Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

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Anyone who follows me over on Twitter has watched me yell in excitement about Scarlett Peckham’s The Lord I Left for the better part of a week. I savored this book slowly (until the end when I couldn’t stop myself) and enjoyed so much about it.

The passage I picked occurrs only a handful of sentences into the first chapter, and there isn’t much context for it. All we know about Henry Evesham’s current situation is that he’s just knocked on the door of a “whipping house” with a “forbidding reputation,” one that he’s visited at least once before. A visit which ended, as we learn, in our hero fleeing from a woman named Alice.

If he was being honest with himself – and he’d vowed to be rigorously honest with himself – Alice, for it was untruthful to pretend he did not recall her name – had glared not because he’d left but because he’d fled, bolting up the stairs and out of the door as if his life depended on it.

(No. Not his life. His soul.)

Scarlett Peckham The Lord I Left

Chapters from Henry’s point of view are full of revisions: of his thoughts, his feelings, and especially his desires. This stylistic choice is perhaps most obvious in the use of parentheticals, which will be the subject of a longer blog post eventually. However, it’s also baked into the structure of most of his narration.

If we dig for the heart of the passage above, we find a basic causal relationship: Alice glared at Henry because he fled. The hesitations that Henry constructs around this thought include his degree of honestly with himself, the impression Alice has made on him, whether he left or fled, how he fled, and what the stakes were of the fleeing. It’s almost to the point of an obsession, the way he keeps returning to his own thoughts to qualify or modify them.

So much of this book is about relationships to internal narrative: prayer, conscience, desire, and even music are forms of self-expression and self-silencing, often in tension with each other. Writing Henry’s internal narratives into the sentence structure like this is a great way of bringing that theme to the surface. I can’t wait to write more about this book.

Lest he succumb: subjects and subjunctives, objects and objectification in A Duke in Disguise.

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Today’s close reading is from one of my favorite books of 2019: Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.

One reluctant heir
If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller
All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself. 

One disaster waiting to happen
Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Blurb from publisher. Buy link and CWs are available on the author’s website. None of the listed CWs are discussed in this post.

A Duke in Disguise is a m/f romance featuring, as the title suggests, a duke. It is also a queer m/f romance (Verity is bi) with one extremely reluctant duke. It’s a novel in dialogue with a set of traditional literary tropes that also makes critical variations on them. One phenomenon it’s critiquing is the literary convention of a male character presenting his female love interest in ways that can be reductive and objectifying.

Here’s the passage in question, which I’ll break down into three sections.

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout. 

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

Cat Sebastian, A Duke in Disguise, 2019. p 1-2.

I don’t have hard stats to back this up, but in m/f romance it seems far more common to open a novel with the heroine’s POV, just as we more frequently find single-POV m/f novels narrated from the heroine’s perspective. Moreover, because the couple usually meet on-page after some establishing scenes, it is even less common to have a hero’s description of the heroine serve as the opening gambit of a romance novel.

Too often in non-romance novels (and in some romance as well) letting the hero’s POV present the heroine means that his opinions and judgments are centered, that her physical aspect predominates, and that we experience her primarily in terms of a man’s impressions and value judgments. 

So what I want to look at in this passage is how A Duke in Disguise nods to this literary convention and subverts it through linguistic and structural choices that foreground the non-fixity of the hero’s opinions, downplay the heroine’s physicality, and reverse subject/object relationships.

Part One: Two Varieties of Pleasure

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

I love a good first line. This one recalls a specific subset of literary openers, namely axioms about topics like happy and unhappy families, men with property in want of wives, the best and worst of times. The balance in this opening line between the personal (Ash’s experiences) and the axiomatic (categories of pleasure) offers a little taste of what readers will encounter: nuanced individual characters who nonetheless operate in the shadow of the superstructures and gendered conventions of literary fiction.

The first words offer a straightforward contrast between two kinds of pleasure: one benign, the other dangerous. What’s of more interest to me, however, is the difference in structure between the two sentences that discuss them.

The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch.

But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

There is a lot to be said about the differences between these two sets of statements: the extra sentence accorded to the benign pleasures, the “walling off” of the dangerous ones behind a colon. However, I want to focus on the verb choice used to talk about the two, because it has critical ramifications for the issue of objectification.

In the first bolded sentence, “a man” (understood as a generic placeholder for Ash) is the grammatical subject. He acts upon his pleasures via a series of active voice verbs (hold, appreciate, mourn) of which the benign pleasures are the grammatical object.

