Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Problems with Black Silk

I've tried with J.Ivo's books -- I have. I've read four of them, and I've even ordered Untie My Heart because someone assured me it's the best one of hers to read. I may not be giving these books the fullest chance possible, but I do try.

My problem with her books is pretty basic: I don't like any of the characters, and I don't like her plotting. Let's see: one book has a Snidely Whiplash-esque villain; one book's characters are too stupid to work their way out of a damp paper bag, and if they were any smarter the plot wouldn't work; one book has TSTWTWOOADPB characters and a TSTL deus ex machina, without which the HEA can't happen, and then there's Black Silk.

The plot in Black Silk has two fatal flaws: 1) the legal cases, and 2) the notion that any of this could happen to peers of the realm. Let's start with the legal cases. In the more plausible of the two (although still absurd and impossible), a pregnant girl has claimed that Graham Wessit, the earl of Nethem, is the father of her unborn twins.  This is supposed to be 1858, so think about it:  with no DNA or blood test evidence, she would have the burden of proving a) she slept with him, b) she didn't sleep with anyone else, and c) he's not impotent (well, he's not fathered any other children, so he could mount impotence as a defense).  How does she get the funds to retain legal counsel?  English lawyers don't take cases on contingency fees, and there's a real monetary penalty to any litigant who brings a lawsuit and loses, so no one would have taken her case as she clearly couldn't have paid the damages if she'd lost.  I don't see how any solicitor is ever going to take on the pregnant girl's case, let alone ask a barrister to accept the brief. (J.Ivo. clearly knows nothing of the English legal system, but I suppose most readers wouldn't either, so that's a wash. That I know a little can't be held against the author. But could I just say if she was willing to research ambergris for Beast, and 19th century art for Bliss, would it have killed her to research 19th century legal procedure for this book? Just read Dickens' Bleak House and see how far the courts get with Jarndyce v. Jarndyce; that would have put her off assuming any lawsuit could get resolved in the course of a romance novel.)

Right, so no way is an earl (belted or otherwise) getting hauled into court by some penniless chit whose children haven't even been born yet. And even if he had been sued, he wouldn't have had a thing to do with the case until it got close to being heard, and then his solicitor and Q.C. would have prepared his testimony and gotten on with it. The plaintiff would have needed a lot of proof to even get to that stage, and any competent barrister would have buried her in motions, etc., to use up what little money she might (theoretically) have had to pursue her case. Let's put it this way: those twins are in school before Graham has to think about the case again.

But so much worse is the second case, in which William Channing-Downe is blocking the probate of Henry's will on the grounds ... well, no I can't really tell what William's grounds are, so never mind.  It's not enough that he can contest the will; he actually has to have persuaded the court to freeze all the estates assets and evict Submit from her home.  Say what?  An illegitimate son has sufficient legal clout to prevent a marchioness (!) from remaining in her home or having sufficient funds to live? That's ludicrous.  Even if William had had any sort of basis to contest the will, the probate court would have ensured that she was adequately supported by the estate while the case proceeded.  The assets of the estate would have needed to be preserved while the case was ticking over, so all the houses, etc., have to continue to be staffed, etc.  Most likely the court would have appointed a trustee to ensure the preservation of the assets, but he would have allowed her to live at Motmarche.  She's a marchioness, for crying out loud.  I can think of no circumstance under which she's living in near-poverty in London.  (Okay, I can think of one -- if there was substantial evidence that Henry and Submit were never actually married.  Not that this is alleged in the book, and not that it makes sense that a marquess could pass her off as his wife among the aristocracy if there had been any question of their marriage, but it's the best I can come up with.)

Also -- and here I'm on shakier ground -- I believe that only Henry could have legally claimed William has his son and whatever he was going to settle on William would have already been done, or would have been dealt with in the will.  No court would have expanded on that -- and the illegitimate son of a marquess lacks the social standing to petition the crown and finesse a minor title out of his dubious parentage.  The illegitimate son of a royal duke, maybe, but not William.  So it would seem that Submit has all the leverage -- why's she living in a boardinghouse?

