Review: ‘Fool Me Twice’ (Rules for the Reckless #2) by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice

I don’t know why I’ve been so bipolar when it comes to Meredith Duran’s books. I absolutely adored her novella Your Wicked Heart. And then I really didn’t like That Scandalous Summer. With Fool Me Twice, I am happily back in the “Love Her” camp. Probably because it has a tortured hero and a redheaded heroine, but moving on. For fans of Ms. Duran, the title makes it obvious that this story is about Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, who spectacularly lost the plot after news of his late wife’s betrayal hit him. Of course, he had to be paired with the mysterious Ms. Olivia ‘Mather’.

Olivia Holladay is the proverbial damsel in distress. A powerful man wants her dead and while she may not know why, she knows who he is (Cabinet Minister Baron Bertram), and how to make him pay for it. Sick of looking over her shoulder, Olivia decides to protect herself. To that end, she gains employment in the Duke of Marwick’s household, hoping to find something that she can use to blackmail the baron. The Duke’s reputation as a political mover and shaker is well-known, but, as only Olivia knows, he also has a good reason to hate Bertram.

While her plan may have been to deceive and steal from the man, Olivia is a punctilious person at heart and she is shocked at the state of disarray she finds in the duke’s house. Marwick hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so bad that a desperate butler hires her as the temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the insolent servants, but the master of the house too.

Alastair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him,  he’ll kill them. As he becomes more rational, it is also obvious that he is a self-involved asshole. Ironically, Marwick’s thwarted pride and legitimate pain combine to make him simultaneously both infuriating and sympathetic. It is dishonest to pretend that mental illness provokes only kindness and understanding in those who deal with its victims, so kudos to Ms. Duran for striking that delicate balance. Besides, butt-headedness makes a character seem more real than pathos does.

The interactions between Marwick and Olivia begin as hostile confrontations and evolve into convoluted negotiations often prefaced by him asking “Didn’t I sack you?”  Their relationship is complicated and subtly hilarious. Olivia’s campaign to roust Marwick consists of serial invasions of his space, each more entertaining than the last. Whether she is rescuing his books, critiquing his grooming, or admiring a nipple, Olivia is a hoot. Marwick’s responses range from rage to incredulity as he resists the change that Olivia impels.

Yet, change is inevitable. I love this trope and the way Ms. Duran employs it here. The give and take between Olivia and Marwick is pivotal to the plot and enables a slow reveal of their checkered pasts. But there is far more going on than lively banter and extended internal monologues. There is a point in the story when the action shifts from private to public in a way that almost draws a line through the middle of the narrative. Here is the point where Marwick evolves into Alastair for me. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily a flaw but it is very strongly defined. Edgy banter gives way to darker themes, and the emphasis shifts from Marwick’s emotional health to his moral choices just as Olivia’s situation is further imperiled. The danger to Olivia is real as is Marwick’s fear of disgrace, and there are a number of twists before the story winds to a close. However, emotional and intellectual sparring take center stage through most of the novel, and the usual quick shedding of clothes and inhibitions is replaced by welcome restraint. The only striptease is of the soul-baring sort that builds the very best kind of tension.

In spite of her cleverness and down-to-earth pragmatism, Olivia is an innocent, and the author conveys the normalcy of this state by making it something Olivia herself is indifferent to. After all, she is fighting for her life. Virginity is just the default position, so to speak, and we only become aware of it when Alastair does. When the Duke recognizes her innocence, it pleases him but it doesn’t really affect her value to him. Virginity is more an incidental attribute than virtue incarnate. Ultimately, it is Olivia’s utter isolation and her ability to maintain her self-respect in the face of real danger that moves and impresses Alastair. Although their attraction is undeniable, it is never separated from their emotions.

He grabbed her wrists and bowed his head to kiss each one, like a vassal paying tribute. She watched him do so and felt, for a dizzying moment, taller than him, a presence larger and grander than her flesh could contain. By his own account, he had seen her, recognized her, as brave, intelligent, resourceful. And he wanted her, against his will. Yes, let him bow his head; let him admit to being conquered.  