Once we reach the second set of pleasures, however, both the type of pleasures and the voice of the verb changes. The sentence plays with the “object” in “objectification” by comparing Verity to a series of things made available for consumption: food, drink, gaming. However, as it does so, it also uses verbal voice to reverse subject and object positions. “Could be ruined by” is a passive voice construction, meaning that Ash is no longer the subject of the verb. Ash is acted upon, and Verity takes up the subject position.

Playing with the objects of verbs allows the passage to disrupt processes of objectification. But the objectifying gaze is about more than subject/object positionality. It’s also about physical appraisal and fixed knowledge: assuming that by gazing upon the the heroine, the hero can describe and know and thus contain her.

One of the things we’ll see going forward in the passage is an emerging theme of reversal: structures and motifs that force the reader to go back and reappraise things they’ve already read. The first one, of course, is the introduction of Verity herself in a standalone sentence after the opening paragraph. Once we’ve been introduced to her, we have to go back and reevaluate the taxonomy of pleasures before moving forward. As we’ll now see, the second full paragraph also uses verbs (in this case, verbal mood) to execute a similar reversal.

Part Two: The Emotional Equivalent of Gout

The second paragraph is in fact just one long sentence containing five clauses. I’ve separated them out to take a closer look at how they work:

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life

for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country

being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses

like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press

lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.

This sentence is balanced around its middle clause, which is the only one that functions as a full sentence. However, if you read any other individual clause along with the middle one, it forms a full thought (try it!). Because of this, “being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses” is the statement on which the rest of the ideas hinge. 

In my mind’s eye I see this sentence as a structural reflection of the way Ash tries to protect himself from the effects of his romantic love for Verity. On one end, he buttresses himself with the other ways he’s close to her: as a friend, as a constant, as family. On the other end of the sentence, we have the ways that he keeps her at a distance, much like all the other pleasures he has to keep at arm’s length. 

This sentence also contains another reversal, because for the second time we have a paragraph that ends with a change in the verb. In this case, following a paragraph full of indicative-mode verbs, we have something that made my French-teacher heart sing: a subjunctive! “Lest he succumb” is in the subjunctive mood, which is used (among other things) to express emotion, fear, or uncertainty: basically everything Ash is currently feeling about Verity.

In terms of what the subjunctive mood accomplishes when it comes to objectification, I think it does a few things. To begin with, the change in verbal mood also accompanies a different mood change: the sentence suddenly becomes funny. It thus invites the reader, as before, to retrace what they’ve read previously, this time taking it all a little less seriously. Ash may be a bit in love, but he’s not dying. The change in mood establishes the act of critical revision as an important readerly practice.

Moreover, because the subjunctive is a verbal mood that expresses fear or doubt rather than certainty, it also encourages readers not to take everything Ash is saying about Verity at face value. He may be telling readers about her, but he isn’t necessarily positioned as the ultimate authority on her. (Arguably, he isn’t even really a great authority on his own emotions at this point.) This is yet another way that the passage refuses to reduce Verity to a simple object of Ash’s knowledge.

In the final paragraph, we’re going to be even more clearly invited to question and reverse what we learn about our heroine, destabilizing any claim to mastery on Ash’s part.

Part Three: The Romantic Delusion of a Youthful Idiot

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

I’ll be focusing more on the content than the structure of this paragraph, in part because these two sentences make explicit in content what the preceding two paragraphs have implicitly built into their structure. 

To begin with, the content of this passage contains the only physical description of Verity we get: “pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose.” In fact, this description tells us far more about her interests and intellectual activities (writing and reading) than it does about her physique (having hands and a nose), continuing the theme of not focusing on her physical body as the first thing readers know or see about her.  

This final paragraph also extends the previous structural emphasis on reversal with the explicit mention of a change of heart: from “very young” Ash seeing Verity as a songbird to imagining her as a bloodthirsty hawk. Ash has engaged in growth and self-critique, and will continue to do so, specifically with regards to his (still hyperbolic and metaphorical) impressions of Verity. 

Ultimately, the genius of this passage is that it refuses to position Verity as an object of settled knowledge, either for Ash or for the reader, instead inviting us to revise our impressions of her.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning how this passage, while introducing Verity, also grounds Ash as a character. Sprinkled throughout the passage are a series of subtle modifying words that evoke Ash’s backstory and personality. Knowing “all too well” about the pleasures of both art and rich food hints not just at experience, but at painful life lessons. That Verity is “one of the few” constants in his life speaks to both loneliness and change. The idea that she and her brother are the “closest thing” to family “in this country” alludes to a complicated relationship to biological family, as well as to dislocation and travel. 

