(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.

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read this Week

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

These last few weeks, I have done a lot of re-reading. It’s familiar and comforting, and has managed to kickstart my reading mojo a bit, to the point where recently I’ve been able to try some new things, too.

Overall, though, I’m really just leaning on books I already know I love, which is why today’s featured words are my favorite lines from a recent re-read: Rachel Reid’s Heated Rivalry. It’s the perfect enemies-to-lovers story of two hockey rivals, Shane and Ilya, whose years-long hate-banging arrangement eventually leads to love.

The prose in this book is spare and incisive. It does exactly what it needs to do with few extra words, while still sneaking a lot of emotion in around the seams. As much as I like the writing, I hesitated a bit in picking this passage for the blog post. While it’s unquestionably a favorite, the reason that I love it is because it’s funny. Just really, really funny. And there’s no surer way to smother the humor out of something than to try to explain *why* it’s funny. So instead, I’m going just let you enjoy the humor of Ilya trying to sort out his feelings for Shane, and talk about a couple things this quote is doing beyond just making my face hurt with how hard I’m smiling.

Plus, Ilya hated this guy. He hated his pretty boy face and his perfect goddamned English and his perfect goddamned French and his loving parents and his polite little manners and his million-dollar smile. He hated how serious he was. How earnest. He was everything the league wanted from their stars.
Ilya kissed his dumb mouth and swallowed his stupid little sighs and felt his annoying fingers in his hair. He pulled back so he could look at his horrible face with its ridiculous freckles.

Rachel Reid, Heated Rivalry

This passage is a tiny distilled microcosm of what makes enemies-to-lovers novels really sing: the things Shane and Ilya hate about each other are exactly the things they will eventually come to love. And still kind of hate, sometimes.

In the first half of the quote, that tension is held together by juxtaposing a set of clearly positive nouns and adjectives (perfect, loving, polite, smile, serious, earnest, million dollar) with the verb “hated,” three times over.

In the second half, the (negative verb)/(positive adjective) dynamic shifts. The verbs now all evoke positive physical intimacy (kissed, swallowed, felt, pulled back, look). The “hate-work” is being done by the adjectives (stupid, annoying, horrible, ridiculous). The nouns? That’s where Ilya betrays himself. Because he can’t actually hate Shane’s mouth and his sighs and his face. He can’t hate Shane. He just has to keep telling himself he does, lying about his own feelings and misinterpreting his own actions.

The way these two act towards each other and the feelings they allow themselves to feel are in constant tension. And this book manages to sustain some of that tension right through to the end. Even once they fall hopelessly for each other, Shane still things Ilya is cocky and a bit chaotic, Ilya still thinks Shane is kind of a boring rule-follower, and they’re both still fueled by their professional rivalry. I highly recommend giving their story a try.

Note: I couldn’t really find a list of CWs for this book. I’m always hesitant to make lists of my own, because I know I won’t always catch things and I worry about incomplete lists. That being said, I imagine readers may want to know that there are mentions of suicide (of a family member, in the past). Also, the fear of being publicly outed is very present for both MCs.

Passing Time

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, I don’t currently have much patience or attention span for close readings. However, because this blog brings me joy and distraction, I didn’t want to stop posting. So the solution I have for the moment is to share a few short posts with quotes from 3-4 novels around a single theme.

The theme of today’s post is passing time: something we’re all doing right now in unexpected ways. Days seem like months, February was possibly six years ago, and we’re all waiting for changes in our circumstance without a fixed deadline. And for those of us who still have the attention span, reading romance offers a way to pass some of this weird, distorted time.

As I read, I’ve been on the lookout for the ways that romance novels narratively express the passage of time. And I’ve found that, unsurprisingly, some of the best examples come from novels where time passing is central to the plot or character conflict: from a discussion of pastimes versus work, to an age-gap romance, to a historical “we’ve only got a month to make an heir!” plot, here are three of my favorites.

A Lady Awakened

Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened is about a very specific kind of time pressure: Martha’s husband has just died, and she needs conceive a child that can plausibly be counted as her late husband’s legitimate heir. Enter Theo, who agrees to spend the next month trying to make this happen. The only problem? For Martha, their arrangement is strictly business, and she has no plans to enjoy the baby-making. Theo, on the other hand, would prefer not to sleep with someone who visibly refuses to enjoy herself.

