Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

Lately, and quite accidentally, I read three books in a row that involved shapeshifting or similar transformations. I'm going to talk about two of them. RoAnn Sylver's Chameleon Moon (kindly loaned to me by Corey Alexander) is a fantasy novel about a trans, queer, and poly found family struggling to survive in a burning city hemmed in by overwhelming surveillance. Nearly everyone left alive in the city has been transformed by the miracle drug Chrysedrine -- some people get wonderful, powerful talents, while others get horrible, painful conditions that might as well be magical curses. The story was beautifully built but at times too painfully earnest for me to disappear into like I wanted. Certain scenes were so palpably aware of the presence of the reader: explorations of one character's newly realized asexuality, for instance, or fierce objections when villain deliberately misgenders a trans family member. The book went out of its way to showcase characters being kind to one another, outside of the demands of plot. I initially read my discomfort as a flaw of the book -- as if you'd dropped by a friend's place casually to say hi and they'd immediately set out the best china and made three of your favorite desserts from scratch. I felt horribly awkward.

Then via NetGalley I received a copy of Masked Possession by Alana Delacroix, a debut in a new paranormal romance series about shapeshifting magical creatures called masquerada who can take on different physical traits and personae, depending on their level of talent and training. The prose is polished and the premise is a novel one for a paranormal. The reviews so far are strongly positive. A lot of people are going to enjoy this book.

I am writing this review for you, the trans reader, wherever you may be. Because I do not think you will enjoy this book. I think it's going to hurt you and I am writing this review to offer evidence.

Masked Possession is a story centered on trans-coded characters and experiences that never once stops to consider that the reader might be trans. This story about modern-day shapeshifters, about masks and passing and secret identities and mental trauma and family rejection and love and who someone really is deep down -- this story never once acknowledges the existence of actual trans humans in the world, despite having trans parallels at all levels from the worldbuilding right on down to the individual phrases.

To briefly show why this is inherently harmful it helps to consider The Matrix, which is certainly also a trans allegory but which places the burden of the metaphor on computers and machines. Neo's journey is a search for truth outside of the falsely imposed limits of the physical body. Masked Possession, on the other hand, consistently makes the characters' physical bodies the source of truth, power, and identity. The only place for trans people in such a metaphor is as collateral damage.

Did I really wince at Chameleon Moon being too considerate? I should have known better than to undervalue kindness.

I started Masked Possession with enthusiasm and a lot of questions I hoped the book would explore. Here is what I found; stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

Masquerada are manipulative, vain, and frivolous. They cannot be trusted. They cannot be intimately known, because they change appearances too drastically. One masquerada can recognize another wearing a masque (except all the times when they can't because the plot requires them to be fooled). Learning to take on a masque is referred to as a transition. Only the most powerful can change genders -- but that includes our hero, our heroine, and the Evil Other Woman. Masquerada are long-lived but prone to something called la vide, a severe depression that commonly ends in suicide. (The French term translates to "the void" or "the gap," which is probably worth a whole bitter essay of its own in this context.) Masquerada believe in their superiority to humans, and though humans find them captivating and sexually alluring intermarriage is extremely rare. They have a secret, glamorous hierarchy with royalty and etiquette of their own. They object to being incarcerated in human prisons.

It gets worse. As a cis woman, I don't often respond viscerally to descriptions of what amounts to body dysphoria, but the climax of this book left me sick and shaking. I'm going to provide a summary and very short quotes below, but I'm also going to put two rows of asterisks around the whole thing and set it in italics in case you want to skim right past this part.

*****

*****

Our heroine, Caro, is a journalist in hiding. Attacked and almost killed by the book's main villain, she now lives in Toronto under an assumed identity. The parallels to a deadname are evident from the start, and the fact that the heroine keeps her past life a secret from the hero is presented as a fault and a failing. The very first thing we see on page one is her arriving at work in mile-high stilettos, and her Francophone boss praising her for dressing "more like a woman." Later, when she finds her boss is in league with the villain, Caro will transform into a giant, muscular, "dickless" man and crush her boss's genitals with her bare hands. The prose goes needlessly, graphically out of its way to emphasize that A) she hates this form and we should never ever picture the heroine as having a penis, and B) that the genital-crushing is a severe and likely permanent injury (telltale phrase: "his ruined groin"). Caro is forced into this giant's body by the villain, who intends to send her in his place to duel the hero to the death. No, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the text either. At the novel's climax, Caro has to fight the mindless demands of her unfamiliar, aggressive, frightening, masculine body in order not to kill the man she loves. It is one of the most violently grotesque things I've ever encountered in a romance and it ruined my belief in the HEA, my trust in the author, and any sense of critical distance. And then we are treated to the final sex scene where the hero fucks Carol in those mile-high heels, then takes on a woman's masque and suggests having sex in that form, which Caro finds playful and arousing and I found infuriatingly flip and fetishizing.

*****

*****

The one good thing about having read all the way to the end of Masked Possession is that I can look at Chameleon Moon with a newfound sense of appreciation. It is now startlingly obvious that Sylver's book is centered on caring, on kindness, on radical acts of trust and belief in other human beings. There is conflict -- real, profound conflict, that endangers lives and futures -- but the conflict does not make anyone unworthy of human consideration. This story is founded on love, and not merely the characters' love for one another within the bounds of the plot. It is founded on love-as-a-verb, in the best sense, and it makes sure the reader knows some of that love is directed at you. The unease I felt with being so deliberately taken into account -- as if the book were looking back at me -- now feels like a major misread. Chameleon Moon opens its arms wide and shows a beating, vulnerable heart to the world just in case one reader, somewhere, is feeling raw and shaky and in need of succor. The world is better because this book exists.

In such an age as ours, I can think of nothing more necessary.

Astronaut Heroes and Heroines: A Romance Sampler

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes a literary-critical and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} I've been waiting years, actual years, to get my hands on Margot Shetterly's Hidden Figures book (and you've heard there's going to be a movie! Starring Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer and my favorite Janelle Monáe!). The book comes out quite soon now, and I could not be more excited.

