Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer Romance

As I’ve mentioned before,  I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward historical romance. That’s why I don’t list most of my own books that way, even though I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance. In fact, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t center on a romance, even if it also addresses politics, society, religious and cultural differences, and the many and glorious vagaries of Russian history.

I also don’t read a lot of pure romance novels these days. The reason mostly has to do with me: I’m older than when I devoured them by the crate load in college. But in part it has to do with changes in the romance genre itself, especially historical romance. Although bodice rippers (never a favorite of mine) always focused more on hormones than characters and historical plausibility, that element of the sub-genre seems to have spread into books that in many other respects are as far from bodice rippers as one can get.

Again, I tolerated that approach more when I was younger. These days I don’t find it so interesting, because it tends to impose a certain sameness on the stories that makes them overly predictable from my point of view. And as a historian, I do rather go bananas and start tossing books at the wall when novels include heroines living in times and places where they were strictly chaperoned because being seen as loose women, rightly or wrongly, doomed them for life, yet who nonetheless behave as if they too had access to reliable birth control. Even the men who coaxed them into sin, to use the parlance of the day, would not have dreamed of marrying their victims unless someone (usually a father or guardian) stood there with a shotgun until the villains agreed to do the right thing.

Still, the great gig I have with the New Books Network does include advance review copies of romances as well as more standard historical fiction. Plus even a curmudgeon like me turns her thoughts to the literary equivalent of ice cream when summer rolls around. So for both reasons I was delighted to discover Maya Rodale’s Some Like It Scandalous, the second in her series The Gilded Age Girls Club. The title doesn’t mean what you may think, just as the book has more going for it than you might expect: real characters who have real problems and real reasons to dislike each other, but also genuine strengths and sympathies that in the end pull them together.

In brief, Daisy Swan wants to become a chemist, even though it’s 1883 and that is not the kind of pursuit expected of young society ladies. Daisy has talked her parents into letting her enroll at Barnard (then very new), where she is happily tinkering with recipes for a magical ointment that gives any woman who uses it the perfect complexion. Daisy has also managed to avoid matrimonial plans, reaching the age of twenty-five unattached. She figures she has one more year to go, and she can become an official spinster, supporting herself through her family’s fortune and sales of her ointment.

Alas, as so often happens in novels, Daisy’s plans encounter a sudden deluge of misfortune. Her father’s investment firm is in jeopardy, and her mother resolves to marry Daisy off before the firm can collapse. As Daisy’s bridegroom Mom chooses Theodore Prescott the Third, son of a New York steel magnate and the one person in the world Daisy detests. His beastly friends have been quacking at her ever since Theo dubbed her “Ugly Duck Daisy” when they were teens, and she’s vowed never to forgive him. While Daisy’s mother and Theo’s father exert every effort to promote the match, Daisy proposes a fake engagement, and Theo accepts. After all, they hate each other. What would keep them together?

Quite a few things, as it turns out. It would be churlish to spoil this charming, funny, emotionally rewarding story by giving those plot points away. And there is certainly passion in this novel, which seemed appropriate to me because Daisy has made it clear from the beginning that she doesn’t want to marry anyway. But the best part is watching the hero and heroine find themselves and each other along the way.

Since romance novels tend to go down easy, you may be looking for more when you finish Rodale’s series. So here is a range of other 2019 titles that have landed on my desk, in chronological order of publication: Lynsay Sands, The Wrong Highlander; Sophie Jordan, This Scot of Mine; and Joanna Shupe, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue—all from Avon Books.
 


And if you’d like to spend the summer taking a stab at writing a romance of your own, not necessarily historical, the editors at Avon Books have produced a workbook full of suggestions to guide you along the way: How to Write a Romance: Or, How to Write Witty Dialogue, Smoldering Love Scenes, and Happily-Ever-Afters

So give it a try. And stop back here. Summer isn’t even half over, so you never know, I may pick up some of those other books before it ends.

Oh, and that title? “Some like it scandalous” has to do with women’s suffrage. To find out what the connection is, you’ll need to read the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Literary Fireworks

In the flood of daily news headlines, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a time when the US government, if not always its citizens, took pride in welcoming immigrants to these shores. So, although neither I nor anyone else involved in the timing of my latest podcast interview with Adrienne Celt planned the coincidence, it seems somehow appropriate to feature a novel that traces the divergent but ultimately converging life histories of three migrants.

In this case, the force driving the characters’ decision to leave their homeland is the chaos created by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the new Bolshevik regime. 


Lev Orlov—explicitly inspired by the well-known author Vladimir Nabokov, here recast as a writer of science fiction—and his wife, Vera, flee the disintegrating Russian Empire because their aristocratic backgrounds leave them without a place in the land of their birth. They are “former people,” in the language of the 1920s.

Zoya Andropova, in contrast, should have no trouble fitting into the new Soviet Union. A peasant by birth, she is the daughter of a revolutionary and a loyal member of the Young Pioneers. But the October Revolution, like the French Revolution before it, proved all too willing to eat its own children. When Zoya’s mother dies and her father disappears (i.e., is shot by the state), Zoya ends up in an orphanage. A US charity intervenes and sweeps her off to the New World. And there, in due course, Zoya’s trajectory intersects with that of the Orlovs—producing, not to put too fine a point on it, fireworks worthy of the Fourth of July.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction


Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest of her father, a strong supporter of the very regime that has now taken his life. But rescued she is, by well-meaning Americans, who soon dump her at a wealthy boarding school where she struggles to retain far more than her name. She takes refuge in literature, in particular by the émigré writer Lev (Leo) Orlov, whose science fiction transports her to more satisfying times and places.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when Orlov shows up to teach at the school where Zoya, having nowhere else to go, has moved from student to worker, she tumbles into love with him, ignoring both his advances to the other girls and his very present and controlling wife, Vera. Zoya charts the evolution of this romantic triangle in her diary, which we read, interspersed with letters from Lev to Vera.

As Adrienne Celt notes early on, Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) is inspired by the life of the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. But as the story builds, it leaves the details of Nabokov’s life and marriage behind, roaring out of a deliberately quiet academic beginning until it reaches a place that upends much of what we have believed up to that point.

The Literary Hub chose this interview for its Friday Feature this week, but because of the holiday the staff decided to run the post on Monday, in the expectation of greater traffic. So you can find their transcript and listen to the podcast by clicking on the preceding link.