In reading and re-reading the passage, I’ve come to think of these little words as a formal metaphor for Ash’s personality. He isn’t the type to be obtrusive, to loudly tell others about himself or his feelings. So we learn about him quietly, in little words tucked in here and there: phrases like “all too well” and “one of the few,” that only take on meaning as they modify other words in the passage. It’s gently reminiscent of who Ash is: someone who asserts himself quietly and thinks of himself relationally, in terms of how he connects with others.  

Ultimately, then, this passage cashes in on the promise of the opening line, which gave us both an axiom and a hint of personal detail. We have two characters, about whom we can only glimpse the nuance to come, presented in ways that play with overturning conventions around the objectifying gaze.

Thanks for reading! I’ve got some fun things planned around here, including:

The next close read! It’s Katrina Jackson’s Layover, an *amazing* novella you can buy here. It’s also on KU, if that’s your thing.

More Friday Features, including a silly little Valentines Day post about my favorite romance declarations of love that don’t involve the words “I love you.”

Another forthcoming post about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister and invented intertexts.

Stay tuned 🙂

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

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My reading time this week was primarily taken up by Lucy Parker’s Headliners. I’ve enjoyed the entire London Celebrities series, and this one was no exception.

Lucy Parker’s writing has a light touch- you never feel like you’re struggling to get through the prose- but the minute the plot takes a turn, you realize she’s somehow tricked you into being DEEPLY invested in the characters and their emotional journey.

There were many examples of good writing I could have picked from this book, but I’m going to be honest and go with a fairly random sentence that stuck in my mind and kept making me laugh. It takes place while Sabrina, a TV presenter, is trying to deal with a misogynistic, overly-flirty guest on her program. Sabrina is a redhead, which becomes pertinent here:

“You have beautiful hair,” smarmed the man with basically the same hair, randomly in the middle of a discussion on app development.

Lucy Parker, Headliners, 2020.

The verb-subject pairing of “smarmed the man” is doing a lot of work here, both the invention of the verb “smarmed” (making his grossness more integral to his actions than if he’d “said smarmily”) and the universalizing – and simultaneously dismissing- gesture of calling him “the man.” The repetition of “beautiful hair”/”same hair” at the end of each clause drives home the inherent recursive narcissism of complimenting someone on a shared trait. And because the reader is caught up in the sound of that repetition, the adverb “randomly” is separated from the verb it’s meant to modify (“smarmed”), allowing the end of the sentence to arrive, in fact, rather randomly.

Also, it’s just really funny.

***

I’ll be back next week with a long post I’m excited about: the opening passage of Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise. I’ll talk about how the first three paragraphs of the book subvert various conventions around a male MC describing his female love interest, and set us up instead to meet two nuanced characters.

Buy links and CWs at the author’s website : https://catsebastian.com/a-duke-in-disguise/

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

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Yes, this is the same book as last Friday. I’m a slow reader with a day job, so it’s more Kinsale!

The good news is, there’s an embarrassment of “good words” riches to choose from with this novel. Here’s just one sample, that the heroine (Melanthe) says to the hero (Ruck) after they’ve finally gotten together. For the moment.

“If I say to thee” – Melanthe’s voice was unsteady – “that I cherish and love thee, but that I am frightened at the weight of it – wouldst thou understand me?”

For My Lady’s Heart, Laura Kinsale, 1993.

This line stopped me in my tracks because it goes right ahead and makes text what is one of the most important subtexts of romance novel conflict: a character is in love, but is afraid of what that means.

This sentence is in some ways astonishingly plain. A lot of characters understandably bury the reality of “I love you but I’m scared” under misdirection and self-preservation. There are all kinds of interesting forms this conflict can take, too, which is part of how we get such a range of plots and character arcs in romance. But in this case, Melanthe just goes ahead and lays bare the fundamental conflict of falling in love.

In other ways, though, the sentence respects and reflects that recognizing this conflict is not the same as solving it. Melanthe structures her observation with a conditional and a question (if I told you/would you understand?), and the narrator interrupts it to remind us of the unsteadiness of her voice. She still needs, and seeks, recognition of her feelings from Ruck.

It’s a beautiful moment where we see both that she understands herself, her own mind, and her emotions; and that she’s still at a point of negotiating that understanding in the context of a relationship with a partner.

Richer and Poorer: Subverting Wedding Vows in The Governess Affair

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This post discusses a scene that takes place at the 2/3 mark of Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair. If you’d like to avoid the mild plot spoilers in this post, it takes under two hours and (currently) no dollars to read.

SHE WILL NOT GIVE UP…

Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she’s demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it’s not the duke she fears. It’s his merciless man of business—the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke’s dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn’t stand a chance. But she can’t stop trying—not with her entire future at stake.