Every delightfully, hilariously stilted this-is-just-about-the-heir encounter between Theo and Martha takes place on the clock, counting the days until it will be too late. Which is why it’s all the more ingenious when the first breakthrough Theo makes in tempting Martha to enjoy herself includes on-the-clock-kissing:

“Allow me ten minutes.” He reached past her to set the watch on the tabletop. “I’ll stop the very second you tell me it’s time.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Martha, never easily deterred, reverts to her favorite deflecting tactic: turning pleasure into a negotiation over time spent kissing:

“Five minutes,” she said.
Haggling. He could do that. “Seven.” He flexed his fingers on the chair.
“Six.” One small crease appeared in her forehead.
“Seven and a half.” He breathed the words next to her ear.
Her eyes snapped open, all coffee-colored impatience. “You’re supposed to go lower, to meet me. Six and a half, you should say.”
“Eight, he murmured into her shoulder. “And I’ll go lower, to meet you, any time you like.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Theo is ready to show Martha that the time they spend together – even when limited – can be about her pleasure, and not just about solving problems.

Eight minutes it was, then. He kissed her, and kissed and kissed and kissed her until he knew that narrow path of skin, and the knobbly scaffolding underneath, the way he knew the lines on his own palm.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

What I love about the passage is that even though Theo’s plan of timing their kiss works, the two of them are still operating on different scales of time:

Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that. And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged. He glanced up at her reflection and a jagged bolt of desire shot through him.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

The words in the passage match the cadence of their breath. Short utterances like gasps (“Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that”) and longer, more drawn-out ones (“And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged.”). This is a slow burn romance, and it takes Martha and Theo a while to get past their imposed and opposing time frames. They do, however, figure out that time together is just as well spent in pleasure as in… production.

For Real

Alexis Hall’s For Real is an age-gap romance between Laurie, an older, experienced sub, and Toby, a young and inexperienced dom. Their relationship is about much more than these disparities in age and experience, but all the same, temporal differences are woven throughout the novel. Laurie narrates in first-person past, Toby in first-person present, and the gaps in their relationship to time loom large in many of their conflicts.

This novel subtly compares the experience of time across different romantic relationships. In this first passage, Laurie remembers kissing Robert, his first love and a man his own age.

Three days, thirteen hours, and twenty-two minutes after we first met, he put his arms around me, pressed our bodies together, and kissed me.

Alexis Hall, For Real

This careful counting of time immediately reminded me of the (much missed) TV show Pushing Daisies, casting a kind of fairytale glow over the past of that first kiss. It also shows two lovers so temporally in sync they can count the minutes between them – whereas Laurie can’t stop worrying about the years that separate him and Toby, and about how much more significant those years would feel further into their seemingly-impossible future.

Perhaps this is why so much about Toby and Laurie’s relationship revolves around reconfiguring their relationship to time passing. Their first encounters are full of little temporal distortions, particularly moments where a short amount of time seems to take ages:

His hands come up and frame my face.
Kiss me, is what I think.
Forever limps by.
“What do you want, Toby?”

Alexis Hall, For Real

After a silence that contained the rise and fall of at least six or seven civilisations, he nodded.

Alexis Hall, For Real

As their relationship progresses, one of the most important changes Laurie makes is to stop measuring time in terms of the age gap between himself and Toby. Instead, he starts measuring time in terms of days and weeks spent with, and without, the man he loves.

I had barely known him, but – as the days slipped into weeks – I realised I missed him too.

Alexis Hall, For Real

I’d been living my life as if nothing had changed. But the promise of Toby had illuminated all my days, edging them with gold like the calligraphy of medieval monks.

Alexis Hall, For Real

Toby and Laurie’s relationship is, in a lot of ways, about finding new means to understand closeness, realizing which kinds of temporal gaps between them have meaning, and which don’t.

A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is both a swoony romance between astronomer Lucy Muchelney and embroiderer Catherine St Day, and a thoughtful look at women’s work. It’s especially invested in looking at how patriarchy shapes the distinctions we draw between “pastimes” and “work.”

