Thursday, December 10, 2009

Espresso Books

Espresso Books:  Defined as books that keep you from going to sleep because you just have to finish them.

I stayed up until nearly 3:00 a.m. this morning finishing Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh.  Obviously with a romance novel -- as long as it is a romance novel -- you know what the ending is: the couple ends up living happily ever after.  You may not know how the HEA is achieved, although you can probably guess.  No, I don't think an espresso book keeps us awake because we're unsure how the story ends.  I think it keeps us awake because we need these characters sorted out before we can sleep.

I don't think espresso books are inherently more exciting (although they may be) or even better (although that could be true as well) then other more soporific books.  I just think an espresso book is, for that reader in that moment, compelling.  There's some thing the author is working towards in the story, and the reader has to read to the end to get there.

(There is always another, more prosaic, possibility:  the reader has independent reasons to stay awake and the book is just a welcome escape.  But then that's not an espresso book.  A Prozac book, perhaps...)

Precious Jewel -- a 2009 reprint of a 1993 Signet Regency Romance -- is a bit notorious in Romlandia because the heroine, Priscilla Wentworth, is a gently-born woman who ends up working as a prostitute in a "finishing school" in London.  The circumstances that led her to that decision are all laid out (unexpected deaths of her father and brother leave her at the mercy of truly unpleasant relatives, etc.).  We know rationally that there must have been other options, but it's voluntary suspension of disbelief time, and Priscilla is now Prissy, a working girl.

{I'd like to take this moment to comment on the number of times the words "whore" and "whorehouse" are used in this book.  Anyone who has read a dozen or so romances set in the Regency Era knows that there are a panoply of euphemisms specific to that era for prostitutes and houses of prostitution.  "Ciprians," "Soiled Doves," "Lights o' Love," etc.  Balogh was, I suppose, making a point by using the "W-word" so excessively in this book, but mostly I felt it was for mild shock value.  Maybe in 1993 that worked better for her, but for today I found myself disconcerted, then annoyed, and ultimately bored with the one-note display of crudeness.}

The hero in Precious Jewel is Sir Gerald Stapleton -- and in his unexpected role as hero, he's a much more controversial character than Priscilla is as the heroine.  Mind you, we've all met this guy: he's the dim, kindhearted, somewhat bumbling Good Friend character.  The one who stops off at White's to ask the alpha aristocrat hero enough questions to advance the plot or reveal the hero's true feelings.  Gerald isn't smart; he isn't even very wise.  He's not good with women, and he doesn't conveniently fall in love with his alpha hero friend's cast-off "opera dancer."  No, Gerald doesn't want to be the hero.  He just wants to get his rocks off.  And he does so, in a manner so completely unnatural for a romance novel that, truly, it's as shocking as a rape scene, if nowhere near as controversial.

The first time he meets "Prissy," he gets on top, sticks it in, moves it all about, and is done.  Say wha-?  Since when is that acceptable between a hero and a heroine?  Why is he not stunned by her purity and innocence (despite the fact that she's one of Kit Blythe's "girls")?  How is he able to fall right to sleep, still lying on top of her?

Okay -- I won't recite the entire plot (spoilers and all that).  But what was it about this book that kept me awake?  It was Sir Gerald.  I liked him, but he's almost too dumb for her.  Oh, she's in love with him all right.  And I really was prepared to believe the HEA; they'll be a delightful bland couple for their rest of their blissfully happy lives.  But leading up to that HEA, two things were going on. 

In the first, we needed to learn why Gerald was, uh, so particular in the bedroom.  That's revealed very organically as he literally revisits the remnants of his childhood and upbringing.  The second thing, though, was what really compelled me.  Gerald knows what he wants and what he doesn't want, but he never seems to know why.  I think I had to read to the very end to see if he ever developed self-awareness.  (I won't say if he does or doesn't -- I do recommend the book, so I don't want to spoil anything.)  Throughout the book, we come to learn who he is before he even has a clue.

But Priscilla is self-aware.  As she puts it at one point, she knows who she is and what she is, and she knows the difference.  Wouldn't she get tired of Gerald's seeming blindness to his own nature?  Or will she be able to help him see things a bit more clearly?  That outcome -- that they will actually suit each other very well if he allows her to help him with those things he has trouble with (the estate account books, for example) -- creates a Mobius twist out of the standard romance trope:  Romantic Heroes often need the heroine to complete them, but it's always in an emotional context.  She fills the holes in his heart -- that kind of thing.  Here, Priscilla has the opportunity to help Gerald in all sorts of practical ways, ways "normal" romance heroes don't need because, by definition, they do everything pretty perfectly already.

Leave aside the whole question of her brief career as a fille de joie, leave aside the odd sex (which evolves so significantly, and reveals so much of how their relationship is going, that it virtually has a story arc of its own), leave aside whether Gerald has a learning disability.  What made this an espresso book for me was very simple:  These two people are so much more normal than the usual hero & heroine.  No one was dashing, no one was stunningly beautiful, no one single-handedly defeated Napoleon through high intrigue and spycraft, no one was transformed from ugly duckling to breathtaking swan.  Gerald (as a baronet) and Priscilla (as a woman with no economic power) are characters who were much more prevalent in the period than the glittering array of dukes & earls we usually meet.  But they are so, so much rarer in the world of romance novels.  Which makes their romance truly a precious little jewel.

And impossible (for me) to put down.


  1. I think A PRECIOUS JEWEL is one of Balogh's best. I love it much, much more than her other take on the prostitute heroine, THE SECRET PEARL.

    You might find A CHRISTMAS BRIDE interesting - the heroine is Helena Stapleton. It takes place after A PRECIOUS JEWEL.

    THE FAMOUS HEROINE is also linked to those two books.

  2. I love love love this book. Always cry. The ending is so special ... especially the build-up. To me his love is so sincere, so heartfelt. Also, The Ideal Bride concerns this couple too ... but of all of them, get Christmas Bride. I'm prepared to lend it and I'll only require a limb or two as collateral. JOKING!! OK, off to RL :)

  3. Yet another wonderful post! I'm definitely including it in my blog hopping round-up on Saturday.

    As far as I'm concerned, an espresso book doesn't necessarily have to be the best book I've read in a while, but it does imply that it's a page-turner. For example, a mystery or romantic suspense book is more likely to keep me up late reading than a straight romance. On the other hand, Jo Goodman's 'Never Love a Lawman' is one of the best romances I read this year, yet it took me days to finish it. I read it slowly in order to make it last that little bit longer.

    I'm going to have to go on a major Balogh re-reading frenzy. Her Regencies have a special place on my Keeper shelf, most especially her Christmas-themed stories.

  4. Great post Magdalen. I'm so pleased this has been re-issued - I can't wait to read it.

  5. @Victoria -- I can wait until A Christmas Bride is reissued, which I will be in 2010, I'm guessing. I have, however, ordered last year's reissue: An Ideal Wife, with the Earl of Severn. I'm actually glad I read them out of order, as I think it enhances the genre-bending quality of Precious Jewel to read Gerald's story before the earl's.
    @Janet -- Not to worry; see my comment to Victoria. Your copy of A Christmas Bride is safe!
    @Sarah -- I've ordered the Jo Goodman book (I do love Amazon's One-Click feature, and I'm sure it loves me back!), but I have never ever enjoyed a book so much that I slowed. Down. Reading. It. Quite the contrary -- the more I love, the faster I go. And then I reread. That's what happened with the Julia Spencer-Flemings: I devoured them, finished Number Six, and picked up Number One!
    @Tumperkin -- Thanks. I think you'll enjoy it, and even if you don't, you'll know first hand what the fuss is about.


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