HE CANNOT GIVE IN…

Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition—a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner’s son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it’s just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don’t work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can’t bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He’ll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love…

Image and blurb: from the author’s website. CW for rape (off page, before start of the plot) and unintended pregnancy. Both are discussed briefly in this review.

For my close reading, I’ve chosen Serena and Hugo’s wedding of convenience. Marrying Hugo will provide security – both for Serena and her illegitimate child – after she was raped by Hugo’s employer, the Duke of Clermont. Serena and Hugo are clearly falling in love, but they intend for this to be a marriage in name only, and to live separately after the ceremony. 

Let’s take a look at the scene, which is told from Hugo’s perspective. I’ve started the passage just as Hugo is imagining what a real marriage between him and Serena would look like, and quickly remembering that this is not an option. 

No. He couldn’t let himself dwell on that. 

But not thinking about his inchoate wishes left him unprepared when he reached the church where they were to be married. He felt off balance throughout the ceremony- as if he were on the brink of stumbling and couldn’t reach out to catch himself. 

He couldn’t bring himself to look directly at her. Her gown was the color of daylight just before sunset; if he looked at her too long, he feared he might be left blind once she was gone. The vicar stood between them, reciting words that Hugo couldn’t comprehend – richer and poorer, troth, wife. He repeated his vows in a dream; he barely heard her answers. 

But when he took her hand to slip his ring onto her finger, she was solid and warm – the only real thing in the room. He almost didn’t want to let go of her. The vicar gave him permission and he kissed her – not hard, for lust, nor long, for love, but a light brush of his lips for the brief space of time that she would stay in his life. 

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p88.

This short passage actually contains the entirety of the wedding ceremony. Yet within these few words it accomplishes two major things: critiquing the traditional patriarchal framework of the wedding ceremony, and creating a layer of meaning that suggests Hugo and Serena will redefine marriage, with a focus on agency and consent. Let’s take a look.

Saying “yes” to forever, saying “no” for now

Weddings are generally thought to be about saying yes, pledging forever, and marking the beginning of something real. The first thing that jumped out at me about this passage is how many of these fundamental elements it reverses. There are several evocations of things either ending or seeming impermanent and unreal : “daylight just before sunset,” “a dream,” and a “brief space of time” all figure prominently in the imagery of this wedding. Each of these elements is linked to an aspect of the official ceremony: the dress is like sunset, the vows are like a dream, the kiss (for which a vicar grants permission) is a light, intemporal brush. It is only Serena, herself, who is “solid” and “real.” 

These reversals set up a crucial dichotomy : there’s the official ceremony, and then there’s the actual act of consenting to partnership. The official ceremony, at the very least, is characterized by impermanence, irreality and – perhaps most importantly – the word “no.”

There are… a lot of variations on negation in this 188-word paragraph, rendered all the more striking for appearing in a ceremony that traditionally relies on affirmatives like “I do” or “I will.” There are straightforward negation words (no, couldn’t, not, couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, not, nor); some adverbs that suggest insufficiency or opposition (instead of, barely), and a couple of words with negative prefixes (inchoate, unprepared). 

The various reversals and negations in this passage could simply signal Hugo and Serena’s wedding as a marriage of convenience rather than love. But I think the use of negation goes deeper. 

To begin with, this much use of negation recalls another scene: the first time Serena meets Hugo. Here’s just a small sampling of the things she notices he’s not

Everything about him was middling. He wasn’t particularly tall, nor was he short. He was neither skinny nor fat. The most that she could imagine anyone saying about him was that he was virulently moderate. 

He looked safe […]

His voice was like his face: not too high and not too deep. His accent was not the drawl of aristocratic syllables trained to lazy perfection, but a hint of something from the north.

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p14

Ostensibly, these negations set up a surprise reveal: Hugo is not the safe, moderate man Serena thinks he is, but rather the “Wolf of Clermont.” He’s the Duke’s ruthless man of business, whom Serena has learned to fear on reputation alone. Once we get to know Hugo better, though, we’ll realize that “Wolf of Clermont” is, itself, a misnomer: Hugo is neither a “wolf,” nor is he anything like Clermont. 

Introducing Hugo via a series of negations reminds the reader of the one most crucial way that Hugo will be unlike the rapist Clermont :  he will respect Serena’s “no,” and be with her only on the terms of her enthusiastic “yes.” The theme of Hugo respecting Serena’s right to say “no” begins from their earliest scenes (when he places a small branch between them and promises not to cross it because “I don’t believe in hurting women”) to their culminating love scene (which I will not spoil, but involves some of the most creative and careful establishment of boundaries I’ve read in romance. For more on this, I will refer you to an excellent 2013 blog post by Olivia Waite here)

So, returning to the wedding scene, all these negations (in Hugo’s POV) signal Hugo’s recognition that their wedding – at least as an official legal ceremony – is not the most important form of consent he needs to secure from Serena. We see it in particular in their kiss:

The vicar gave him permission and he kissed her – not hard, for lust, nor long, for love, but a light brush of his lips for the brief space of time that she would stay in his life. 