Meanwhile, I passed time reading all the astronaut romances I could reasonably get my hands on. We're talking real-world Cold War space-race or contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts -- no astronomers, sci-fi spaceship pilots, or telescope-loving Regency misses allowed (much as I adore those). Naturally, this led to some thoughts about how the role of astronaut is presented in this small slice of the romance genre. I'll let the argument unfold in the same way I found it: chronologically in reading order.

Cover image for Heaven's Time by Susan PlunkettHeaven's Time by Susan Plunkett

Readers who miss the old style of romances jam-packed with plot and melodrama will want to check this one out. Heroine Melissa Fuller is a former foster child turned astronaut, who names the stars after the people who tried to love her but who tragically died. (Her childhood: SUPER rough.) She has shut down all social ties to achieve success in her career, and then when she finally does get into space a meteor shower damages her capsule (this was written decades before Gravity!) and sends her hurtling toward the Earth and her death. She has just enough time to regret never letting anyone get close to her before a giant beam made of greeny-purple magic reaches up from the planet and grabs her.

Meanwhile, hero Rory McCullough is hanging out in the 1887 Washington Territory and has just learned the old Native American woman who's his best friend is actually an immortal wish-granting plot device -- she tells him she must leave because ten years is all she gets to spend with one person, magically rejuvenates herself into youth and beauty, and then says oh yes, and I've found the perfect mate for you and she's on her way but it's going to be a little weird at first. Just be nice to her, okay? I kind of want to read this woman's book, to be honest.

Melissa comes screaming down out of the sky and lands smack in the nearby lake. Rory fishes her out. She's disoriented and battered, so naturally they have tender, vulnerable sex pretty much at once. Then they decide to head to Rory's home north of the city, which is of course when the puma attacks.

At this point we're in chapter three. Later there's a surprising amount of page-time spent on child trafficking in early Seattle, and the heroine spends some time wrongfully imprisoned for a noble purpose. It's that kind of romance.

Science Quotient: 2/10: We don't spend much time in the present, so while Melissa's knowledge of things like modern medicine comes in handy, this book features more tragic orphans than orbital mechanics. The opening scene is solid, though.

Astronaut Meaning: The intensity and time investment necessary for Melissa's career in the Air Force and the astronaut corps explicitly function as a shield to keep other people from getting too close to her. Astronauts have no time for love or a social life; they are aloof, cold, distant, and impeccably untouchable. This is of course The Problem at the heart of her emotional arc. In many ways it reminds me of the heroine from Joanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, where the sleek, civilized, tech-savvy (and virginal) heroine is 'saved' by the love of a backwards barbarian hero with sex drugs and fetish wear.

It's always refreshing to see a Wounded Heroine in place of a Wounded Hero, but there's something unsettling about the way all Melissa's hard work and twentieth-century success has to be stripped away to establish her as a heroine of warmth and caring. Maybe she shouldn't have worked so hard, this plot structure implies. Maybe she was too ambitious and ungentle. Maybe she was denying the fundamental squishiness of her essential femininity. I distrust this both as a moral arc and as a piece of story-craft. I distrust gender essentialism. I distrust books that force the heroine to abandon her entire world, and then imply it was all for her own good and isn't she grateful for the loss.

StarDustNew8

Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

This book is the first of the excellent Fly Me to the Moon series (have you read Earth Bound yet? It's magnificent) and features an astronaut hero and a divorcée heroine at a time when the stigma of divorce was still shockingly potent. Kit is a golden boy, a national hero and magazine-cover celebrity. Anne-Marie is a harried newly single mother with trust issues related to her cheating douche of an ex. The relationship starts as just physical-needs sex between two consenting adults, but you all know how that's going to work out in a romance. Then Kit gets to strap himself to a giant explosive and be shot into space, while Anne-Marie frets about safety and drinks super-strong cocktails with the other astronaut wives. This book will make you yearn for a cocktail like you're watching The Thin Man.

Science Quotient: 7/10. This is very much the Apollo 13  of romance novels -- not a dig, I sincerely love that movie -- so there's a strong mechanical/engineering/problem-solving component. Kit is primarily a pilot, as all astronauts were at the time, so the flight sections focus more on the equipment than on the physics behind it. (Unlike Earth Bound, where the math is very much at the center.)

Astronaut Meaning: We're in the realm of The Right Stuff, where astronauts are the best of the best, bursting with American values and idolized by all. Kit is physically fit and trains to stay that way. In a highly gendered contrast to the virginal astronaut of Heaven's Time, there's also a strong playboy/sex champion component to our male astronaut archetype here: Kit is definitely a no-strings-attached kind of guy (at the start, anyways -- this is Romancelandia) and he's thickly painted with the "any woman would want him" brush. Astronaut prestige appears to have a masculinizing effect -- which is a positive for an astronaut hero, but a problem for an astronaut heroine. I'll be keeping an eager eye out for how this trope is dealt with in Barry and Turner's Star Crossedtheir upcoming f/f astronaut romance. (I know! I know! I'm excited too!) And it's interesting to see Kit later become something of an antagonist in Earth Bound, whose engineer hero absolutely loathes astronauts and considers them cocky, immature disasters waiting to happen.

Kit's arc forces him to choose between fulfilling the gendered and public expectations of the astronaut role or finding a more personal, private happiness on earth. At the end -- spoilers! -- he decides not to go into space again, but to stay on solid ground with Anne-Marie. It's a lovely moment and very emotionally resonant, but I have to wonder: Do astronauts in romance always have to stop being astronauts to get their HEA? After all, an astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this. You can't have forever if your partner has to leave.

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Blue Sky Guy by Carole Buck

Reader, I was not expecting aliens to actually show up in this otherwise run-of-the-mill Silhouette Desire from 1992.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]An astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this.[/perfectpullquote]

Hero Kyle Gordon lived to fly and was thrilled to be selected for the astronaut program -- but before he could make it to space, an injury grounded him permanently. Now he's back in his hometown, bereft and insecure, and being idolized by a preteen plot moppet named Charlie. Whose mom Susan just happens to be the widow of Kyle's childhood best friend and whom he's been secretly lusting after for years.

