Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Sunday, 14 June 2009

FEBRUARY BOOK CLUB: THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY

What a pleasure to read a book as beautiful as it is smart. Seriously, what resides between the covers of The Edge of Impropriety is a match for the cover itself; a gorgeous, sensual rendering that reflects the story without resorting to the garish, demeaning, lowest-common-denominator trashiness I so despise and despair of. Let’s hear it for Penguin, who Got It Right. (Anti-man-titty rant of the month over.)

In short, it was a pleasure to own this book and a pleasure to read it, for no more reason than its physical perfection. This is a very shallow way to start a - mostly serious – review but the very act of reading The Edge of Impropriety put me in a good mood. I was predisposed to love this book.

More so because I am a secret admirer of Ms Rosenthal, a smart and thoughtful writer and blogger. Her last book was one of my best reads of 2008.

Even the fact that I wasn’t immediately immersed in the story – indeed, it took me a week to get past the first chapter – didn’t unduly upset me. The writing was beautiful, the setting unusual, the premise intriguing. I can be patient. Particularly when the writing is so good, and the cover is so beautiful.

Jasper Hedges is a noted scholar and antiquarian, which is pretty much as exciting as it sounds. In order to compensate for some youthful indiscretions (his orphaned nephew, for example, is actually his son), Jasper has settled into a life of bucolic responsibility, a steady, perhaps even somewhat boring authority figure to his young wards. A rare trip to London brings him into contact with the beautiful and scandalous Marina Wyatt.

Marina writes scandalous stories about the ton and is savvy enough to encourage speculation that these stories are based on her own titillating experiences. To wit, she has recently rebuffed her latest lover, the young and obscenely handsome Anthony Hedges – Jasper’s ‘nephew.’

When their paths cross, Jasper and Marina are instantly attracted to one another, despite their many obvious differences. They embark on a passionate affair, purely for the length of the season, and struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep their feelings checked.

Jasper and Marina’s relationship develops from strong physical attraction, liking and mutual respect to love in a wonderfully natural way. The fact that they are older than the usual heroes and heroines of romance – 30s and 40s respectively – might partly explain their refreshing maturity, the freedom from angst over the silly things. They both take an uncomplicated pleasure in each other’s bodies, for example. A secondary romance involving Anthony is a pleasant and diverting contrast.

The real star of the story is the story-telling. Rosenthal steeps the reader into her early 19th century London. She is assured enough with her description of artefacts and classical references that I can’t easily find fault, and her seamless bringing together of cultural references and historical events, coupled with pretty authentic sounding ‘regency speak’ left me beaming. Rosenthal is particularly dazzling when she details the minutia of the London Season, that ‘rich tapestry of event and festivity.’

There is a particularly wonderful passage halfway through the novel - halfway through the Season - when Rosenthal takes the reader outside the lives of her characters and casts a sweeping gaze over London itself – the ladies maid ‘squinting by candlelight;’ ‘the kitchen slavey in Gunters;’ ‘ink-stained wretches in Grub Street.’
“Shopkeepers stayed open late; hackney drivers jostled for place in front of the opera. Bow Street Runners did their best to police a metropolis most people didn’t believe need policing. Parliament were still debating the possibility of an actual police force, though there were still some who thought the idea too foreign, too French a notion for London.”

The Edge of Impropriety is stuffed with sly nods and winks to historical figures, events, and literary references. Jasper’s past plundering of historical artefacts is examined, as are the politics of imperialism (too modern?); there is even meta-commentary in the form of a young would-be writer. And a delightful little passage that made me laugh out loud:
… “Well, yes,” she’d said one evening. “Absolutely, Empire is like theft. But then, I’m Irish.”
Which, as he’d been about to respond, wasn’t the same thing at all, Ireland simply being a part of Britain…

It’s always interesting when a writer creates a character who is also a writer. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Marina-the-writer came from Rosenthal herself: the growing boredom with the work she is doing (Rosenthal herself is moving away from straight romance), and even Marina’s introduction at the very start of the novel, when she laboriously correcting proofs.