One of the first things we learn about Catherine’s embroidery is how her late husband misunderstood the relationship between her craft and the passage of time:

It had taken her weeks aboard ship to embroider this panel. Red and pink and green shading into one another, silks shimmering against their linen background. She’d lost herself in the creation, putting in stitch after stitch, the threads a way of marking time in what had felt like an endless, eventless journey.
Just playing about with fripperies, George had always muttered when he barged into her parlor to demand her help with the latest matter of scientific urgency. An acceptable way to pass the time until there was real work to be done.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Catherine uses embroidery to mark time passed stuck on a boat while her husband pursues his career. Her craft is quite literally a means to take control over a patriarchal system that assumes time can only be worthily spent in service of a man making money. Her husband can neither see the importance of a woman exerting control over her own time, nor the possible value of work outside of capitalist ends. To him, “passing time” is the opposite of both “value” and “work.”

Which is why this next passage, showing how Catherine thinks about time while falling in love with Lucy, is so powerful.

Catherine wanted Lucy, but more than that, Catherine wanted Lucy to want her back. And Lucy wouldn’t, if she were still pining for the girl she’d lost. So Catherine let the days flow by like water while she put in stitch after stitch after stitch, as though each one were mending a small rent in Lucy Muchelney’s heart.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

The phrase “stitch after stitch” that echoes in both passages is a particularly elegant way to make the comparison. It shows that given the right conditions, “pastimes” can do important emotional, affective work.

I do wonder if romance novels are adept at reimagining the passage of time in part because of how the time we spend reading the genre is looked at – and looked down on – by non-romance readers. The idea of romance as an idle time-filler, or somehow as less productive than other kinds of reading, ignores exactly how much good it can do to pass time in enjoyment. So, if you’re finding yourself able to still read romance right now, I hope it’s bringing you a bit of relief from the otherwise-disorienting way the days and weeks are passing right now. And if not, you’ll certainly get back to it – it’s only a matter of time.

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Photo by stephen packwood on Unsplash

Like many of you, I got a lot less reading done this week than I’d originally anticipated, due to the general state of the world. But I really don’t want to give up on the time I spend reading, and especially the time I spend discussing it here.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel. I picked this book out looking for a comfort read, which is almost a guarantee for me with this particular author. I was delighted to find that the book’s central theme is even more comforting than I realized: it’s all about the ways people help each other. Even those not in a romantic relationship, even those who might not know each other, or see each other face to face.

It also talks about finding unexpected comfort and a sense of rightness even in those moments that turn your life upside down, and that’s what today’s Friday Feature is all about.

In this passage Oliver, who has recently returned injured from war, is confronting his father about his association with Jack, a man of a very different social class, and one with whom Oliver is secretly falling in love:

Everything Oliver had experienced during the war had turned his world upside down, and he had come home trying to set it right side up again, only to fall in with a man who set the entire operation even more radically askew. And now, in this moldering old room, he felt that he had his feet firmly planted for the first time in years.

Cat Sebastian, The Soldier’s Scoundrel. 2016

The “moldering old room” here refers to Oliver’s father’s house, and I was intrigued by its appearance in a passage that otherwise hews firmly to images of “upside down/right-side up.” It’s a sudden insertion of a sense of place, at a moment where Oliver is searching for his. It’s also a reminder that enough of the right kind of change can make you stand firmer in spaces where you’d always felt out of place.

I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a comfort read right now. Buy link and CWs here.

What were your favorite words you read this week? Come share with me over on Twitter!

Subtext and Intertext: (Re)inventing the canon in KJ Charles’ Band Sinister

Photo by j zamora on Unsplash

Today’s post is about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, a regency-set story which, in addition to the central romance between Guy and Phillip, features queer and polyamorous relationships with a broad range of inclusive representation. In doing so, it offers readers a new way to think through the romance genre’s complicated relationship to its own past. For those who haven’t read it, a quick summary from the book’s back cover copy:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)
Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.
Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.
In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Links to author’s website here. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found at the end of Love in Panel’s excellent review here

So much of romance thrives on referring to other texts in the genre : the very concept of a beloved trope (enemies to lovers! there’s only one bed!) or character archetype (cinnamon rolls! difficult heroines!) is predicated on a callback to previous iterations. On the other hand, there’s also been a lot of interesting work done recently about how to deal with the more problematic elements of romance’s past [1].

Band Sinister definitely leans hard into referencing previous canonical texts. Perhaps the most talked-about is the work of Georgette Heyer, but the referential universe of this text is much broader. So I want to take a close look the opening passage to show how Band Sinister conceives of current romance’s relationship to its predecessor texts.