Plus, no way would they ever have spoken face-to-face about any of this.  As Henry's widow, Submit was well within her rights simply never to acknowledge William. And the lawyers would have dealt with it all in chambers without either party ever getting near the Inns of Court, ever.

And without that conceit -- that William has the power to reduce Submit to poverty -- so much else of the plot falls apart. She's not writing that book, she's not trying to deliver the box in person, etc., etc.  (Yes, I know Henry wanted her to deliver it to Graham.  But she didn't have to do it in person, and as a marchioness, she wouldn't have been alone when she did it.)

Which gets me to my other problem: These are supposed to be peers of the realm. Who actually imagines that a marchioness is so alone and powerless? Submit may be (for other readers) a delightful character, but I found that none of what we're told about her makes any sense. She behaves like a governess -- polite and well-born but poor and worried about her livelihood. Instead, she's supposedly the daughter of a butcher who married a marquess. Neither circumstance fits the way she behaves or lives.  (Or dresses -- there's a touching scene she recalls of her favorite dress and how it gets ruined.  Um, she's been a marchioness for four years at that point, and a single dress stands out in her memory?  Are you kidding me?  She'd have been presented at court by that point, and would have scores of dresses, a personal maid, etc., etc.)

At which point I think: why didn't J.Ivo. make her characters something they could credibly have been -- Submit could be an impoverished but respectable widow, Graham could be a baronet (hereditary but not so lofty as to avoid some of his problems). But then it's not Black Silk.

I get it that her books are fairy tales. But even that doesn't work for me because fairy tales are about nice people beset with problems not of their own making, whereas J.Ivo's characters seem so unsympathetic. I suppose they're supposed to be intricate and complicated -- un-fairy-tale-like -- but why do they have to be so unpleasant? I didn't find Graham much more palatable than William, and I didn't like Submit more than Roslyn. (It's pretty fatal when your hero's not much better than the villain, and the heroine's no more sympathetic than the other woman.) The only character I did find appealing was Henry, and he's dead.

Ah, but the prose is so delightful, yes?  Well, okay, but I still think the story has to be compelling or why bother with the prose at all.  And that brings me to my final complaint.  If it's a well-established adage that authors should "Show, Don't Tell," I would amend that for J.Ivo.:  "Show Me, or Tell Me, But Just Get On With It."  Everything takes so damned long to unfold (except for the aforementioned lawsuits, which really should have taken years not weeks to develop) that the plot seems glacial.

I could point out an instance of this problem that others have noted, namely that Graham is having an active affair with Roslyn for most of the book, and only takes a shine to Submit late in a very long story.  (I have the 2002 Avon reprint: 448 pages.)  But here's the example that personally irked me even more:  Submit has a box that Henry has posthumously charged her with giving to Graham.  We "see" the box for the first time on page 20, and it isn't placed in Graham's hands until page 141.  That box became a mosquito I could hear but not see: it distracted me so much that I literally had to scan ahead just to get to the scene where it's delivered.  I didn't even care what was in it.  I just wanted the "foreplay" about the damned box to stop.

Okay, so I didn't like the characters (except poor dead Henry), I found the characterizations nonsensical, the plot is absurd and the book dragged.  Other than that, of course, it must be a lovely book: everyone else loves it.


  1. I get a giggle out of "The Proposition" (think that's the one ... she turns a rat-catcher sow's ear into a dukely silk purse?)but I flat out love Untie My Heart so I really think you need not to read it. LOL!

    I read Black Silk, gave away Black Silk, bought Black Silk again when Jessica said she'd be doing a discussion but still don't think it floats my boat and I'm not sure why. The characters don't "sing" to me ... don't resonate in my head?

  2. I've never read the book and don't think I will.

    This made me laugh out loud:

    "The only character I did find appealing was Henry, and he's dead."


  3. @Janet -- I may have to read the Proposition because I do like the Pygmalion story (Dr. Phil crossed with Martha Stewart and Meryl Streep's dialect coach?). And you know full well I've already ordered Untie My Heart. But I promise: if I hate it, I'll never tell.
    @Carolyn -- Thanks. I'm glad I can at least amuse one reader even as I'm doubtless infuriating so many others!


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