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p88.

Hugo denies that he has any right to lust or love or permanence, because so far it’s only the vicar, a patriarchal authority figure, who has given him permission.

However, I think we also start to see the beginnings of a different understanding of marriage in this ceremony, particularly through the four words that the passage takes directly from the wedding vows. They crystalize a wedding that may have solved the couple’s external conflict over money and a duke’s infidelity, but which more importantly opens the door to a marriage that will address their internal needs of understanding, fidelity, and affirmative consent.

Richer and poorer, troth, wife

It’s impossible to miss that this passage boils down an entire regency marriage ceremony (those things were long!) to just four words. In a novella as carefully constructed as The Governess Affair, the choice is obviously significant.  The way the list is written divides the four words into three units: “richer and poorer, troth, wife”. Let’s take them in order. 

Richer and poorer” provides an entryway into the literary work the vows are doing. The selection of words from the ceremony that evoke money recalls the primary external conflict of the novel : Hugo continues in the service of the Duke of Clermont because of a sum of 500 pounds he’s been promised; Serena needs financial support for her unborn child. The Duke of Clermont’s access to money, and both Serena and Hugo’s lack of it, forms the backbone of the novel’s external conflict.

However, the form the words take – the joining of two seemingly opposing concepts – is far more significant to the internal conflicts of the novel. The actual words of the 19th century ceremony are “for richer, for poorer,” so it’s Hugo who deliberately conjoins the two words with “and.” The idea of two opposite forces that must be reconciled, rather than chosen between, is a crucial theme throughout the novel. To give you a short sampling of the many opposites this novel holds in conjunction :

  • Staying and Leaving: Serena stands up to the Duke of Clermont by refusing to leave the bench outside his home until her situation is noticed; it’s eventually her departure to a house in the country that provides her security. Hugo, for his part, has to decide whether to stay in the Duke’s employ or leave to be with Serena. Eventually, he has to let Serena leave for a time, in order to create the conditions of permanence that allow them to stay together.

  • Inside and Outside: This novella does a lot with what is visible (Serena’s bench vigil is all about being seen) and what is invisible (her assault, to most people). Part of what is important about Hugo is his ability to internalize the truth of her rape without the outward proof of having seen it. The novella also explores what it means to be forced outside (Serena’s sister is agoraphobic and at one point is thrown out of her house), and what it means to feel safe both inside and outside one’s home.

  • Yes and No: The iconic love scene from this book involves not just Serena saying “yes” (enthusiastically), and Hugo saying “no” (strictly delimiting what he will not do without her permission), but also, more importantly, redefining consent in general as the freedom to say both “yes” and “no.”

So, starting off vows with Hugo inserting an “and” between two seeming opposites feels deeply meaningful. Serena and Hugo are fighting for the power to say “yes” and “no” to sex, the power both to leave when when they need to and stay when they want to. The word “and” is crucial to how the novel defines consent, and to the internal journey Serena and Hugo have to travel to their HEA. 

Troth is the most opaque word of the four. While the narrator tells us Hugo doesn’t understand any of the words of the ceremony, troth is the one that we 21st century readers are least likely recognize. (It’s defined as “loyal or pledged faithfulness”). Once again, we have a word from the wedding vows reflecting both external and internal conflict. Externally, the Duke of Clermont’s infidelity to his wife – and his fear that it will be discovered – puts the events of the story in motion.

Internally, fidelity – trust and stability – are at the heart of what Hugo must offer Serena for their HEA to work. Fidelity as Hugo’s internal conflict should be understood as more than promising not to cheat on Serena. Rather, Hugo has to transfer his loyalty from the Duke of Clermont, (his “master” who is going to make him rich) to his wife, who who needs him to actively renounce one loyalty before pledging another. It’s this shift that echoes in “troth” : Hugo cannot give his freely without first rebuking the Duke and everything he stands for, allowing “troth” to represent an important symbol of his internal conflict.

Wife, the last of the four words, represents the culmination of the ceremony, and it also carries an external and an internal meaning. Externally, in legal terms, becoming a wife in 1835 would mean that Serena had to give up significant aspects of her financial control and personhood. Wife, at the end of this list of words, reminds us that any official ceremony may solve Serena’s external conflict, but it’s also risks taking away exactly what she’s been fighting against all throughout the novel.