The emotions in the book are delightfully splashy and vivid -- appropriate to a category romance -- but a lot of the plot arcs don't add up once the book cover's closed. Kyle and Susan were both powerfully attracted to one another from the instant they met on Susan's wedding day, and again on the day of the husband's funeral. They both feel profoundly guilty about this. The book takes a lot of time establishing this guilt, rooting the chemistry. It's a good slow burn. But when Susan and Kyle get together, they never once talk about their feelings in the past. They talk about Mike (the dead husband) in the context of parenting Charlie, but never about how Kyle might miss his friend, or how Susan might have noticed a lack in their otherwise warm marriage. It feels like a red herring rather than an emotional beat.

Also a red herring: Kyle's disability. An inner-ear injury that wasn't his fault and is never really identified. It makes a big notable entrance in the opening chapter and nearly causes him to pass out, but then vanishes from the narrative once we get down to the business of Watching The Man-Whore Realize He Yearns For Commitment. Something serious enough to wash him out of the military entirely should definitely have an impact on his low-altitude life. He's able to speed down the back roads in his Thunderbird just fine, though, even before the aliens magically heal him so he can be an astronaut again. (Yes, really.)

Science Quotient: 0/10. This book is more about wanting to fly than about actually flying. Nobody even gets off the ground -- except the villain. But we'll get to that.

Astronaut Meaning: I wasn't initially sure there would be a lot of astronaut stuff in here to talk about. It's your basic small-town romance until about the 80% mark.

But then the aliens touch down.

Turns out Kyle's uncle, a famous sci-fi writer and SETI-head, was right: this small town is the center of a lot of extraterrestrial activity. Two silver orbs, one found by Kyle and one found by Charlie, turn out to be robot alien babysitters. (Yeah, you heard me.) Fired government alien-hunter Alvin Pettit shows up to be villainous in search of these objects, but until the end the bulk of his villainy seems to consist of having dandruff and being unattractive. It's a terminal case of Evil Makes You Ugly. At the end, the aliens take their robot babysitters back, heal our hero with a magic blue glow cloud (alien ex machina), and offer Kyle the opportunity to go with them into the stars. He turns it down, choosing to stay on earth with Susan and Charlie.

Kyle's uncle then suggests the aliens make the same offer to Alvin, who's right there sobbing at having his ET tech taken away. He's got no family, nobody will miss him, and he's as obsessed with the stars as Kyle is.

Sure, the aliens say, why not. So Alvin gets to go to space. But not before the magic blue glow cloud pretties him up.

No, for real, here's the passage: "The glow finally faded away. The Alvin Pettit who emerged stood straight, had no dandruff on his narrow shoulders and, to judge by the haste with which he discarded his glasses, probably possessed twenty-twenty vision." This is a man who just beat up our hero's elderly uncle, who held the heroine at hostage at gunpoint, and we're supposed to forgive him and root for him to be happy because his posture has improved? Now that he's prettified, the text makes him Kyle's equal and spiritual twin: "'Goodbye!' he called, and snapped off a salute at Kyle. Something more powerful than military training prompted Kyle to return the gesture."

This is taking the idea of astronaut-as-superhuman past the bounds of the reasonable. Kit and Melissa were exceptional and exceptionally good-looking people, but it was presented as incidental to the job -- and in Kit's case, we are shown how hard he works to maintain his muscular physique. Here, being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain, because it's unthinkable to present the reader an astronaut who was not handsome and perfect.

In sum it was a completely bonkers moment and I had to share.

Meanwhile it's implied Kyle goes back to being an astronaut, but we don't see any of it on the page. This is definitely the thinnest, most wallpaper-y use of the astronaut hero in any of our sample books. He could have been any sort of job and the book would have turned out the same.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain.[/perfectpullquote]

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Space in His Heart by Roxanne St. Claire

Our most modern example -- hero Deke Stockman (yep, he's named after Deke Slayton) is an astronaut and engineer for NASA during the era of shuttle flights and international space stations. Heroine Jessica Marlowe is the PR star NASA hires to try and shine up the agency's creaky image. Jessica decides that what the nation wants from NASA is some Grade-A American beefcake (judging by the way we swooned over Bobak Ferdowski, she's not far wrong), so she picks unmarried Deke as her poster boy. Deke would rather spend his time fixing safety issues before the next launch, so there is much tedious antagonism between hero and heroine: Let me stare at your cleavage while I sneer about how wrong you are. I have to admit I was not in the least convinced by the romance in this book. And don't get me started on the suspense subplot, which has an unfortunate Surprise Secret Killer and is utterly tacked-on.

Science Quotient: 7/10. We see a lot of shuttle flying, and some talk about the medical aspects of space travel. (Have you read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars?) There's a lot of electrical equipment and wiring problems, too, which was neat.

Astronaut Meaning: I'm going to let this book speak for itself for a moment: "Astronauts were a magnificent breed of human beings. Hungry for knowledge, curious, and driven to push the boundaries of earth. It humbled her." This is the heroine's POV, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Jessica's transition from "astronauts are hot and that's useful from a branding standpoint" to "astronauts are a superior breed of human" gives me a terminal case of side-eye -- particularly since Deke himself tends to emphasize the daredevil aspects of the position: "His sudden grin blinded her. 'Because the son of a bitch flies seventeen thousand miles an hour, that's why.'" In his PR interviews he talks about all the tech and knowledge advancements that NASA makes possible -- but he doesn't see the need to clarify that those advancements are made by engineers and scientists, not the astronauts themselves. An astronaut, like a duke or a billionaire, stands at the peak of a hidden pyramid of other people's labor. Jessica feels "humbled" because the book's project is to make her realize her work is less valuable than the hero's.

Jessica's arc is one of conversion to the religion of astronaut idolatry: she comes to believe in the NASA mission so profoundly that she makes it the center of her whole life. So what if we spend several chapters with her missing winter in the city? NASA's in Florida, so she must learn to love Florida. So what if her career is everything to her when the book begins, and she's on the verge of a promotion she's been working toward for years? There's nothing noble about PR, nothing admirable -- it's all trivial, surface work that can only be redeemed by putting it to work for something that is in fact noble. Like NASA.

