Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Hazard," by Jo Beverley

Alternate Title: Blathered.

The Chick: Lady Anne Peckworth. Despite being wealthy and the daughter of a duke, Anne never received too many offers, thanks to her shyness and her lame foot. The two men who did court her both ended up jilting her. However, to appease her haughty mother into letting her younger sister marry her less-than-suitable beau, Anne's willing to get back on the marriage horse.
The Rub: She knows her mother will never be satisfied with anyone who doesn't possess a title, but she can't get her brother's handsome companion Racecombe de Vere out of her mind.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Racecombe "Race" de Vere, a.k.a. Racecombe Ramsbottom, a.k.a. Racecombe Racecombe (yes, I'm serious). As personal secretary to the last dude who jilted Anne, he's been sent to her estate to see if he can't improve her circumstances (thereby easing his friend's guilt over marrying another woman).
The Rub: He succeeds in teasing Anne out of her shell, but he succeeds a little too well and ends up falling for her himself. However, as a titleless, fortuneless, and most likely illegitimate gentleman - he's not even within busing distance of her league.
Dream Casting: Kings' Christopher Egan.

The Plot:

Anne: Oh well, jilted again!

Racecombe: Hey there, pretty lady!

Anne: Oh! He's so shocking and debonair and outside of society's rules! How inexplicably attractive!

Racecombe: My job here is done. Exit stage left!

Anne: Oh! All of these handsome titled gentlemen are paying attention to me! I should marry one of them! But I don't want to. But I do! But I like Race! But I shouldn't!

Alderton, Boring Suitor: Marry me?

Anne: Sure.

Ralstone, Rakish Suitor: Marry me?

Anne: I don't see why not. Wait, no - argh! It's too much pressure! I know - I'll run off and do something ridiculously stupid for no good reason! That'll solve my problem!

Race: Anne! What the hell are you doing limping unescorted down a dark road with only a cloak and a staff?

Anne: Works every time. Hey, Race - MenWhoWantToMarryMeButDon'tMindBeingTrickedIntoItSayWhat?

Race: What?

Race and Anne: *married*

Anne: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Crippled, Sheltered Heroine Out of the Hero's League

1 Dashing Lowerclass Hero

1 Gimp Foot

2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

2 Marriage Proposals Obtained Through Conventional Means

1 Marriage Proposal Obtained Through TRICKERY

1 Fake Highwayman

The Word: This is my first Jo Beverley novel, but it's not going to make me rush out to buy more of her books. From what I've read and heard of her, she has a truly staggering backlist, so maybe I picked up a dud. But really, I'm not planning on trying her again anytime soon. More than anything, this novel taught me: be careful what you wish for.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Lady Anne Peckworth has just been jilted for the second time when her last suitor abruptly marries another woman (apparently the events of the novel The Dragon's Bride). She wasn't too romantically attached to him so she's more disappointed with herself than heartbroken. She's a bit reclusive and shy, and her family treats her with kid gloves because of her twisted foot that gives her a distinctive limp and prevents her from participating in running and dancing. She seems destined for spinsterhood, and has no real plans for her future.

That is, until her brother brings home a companion, Racecombe de Vere, an intriguing man who immediately sets out to tease, shock, and provoke her with all sorts of outrageous comments and ideas. Unbeknownst to her, Race has been asked to do precisely that. Seems her jilter is a rather nice fellow and feels terrible for leaving her in the lurch, so he asked Race (who has a thing for fixer-uppers) to see what he could do to improve Anne's situation.

Race succeeds, although he nearly ends up compromising himself with Anne in the process. Knowing he's miles below Anne on the social ladder, he beats a hastry retreat. Thanks to her encounter with Race, Anne feels empowered enough to put herself back on the Marriage Mart - really on the Marriage Mart this time. During their very brief time together, Race convinced Anne (rightfully so) that she used her twisted foot as an excuse to fade into the wallpaper, and that some actual, you know, effort might be needed to attract more than a handful of suitors. As an added impetus, her younger sister Marianne has fallen in love with a man slightly less than suitable and Anne realizes an advantageous marriage on her part might make her parents loosen up enough to permit Marianne's relationship.

This novel starts out quite well, with what appear to be unconventional protagonists. Anne is a rather ordinary-looking girl, not exceptionally pretty, while at the same time, her crippled foot is written as only one facet of her character, and isn't blown up into a Huge Burninating Self-Image Issue (like in The Kiss and Again the Magic), which I appreciated. Similarly, Race is miles away from the typical romance hero - short, slender, blond, and under the age of twenty-five, he stands out immediately in the mind's eye of this reader, who is over-acquainted with the Standard Historical Hero, who is nearly always comfortably thirty, dark as a crow, and built like a stevedore. Far from being an overpowering Alpha Male, he's a mischief-maker, a joker - Anne repeatedly compares him to a faery and it fits.

