Thursday, May 17, 2012

The gossip girls of King Charles II

2.5 out of 5 stars

I honestly don't know what to make of this book. On the one hand, it's well-written (in some ways) and well-researched. On the other hand, it's structurally unsound, with an abrupt, "Where the heck did the rest of the book go?" finish.

The story revolves around three young ladies, all named Elizabeth and identified by nicknames--Eliza, Beth, and Zabby--as they make their way to the newly restored court of Britain's King Charles II. Eliza, identified as big-boned (which only seems to mean she's rather tall and sturdy and not obese as the term is used today), raised by a Puritanical father, secretly wants to be a playwright instead of the propitiously married-off wife her father wants and so under the excuse that being at court will increase her chances of finding an ideal suitor becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine (or as in this book, Catherine) of Braganza. Beth is horribly poor and thoroughly cowed by her harridan of a mother, but she's a beauty and it's that asset her pox- and pustule-covered mother uses to advance their family with an advantageous marriage. Beth catches the eye of the queen, who sees beyond Beth's shabby clothing and whore-like makeup, and gives her a place at her side. However, Beth's other asset is her virtue, something her insane mother protects fiercely with constant vigilance, threats and, when necessary, beatings which leave Beth bloody...but only in places where the scars won't matter. None of that matters to Beth as she's fallen in love, with a most inappropriate man, and will do anything to escape her insane mother and fulfill her romantic fantasy, even if that includes treason. Zabby has recently returned to England from a very provincial and free life in Barbados. Fascinated by her scientific studies, she happens to be in the right place and have the right knowledge to save the king's life. In return, he brings her to court, where everyone assumes she's the latest of his long line of mistresses, for if they knew the truth, that the king is mortal and barely escaped death, Charles, with the echoes of the mob who howled for his father's head still haunting his dreams, fears a lessening of his power and stature. Because of this and their shared love of science, Zabby and Charles spend many hours closeted together in his elaboratory and as Zabby comes to know the man behind the crown, she also comes to discover her own feelings about him.

First of all, I'm not sure why this is marketed as a YA novel. Just because the protagonists are young girls and the cover art makes the novel look like a 17th century version of Gossip Girl doesn't mean that a YA categorization is appropriate. After all, until the mid-twentieth century, there was no such thing as a teenager or the term young adult; you were a child and then, once you reached a certain age--if you were a boy--or you began menstruating, you were considered an adult, capable of being married, having children, keeping your own house. So these girls in the novel are technically adults. As such, most of the issues dealt with in the novel are more adult-oriented; that's not to say young people don't know about sex, prostitution, and whatnot--this is the age of sexting, after all--but wrapped up in the larger context of a royal court, with its intricate politicking, it just doesn't seem like an ideal YA novel. Never mind that the language used, while historically accurate and wonderfully colorful, would confuse many an adult, let alone younger people. Words like 'troth', 'cozening', 'swive' and 'daggle-tailed slut', among others, are completely unfamiliar to a modern audience; perhaps I'm underestimating today's young people, but I can only see their eyes glazing over when they start running into these words and phrases. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being a prude; in fact, I loved seeing all the flamboyant euphemisms flying about in the midst of scathing remarks and flippant wit. Once again, though, except for those rare few teenagers who love such detailed historical fiction, this just doesn't seem the right kind of book to compete for attention against The Vampire Diaries or Twilight (although, personally, I'd rather see more intelligent and adult books such as Ladies in Waiting being directed towards young adults than dreck such as Twilight and its ilk).

In regards to the actual writing, the characters were well-portrayed. Beth, the sappiest of them all, still had enough spirit to her that I never felt unduly annoyed by her behavior. Eliza was wonderfully spunky and outlandish and I loved how she spoke, her dialogue liberally dusted with historical colloquialisms and blazing wit. Charles was appropriately magnetic, giving the reader a plausible idea of how women of all stations could so easily fall in love with him, and yet equally repellent with his callow attitude towards Catherine and his imperious personality. Zabby was the only one with whom I didn't really connect. Her supposedly scientific mind wasn't always on display and oftentimes she behaved more like the typical love-sick teenager, meaning she could be moody, irrational, and petty. The novel's greatest strength was the language I mentioned above. Beyond its vividness and lively tone, there was never a moment when a modern phrase sneaked in and jolted me out of the 17th century (that I can remember). As far as pacing, while the novel had a flow to it, it wasn't always a steady flow. At times the story felt rather wobbly; the action wouldn't exactly stop, it would sort of plateau out and just kind of...sit there while another scene was built.

However, while I enjoyed the novel (even though some of the plot points were rather ridiculous), while it is descriptively written and compelling to read, I have one big problem with it: there was absolutely no ending. Nothing. Nada. Just a bunch of loose threads left dangling without even the slightest attempt to bring them together. The story just stops without giving us any idea of how these three girls ended up. The one achieves an ending, of sorts, as she accomplishes what she set out to do and we're told, in a couple of brief sentences, what happens next, but it's not the full closure her story deserves. The other girl suffers a horrible fate and while, on the one hand, the ending is realistic--after all, there is no happily ever after in life, so why shouldn't a fictional character also have a crappy ending?--and so I applaud the author for avoiding a saccharine cliche, I was equally annoyed by the author's lack of closure. We see the girl being driven away in her new husband's coach and we've got some idea of the horrible life she's going to have, but an actual description of what does happen to her would be nice. And the third character just goes back to doing what she was doing all along--really, that's it? Where's her character's growth? What has changed in her personality? I went through 328 pages of story for what? I just felt greatly unsatisfied when I turned the last page, by the lack of a proper ending, by the lack of character growth. No, unsatisfied isn't the right word, I felt cheated. I quite literally yelled out, when I reached the end and discovered this lack of closure, "What the hell kind of story is this? Where's a proper ending?" I'm all for the kind of "leave it to your imagination," "The Lady and the Tiger" type of tale, but not in this context. Really, I can't properly express the indignation and frustration I felt when I finished the last page; it was like I'd run into a brick wall.

Unless this is the beginning of a new trilogy, which I doubt because, had it been, the book's cover would've been plastered with all sorts of exclamatory remarks advertising that fact, this is a rather disappointing stand-alone novel. Honestly, I can't understand how it's getting published in such an unfinished state.

Read April 5-9, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program April 11, 2012

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