For Jessica to aid NASA's mission is presented as a moral step forward for her; by contrast when Deke gives an impromptu interview, saving Jessica's job after a disastrous story despite how much he loathes playing the publicity game, this is presented as him doing her a favor. A kindness, not a change of heart about the worthiness of her work. Noblesse oblige. At every turn the hero's job's superiority is emphasized over the heroine's. How convenient that her colleague tries to kill her (sigh) so she has a great justification to quit and work directly for NASA. How marvelous that her skills help advance Deke's career even after he stops flying missions: the epilogue shows him as the space correspondent for CNN, still visible and an authority while Jessica works behind the scenes. Deke gets to keep everything he had before, plus he acquires everything of hers once she's fallen in love with him. It's like colonialism by osmosis.

Although there are many parallels between Deke and Kit, the way their respective books approach the risks of space travel make a clear distinction of meaning. Kit looks at the dangers and decides that facing them over and over would be selfish: he chooses to stay on the ground for the sake of his wife. For Deke, facing fatal danger is by definition selfless, heroic. Naturally he's not going to stop being a hero. This astronaut doesn't have to sacrifice anything -- his heroine does all the sacrificing for him. In fact it's a fairly strong parallel to Melissa and Rory's story in Heaven's Time: no matter which character is the astronaut, the heroine is the one forced to make sacrifices.

This book deals least successfully with the problem of an astronaut leaving -- the opening chapter is a flash-forward that shows Deke's shuttle taking off on the horizon while Jessica worries deeply about him and collapses from an unspecified ailment. The sense of peril in this scene is vivid, and I feel the rest of the narrative failed to fit in with it. (Also, if you guessed her unspecified ailment was pregnancy, give yourself ten internet dollars. I laughed when I saw that they presented it as an emergency when the heroine went into labor two whole weeks early!) Turns out all the fear we felt for Jessica in that first chapter didn't matter, not in the slightest -- it was an easy hook for drama but is ultimately glossed over with a babylogue. If there's one sure way to ruin a romance, it's to make us feel like what we feel about the characters doesn't matter.

So where does that leave us?

It is abundantly clear that the astronaut heroes/heroines in the four books above are strongly associated with physical ideals and perfection, and since we're talking romance, ideals of beauty soon follow. At this point I'd like to remind you that all our examples are also straight, white, cis, and pointedly able-bodied (with the temporary exception of Kyle, for whatever that's worth). This narrowness of representation can hardly be a coincidence.

Earlier I mentioned that astronauts were figures of privilege as much as any duke or billionaire, and the more I think about it the more I feel like that comparison bears further exploring -- dukes and billionaires clearly are about social power and money, respectively, while astronauts are more like, well, a moral aristocracy, a very particularly American embodiment of virtue. They're smart but strong, neither meatheads nor eggheads. The perfect blend of earthy and elite. This contradictory set of strengths strikes me as uniquely American -- like Ron Swanson being a staunch feminist, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg being good friends with Antonin Scalia.

If you can think of any other astronaut romances I've missed, please add them in the comments! Otherwise I'll add another entry to this list when Star Crossed comes out next year.

Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

___

Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

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Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

The Billionaire Bait-and-Switch

{This is less review and more analysis. It goes without saying that there are spoilers all up in here, so be warned.} I had no business reading this book. My only defense is that the blurb said the couple would go "from spreadsheets to bed sheets" and I was captivated by the wordplay.

Cover for Jennifer Hayward's The Magnate's Manifesto.I do not generally have a positive response to the Battle of the Sexes trope in romance. (For example, this fiasco.) So although I do enjoy the occasional HP, I am clearly not this book's target audience.

"Not this book's target audience" is definitely the nicest thing I can say about The Magnate's Manifesto.

The truest thing I can say is: never have I so intensely and consistently wanted to punch a hero right in his crotch.

Oh, there is such a long rant I could write about Jared Stone, the magnate of the title. Every pet peeve I could have with a hero, he wears like a badge of honor. He's controlling, cruel, hypocritical, self-righteous, and publicly handsy with his heroine/employee. At two-thirds of the way through, he gets so mad at the heroine that he has to fight off the urge to strangle her. This happens to be one of my biggest personal NOPE buttons in a romance. For me, the HEA died right there on the page.

But a romance hero is a made thing. A romance hero is a generated by the novel he appears in, the way nuclear reactors generate radioactive byproducts. So now that I am up to my neck in this particular brand of toxic sludge, it's less useful to describe how nauseous I feel and more useful to talk about exactly how the reactor is misfiring.

Note: this does not mean I'll be speculating about the author's intentions. She seemed very pleasant and professional when we chatted briefly on Twitter. I will, though, be questioning the value of her choices as they appear on the page. If you can't parse the difference, feel free to tell your friends I am Not Nice. It's probably true.

Putting the 'Man' in 'Manifesto'

Category romance as a form is often quite elegantly balanced. Which is to say: if the hero writes a manifesto to start the plot rolling, odds are he'll write a second manifesto at the climax to resolve the conflict. And indeed, Jared does. These two essays, both published as full-page pieces in the Chronicle, mark the beginning and the end of our hero's character arc.

Here is the start of the first manifesto, titled "The Truth About Women":

Having dated and worked with a cross-section of women from around the globe, and having reached the age where I feel I can make a definitive opinion on the subject matter, I have come to a conclusion: Women lie.

Oh, he's not done:

They want a man who will take care of them, who gives them a hot night between the sheets and diamond jewelry at appropriate intervals. Who will prevent them from drifting aimlessly through life without a compass…

MANifesto indeed. Pretty standard misogynist talking points, with the usual built-in logical paradoxes. Notice how women are both dangerously active ("women lie," "women start every day with an agenda") and contemptibly passive (without a man they're just "drifting aimlessly through life"). You'll be unsurprised to hear that Jared has a poor view of women and marriage because his mother was a money vampire who bled his father dry. When the money ran out, so did she. Jared's father fell to pieces, and his son wears that resentment like an aegis because romance heroes are apparently allowed to judge all women based on the actions of one woman who's hurt them personally.