When Olivia and Alastair finally have sex, the act is deeply passionate and convincingly unique to them. In a relationship characterized by intermittent bullying and an often brutal frankness, they are honest when it counts the most. Ms. Duran writes a gorgeous sex scene that is beautifully integrated into the story, and then follows it up with some sparkling humour.

She felt a glimmer of mischief.

“You’re not feeling shy, are you?” To her amazement–and, yes, her delight–the color rose in his face.

“Shy, by God–”

“You’re avoiding my eyes,” she said. “You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much-”

He made a choking sound.

“Oh dear.” She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. “Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.”

  And that is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore Fool Me Twice. The preceding story in this series painted Alastair in a very negative light, so it was a bit weird to accept him as a hero in the next book. Olivia, however, runs completely true to form. While I suppose each of the three Meredith Duran novels I’ve read so far more than stands alone, Fool Me Twice is my absolute favourite of the lot.

I would recommend it to avid fans of historical romance who enjoy complicated relationships with a lot of edgy banter, who aren’t nit-picky about the level of historical detail in the story but still expect a sense of authenticity and good writing.

 

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Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

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The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

Review: “The Innocents” by Francesca Segal

The Innocents

The novels of Edith Wharton vacillate between snide gossip and heart-wrenching insight, between the affirmation of a social hierarchy and a lament that this very hierarchy crushes the spirits of those that adhere to it. A natural consequence of this is the wide range in the contemporary heirs of her oeuvre. On one end, we have the beginning of Gossip Girl, based on Wharton’s Age of Innocenceportraying an insular and elitist world. On the other end, we have Francesca Segal’s (daughter of Erich Segal) critical success The Innocents, also based on the same book, draws attention to Wharton as a chronicler of individual yearning versus group convention. The book has already been optioned for a miniseries and is being called the “Jewish Downton Abbey“, emphasis on the Jewish. Segal has incredibly transposed Wharton’s, a notorious anti-Semite, tale of stiff WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and their subjugated women to a world of cosmopolitan Jews who have premarital sex and go on teen coed tours to Israel. The Innocents succeeds to an extent that will make you proud–but in doing so, results in a very different end, one that provides a tender take on family, loss and growing into adulthood. What we get is surprisingly far removed from Wharton’s sweeping and unflinching dissection of an earlier era.

Courtesy: The CW

The Innocents’ very first tableau exemplifies how effective her concept is. Wharton’s iconic opening scene has the protagonist Newland Archer training his opera glasses on Countess Olenska, the women who will upend his life–sitting in the family box beside his future wife, May Welland.  Segal deftly shifts this moment from the concert hall to the synagogue gallery during Yom Kippur. Our innocent hero, Adam, looks up from his prayers to scan the women’s balcony and gaze with “certainty” upon his fiancée, Rachel; beyond Rachel, he sees Ellie, Rachel’s American cousin, the family disgrace, “exposing skin from clavicle to navel“. He is repelled yet intrigued; I was simply the latter. The certainty had ended for Adam; for the reader, the story has just begun.

More than setting up the novel’s central conflict, this opening scene acknowledged the synagogue as a social as well as spiritual place, affording the chance to show off one’s engagement ring, judge one’s neighbours even while atoning, and introduce one’s unsavoury relatives into polite company. We can see from the scrutiny given to Ellie, the notorious interloper with the rather pedestrian name, that this set of London Jews is cloistered in their own ways: doctrinaire on matters of propriety more than piety, well-off but not as fully worldly as they could be.

Segal sets her story’s confrontations and reconciliations at holidays, parties and other life events in the North London community she knows. She recasts the smug, sheltered May Welland and her prominent clan as Rachel Gilbert and her intrusive, loving, and ultimately steely family. That they, like many of the neighbours, are descendants of Holocaust survivors–Rachel’s grandmother Ziva lived through Bergen-Belsen–gives context to the entire community’s unyielding traditionalism. To Rachel’s father, Lawrence, who has taken the fatherless Adam in as his own son, “there was only ever one thing that was important, and that thing was family“.