Hist! There! Look!” Sebastian whispered, and pointed down into Darkdown Hall’s extensive gardens. Araminta knelt by him to peer out through the leaded windows, fearful of discovery yet aflame with the realisation that at last she would learn the secret of Darkdown Hall and its sinister guardians.

      Lord Darkdown stood at the centre of a stone circle lit by flaming brands, his handsome face twisted in terrible pride. Around him stood the men whom Araminta feared more greatly than any others: Sir Peter Falconwood, whose ungodly knowledge had trapped her in this nest of devils, and Darkdown’s nameless, cruel-eyed brute of a henchman. The torchlight danced and flickered over these three evildoers, like the hellfire they invoked in the very name of their blasphemous society, and over one thing more. A young lady clad in nothing more than a thin close-fitting white shift, her heaving bosom the sole sign of life, lay deadly still on a stone slab at the centre of the circle.

      Araminta’s heart stopped as Darkdown took a step forward and raised a knife—

      Guy read on frantically, page after close-scribbled page, reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief, and yelped, “Amanda!”

      He didn’t have to shout. His sister was on the chair opposite, pretending to sew while carefully not looking at him. Nevertheless, shouting seemed appropriate.

      “What?” Amanda enquired, raising her head with an innocent look that fooled nobody.

       “This—this—!” Guy gestured at the manuscript he held, for lack of words.

      “It’s quite long, dearest. Which part do you mean?”

      “Which part do you think? What about the part where the hellfire club descends on a virgin in that—that lascivious manner!”

      “It’s all perfectly decent,” Amanda said. “Or at least, if it isn’t, the indecent parts are only hinted at, which means they’re in your head. I can’t be held responsible for your thoughts going awry.”

      “Oh yes you can,” Guy said with feeling. “You are publishing under a pseudonym, aren’t you?”

      “Yes.” Amanda spoke with understandable annoyance, since Guy had asked her that before.

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

Excluding and including through narrative voice

Band Sinister opens on a note of confusion. It begins with a passage from Amanda Frisby’s fictional gothic romance The Secret of Darkdown: a fact which readers will only realize once they’ve reached its end. The novel is narrated in the 3rd person, focusing on Araminta’s perspective. It is, however, deliberately constructed to hide knowledge that both Araminta and the narrator share from the reader. A quick survey of things the reader has incomplete information about :

  • “the secret of Darkdown Hall”
  • “more greatly than any others”
  • “ungodly knowledge had trapped her”
  • “the very name of their blasphemous society”

Because we don’t have access to the rest of Amanda’s novel, it’s possible some of these questions were answered earlier. But for the purposes of Band Sinister, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the effect: the reader is excluded, placed in the position of an outsider.

As we pull back to discover the main plot featuring Guy and Amanda, the narrative voice changes to one that creates intimacy rather than distance. The narrator describes Guy having “reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief” and “yelp[ing]” at his sister. We know from Guy’s dialogue that he’s sincerely scandalized by Amanda’s story. The narrator, however, seems to enjoy Darkdown  (“a rush of adjectives” lovingly highlighting it’s flowery nature) and find Guy’s reaction to it a touch overblown (the word “yelped” connoting a more comedic brand of shock than a more assertive verb might). The next line, “He didn’t have to shout,” also brings the readers into complicity with the narrator, who suggests both that Guy’s reaction might be a bit excessive, and that he doesn’t (yet) understand why.

I think of the narrative shift from Darkdown to Band Sinister in terms of a kind of zoom lens. We start off in the same position as Guy, as readers of the same gothic novel, both outsiders looking in on narration we don’t fully understand. Then we zoom out, and become readers of novel where Guy is the hero. At the same time, the narrative voice shifts to a more inclusive one, which let us understand things that others in the scene might not.

There are some obvious parallels here to the romance genre’s relationship to its canonical texts. For a long time, readers like Guy sat on the “outside” of narratives that didn’t represent their experiences or sexuality. Band Sinister turns those readers into the heroes of their own stories, while also ensuring that we, the real-world readers of Band Sinister, feel included rather than excluded by the narrative voice.

But when it comes to a relationship with canonical fictional texts, Band Sinister doesn’t stop there. There’s a whole second layer of reference between The Secret of Darkdown and Band Sinister that deepens its reflection on canonical predecessors.