Luckily, we have Hugo’s proliferation of “no”s in this scene to remind us that he, too, is willing to seek a different kind of relationship with Serena outside the “I will” of a traditional patriarchal marriage ceremony. The word “wife” comes at the end of a set of words which, as we’ve seen, also have a different, internal meaning for the couple: one that celebrates the ability to hold contrasts together with and, to say both yes and no, fidelity promised through trust rather than legality, a joining of two people who both consent. 

That’s the HEA that will come as they tackle their internal conflict, and it requires several more negotiations outside the system of legal marriage, including one of the most beautiful love scenes I’ve read. I highly suggest you do as well. (Link at the top of this post) 

Thanks for reading. Coming up next, if you want to read along, we have:

  • A Duke in Disguise, by Cat Sebastian (in which starting a m/f book with the hero’s perspective on the heroine can still very much refuse the objectifying male gaze).
  • Layover, by Katrina Jackson (in which a podcast transcript builds bridges between the written word and music).
  • Band Sinister, by KJ Charles (in which Georgette Heyer and a fake novel serve as metatexts for queer regency romance).
  • A time-travely sort of post inspired by Twitter, in which I attempt to aggregate novels that successfully time-hop in 1-2 sentences. If I can remember enough books.

Stay tuned!

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Photo by erin mckenna on Unsplash

One of the things I love most about romance twitter is periodically getting swept up in other people’s enthusiasm for a book, to the point where I abandon all plans and start something new. I can’t do this with the reading I do for work, so I try to allow myself to do it as often as possible with the reading I do for fun.

Which is how I ended up in the middle of Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. And reading over and over again this set of lines from the first time the hero sees the heroine.

“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.”

Laura Kinsale, For My Lady’s Heart.

We talk about meet-cutes a lot, Aarya over at SBTB has coined the phrase meet-disaster… but what even is this? Meet-overthrow? Meet-devastation? I don’t know, but I love it

The bolded part just *sings* in my brain. This use of “ferment” as a noun is somewhat uncommon, but part of what I’m loving about this book (which in uses a bit of Middle English in dialogue) is how it makes you feel the meaning of things you can’t always properly define. A bit like our poor hero Ruck in this scene….

I’ll be back with my next close reading in about a week. It’s a deep dive into the wedding scene from Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair (it’s free and short, so you can totally read ahead). Weddings involve three things: saying yes, pledging forever, and starting something new. I’m going to talk about how Milan writes a wedding that turns all three of these upside-down, and by doing so reimagines consent outside of traditional patriarchal frameworks.

And who doesn’t love that?

Love in a third language: Ash and Darian play Nabble

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

So, here we go: the first close reading of this brand-new blog experiment, and I’ve chosen an absolute favorite: Alexis Hall’s Glitterland. For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s the cover, a buy link, and the official blurb.

Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.

Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.

But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?

https://books2read.com/glitterland

When we arrive at the scene I want to discuss, about a third of the way through the book, Ash and Darian (who met with a look across a crowded dance floor) have been speaking different languages, both figuratively and – at least if you ask Ash – literally. Ash is a writer, and his first person POV guides us through the book in a standard, and at times insufferably erudite, English. Darian, on the other hand, is an “h-dropping, glottal stopping glitter pirate” (27) from Essex who says “fink” instead of “think” and “awright” instead of “alright” and whose speech is relayed through a delimited set of phonetic representations of his accent. 

In this scene, Ash and Darian have decided to play “Nabble”: a version of Scrabble Ash played in college. Darian has already turned down a game of actual Scrabble, deeming Ash too “good wif words and stuff” (96) to want to play against him. In Nabble, however, only made-up words can be played, accompanied by a realistic explanation for what they might mean. 

So let’s look at the full passage, and then I’ll break it down :

“He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (“that like look what happens when two people are fanciying each other from across the dance floor”), then gloffle (“like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”), then mooshes (“ankle boots made out of crocodile levva wif pompoms hanging on ‘em, big in New Zealand”), rapazzled (“off your head, obvs”), and quimpet (“like when hair extensions get all weird up at the top like what ‘appened to Britney”). And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded, I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers, on the wreckage of the Scrabble board. 

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. He shone so brightly and I was burning. Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. Difficult, though, when my skin sang at his closeness and I blazed with wanting. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

This is a watershed moment for Ash and Darian’s relationship, because it requires them to create a new language together, one where Darian sets most of the terms. Over the course of a few lines, Ash gets lost and found again, starts over, demonstrates trust, reiterates his fear of falling in love, and gives us a tiny bit of hope that he will anyway. And all of it, this passage demonstrates, is based on finding a metaphorical “third language” between Ash and Darian’s disparate idioms.