As a result of overcoming a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt childhood, Jared considers himself a superior kind of person. A leader. "A gilded ray of brilliance for all to follow." That is a direct quote, and possibly the most flat-out arrogant thing I've ever seen a hero say. It is like supervillain language.

Now, on the one hand, we know the hero's going to have to be humbled at some point. That's how romance novels go. Yet the power is part of the acknowledged HP fantasy: we know, we canny romance readers, that the hero of a Harlequin Presents will remain on top of his game, that he will wind up victorious at the end of the book. I am unable to reconcile my two realizations at this part of the story: 1) this man's views are profoundly shitty and awful, and 2) this man will ultimately get what he wants.

It's easy to believe, reading this first MANifesto, that the book is setting up Jared's attitude as the problem to be solved by the course of the plot. Because his attitude is a problem. It is a problem for millions of anonymous women in the book, who respond with "international female outrage." His attitude is a problem for his company's PR team and his mentor and his investors and his board. It is a problem for Jared's employee, heroine Bailey St. John, who immediately marches into his office with her resignation letter in hand. The only one who doesn't see the problem here is Jared himself, because of course this document was "just a joke." He says this quite a lot, in fact, with very bad grace. He resents the idea that a joke could have consequences outside his intentions.

Does his attitude actually get fixed in the rest of the book? To answer this, let's take a look at the second manifesto (italics for ease of block quoting):

"Experience had taught me that many women do not want the career life we as a society have insisted they do. That cries of a glass ceiling were perpetuated by females caught up in their own self-deception. And if the truth be known, I was not overly sold on a woman's place in the boardroom, nor her ability to stand toe-to-toe with a man.

"Then I had the chance to work with a woman I have admired for years ... I have to admit I severely underestimated her. [Several sentences praising Bailey's skill as a thinker and marketer.] 

"This extraordinary woman also taught me something else. Something far more important than the value of a woman in the boardroom. She has proven me wrong about a woman's place in my life. Hers."

This second manifesto is correcting a different problem entirely. The initial one showed: Jared Stone has shitty opinions about women. This manifesto insists: I have learned that women are capable but more importantly, now I have a great relationship. The idea that Jared's personal happiness is more important than institutionalized sexism? Pretty sexist. Jared has obviously learned nothing.

You'll have guessed that this second manifesto also contains a marriage proposal, because it's a Grand Romantic Gesture at the end of a Presents. Part of what Jared promises is, no shit: "I can offer you a lion in the bedroom because that part is still true and I know you like it. Love it, actually."

My reaction is twofold:

1) Women like good sex, news at 11.

2) This is a public, full-page piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Addressed to a woman who is still an employee and subordinate. Marry me so I can keep giving you that good deep dicking you enjoy, says our supposedly unchauvinised hero. That Bailey enjoys sex is not a problem. But for her employer to take out a full-page ad crowing about how much she likes the fuckin'? When she's in marketing and her job is all about perception? When in practice women get shamed and punished much more than men for the exact same sexual behavior?

That is a goddamn problem.

The Virgin Business Stripper

Jared's manifestos are not the only example of this book moving the goalposts.

Heroine Bailey St. John (I know, right?) starts as an ambitious, dedicated career woman, a living counterargument to Jared's sexist beliefs. He promotes her under protest as a desperate PR move, though literally every other character tells him he's an idiot for not having promoted her earlier. We're set up for a classic Extraordinary Woman Proves Sexism Wrong narrative -- not one of my faves, as noted above -- when it's revealed that Bailey worked her way through business school in Las Vegas as a high-end stripper.

Okay, I guess we're going somewhere with this?

Turns out Bailey's childhood was both emotionally and financially bankrupt. She had nothing except her looks, so she made those work for her and got out. Now comes the part of the story where Heroine's Lurid Past Threatens To Destroy All She's Worked For. Because of course the French dude Jared needs to impress to seal the deal of the century recognizes Bailey from her days as a dancer. And says he'll be much more amenable to signing the contract if Bailey spends the night with him. French Dude is basically the living reflection of Bailey's sexualized past and he is so fucking frightening that it is unreal. I mean, seriously, props to the author for my complete terror of this guy and what he was going to do. (Spoiler: nothing. He does nothing. A few creepy scenes and poof, he's gone.) Jared works himself into a jealous froth, sweeps Bailey up in his arms, and now we're set to kick off the physical part of the relationship.

Which is when our heroine confesses that actually, she's a virgin.

Jared says "You are goddamn joking" and drops her on her ass on the floor. Which is the most I ever liked him, but the scene unfortunately punctures suspension of disbelief pretty thoroughly.

Then Jared goes back to being hateful and gets mad at the heroine for being a virgin because he doesn't fuck virgins.

Look, the no-virgins rule makes sense in older historical periods, when breach of promise was a real legal threat. It makes no damn sense in 2015 San Francisco. And yet: "he didn't do the big V. Wasn't capable of it. It would be like asking him to vote Republican. To suggest he leave a big messy pile in the middle of his impeccably clean desk.

"Clean desk, clean mind, his Zen master had told him on that thirty-day search to find his soul."

Did you guys know Buddhism was about finding your soul in thirty days through proper desk organization? I did not. This fucking guy.

So that's our heroine: an ambitious businesswoman (driven, high-achieving) revealed as former stripper (feminine, sexualized) revealed as frigid virgin (innocent, vulnerable). None of these layers blend well together. She's like a human version of that Friends episode where the cookbook pages get stuck together and Rachel ends up putting ground beef in the dessert.

The Bait and Switch

At the end of all this, Jared's big moment of revelation doesn't come from the heroine at all. It comes from his estranged father. Wouldn't you know it, reading Jared's manifesto made him want to reach out and tell his son that it wasn't the evil golddigger wife who was the problem -- no, his dad "lost his mind" because of "his lack of faith in himself. His inability to follow his dreams."

So the real problem all along was that Jared Stone, self-described gilded ray of brilliance, didn't believe in himself.

Have we been reading the same book?