However, once Race leaves and Anne prepares to enter the Marriage Mart, the action slows to a bare trickle. For the next hundred and fifty pages (give or take), we read about the dazzlingly interesting adventures of - how miserable Anne is. I kid you not - Anne goes to balls. Anne attracts a number of suitors and subsequently disregards them as boring or ill-suited. Anne goes to the theatre. Anne talks with her Smug Married friends and relatives and mutters confusedly about what love really means.

But in all these situations what happens in the outside world (which isn't that significant or exciting to begin with) takes a backseat to Anne's endless, obsessive, indecisive whining. Oh, why isn't Race here? Why can't all these titled, rich men be like Race? Why must I love Race? Damn that sexy Race for making me love Race! Why couldn't my family accept Race? Race Race Race! On and on and on. It certainly doesn't help that the vast majority of this novel is told from Anne's perspective and for the most part, Race is absent.

Now, nothing in this book during these hundred and fifty pages was particularly poorly written. Even though Anne's head is full of outlandish and unrealistic thoughts, she's perfectly aware of their outlandishness and outwardly acts in a proper and expected fashion. Most of the characters in the novel are reasonable and have understandable thought processes. Really, the least believable aspect of the plot is Anne's obsession with a man she knew for all of twelve hours, and even then the cheeky opening scenes between Anne and Race explain this at least partially.

But the fact remains that for a hundred and fifty pages nothing happens. Not outwardly, nor emotionally, nor mentally. Really, Jo Beverley could have made Hazard into a novella and compressed the first two thirds of the book into a few chapters and lost none of the impact. It got to the point where I was wishing something, anything, would happen - just something that was other than the Angsty Anne Show with Occasional Guest Star Race.

Well, like I said at the beginning of this review: be careful what you wish for.

Something does happen, finally - Race, with the greatest reluctance, drifts slowly back into Anne's circle, which startles Anne out of her funk and reveals more of her true character.

Unfortunately, her true character turns out to be selfish, spoiled, manipulative, Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) and deceitful. Her actions after Race's reappearance change her from a character I felt slightly sympathetic towards, to a heroine I actively hated. Upping the ante in her husband hunting game (thinking it'll be easier to control her fluttery feelings for Race once she's securely nailed down), she narrows her choices to two (a Boring Suitor and a Rakish Suitor). She loves neither of them and she knows it, but deliberates at appallingly callous length on which of them will be the easiest to manipulate and control to her whim.

Again, nothing much happens, but we, the reader, are treated to Anne's most intimate thoughts and her choices for husband are on par with choosing a puppy - she expects her spouse to do exactly as she says, when she says it, and she's seemingly oblivious to the fact that her suitors are living, breathing human beings who have thoughts and wants of their own, a right to contribute to their own marriage, and feelings that can be (and are) hurt by her thoughtless and spoiled usage of them. And this is giving the historical setting of the novel some extreme leeway by accepting that Anne believes she has any control in a nineteenth century marriage! In this last third of the novel, Anne goes from possessing simple ignorance of social situations to a disturbing apathy towards the social needs of others.

Her self-absorption further complicates things when both suitors end up proposing to her, and she accepts both of them - heedless of the fact that she'll have to break it off (and severely hurt) at least one of them. She makes a bid for reader sympathy by whining that neither of them are really what she wants (she's a Race-ist through and through), but it doesn't excuse the fact that she is manipulating and emotionally toying with two men, and essentially doing to them EXACTLY what her last two suitors did to her.

But no! Things get worse! Eventually, Racecombe gets wind of some of Anne's attachments and decides to warn her that her Rakish Suitor is not the wisest choice. Anne gets irrationally angry at Race for offering advice, resentfully thinking he's trying to control her life, and decides to elope with Rakish Suitor to spite him. Yes. That's a perfectly reasonable decision. All marriages should be entered into out of spite.

Anne soon trips and falls into the pit of TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). While eloping with her Rakish Suitor, she discovers (surprise!) they're ill-suited for each other after sharing a single dinner conversation and finding they disagree on certain points. Again, Anne apparently thinks that husbands check their personalities and free will at the door when they carry their brides into the marital chamber. Desperate to save her reputation, she (I'm totally not kidding) flees their hotel and down a country road in the middle of the night, alone, on foot, unarmed and limping. But at least she won't be ruined, she thinks, it'll be Rakish Suitor's word against hers - until she runs into Race (understandably dumbfounded by her cinderblock-like powers of observation) who informs her she left her monogrammed luggage in the Rakish Suitor's hotel room along with a Dear John letter written on her personalized stationary. Did she land on her head getting out of bed that morning?