So lets look at how it plays out. I’m going to divide the text into three parts. Or, since Scrabble is the theme here, three turns.

First turn: changing the rules of the game.

“He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (“that like look what happens when two people are fanciying each other from across the dance floor”), then gloffle (“like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”), then mooshes (“ankle boots made out of crocodile levva wif pompoms hanging on ‘em, big in New Zealand”), rapazzled (“off your head, obvs”), and quimpet (“like when hair extensions get all weird up at the top like what ‘appened to Britney”).

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

In the very first sentence, Ash includes an invented word that the reader hasn’t seen before. He’s given us the tools to interpret it though: from “Nabble” (which he has already explained) we get “nabbling.”  The inventiveness is tempered by Ash’s typically stodgy speech (what twenty-something calls his boyfriend an ‘old hand’?), but we see Ash ready to meet Darian on the linguistically playful terms of this new game.

This section adheres to a set pattern: an italicized nonsense word, followed by Darian’s definition in parentheses. Darian’s voice dominates the passage: Ash provides only five structuring words (“first came,” “then,” “then” “and”). In fact, it isn’t necessarily clear at first that it’s Darian turn: we aren’t sure who puts down the word glink until we read the non-standard formulation of the definition “That like look what happens when…”

It is, uniquely, a whole chuck of Darian’s speech that does not rely on any punctuating dialogue from Ash – no “he said” or “Darian added” to be found.

Why is this significant? Well, for starters, because Ash often uses his punctuating dialogue to judge Darian’s Essex accent:

“I gotta say babes,” he said in a nasal Essex whine “you’re giving me sutcha bedroom look.”

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 17

In fact, sometimes he just replaces punctuating dialogue entirely with judgment:

“I read one of ‘is coming back from Ibiza.” Of course he pronounced it Ibeefa.

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 22

So, as Ash lets Darian speak for himself, he’s moving past some old linguistic habits. 

As readers, we experience several paradoxical effects of this un-punctuated dialogue (just as Ash experiences some… paradoxical effects of finding himself attracted to an orange glitter pirate). On the one hand, it’s intimate. Recognizing who is speaking here relies on the reader’s familiarity with Darian’s speech patterns: we have to know he’s the one who says “mouf” and “levva” to make sense of the scene. It’s a sign of intimacy and recognition we share with Ash, being accustomed to how Darian speaks. 

On the other hand, there are still important elements of distancing: we’re confronted with as series of tiny punctuation-shaped barriers (quotation marks, parenthetical brackets). It’s also a bit disorienting: we lose our dialogical landmarks just as Ash is losing hold on his emotions. We’re falling together with Ash, and Darian is – emotionally, linguistically – in control in a way he often isn’t, though Ash is still trying to put up barriers.

As we bring Darian’s turn’s to a close (Ash is so gone at this point that, as far as we know, Darian gets five turns in a row), it’s time for Ash to retake the linguistic reins. But rather than dominate the conversation as he often does, we watch him start over in their new language. 

Second turn: starting over. 

And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded, I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers, on the wreckage of the Scrabble board. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

Despite the game of Nabble being Ash’s idea, he’s hesitant to join in. He marks his hesitation both through adjectives that trivialize his emotions (“silly,” “ridiculous”), and adverbs that further minimize them (“somehow,” “apparently”).  He isn’t speaking Darian’s new language yet- he’s still a bit lost in it, and afraid of it.  

But Ash is leading us, slowly and hesitantly, to the money word of this entire scene: glimstruck. It is, in the entire game, the only word that doesn’t get a concrete definition. Mooshes and quimpet are vivid and specific nouns involving hair extensions and ankle boots, glink is about a kind of instant attraction on the dance floor that we’ve already seen in Ash and Darian’s meet-cute, gloffle is a sound that’s literally about nothing except eating toffee. 

All we get for glimstruck is that it’s a way Ash feels around Darian. Technically that could mean almost anything. Ash has felt exasperated, horny, judgmental, anxious, and all manner of other things around Darian. 

But it’s not any of those. 

And we know it without being told

We know a little bit because of how the word sounds: glim like glimmer, like glitter, like Darian the glitter pirate. Struck like lighting, like the emotion that Ash won’t name until it’s almost too late, like the complete overwhelm of being knocked off your feet and falling.

But to be fair, glim is also pretty close to glum, and getting struck isn’t often a good thing. How do we know it isn’t that? We know from context, but most of all we know because we’ve watched Ash learn a language that Darian has been teaching him since they first glinked, and he’s finally giving himself over to it. 