Fictional intertexts

The most striking similarity between Darkdown and Band Sinister is their opening dialogue. Darkdown starts with three single-word exclamations: “Hist! There! Look!Band Sinister does as well, though not one right after the other: “Amanda!” “What?” “This-this-!” However, Band Sinister does not uncritically adopt Darkdown’s style. In addition to the funny and inclusive narrative voice, The Secret of Darkdown is characterized by a “rush of adjectives” (177 words, 15 adjectives), while this bit of Band Sinister decidedly is not (167 words, 2 adjectives). With just these two examples, we see how Band Sinister builds a relationship of referentiality, but also significant difference, from its fictional counterpart.

The idea of referencing other fictional texts is crucial to Band Sinister’s entire project, and this is where I want to introduce a new term: intertextuality. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.” Basically, it’s a catch-all term for when any text refers to another, whether that’s through parody, pastiche, epigraphs and quotations, a character mentioning a book they’ve read, etc.

Band Sinister has several layers of intertextuality. Some of its intertexts are “real” novels : it references not just Heyer’s body of work, but actual published gothic novels, and regency romances from Austen right up to the present. But it also has an intertextual relationship to a fake book in Amanda’s The Secret of Darkdown.

What does it mean for a book like Band Sinister to have a relationship to both “real” and “fictional” intertexts? Personally, I think it highlights how nearly all of the canon the romance genre is built on is a constructed fiction, one that for a long time excluded characters like the queer, multiracial, multi-ethnic, and religiously diverse cast of Band Sinister.

In fact, Band Sinister actually contains some discussion of how that exclusionary fictional world gets perpetuated in the face of a much more diverse reality, once again through the device of Darkdown as a novel-within-a-novel. One of Darkdown’s main characters, Sir Peter Falconwood, is extremely close in both physical aspect and personal character to Sir Philip Rookwood, their scandalous neighbor and Guy’s eventual love interest. Amanda’s novel is (perhaps even unbeknownst to her) inspired by the queer, multicultural reality of her society- in this case her own neighbors. And Band Sinister is explicit about the societal and publishing pressures Amanda would be under to not write a book that represents that reality. She can’t publish her work under her own name, but instead publishes under the Austen-esque pseudonym “By A Lady.” Even the hint of sexual content in her work risks ruin for her and her brother. Thus, the queerness of her source material largely disappears into a subtext, the kind of subtext where Guy will initially struggle to place himself: 

 “That has been one of the worst parts: the youthful hero Sebastian in a dungeon, bound and helpless at the mercy of the dastardly rake Sir Peter Falconwood with his ‘strange cruelties and velvet tortures’ for several chapters before Araminta rescued him. It wasn’t entirely clear what the book had meant by ‘velvet tortures,’ since the whole sequence was a mass of allusion and implication. That had been both a relief and – in a way Guy had no intention of considering further – a disappointment.”

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

 Through Amanda’s role as a fictional writer of intertext, Band Sinister gestures to the societal pressures that reduced the diverse reality of history to subtext at best, absence at worst, in so many canonical literary works.

There are so many layers to how Band Sinister deals with both the benefits and pressures of maintaining a relationship to a long-established fictional canon. The mere mention of a “heaving bosom” in the Darkdown passage recalls the playful way romance readers can use stereotypes about the genre as a kind of insider reference (see also this great thread on bodice-ripping as in-joke). Illustrated covers like Band Sinister’s are their own kind of referential paratext:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]
Image source: http://kjcharleswriter.com/books/

This cover takes what other romance intertexts have taught us to read as a “love triangle” where two straight men vie for the affection of one woman, and applies it to a novel where gay and polyamorous relationships are the dominant paradigm.

Ultimately, by opening with a fictional intertext, Band Sinister reminds us that all of the intertexts of romance are inventions, and that the best novels know which elements to borrow, and which to entirely re-conceive.

Thanks for reading- and get ready for this Friday, when I’ll be returning to my regular feature asking you to share your favorite words of the week!

[1] For just a few examples, see Felicia Grossman’s article or Alexandra Sterling’s piece on the problematic legacy of Georgette Heyer, Fated Mates’ work on our relationship to the “books that blooded us,” or Asha Ganesan’s guest post for SBTB on diversity in historical romance.