Meanwhile, the heroine is also having the rug pulled out from under her: turns out a clause in her shiny new contract states Jared can fire her, for any reason, after sixty days. It's an escape hatch, a way to mitigate the supposed risk of hiring a token female executive, and I'm with Bailey in finding this deceptive and hurtful. "Be reasonable," Jared scolds her, because he's the worst.

To her everlasting credit, Bailey promptly dumps his ass. Which may be why at least one Goodreads review refers to her as a bitch. I disagreed: I would have enjoyed at least 50% more bitchiness, at minimum. I grew fond of Bailey in spite of her inconsistent characterization. It felt like I was the only person who was going to support her -- the narrative offers her cruelty by coincidence (what are the odds slimy French Dude would remember one stripper from ten years ago?) and for all the hero's lip service to respect and trust, his actions undermine the heroine's comfort and security at nearly every turn.

The points outlined above are the biggest bait-and-switch moments, but there are plenty of others: small derailing moments in dialogue, false equivalencies everywhere (dating a virgin = voting Republican = having a messy desk, remember?), worries that are raised and treated as weighty obstacles only to be resolved in a page or dropped entirely. A chameleon heroine (and not in a fun shifter kind of way.) A hero we're told over and over again is brilliant -- using that actual word -- but who always picks the most obvious, least considered path.

The main mechanism of this book, both in dialogue and in structure, is to set up a game and then change the rules in the final quarter. In another genre, without romance's promise of stability and union, this technique could be subversive. Here, it's aggravating and dishonest. This book, like its hero, is desperate to avoid dealing with the consequences of its words. It promises one thing then hands you something else and expects you to be grateful for the effort.

A romance hero's entire job is to satisfy -- but this book is dissatisfying on every possible level.

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For more long-form romance criticism, check out the other For the Love of Lit Crit posts or the Intersectional Feminism A - Z series.

For billionaires who deliver, try Courtney Milan's Trade Me or Alisha Rai's Gentleman in the Street. For disclosure's sake I should mention I am friendly with both authors on Twitter, even though saying that feels like a humblebrag.

 

Jane Austen's Small-Town Caribbean

Jane Austen only ever wrote one duke. He doesn't even appear on the page. He warrants a brief secondhand mention during the amateur theatricals of Mansfield Park, and POOF, farewell to his grace. There are a few titled Austen characters floating around in the novels, but even such plain titles as Sir, Lord, or Lady are rarefied and remarkable among all the misses and misters.

Caught as we are in the current wave of Ducaphilia, it's hard for us to dissociate Austen from the sparkling titles that abound in modern historical romance. Every duke is a Darcy, after all, a well-bred, well-monied, appropriately snobby catch of a man. A lot of this transformation we can lay at Georgette Heyer's door -- the Austen --> Heyer --> Julia Quinn geneology seems pretty self-evident. (And there are plenty of names we could sub in for Quinn in that third step, no mistake: Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean, for instance.) But Austen's primary heroines are untitled, unlanded, and uncomfortably financed. The social ground is always ready to shift beneath their feet.

Cover art for Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres.Which is why it fits so nicely when Lydia San Andres' delightful Summer for Scandal transposes the structure of Pride and Prejudice to Arroyo Blanco, a fictional Caribbean town in 1911. Here social status can rise and fall with the speed of a rumor, small-scale authority can flex its muscle like a tyrant, and the course of a woman's whole life can be changed by something as ordinary as tipping over a rowboat in a lagoon. (White linen, lagoon swims, and guava jelly -- reading this book made me yearn for the tropics.)

At the same time, the story reverses several key dynamics of Austen's novel, and part of the fun for this reader was tracing how those changes worked within and against the familiar P&P pattern. This makes for a strong, elegant romance that gets better and more profound the more I look at it.

Naturally, spoilers will abound from here on out.

We begin with engaging heroine Emilia Cruz, a famed poet's daughter, ardent suffragette, and secret author of a shockingly lurid serialized romance that's taking Arroyo Blanco by storm. If you're not already leaping to click that buy link above, well, then we're very different people. Her father has been drowning his sorrows in rum since her mother died, and the family budget has been shrinking down to nothing since her father stopped writing. Shades of Mr. Bennet and the entailment, which makes murky his daughters' future.

But Emilia has options Elizabeth Bennet did not: the True Accounts, as her lush Arabian Nights-inflected romance is called, brings in enough money to supplement her sister Susana's schoolteacher salary and support them in reasonable comfort. The novel's end hints that marriage may actually hold her back, earnings-wise -- so her situation is nearly the reverse of Elizabeth's, in terms of financial incentives.

At the same time, because Emilia is putting her work out there to be judged publicly, she has to contend with criticism on a level Elizabeth Bennet never imagined, despite all her embarrassing family's antics. As Mr. Bennet says: "Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of -- or I may say, three very silly sisters" (Austen chapter 41). But Emilia Cruz has to sit by and bite her tongue as her literary hero snipes at her story's "blatant disregard for coherence" (San Andres, Kindle location 116). This is a much deeper wound than Darcy disparaging Elizabeth's looks.

That literary hero, Mr. Ruben Torres, is in fact our literary hero, and he is most definitely a Darcy. His family is well-off, and Ruben himself is described in the most effusive of terms:

She'd read his book, a debut so brilliant it had been lauded by all the critics, and had switched their newspaper subscription to El Diario Nuevo solely because she enjoyed reading his book reviews, which were intelligent, thoughtful, and so filled with a sharp, witty humor that more often than not she found herself laughing out loud. He was one of the writers she most admired.

And he hated her stories. (Kindle location 83)

This is riches indeed, to a writing heroine. Ten thousand a year is nothing compared to this wealth of critical acclaim and literary respectability. It's also notable that Ruben Torres' skill with a pen is what won our heroine's interest, just as Darcy's letter is what moves Elizabeth into a more charitable frame of mind. Literary brilliance is also something that makes a more understandable, democratic foundation for pride: it's not class snobbery, really (though, you know, it is) but the snobbery of talent that Ruben has to overcome to earn his happy ending.

