to look over her work. 

‘Better,’ he pronounced. 

She nodded. All she could see was the smear of ink on the ruined second column. She wondered if he really even cared and why it mattered that her characters had to be perfect anyway. Of course, Fei Long was meticulous. He always cared that things were in order. That everything and everyone was in their proper place. 

‘Here.’ His voice softened by the tiniest of notes. ‘I’ll show you how to write your name.’ 

She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her. With measured grace, he took hold of the brush, dipped it into the ink and started to write on the edge of the practice paper.

Two characters emerged in Fei Long’s bold script, one on top of the other. There was no hesitation in his strokes. It was as if her entire name flowed out as one spoken verse, each lift of the brush a mere pause between words. 

‘Yan Ling,’ he said when it was done. 

Her name looked so much more elegant and complex than the girl it represented. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured. 

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her? She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain.

‘Now you,’ he said. 

She tried to mimic his technique in her own deliberate manner. Fei Long waited patiently for her to finish with his head bent close to watch her work. This was his subtle, silent apology. No words. Just a small bit of gentleness to counter his earlier harshness.

‘Good,’ he said once she was done. He straightened abruptly. ‘Keep practising.’ 

She fought very hard not to watch him leave.

Jeannie Lin, My Fair Concubine. 2012.

The passage is about the characters in Yan Ling’s name, and the way Fei Long moves as he writes them – two things that a passage of printed English can’t really show us. It can intimate them, however, through the way it structures sentence-level prose: specifically, through its use of punctuation and paired sentences.

I will admit right up front that I am not the strictest adherent to punctuation rules, nor do I pretend to be an absolute expert on them. But when I first read this passage, parts of sentences seemed to move or even run together in a way that surprised me. To give a few examples: 

With measured grace, he took hold of the brush, dipped it into the ink and started to write on the edge of the practice paper.

He came to her and her pulse quickened, but he was only there to look over her work.

She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her

Each of these sentences could theoretically be written with an additional comma before the word “and.” In the first, the much-discussed serial/Oxford comma is absent, a choice many people make one way or the other while having very strong feelings about it. I’m less interested in the motivation or style guide being followed here and more interested in what the effect might be on the reader. The lack of a final comma makes it seem like Fei Long can dip into the ink and start writing almost simultaneously. For Yan Ling, who has been struggling to learn calligraphy and making splotches on the paper, it conveys the almost magical smoothness with which he moves when he writes. 

In each of the other two sentences, a movement of Yan Ling’s is paired with a movement of Fei Long’s (He came to her and her pulse quickened./She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her). The comma-less “and” in these sentences allows the movements to live in a space between simultaneity and causality: the movements happen not quite but almost because of each other.

Commas preceding “and” are often omitted throughout the book, with the overall effect of giving the writing a flowing quality. Particularly in a book about calligraphy, the clauses can read like flowing brushstrokes, the less-frequent commas like the pauses between them. In this passage in particular, sentences are punctuated to make certain movements move in pairs, while they are offset from others. 

Like the paired movements above, many elements of this passage come in sets of two, much like the characters of Yan Ling’s name: adjectives (subtle, silent), nouns (everything and everyone, gentleness and harshness), and even dialogue (“Yan Ling,” “Thank you,” “Now you,” “Keep practicing”). But I’d like to dive deeper into the heart of this passage, where we see arguably the most poignant connection between the two characters, expressed through sets of structurally paired sentences and clauses.

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her? She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain.

I read this passage in three sets of pairs, starting with the first sentence: 

He set the brush down, but remained beside her.

The use of “but” instead of “and,” along with a comma where there doesn’t strictly need to be one, signals a rupture. The sentence is also structured differently than other paired movements in the passage. Rather than: 

He set the brush down and remained beside her.

which would mimic previous similar sentences, we get

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. 

As readers, we feel a kind of hesitation or contradiction between these movements, the sense of a breakdown to come.

The double rhythmic rupture (, but) is followed by a pair of questions that continues the theme of breakdown :

 Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her?

Both sentences follow the same basic structure:

Was [noun] [adverb] [comparative] [expression of time]?

What interests me is how the two escalate as a pair. Virtually all the bracketed elements in the first question become 1-3 words longer in the second:  

Was [he] [any] [closer than] [usual]?

Was [his voice] [just a touch] [warmer] [when he addressed her]?

These successive lines have a rising rhythm of self-questioning, reflecting Yan Ling’s growing uncertainty over her relationship to Fei Long. The next two lines do something similar, in that they’re both built around the same structural kernel, but the second one reflects less stability than the first. 

She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain. 

These two sentences share the use of “she” and “to know,” and they both express essentially the same idea: Yan Ling is unsure of Fei Long’s feelings for her.

I think, however, that the mood of the two sentences is entirely different, and that the shift between them is deeply meaningful. “She couldn’t know” is a categorical and timeless statement about impossibility. “Would never,” though, is about the future, and “be able to” is about personal emotional capacity. As a sentence opener, it feels much more unstable, and thus more open-ended. Whereas “She couldn’t know” denies any possibility, “She would never be able to know for certain” refuses only the ability to be certain about the future.

Not only does this section of paired sentences – as anxious as it sounds – leave open possibility for the couple’s future, but it also tells us a lot about Yan Ling as a character. As these lines develops she becomes more expansive, using more words to communicate her ideas. Communication is a major issue for her in this novel, and so while in some senses these lines undermine her confidence, they also open her up to uncertainty, and allow her to express herself more freely. 

Ultimately, this passage uses punctuation and paired sentences so readers can feel the movements and impressions of calligraphy even when they can see them. But beyond that, it allows us to develop a real sense for Yan Ling and her growing emotional and self-expression. Like Fei Long’s brush strokes, the passage accomplishes a great deal in a very compact space.