I finished The Edge of Impropriety happily enough, but a nagging voice in my head wondered – did the excellent writing compensate for a tepid romance? Or did the quality of the writing draw attention to the paucity of the romantic plot, which did nothing wrong, except perhaps follow too closely the formula of all romances. For, despite everything, Rosenthal took no real risks with her story. With such tools to hand, such assured skill, I wish Rosenthal had strayed into less formulaic, more unchartered territory.

But the cover! The writing! The sly humour, the secret affairs; the clever in-jokes and the general feeling of having read a book that required my concentration to be fully enjoyed…

B+ from a hopelessly biased reader. I look forward to whatever Rosenthal has planned next.

---

The February Book Club is the brainchild of Tumperkin, who thought we might review and discuss select romances between us. Us being Jessica, Tumps, RfP and myself. Flattered to be counted amongst such illustrious bloggers (in all seriousness), I was quick to agree. However, our ambitious February launch date was thwarted by that fickle thing 'life' and we commenced many months later.

To read what the other members thought of this book click on the links below

Jessica

RfP

Tumperkin

4 comments:

RfP said...

"a delightful little passage that made me laugh out loud:

    … “Well, yes,” she’d said one evening. “Absolutely, Empire is like theft. But then, I’m Irish.”
    Which, as he’d been about to respond, wasn’t the same thing at all, Ireland simply being a part of Britain…"
 "

I enjoyed that moment too, and it's interesting now to read Jessica and Tumperkin's reactions, because I suspect this is one of the passages that they saw as underdeveloped commentary on colonialism/imperialism. E.g. Jessica says, "(less successfully) the obligations of imperial nations to return artifacts plundered during their expansion (a belated attempt was made to paint Jasper to the colonizer and Marina, due to her Irish origins, as the colonized. This seemed to be a stretch)"

I had read that particular passage as being an indication that Marina and Jasper actually had things to talk about outside of bed, and that their conversation would have some spiky edges. It also fits the times; Marina is sensitive about being Irish throughout the book, and her motivation for wanting to someday take Jasper to Ireland is that "he, and other Englishmen, needed to understand about this troublesome, most unexotic western edge of the empire they took such pride in."

"It’s always interesting when a writer creates a character who is also a writer"

I generally don't like it. In this case I do and I don't.

Jessica said...

Meriam,

I go back and forth between accepting the trashiness of romance for what it is (think of the blog, "Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books") and looking for examples that are impossible to distinguish from lit fic. My reaction to this book made me wonder if the reason it didn't work as well for me was because I was looking for the elements of trashiness -- the sexual tension, the kareening emotions, the shortcuts to feeling, the constant "lower brain payoffs" -- that I have gotten used to.

One thing I don't miss is the man titty, though. I think this cover is lovely and see no reason why we can't have these restrained covers, even on the "trash".

I also agree the setting was really well done, yet somehow Rosenthal made it seem new.

I was lucky enough to meet Rosenthal in April and in person she is all the things you mention liking about her books and blog. I have kept this book and think it might repay a reread one day.


RfP- I do like the idea of there being more to talk about, and hadn't seen it in quite that way.

Tumperkin said...

I'm glad you mentioned setting because I didn't and it deserves a mention. It did feel indeed feel rich - and as Jessica added in her comment - fresh. There was a vividness to it that I've often found lacking in historical romance.

As for Jessica's comment about the lack of 'lower brain' rewards, it has to be said that you don't get those sort of pay-offs in this book. I've already mentioned on Jessica's blog that I personally didn't read or rate it as a romance, which possibly says something quite significant as regards how I view romance. There's a whole other conversation to be had there. My feeling as I read was that I was taking a 'time out' from romance reading.

RfP said...

"I was taking a 'time out' from romance reading."

A "time out" seems awfully appropriate given how Rosenthal plays with time :) but I'm surprised to hear that it didn't seem like a romance to you. I'm beginning to wonder what role those "lower brain" pay-offs play in placing a book in a genre. For me, being an admittedly picky reader, most books lack that pay-off, so perhaps I'm inured to it and don't use that as a criterion for genre membership? (I append the question mark because I really hadn't thought about it that way before, and am not sure that that framework fits my thinking at all.)

Explicate, s'il vous plaît?