Of course, the pride of talent is its own kind of prison. J. K. Rowling borrowed the name Robert Gailbraith to see her work judged on its merits and not by the expectations of her past work; here, Ruben hides behind a pen name as the editor of Blanco y Negro, a viciously biting gossip sheet. "Pseudonyms," he says, "are masks for cowards to hide behind" (105): he's criticizing himself, really, but Emilia bristles on her own behalf and begins arguing in defense of her work. This is a beautifully tense point of conflict, and a very effective modernizing of the initial division between Darcy and Elizabeth.

As with Austen, there's a sweeter secondary romance as a contrast to the snappy banter of our main couple: Ruben is in town because his friend Luis Rojas is returning from a college stint. Luis immediately gets googly-eyed over Susana, who's loved him since childhood and moons happily right back. Ruben, like Darcy before him, is aghast -- but not because he thinks Susana is unworthy. Rather, he doubts Luis' steadfastness as a lover, based on a checkered past full of well-meant flings and one disastrously broken betrothal. This is Bingley as imagined by Wodehouse, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't giggling with joy and totally sympathizing with Ruben's delicate predicament.

Which, it turns out, is totally misguided. Luis is in fact as deeply, steadily, irrevocably in love with Susana as she is with him: all those flings were merely his way of getting comfortable with the dynamics of relationships until he could come home and try it out for real with the girl of his dreams. While Bingley and Jane would never have been reunited without Darcy and Elizabeth's stage-managing, Susana and Luis are meant to be -- maybe even more so than our primary hero and heroine. They would have had a perfectly ordinary, undramatic romance, if only our protagonists had never interfered. Ruben is the cause of the same implausible reversals and dramatic misunderstandings that he so abhors in Emilia's True Accounts.

The Accounts themselves offer an interesting subversive space in terms of the sexual double standard, which San Andres's world shares with Austen's. We are not, I think, meant to take it as an irony that Emilia is a virgin when she begins publishing this lust-filled romp. She may be a virgin, but she's done her research:

Emilia leaned back against the cushions and began to write a short description of the contents of the sultan's trousers .... a great deal of the things she wrote about were born from things she'd read in books she'd had to order from Ciudad Real, as the library in Arroyo Blanco lacked most kinds of salacious literature. (275)

Writing, specifically about sex, offers escape not merely from money woes but also from the rigid expectations of feminine purity and virginity culture. It is an outlet and an exploration, and even a means of seducing Ruben once she decides that's something she wants to do. (The sex scenes are A+, luminous and fun and, well ... did you ever want to hug two characters while they were doing it on the page? Is that just me?) It is not every light-hearted romance that could engage so savvily and successfully with the craft and uses of literature. For instance: Ruben makes notes and suggestions on a manuscript of Emilia's, which mean she has to make notes on his notes, and she gets so carried away by this textual intercourse that she sneaks out of her house in the middle of the night and demands he take her to bed. Words and bodies all entwining. It's lovely.

Part of this might be my own nostalgic lens coloring the text: for one thing, I won Mr. Waite's heart by translating dirty Latin poetry at him. For another, when I was a grad student, much of the romance-centered scholarship I found centered on how romantic fiction was politicized and functioned as allegory in Latin American history. (Oh, hey, look, there's a hint of this on Wikipedia.) With a Hispanic hero and heroine, both authors, deliberately constructing themselves as interpreters of human experience, it's hard not to see parallels. I wish I'd had the knowledge base to read more of that scholarship. I was/am wistful at the thought that romance could be part of a major cultural conversation, rather than a niche interest, the way it often feels in American media despite its consistent popularity.

Speaking of sex, there's a Wickham analogue here, too: Cristobal Mendez. He's plausibly awful: a debt-ridden, venomous, mean-spirited scoundrel. He's also technically our heroine's boss -- she works as a typist, when she's not writing -- reversing the Wickham-as-outsider pattern found in Austen. He's very much a figure of institutional power and sexual aggression: "He reminded Emilia of the duke [from the Accounts] -- wealthy and lazy and so very good looking it was inconceivable to him that a woman wouldn't swoon if he so much as glanced her way" (1025). A centralized Wickham is a terrifying Wickham, because he is a Wickham who cannot be escaped; nor will he disappear into the wilds of London and leave our heroine in peace. Because he is so central to Arroyo Blanco, he is not a Wickham who Ruben has natural leverage over, either: he presents a very real problem. This problem, like all the others, is solved by writing, though I leave it to you, Reader, to discover precisely how.

 

So far I've said nothing about the feminist subtext of the novel, but there's plenty of it worth discussing: for instance, the big social event at the climactic moment is not a ball or a picnic, but a book fair, run by the women of the town. Much of the secondary conflict also emerges from the suffragette society many of the younger women are a part of: there is a debate on what sort of literature feminists should endorse as being good for women (NO I'M NOT CRINGING IN RECOGNITION YOU'RE CRINGING IN RECOGNITION). If you wonder how it's feminist for feminists to be in conflict, may I point out that none of these issues revolve around women competing for dudes? And that respectability politics are still right here beside us modern-day feminists? (E.g. "If we keep our tone civil, we'll convince more dudes to treat us like people.") Naturally our heroine comes down on the side of escapist literature being just as necessary as feminist articles -- but it's not presented as a moral triumph, with the villainess being humiliated. Her exposure as the author of the True Accounts is a choice she makes for herself, but it still has some pretty unpleasant fallout she can't avoid just by being self-confident and strong.

It's been a roundabout argument, but I think what I'm trying to get at here is that Austen's world feels completed at the end of Pride and Prejudice: the good people have married good people, the evil people have married evil people, all our thematic threads have been neatly tied up and carefully knotted. Summer for Scandal manages to take the same basic structure, and with a few flipped switches end up with something much more fluid and ambiguous. The ending is really more of a beginning, with our protagonists poised to begin a new and unexplored phase of their respective careers, with new understandings of their place in their families and community -- all of which imply major changes to a place we've spent the book getting to know. Villains of long standing have been removed, old feuds patched, and emotional landscapes reimagined: there is the sense not of coming to an end, but a world being remade into something better than it was before.

And isn't that the happiest of endings?

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Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. The Republic of Pemberley. Accessed September 29, 2015.