And indeed, the final movement of this section is all about growing into something new, the lexicon of “graduated” and “teenagers” suggesting passage through a liminal space, leaving behind the “wreckage” of their separate languages and pushing them on to something new. 

Third turn: love hurts. 

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. He shone so brightly and I was burning. Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. Difficult, though, when my skin sang at his closeness and I blazed with wanting. 

Glitterland, Alexis Hall. 2018. p 101

That said, this scene takes place at the 39% mark, not the 99% mark. So Ash and Darian don’t have it all figured out yet. The next two lines are intense – intensely gorgeous, probably my favorite of the passage – but they also mark a return to Ash’s default language: florid, poetic, and distancing (via repeated metaphorizing) of the world around him.

He crashed over me like a wave and I was drowning. 

He shone so brightly and I was burning. 

 These lines are beautiful, but they also sound a bit sinister after the fun of glink and the sweet vulnerability of glimstruck. For one, the repetition of this structure

(He [x] and I was [y]). (He [x] and I was [y]).

recalls not just intensifying feelings, but also Ash’s struggle with getting stuck in patterns: of pushing people away, of his recurring episodes of depression. They also have the cadence of an incantation, a way of warding against his anxiety. If you look at what Ash is doing in those passages, he’s “drowning” and “burning” : no matter which way you face from in between these two sentences, he’s staring down opposite forces of water or fire, he’s suffering. In fact, hidden in those two sentences, in their second word and their last, is a hint of what this relationship is going to have to do before it gets to HEA: crash and burn

Ash is right to be scared. He thinks he needs distance, but he’s so far gone now that he buries that thought under a lyrical evocation of Darian’s touch. 

Touched, by his hands and his body and his unintended mercies, I needed my distance back. 

Ash is touched twice by something physical (“hands,” “body”) and on that magical third time, by something he can’t feel physically, only emotionally: Darian’s “unintended mercies.” This is a pretty significant progression. We’ve seen Ash be ok with most kinds of physical touch: the many extremely hot scenes between him and Darian attest to that. But he’s not (yet) ok with being touched emotionally, especially not with Darian’s mercies. And he certainly can’t accept that such mercies might be intended. That’s the rest of the journey he’s going to have to go on. 

The remainder of the paragraph (which I will leave you to find on your own) is a list of things Ash wants to do, not just to Darian but for Darian. To fuck him, but also to “bedeck him with [pleasure]” and “weave him a crown of all [his] lost dreams” (102) . It isn’t just their “crash and burn” that’s hidden in this passage, it’s also the forgiving and the giving that will heal them. And ultimately, all of this is built on their third language, the space they create together, and will have to keep re-creating together even beyond the end of their HEA. 

I highly, highly recommend you go read all about how they work it out by buying Glitterland here : https://books2read.com/glitterland. The author’s website also has detailed CWs, which you may want to check first.

Thanks for stopping by, folks! Hope you had half as much fun reading this as I did writing it. I’m still working out exactly at what rate I can feasibly post here, but for the moment here are the next three books I have close readings planned for :

The Governess Affair, Courtney Milan (it’s free, if you want to read along!)

A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian

Layover, Katrina Jackson

In between, I’ll also be doing shorter posts, including an every-Friday feature of the “best sentence I read this week” variety. More soon!

Welcome to Close Reading Romance

This blog started, like many things do, as a dubious idea on Twitter:

twitter.com/romansdegare/status/1211645844815937542(opens in a new tab)

The truth is, though, this idea has been knocking around in my head for a while. I love the big, swoony feelings of romance, and I love the minute, microscope-close view of detailed textual reading. Why not combine the two?

So that’s what this blog is going to do. And along the way, I hope to demonstrate what I really firmly believe: that romance deserves not to be dismissed as “empty” or “formulaic,” because it has some of the best writing currently out there. That it deserves to be read not just in terms of the character archetypes and tropes we all adore, but also, and at the same time, in terms of the rich, accomplished linguistic work it offers on the way to HEA.

I invite you to find out more about what I’m planing to do around here in the ‘Explication de texte‘ and ‘About this project‘ sections of the site. I’m also hoping to periodically intersperse shorter posts about the smaller bits of romance I love: favorite titles, favorite lines, favorite words that make up the worlds of my most beloved novels.

The first close reading will kick off next week with a passage from a book that immediately became one of my all-time favorite reads, Glitterland by Alexis Hall.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

“From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded, I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers, on the wreckage of the Scrabble board.”

Glitterland, Alexis Hall, p 101.

Stay tuned!