The claustrophobia that tempers the younger generation’s freedom sets up Adam to be torn up between worship for his fiancée and infatuation with her cousin. Not unlike the men of Old New York, men of Adam’s ilk sow their wild oats in university but then come home to wed their high-school classmates, or, in his case, Israel summer sweethearts, and take their rightful place in the offices where their fathers worked, synagogue committees their uncles run, and neighbourhoods where they themselves grew up.  Obviously, Adam is indeed tempted to reject such comforting but boxed-in parameters, and yes, he finds kinship with Ellie. They are both half-orphans and her history of dating dubious men and semi-pornographic modelling and acting,  rendering her the opposite of a nice Jewish girl, certainly gives her the requisite transgressive attraction.

It’s hard not to find the success of Segal’s choice subversively delicious because, well, Wharton loathed Jews–she was an anti-Semite along with many of her literary peers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In this sense, Segal’s world is an inversion of her predecessor’s: while Wharton’s stodgy Americans looked down at Jews and European characters, the European Jewish characters of The Innocents look askance at the goyim (non-Jews or non-observant Jews), and even their Americanised cousins.

Wharton’s anti-Semitism is a facet of what’s both maddening and marvellous about her: just like her creation Newland Archer, she is through and through a product of the universe she critiques. But for a Wharton fan like myself, that complexity is an added fascination. Newland, in his weakness, implicates, but also humanizes his author and all of us when we remain bystanders, aware of the evils of our way of life but succumbing to its comforts.

Segal’s world is less evil than claustrophobic or occasionally petty. Thus, even as her social repositioning of her novel and her dialogue-rich and fluid prose lives up to her source material, important distinctions remain. Some relate to gender politics. Both of Wharton’s female characters remain incredibly strong in the face of limited roles: May as the icy torch bearer for the “way things are“; Countess Olenska as an exile who forged her own moral code after suffering hardship. Neither of Segal’s heroines quite lives up. Rachel’s naive, unquestioning attitude isn’t unrealistic–wilfully shallow people exist in droves–but it verges on too irritating to be redeemable. Her retrograde focus on domesticity, prioritizing cooking Adam dinner above all else, grates in particular. I mean, no matter how conservative her upbringing, she would have been exposed to some form of faux-feminism in this day and age. Meanwhile, her cousin and rival, Ellie, is a child of violence–her mother died in a bombing in Israel–and this is meant to account for her alienation, her obliviousness to mores. But unlike the Countess Olenska, whose primary social sin is divorcing a husband rumoured to have mistreated her, Ellie has taken no strong steps to ward off her own exploitation besides coming to London. Her impassivity is her grand statement about the world.  She is at her most finely drawn when she finally lashes out in anger. Would that Ellie, in addition to being a wounded sexpot, had been a staunch atheist, a Palestinian solidarity activist, a deliberate eccentric–something. Both Segal and Adam’s compassion for her reads as genuine, but she never truly holds up as a convincing escape route for him. The maze of connections binding Adam to his world seems too thick for Ellie’s long legs to lead him out.

Yes, it can’t be helped: Segal’s ultimate affection for her characters’ milieu just doesn’t burn up the page the same way as Wharton’s tortured ambivalence–she was writing from France, decades later–does. That ambivalence is so memorably encapsulated by The Age of Innocence‘s final moments, as Newland Archer sits in the courtyard beneath the apartment of his former great love, decades after their romance, unwilling to go upstairs and face the life he has chosen to miss, to let go of his season of memories. Needless to say, there is no such haunting coda in The Innocents, and there doesn’t need to be.

Although much of its elements are the same as its predecessor, the novel at its heart tells the story of a community forged not by the exclusion of others but by having once been excluded. So who needs to be haunted by the road not taken, when the road one is on involves the whole clan, in all its close-knit complexity?