The last Cosway book I read (which was the last book I read at all) was (I think) the author’s first and it showed. But though Painted Faces was rough, I enjoyed the author’s voice, so I dove into the next one.
This book was beautiful. There were so many things I loved about it, including these quotes:
“ … when everything else in life fails, there is still music.” Goodness, how I love music, how it makes me dream and hope. Also, how its angst is cathartic.
In re dogs (which I hate): “They never have any shame about letting you know just how much they’ve missed you.” Also, toddlers (which I also hate except for my own) and clingy 11-year-old boys, which are the most wonderfullest things in the world. All that was to say it made me look at my children in a different light.
Anyway, the thing that took away from the book: too much time spent on the sex. At some point, it doesn’t add to the plot or characterization, which it stopped doing about 5/8ths through the book (yesisaidthatshutup).
So, the wonderful things:
The descriptions of the music playing as flights of fancy (this isn’t an accurate-enough term and it’s far too whimsical for what’s in the text, but it’s the best I can come up with). It’s absolutely brilliant, how it’s done. I can’t hear the music, but I can see it.
The first sexual encounter was also approached brilliantly. It had depth with no trace of sleaze.
The portrayal of Jade’s life as a lower-working-class girl was spot-on. I admired her for her easy stoicism, which was more than I could muster with dependents.
Both characters’ motivations were reasonable and logical given their backgrounds and circumstances.
In both books, the characters’ codependence is obvious, but I don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s healthy and I do think their relationship is healthy. I think it will remain so because they are both strong people.
In spite of Jade’s poverty, I could feel her innate optimism and, dare I say, happiness. This spoke to me like the quotes above.
Aside: I wish there were a playlist for this book. I’ll have to look.
Aside 2: I LOVE that these are set in Dublin and have local vernacular instead of Anytown, USA, with dumbed-down vernacular for stupid Americans.
I’ve been thinking about the way I eat (for various reasons) and how/why my eating habits are so bad, why I fall back on banal comfort food, why I’m not adventurous in the least.
As I was writing Paso Doble, I kept finding myself associating my characters’ meals at tapas bars with romance. Small bites in small dishes. Tasting. A meal of hors d’oeuvres, eaten slowly, from a lover’s hand. I wanted to be able to do that.
As Victoria (from Paso Doble) told Giselle (from The Proviso):
Eating with a man, especially if you let him feed you, let him watch you savor the flavors, is like making love in public. I seduced my husband that way. Feed him. Let him feed you. In, out. It’s a promise more binding than kissing. Sex makes life. Food sustains life. You can see them as chores or you can find joy in them. That’s the choice you make.
I wanted to be able to do that. Except … I don’t like food. I don’t find joy in it. I’ve never found there to be anything about food to find joy in. No, it’s not something I can do, or at least, not right now. I find a food I like and I will eat it for days. Variety is not a requirement for me; efficiency is. Food is the thorn in my paw. It is a chore. It’s the enemy.
And then, for our 14th wedding anniversary, Dude surprised me by taking me to a tapas bar, La Bodega on Southwest Boulevard. We were both nervous. He’s only a little more adventurous than I am and we didn’t want to waste money on food we weren’t sure we were going to like. But tapas are a huge part of my universe’s mythos, so Dude wanted to honor that and, fingers crossed, it might turn out okay.
It was one of the most profound visceral experiences I have ever had, as significant as my rollercoaster enlightenment. The waiter came by to ask me how it was and as I was telling him, I teared up.
For the first time in my life, I found joy in food. Profound joy.
I don’t want to go there too often, though. Joy needs to be parceled out so as not to make it banal. But I’ve found that sort of profound joy twice this year (which is pretty much twice more than most other years), and both of them were because Dude gave me something new to try.
Rollercoaster and appetizers. Sometimes it’s the oddest things.
La Bodega 703 SW Boulevard KCMO 64108 816.472.8272
Except for those little moments relieved by the occasional huge moment, everyday life can be a drudgery. Whatever you are engaged in, be it work (no matter how glamorous or lucrative it is) or raising a family or fulfilling your calling at church or attaining some long-held goal (usually all of them at once), at some point, you’ll find yourself slogging through it and wondering where the magic is.
The truth is, there is very little magic, except that which we grab for ourselves. When in the midst of this drudgery, few women1 think to themselves, “How awesome am I? Super-awesome, is what!” While she is in the midst of drudgery, she can be beset with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and irrelevance, even if other people find her admirable or even inspirational in performing said drudgery.
And this is what TV and movies and books and games are for: little moments of respite from the drudgery. People decry “escapist” fiction, but who really wants to read about other people’s drudgery while in the midst of one’s own?2
Fictional characters are not immune to drudgery. The writers just choose not to show you that part because … why? It’s boring.
Giselle slogs through her neverending days of law school classes and shitty second-shift transcription job and church attendance after being stripped of her precious bookstore she can’t rebuild. She has little to lighten her load or brighten her days. Who wants to read about how tired and hopeless she feels?