Thinking back on it, I would have rather stuck to the snail-like pace of the first two-thirds of this novel - while poorly paced, at least the characters behaved in a realistic and understandable fashion so that the narrative proceeded from their actions. In the last third of this novel, the pathetic attempts at action and intrigue are so contrived that it severely compromises the integrity of the characters - requiring them to make uncharacteristically idiotic or immoral decisions in order to move the plot forward.

The worst example of this, and the one that made me give up on Anne as a realistic character, comes when Anne, rescued by Race, finally decides she doesn't give a rat's ass about society's conventions and will have Race, by hook or by crook. Race is too honourable and too aware of Anne's social station to make a move, so when one of her personal friends shows up out of the fucking blue dressed as a famous French highwayman (don't ask), she decides to trick Race into thinking they're really being robbed and kidnapped so that she has an excuse to be locked in a room with him, compromising herself and forcing Race to marry her. This pretty much destroyed any emotional investment I had reading this romance because it's such a blatantly underhanded and dishonest move and I didn't want to support a romance story that condones tricking people into relationships.

The novel itself tries to put a light-hearted spin on it - playing on Anne's spoiled nature as the daughter of a duke who is used to getting whatever she wants. Anne's POV takes up 80% of this novel, and I can see how her actions can be construed as finally taking power and controlling her own future, her own choice of husband. Yeah, girl power! Whoo hoo! Isn't this all, like, feminist and stuff? The novel's cover, even, claims this by calling itself "The Most Daring Romance of the Year." In my opinion, no - what is the novel telling us when the woman who has all this unprecedented power can't help but abuse it at every turn to further her own ends, oblivious to the lives of others?

You may have noticed I haven't discussed Race with much depth. That, truth be told, is because I suspect he's not that deep a character to begin with. Hazard is a novel about Anne that features Race rather than a romance between the two. Race is phyically absent for the majority of scenes and when he is present, it's only rarely from his own POV. His main problem is "I love Anne, but she's too high for me, so I just have to suck it up and be a man." He's rather honourable in that way, but as character motivations go he's a one-trick pony.

All that being said, I have to reiterate that Hazard might have worked better as a novella than a full novel. Race isn't that multilayered a character and so much of Anne's development is redundant (a hundred and fifty pages of bitching about how the world isn't fair!) - and that's only a possible solution to the pacing. There's little I can suggest for the trainwreck of the novel's final stretch.
C.

4 comments:

  1. I was really disappointed in this one, too, though for different reasons. I had read The Dragon's Bride, and I loved Race's character there. He was only a secondary character, but there was a scene at the end where he dresses up as a woman and spends quite a bit of time simpering at the guards. I wanted the story to be about THAT Race - and he just wasn't really present in this story.

    I was too busy being sad that Race wasn't acting like Race to be too disappointed in Anne.

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  2. Oh, too bad! I loved this book, but it's been a long time since I read it so I don't remember enough details to refute any of your points. :)

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  3. Lana --> I had no idea. I haven't read any of Beverley's other books. It was obvious from this one that there were other novels that included the characters, but to Beverley's credit, none of them impeded the story in the novel.

    Race looked like he had potential, but yeah - he just wasn't that present in the story.

    MaryK --> Everyone has different opinions. I at first thought that Jo Beverley fans who were familiar with her other books might enjoy this novel more (although Lana has disproved that), so I have no idea. What's your favourite Jo Beverley novel?

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  4. Hmm. That's a hard decision because I've never disliked one of her books. Off the top of my head, I'd have to say my favorites are Forbidden Magic (a Regency stand-alone), Lord of Midnight (a medieval stand-alone) and Devilish. Devilish is about the older brother in her Malloren series, and I'm not sure how it would read to a newcomer; he was a secondary character in the other books so fans knew a good bit about him before his book came out.

    She's also written some really good novellas. My favorites are "The Wise Virgin" in The Brides of Christmas and "The Trouble with Heroes" in Irresistible Forces. Try reading "The Christmas Wedding Gambit", a free short story on her website (http://members.shaw.ca/jobev/miscwrit.html).

    Oh, and she has a lot of interesting info on her website (http://members.shaw.ca/jobev/menu.html), if it's in your period (can't remember yours, sorry) it might help you in your research.

    Wow, I'm sounding like a real fan-girl aren't I? :) I'm afraid it can't be helped.

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