San Andres, Lydia. Summer for Scandal. Amazon Digital Services: July 2015. Ebook.

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It's a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned. Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There's an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex -- except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction -- literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever -- is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let's get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance -- bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS -- and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he's a bank robber who's brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they've taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday -- Teddy -- being robbed. She's in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home -- money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else's violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance -- especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: "In her twenty-eight years, she'd learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as 'shiny' as his car. Something about him set her spider's senses off" (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances -- a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she's pretty sure he's got an agenda he isn't being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It's a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: "She'd heard people say that everyone had their price, and he'd found hers" (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy's agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy's distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn't interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I'll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn't buy earlier, Teddy's suspicions are alerted again: "Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn't sure she was buying what he was selling" (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money's symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we're only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis' POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He's not a good man, or an honest one. He's shot people for cheating him at cards. He's robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he's not on the run from the law. And then there's this revealing passage, which I'm going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He'd never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She'd gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen's leaving was why he'd started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia's notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex's perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I'm sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I'm not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he's never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can't resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: "The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while" (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: "They'd held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, 'Halfsies?'" (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it's easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren't due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis' secrets, which the reader is privy to, it's lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you've got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled "Holy shit!" out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It's a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text's themes in a way I won't forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: "Snake! Here she'd given him a room and a good meal and ... and her company ... and this was how he repaid her. The money he'd handed her yesterday morning couldn't even begin to make up for this" (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy's not having it: "'Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'" (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis' physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they've formed so he'll help her escape. He sees what she's doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He's trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

'I hate preachers! ... They're like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you'd meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They'd sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets ... The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They're not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They're sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes -- with the -- with the gratin -- and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from' (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What's more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there's a twist -- and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance -- because we're catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he's Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy's job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that's a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy's rejection of Louis' chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

"I'm not taking it back..."

"And I'm not keeping it..." she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren't there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy's favor: she's the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She's the one in touch with reality, and he's kidding himself. By giving back all the money she's taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She's making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She's choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she's doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She's principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also -- and this is only striking me as I write this -- she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word 'whore' or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She's great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can't believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos 'n' Andy sex scene.

2) I can't stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy's knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she's dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It's a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he's hiding a criminal past she doesn't know about, but she's got a weapon he doesn't know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: "He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside" (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon -- a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin -- this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you're anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There's no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy's walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov's gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there's a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine -- they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they're called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don't get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: "He'd never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on" (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she's described as a bitch numerous times, she's unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense -- Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy's neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it's looking like we're going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn't know there's a gun in Sis' pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker's most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated -- for the moment, anway -- and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually -- after many turns I don't need to go into here -- Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn't want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde's bloody death -- not a spoiler, because who hasn't seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? -- could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie's POV, which may be one of the most startling things I've seen in a romance in some time. It's intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it's going to haunt me in the best way. There's no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets "what's coming to her," even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all "good riddance" except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

There's a lot more I could talk about -- the heroine's house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues -- but my stars, we're nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can't write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

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I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin's phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I'm tooting my own horn, I'm also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don't deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: "Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy's fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage." That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can't possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

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Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

Viscounts and Vorkosigans

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained. In Jo Walton's review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer's A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she's probably right -- I've never read The Grand Sophy myself so I'm leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer's text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer's conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father's title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam's journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy's fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons' hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: "when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood" (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam's father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic -- to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous -- the more I want to champion her. Yes, she's impractical and sheltered -- not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can't find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam's gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh's wealth: there's something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I'm one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book's happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton's assertion that there's "none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it." (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here's an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh's reception by his new in-laws: "With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam's sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal" (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam's titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It's a little moment, but a telling one: that's a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative's attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam's high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny's reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley -- her husband's home! which her father's money helped save! -- Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: "She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed" (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia's suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it's couched as 'friendship,' but come on): "Cannot something be left to us? ... Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam" (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny's lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there's no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord's daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It's hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk's messy struggle, the upper classes' aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny -- because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam's ultimate confession of love: "'I do love you, Jenny,' he said gently. 'Very much indeed -- and I couldn't do without you. You are a part of my life'" (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: "Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart ... although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured."

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman's Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars' "Grenade," where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about "Grenade!" That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it's all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there's nothing in Adam's confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh's quietly heartrending, "She's all I've got, you see" (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny's relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia's: the problem is that Adam and Jenny's relationship will always come second to Adam's relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh's open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam's feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: "He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son" (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: "I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt -- very understandably, I thought!" (6006). He's pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It's an essentially conservative thesis.

It's also rejected in every possible way by Bujold's A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I've been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there's a lot I've missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It's a truism that Heyer's book is about class -- but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It's also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like -- especially not when I've got edits to be working on! -- but I'll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he's a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he's got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam's is (oh noes, I has a limp that's noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn't stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer's book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles' identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband's manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: "Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all" (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin -- I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she's a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam -- a cold husband who's convinced his wife she's a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who's made a great financial gamble (Adam's is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It's an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam's benevolent neglect to Tien's emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she's trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There's a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer's text -- yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It's also something that is uniquely her -- and she needs that, so desperately. It's only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin's growing strength and confidence -- even when the person she's at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect -- something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we're-in-love erotic romances.

If you'll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are "as stylized as a Noh play." Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don't watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles' scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes' repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word 'potluck.') Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words 'Natty Ice.')

And now we're at 3k words -- is your attention span as strained as mine? And I'm writing all this! It's summer -- we all deserve a break. Let's hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles' clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different -- Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He's been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year's education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy -- which would be creepier if Kareen weren't so obviously into Mark and vice versa -- but open pre-marital sex doesn't jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she's grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There's an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender -- Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man -- which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives -- see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can't even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer's. (Hence this book's dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women's role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It's not perfect -- it's very white and there's a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let's talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan's youthful flirtation with bisexuality -- but it's an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I'm like Pratchett's Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

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Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There's also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning -- it's all in there. Hard SF doesn't often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman's perspective on such technologies. I'm going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

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Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.