Eilis slogs through the neverending stress of building a business, fighting off enemies alone, and seeks her magic in meaningless sex with strangers which she never finds and leaves her feeling worse than she did before.
Justice slogs through neverending farm work, housework, college, and then law school with absolutely nothing but the goal of becoming a prosecutor. Even then, her options are limited to the two counties she can actually drive to every day because she has a piece-of-shit car and no money to buy a decent one.3
And why do they do this? Because they’re just trying to survive: financially, emotionally, and intellectually. It has to be done and there’s no one else to do it. Just like everyone else.
You, the reader, may not think about it much beyond the feeling that, “Hey, that’s a lot more than I do.”
No, it’s not. You do plenty. It’s just that you can’t see it and you probably don’t want to think about it because it’s depressing as hell. I don’t care where you are in your life, every once in a while, you stop, look around, and wonder what the hell you’re doing all this for.
Which brings me to one of those hot-button topics in genre romance: the “placeholder heroine,” wherein the heroine is void of personality or otherwise uninteresting, whose role is to be the foil for the hero as well as a way for the reader to insert herself into the story and thus, in the hero’s arms. The heroine as written serves as the reader’s avatar.
These characters frustrate me. When I read, I want to experience someone else’s life. I do not want to be obliged to construct my own character out of the bare shell the author has given me. Nor do I want to put myself in that shell. I already live my life.
The most egregious example in my recent memory is Bella Swan from Twilight.
Bella is the epitome of the placeholder heroine in that her personality is a void, her opinions are nonexistent, and she does not act. She is acted upon. One could argue that because she is seventeen years old, this is normal. Seventeen-year-old girls have no power and so Bella’s reactivity is not untoward.
Then along comes Edward, who gives her things any seventeen-year-old girl craves: the complete acceptance by, doting attention of, and fairy-tale romance from a truly powerful male. Thus, I would expect that female adolescents and young adults to find this storyline attractive.
What has always baffled me, though, is why this is attractive to so many millions of adult women with husbands and families of their own unless the “placeholder heroine” isn’t just a theory.
I nearly cried when I noticed my husband changing a light bulb. Watching him perform this menial task with so little grace and elegance, so un-vampire like, was a depressing reminder that there was no Edward in my life. My husband didn’t float on air, change the bulb at breakneck speed or pounce off into the forest to protect me. Instead, he fumbled and ultimately dropped it on the floor where it shattered. The whole episode sent me into a depression.
A kiss from my husband is simply a kiss; there’s no woozy feeling or butterflies fluttering in my stomach. We don’t get lost in each other’s eyes while discussing our son’s report card or arguing over bills. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never been married. Bella and Edward live each moment in their own private world, with little else to divert their attention … ”5
Twi-Moms aren’t just reading about Bella, we are trying to be her. We experienced her shock at the depth of Edward’s love, and her crushing anguish when he left her. Stephenie Meyer captured the longing, the desire and the total devotion that is a faint memory for most married women.6
But Edward himself is neither here nor there, really. The point is to escape the drudgery of life, as this article so explicitly states, into the arms of an Edward. The placeholder heroine is, in fact, an avatar for the reader.
Or is she?
So I got to thinking about this one day, and it occurred to me that the vapid heroine might not be an avatar for the reader, but a reflection of how the reader sees herself.
First there are the women who have little enough identities of themselves. For whatever reason they have given their own goals, dreams, and desires over to someone else: husband, children, boss, church, clubs, volunteer organizations. They define themselves in someone else’s terms:
“I am my kids’ mom.”
“I am my husband’s wife.”8
“I am my deity’s creation.”
“I am my organization’s member.”
“I am my mother’s caretaker.”
“I am my boss’s employee.”
Women who have few enough identities of themselves may feel that they are already ciphers and so they understand Bella’s really rather subconscious feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, and hopelessness acutely. Her emptiness makes her identifiable.9
Whether Edward is good for her or not, whether he’s carving out her personality or not, he’s taking her somewhere because a) she doesn’t know there’s a there there and b) wouldn’t know how to get there if she knew because she doesn’t have anything of her own.
But what about the women who do have an identity, love those identities, and take pride in those things?
“I practice law.”
“I raise productive human beings.”
“I save people’s lives.”
“I live off the land and am self-sustaining.”
“I teach people to read and think.”
“I feed and succor the hungry and hopeless.”
No matter how much we love our work (I defy anyone to tell me women don’t find their identities in our occupations and/or work we love every bit as much as men), drudgery will be involved. And in those moments when we are drowning in the boredom, the slog that feels neverending; when we are straining for that next big job to pay for unexpected expenses; when we are alone with our tasks that no one else can do because we’re unique; when we are exhausted and wondering what the hell we’re doing this for, we may feel as empty and colorless and vapid as any Bella: Thus we identify with her as a reflection of where we are at the moment, not a container for who we wish we were.
