Sunday, April 4, 2010

It Was To Have Been So Nice

My mother thought that was the saddest sentence in the English language: "It was to have been so nice."  It's a trivial matter to prove this wrong; there are scads of sadder things to say, hear, or read.  But one's sees what she was going for, that sense that if only things had gone differently we'd have enjoyed it so much more.

Well, that pretty much sums up how I feel right now.  (Actually, I feel lousy.  I have a crappy cold -- the kind that never sounds as bad as you feel, so people don't get how bad you feel -- but even that's part of the same sentiment.  I wanted to have written this post earlier, but couldn't get to it.  And this post, of course, was to have been nicer if I hadn't caught this cold...)

Back to romance novels.  Here's what I am really talking about.  On Thursday morning, I read Lynn Spencer's glowing review of In for a Penny, by Rose Lerner and thought, "Hey, maybe it's at the Barnes & Noble I go to on Thursdays and I can buy it!"

This was good news because I've been having the TBR blues, where none of the books in your TBR pile is calling your name and whispering, "Read me."  So I set off with my then-current-read, The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild (yes, Ross, it's spelled that way), but not so secretly hoping that I would get the new Lerner romance.

I was able to buy it, and even able to start it right away.  My first disappointment -- but entirely my fault -- was that it was set in the Regency Era.  I had clearly misread Lynn's review because I thought the book was set in 1919, just after WWI.  Because the plot relies on the hero, newly elevated to his rank as earl upon his father's death, marrying a brewer's daughter for her sizable fortune, my mistake wasn't entirely stupid.  A lot of the English aristrocracy had financial difficulties maintaining estates in the early 20th century.  I can't help thinking that Nev and Penny would have been more interesting in a post-Industrial setting: better educated, more worldly, and so forth.

At first blush, it doesn't seem as though a century would make a lot of difference.  Plus, silly me minding something that was my own mistake.  So I skipped over that detail and got deeper into the book.  There are definitely some little things that can drive me crazy when I read a novel set in Regency England (overuse of the word "bloody" being one of them), but that's just me being picky and critical and a Bad Sport.  So I skipped over those things as well.  (And, to be fair to Ms. Lerner, she had a lot of historical detail that I can only assume is accurate, so kudos there.)

As I got further along in the book, though, I discovered it wasn't making me happy the way I had thought it would.  I wondered if this wasn't precisely what people were thinking of when it was posited that writers can't be reviewers, or at the very least need to disclose the intention of having a career as a writer.  Was I bringing too critical an eye to Lerner's book, finding microscopic faults that a more relaxed reader would miss or dismiss as unimportant?

Well, fair enough, I thought.  It's not the author's fault if all I can say is, "I just don't like it," in the manner of a petulant child.  I can't write about a bad reading experience if it's all just my own demons getting in the way of a good book.  But finally, as I finished it, I identified what the problem with In For a Penny is, for me at least.

Penny and Nev, the protagonists, aren't allowed to have fun.  For one thing, they have complicated relationships with each other and everyone else who might help them deal with their problems.  No one is on hand to comfort and support them, and they aren't allowed to do that for each other.  Which might have been okay, except these kids have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and among the difficulties they're facing are all the problems that come from a hasty marriage to someone you don't know very well.

What I mean is, I don't mind reading a well-written book (and this is a well-written book) where the hero and heroine work out their issues.  I don't mind a book where the hero and heroine band together to deal with issues external to themselves, as in, say, a romantic thriller or mystery.  But here's a book where the hero and heroine have to do it all, and aren't having a very good time in the process.  We have his poverty, her being a Cit, his former mistress, her former suitor, his mother & sister, some hinky financial dealings, his former friend, poaching, transportation to "Stralia," (as one little boy puts it) and a very Gothic ending.

Now, if Penny and Nev had been allowed to fall almost all the way in love, consummate the marriage, get comfortable and start to trust and need each other before they had to deal with the plagues of locusts, boils and hail disaffected workers and greedy neighbors, they might have been a lot happier.  And I would then have been a lot happier.  Because I have to tell you: I can deal with angsty relationships (love `em, actually) or I can deal with the troubles a new couple is likely to face when establishing themselves in unfamiliar roles in a new location.  But to deal with both?  That's no longer delicious romantic angst.  That's stress.  I read romances to get rid of my stress, not to over-identify with the characters' travails.

Others clearly love In For a Penny, and I think that's great.  I hope Ms. Lerner sells lots of copies and writes many more books.  But I also hope she's learned that she doesn't have to throw everything at her couple while they're trying to learn how to love each other.  Here, I think, less is definitely more.


  1. Great review, I really appreciate it when a reviewer really takes the time to articulate why a book did or did not work for them. Every reader has their own unique pet peeves and preferences and I think a well rounded review addresses that. (Confession: a major pet peeve of mine is reviews that provide a recap of the back cover blurb/plot with an "I loved/hated it!" comment.) Enjoy your blog, hope you feel better soon.

  2. Interesting take! I think one of the reasons the book worked for me was that I saw the story progressing toward Nev and Penny becoming each other's comfort and support. They do go through many trials, though, so I could see where if the lighter parts of the story don't speak to one, it wouldn't work for you.

  3. Janet W here: I found it! Here's the Regency I mentioned to you that combines the relationship with the social backdrop of the times (and it's not window dressing). That being said, and altho Rose Lerner has a reader in me, I think there was just too much happening in In for a Penny. I look forward to her succeeding books however ... I know I will read them with great anticipation.

    For a great hit one out of the ballpark Regency author (who sadly is not writing now!): Nonnie St. George. Two DIK reviews of her ONLY two books are on All About Romance.

  4. I really liked this one. In fact, (she says flagrantly pimping her own review!) here's what I thought:

    But I can see why it didn't work as well for you. I enjoyed that they had to work through real problems that were happening around them and that love didn't make it all go away. I'm not sure I'd like to read it exclusively but I found the difference refreshing and I liked the tone and style of Ms. Lerner's writing very much.

  5. Wonderful review, Magdalen. So far, I've only read positive things about 'In for a Penny', so it was nice to see another perspective.

  6. Yes! That's it entirely, that they faced too much and had too little fun. I just finished the book today and while I had enjoyed most of it, there were too many threads to tie up. I think had Ms. Lerner left out the disaffected villagers and evil neighbor plot, there would have been PLENTY for Penny and Nev to work out and enough problems to solve. The villagers problems were just too big for this book. I liked the writing, so I'll certainly look at other of Ms. Lerner's books.


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