Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Haz a Sad (More on the Alchemy of Reading)

The lovely Janet loaned me three books, all rare & worth insuring. I started with Mary Balogh's, Dancing with Clara.

I gather it's the middle book in a series of Signet Regencies from the mid-90s.  In Courting Julia, the titular heroine is offered, in effect, as a prize in a contest among cousins.  Daniel wins her hand -- he's very heroic -- and Freddy is the loser & villain of the piece.  Freddy is then stuck with mounting debts and few prospects so he goes to Bath to find a rich bride.  He finds Clara, who is in a wheelchair and not particularly attractive.  (In book three, Tempting Harriet, Clara's companion is pursued by Freddy's rather louche friend, Archie, who already offered Harriet a carte blanche in Dancing with Clara but was turned down.)

Both Clara and Freddy struck me as sad characters.  Their lives have been shaped by misfortune and bad choices, but they themselves seemed very sad.  That's probably a rational response to what they have to endure, but I couldn't help but contrast Clara with Mrs. Smith in Jane Austen's Persuasion.  Mrs. Smith is Anne Elliot's school friend who had married poorly, been widowed, and was confined to a wheelchair.  But she is lively and fun and sees the world in a very jolly light indeed.

Clara is considerably more pragmatic about her situation.  She recognizes Freddy as a fortune hunter but she also figures that she won't do much better than a fortune hunter if she wishes to marry, so when he proposes, she accepts.  She doesn't believe his protestations of love; she sees them as part of a charade necessary to get her to marry him.  The deed is done, and they get a week together alone as a honeymoon.

Up until this point, the story was pleasant enough.  Freddy recognizes that he has to do right by Clara, and he's fulfilling his husbandly role nicely.  Clara adores being married and is enjoying Freddy more than she thought she would.  But once the honeymoon ends, things start to fall apart.  And that's when the entire book became very sad to read.  If Clara and Freddy were lonely before they married, they quickly learn they can be far lonelier after the wedding.  That loneliness spirals downward to uncomfortable depths, until finally in the last few pages, it All Works Out.

At this point I need to acknowledge that I was reading Dancing with Clara just after getting news that a member of my extended family had died in a tragic fashion.  Not anyone I knew well, but people I love very much had to deal with this shocking loss.  I have been grieving for them.

Did my awareness of my cousins' pain color the way I read Dancing with Clara?  It doesn't feel like it.  I feel as though I'd have found Dancing with Clara emotionally out of balance regardless of the circumstances.  But how can I be sure?  I can't read it again as if for the first time, so I may never know.

What I did feel as I read Dancing with Clara is that I wanted either less sadness or more happiness.  The recipe of sadness and sweet romance reminds me of a salty-peanut candy bar (Payday, for example); provided there's enough caramel & chocolaty goodness, the saltiness of the nuts is piquant and yummy.

Same thing with this sort of book.  I don't mind the sadness provided it's properly offset by the romance.  Through Clara's & Freddy's week-long honeymoon, I was happy.  But from that point onwards, there are just too many tears, too much depression, too much hopelessness.  Maybe it's all organic and character driven; maybe these two could not have snapped out of their malaise any quicker.  If that were true, then I'd have liked another chapter or three tacked on the end to show us more of their chocolaty happiness.

Oh, and more dancing would have been nice.

I'll send Dancing with Clara back to Janet with my compliments.  I'm not sorry I read it, and I can see how it can be a favorite for her and many other readers.  Hey, I'll admit I might have loved it more under other circumstances.  But I've ordered Tempting Harriet; I'm hoping that I'll get Freddy & Clara's yummy happiness in that book.


  1. Janet W: ... I just can't write reviews of books I really care for ... but why should I: let All About Romance do the heavy lifting! Would I like this book as much if I hadn't, I'm sure given how obsessive I am Very Quickly, read Tempting Harriet very soon afterwards? I don't know because I did. And instead of an epilogue, I got a trilogy. Should I in future suggest a reader have all three in front of them before starting? I don't know.

    Archie a louche character. I think he was simply a duke. If you didn't like him in Dancing w/Clara, I really don't think you'll like him any better in Tempting Harriet. But I'm stepping back from predicting. I think :D

    Many many people, btw, don't care for Dancing w/Clara and the taboos Balogh shatters. It is the only real *imarriedherforhermoneybecauseilostitall* book I've managed to uncover. Even when Freddy was at his worst, he managed to change Clara's life for the better.

  2. Janet -- I respectfully disagree with the AAR review, which seems more interested in the compatibility factor of the couple (will they be happy going forward?) than the quality of the romance as it's presented on the page.

    At the same time, I will say that Dancing with Clara didn't make me physically ill, as it seems to have done to one of our Twitter friends!

    I definitely would recommend that you lend the next deserving friend all three books! I pretty much had to research the plot of Courting Julia to know what Freddy was alluding to in his many, many moments of introspection. And clearly the romance, such as it is, between Archie & Harriet begins in Dancing with Clara and continues from there. So all three books would have been nice. Not complaining, you understand.

    Now, Archie may be louche (and he's not a duke yet, at least not in Dancing with Clara; he's the heir to a dukedom) but he's not distasteful. When you think of some of the really grotesquely over-the-top heroes we've encountered in historical romances over the years, Archie just seems bored.

    I didn't find Freddy particularly unpleasant -- which is a problem because all the explanations for his behavior require either that he be a schmuck or that he be understandably misguided. He's a hero, so he can't be a schmuck. But it's hard to understand how misguided he is in the second half of the book given that he'd figured it out in the first half. I don't think I'm asking too much of my heroes that they retain the lessons they've already learned.

    But I do disagree with the idea that Freddy had to marry money because he'd run through a fortune. He hadn't inherited a fortune; he'd have been on a quarterly allowance which he clearly exceeded on a regular basis. He needed to marry for money because he was a compulsive gambler. He'd gambled on marrying Julia; when that failed he needed plan B, and going to his father was no longer going to cut it.

    I actually have sympathy for his plight up to but not including the compulsive gambling. Gentlemen in Freddy's time & place were really stuck: as an eldest son, he couldn't join the clergy or the army, he wasn't allowed to take a job (work being beneath him), he apparently had no role to play at his father's estate. Gambling was one of the few respectable occupations.

    But a gambling addiction -- that's a problem. And what I couldn't understand is this: Freddy, as a baron's heir, should have been geared to take over the running of his father's estate. When he moves in with Clara at her estate, why doesn't he start taking over the running of that? There's his job, and a decade or more before he might reasonably have expected to get it. He behaves like a guest, not the new master.

    So even by AAR's own standard, I think a smart reader might have some concerns about this couple going forward -- Freddy doesn't really seem to have his head screwed on straight. As we all know, loving and being loved is *not* a cure for an addiction.


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