Sorry, guys. I know you experience the same drudgery, so feel free to substitute “James Bond” for “Bella Swan.” ↩
Barring Oprah picks, literary fiction sales may bear this out, but I’m not going to look it up. ↩
All from The Proviso, but all my characters have drudgery. The only character I have ever written who likes the drudgery is Jack Blackwood. But he’s really weird anyway. ↩
And make yourself feel even worse by diving into Pinterest and all those mommy blogs with awesome photography. ↩
Until, you know, Bella and Edward devolve into drudgery … eternally. ↩
The original article was taken down and there is no cached copy. You’ll have to take my word for it that this was in the original article. ↩
Yes, I know he’s 100. His entire situation makes no sense. Why are you a 100-year-old vampire going through endless courses of high school? There are better, more mature things to do with immortality unless you simply never progress beyond the age you were turned. This is never explained. ↩
I tackled this one in We Were Gods. Tess’s mother slapped her for saying she was not her kids’ mom and she was not Étienne’s wife. ↩
Germaine Greer said, “The misery of the middle-aged woman is a gray and hopeless thing, born of having nothing to live for, of disappointment and resentment at having been gypped by consumer society, and surviving merely to be the butt of its unthinking scorn.” Well, now that’s fucking depressing, isn’t it? ↩
A friend wrote something on her Book of Faces, and instead of taking up all her comment space, I thought I’d put it here. I felt impressed to say a couple of words, but then it went into many words and then paragraphs. OMG I take a lot of words to say a thing.
At some point in my life’s ride, I stopped thinking, planning, wishing, and dreaming and got on the rollercoaster and went for the ride to see where it went and deal with the fallout later. I did a bizarre, outlandish thing. I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t thinking. I was moving too fast to think anyway, too fast to second-guess myself. That thing I did got me exactly what I’d been looking for. But the rollercoaster ride was twisty and … fun. It was a grand adventure, really. That was 14 years ago.1
Then this summer, I got on a real rollercoaster for the first time in 25 years.2 I didn’t really want to. I don’t like rollercoasters. But Dude and XX Tax Deduction wanted to ride it so there I was with XY Tax Deduction who really didn’t want to ride it and after the first drop, it was wonderful. Well, I rode it a few other times and the last time I rode it, I didn’t have the lap bar down quite as tight, so I wasn’t completely pressed into my seat. And on the first hill and drop, I floated above the seat just an inch or whatever, but it was a fucking grand epiphany.3
Nobody ever told me that the secret to riding rollercoasters is to keep the lapbar just a tidge loose so you can let go and float over the hill and drop.
I have very rarely felt such an intense joy in my life as I did that moment I floated over the drop because my lapbar made it possible for me to let go and physics did the rest.
Met a guy online. Married him 6 months later. Had a kid 9 months after that. My only complaint is that we were stupid about buying a house. ↩
Novels particularly were associated with such habits of consumption, for they became a symbol of the newly accessible literary market. Commentators described them as feeding unwholesome appetites. In turn, certain readers were linked to novel-imbibing habits, particularly women. Describing their reading as consumption was a way of denigrating them, for it positioned them as vulnerable, ignorant and morally contagious. Gustatory metaphors often implied that women read according to the flesh, in contrast to the disembodied realm of ‘rational’ masculinity.
Countered by slow reading. These (to a fiction reader) are also fightin’ words:
But Lancelot R Fletcher, the first present-day author to popularise the term “slow reading”, argues that slow reading is not so much about unleashing the reader’s creativity, as uncovering the author’s. “My intention was to counter postmodernism, to encourage the discovery of authorial content,” the American expat explains from his holiday in the Caucasus mountains in eastern Europe. “I told my students to believe that the text was written by God – if you can’t understand something written in the text, it’s your fault, not the author’s.”
Emphasis mine. I have several opinions on this, all conflicting, except that postmodernism does tend to drive me up a wucking fall because invariably the term “intersectionality” and others like it enter the conversation. They’re rabbit trails that may or may not be as interesting as the original text.
One literature professor, Pierre Bayard, notoriously wrote a book about how readers can form valid opinions about texts they have only skimmed – or even not read at all. “It’s possible to have a passionate conversation about a book that one has not read, including, perhaps especially, with someone else who has not read it,” he says in How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read (2007), before suggesting that such bluffing is even “at the heart of a creative process”.
See: Born Yesterday. No, seriously, I’m telling you to see the movie. It’s not Great Art (nominated for a Raspberry)1, but there’s a pivotal scene with Nora Dunn’s character that is the thematic heart of the whole movie, when she’s surprised that Melanie Griffith’s character read the entirety of Democracy in America. She tells her that nobody ever reads those books. They just know enough about it to look smart at parties.
1) There are way too many books to be read to spend one’s life slow reading each book you pick up.
2) How many times have you devoured a book, then gone back for the express purpose of picking up details you know you missed the first time because you were so engaged with the story?2
It’s a remake of a 1950s movie and there is a stage play, so you don’t have to torture yourself with this one. ↩
Movie example: Watching Eyes Wide Shut as a single person is an entirely different experience watching it as a married person. ↩