Sunday, June 06, 2010

"A Cottage By the Sea," Ciji Ware

The Chick: Blythe Barton Stowe. After a horrendous divorce from her famous director husband, Blythe retreats to a cottage in Cornwall - and starts getting visions of a possible ancestor who endured similar relationship problems.
The Rub: Could these visions be trying to tell her something? Something other than "you need to start taking your medication again"?
Dream Casting:
Amy Adams.

The Dude: Lucas Teague. As a widower, single dad, and owner of a nearly-bankrupt estate, Lucas finds the brash Blythe and her innovative ideas a breath of fresh air.
The Rub: He hasn't quite recovered from the death of his wife, or the impact it's had on his relationship with his own son - but can he still find it in his heart to love Blythe, too?
Dream Casting: Clive Owen.

The Plot:

Blythe: Boo hoo, my life is a mess! I'm off to go hide in Cornwall!

Lucas Teague: Hello, I'm your sexy repressed British landlord. Feel free to explore my mysterious, gothic, but totally ghost-free castle!

Blythe: Hey look, a genealogy chart. *pokes*

Blythe Barton the 1st: Hello, I'm your ancestor! You're totally supposed to relate to me as I use, abuse and cheat on the people who care about me in order to fulfill my own selfish whims! Aren't I such a free-spirited woman?

Blythe: Wow! My ancestor was such a free-spirited woman and totally not a devious lying whore. Guess I better forgive my sister for sleeping with my husband, because she was obviously just being a free-spirited woman!

Lucas Teague: Care to be a free-spirited woman with me?

Blythe: You betcha!

Lucas Teague: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Hot British Widower

1 Cheating Man-Ho Husband

1 Cheating Ho Sister

1 Cheating Ho Ancestor

1 Well-Bred British Uppercrust Ho Godmother

1 Precocious Child

1 Surprise! Baby

Several Wyoming Anecdotes

1 Magic Genealogy Chart

The Word: First of all, a thank-you to the folks at Sourcebooks for the ARC of this re-print.

The novel opens as production designer Blythe Barton-Stowe finalizes her divorce from her successful director husband of more than ten years, Christopher. On top of the already deep wounds of her husband's infidelity (and with her own sister, no less), fate pours on the lemon juice, salt and vinegar when Blythe discovers Christopher plans to marry her sister, who's now pregnant with the child Christopher would never give Blythe.

With the ink still drying on the divorce contract, Blythe flees to Cornwall to escape the paparazzi and lick her wounds in relative obscurity. Remembering her late grandmother's stories that her family is descended from landed gentry in Cornwall, Blythe rents a cottage on the property of Barton Hall. Despite her initial determination to keep to herself, she can't help but befriend the gentlemanly lord of the manor, Lucas Teague, and she soon finds herself trying to help him and his estate's rising financial troubles.

Things take a weird turn when Blythe discovers a genealogy chart in Lucas's library that reveals the existence of another Blythe Barton - this one born in the late 1700s. Even weirder, when she touches the chart, she finds herself sucked into a series of visions that reveal the original Blythe Barton's tawdry and tangled romantic history - a history that closely parallels what the present Blythe is going through. Except for the small, insignificant, barely-worth-mentioning fact that Blythe Barton the First is a selfish, venomous, cheating shrew.

Harsh? Yes, but true. Nice Present-Day Blythe apparently needs to learn a lesson from the life of Hateful Past Blythe, but her ancestor is such a bone-deep awful person that these repeated flashbacks are extremely unpleasant. We're supposed to pity and empathize with Hateful Past Blythe because she was forced into marriage against her will in order to combine two estates - but since her reaction to these events is to intentionally make every person around her suffer because the spoiled brat couldn't run off with an artist, my own well of sympathy dried up pretty damn quick.

Long story short - Hateful Ho Blythe openly rejects her adoring husband Kit and treats him like dirt because of his physical appearance and conducts an adulterous affair with his brother Ennis, getting pregnant in the meantime. We are repeatedly force fed the idea that Hateful Ho Blythe is "courageous" and "independent." Sorry, but I interpret "courage" as standing up for yourself and doing the right thing despite how much you may not like it - not deciding to do whatever the hell you want, regardless of how many people are hurt in the process. In traditional historical romances, Hateful Ho Blythe would be the character who drowns at the start of the book under mysterious circumstances to give her widower a brooding edge that attracts the real heroine.

But, as much as I hated reading about Hateful Ho Blythe and her Courageous Way of Humiliating Her Husband's Pockmarks and Penis Size On Their Wedding Night, her background does have a narrative purpose. I appreciated how Nice Present-Day Blythe (who, like Kit, endured her spouse cheating on her with a sibling) is able to better handle her own tragedy, with all the bitterness-betrayal-rage baggage that comes with it, after seeing it re-enacted in Ye Olde 1700s.

However, despite an interesting story and a well-developed heroine, A Cottage By the Sea is not without flaws (or at least, flaws that aren't a certain skanky ancestor). Ware exhibits standard My Exhausting Research - Let Me Show You It behaviour - that is, dumping lots of information and detail on us that isn't necessary to the story. From a writer's perspective, I'll freely admit how frustrating it can be to research a vast subject when only a narrow slice of it needs to be in the novel. But a lot of the period detail we get in the flashbacks has little to no bearing on the story - and in turn, seems odd. When Hateful Ho Blythe is worried about her upcoming nuptials, is the history of smuggling in Cornwall really going through her head?

This also applies to how Ware tries to explain what is essentially a paranormal plot device in scientific terms. Maybe this is because I'm a fantasy reader, but a simple "it's magic" explanation would have sufficed for the time-travelling genealogy chart. Instead, we get numerous very tiresome exchanges about how memory and experience can change DNA that doesn't really explain the genealogy chart in the first place. I respect the work Ware put into this, but it's boring and time-consuming, unhelpful, and unnecessary.

Another flaw is that Ciji Ware's writing feels amateurish thanks to a complete reliance on that most Wretched of Writing Tropes: the speech-tag/adverb duo. "She whispered sadly." "He grunted rudely." "She hissed quickly." Ware's characters NEVER, and I mean NEVER, just "say" anything. They screech, scream, sob, interrupt, cry, howl, boil and fume (how does boiling translate into speech? Or fume for that matter?) with distracting frequency.

It's ridiculous, but I suppose since this is a reprint, I can chalk it up to the time period it was written in, way back in ...*checks date* wait, 1997? That's it? Speechtag/adverbs were stupid even then! The Speech-Tag/Adverb is a lose-lose in nearly every situation - if you're a good writer, they're redundant, because your dialogue should already convey the volume and tone by itself. If you're a bad writer, it's a lame crutch to make up for dialogue that's not doing what it's supposed to do.

Despite this, A Cottage By the Sea provides an interesting heroine and a detailed setting. While it didn't really impress me, neither was it a terrible novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment