(Note: Hi, Toni’s readers! *waves* I’m borrowing her blog for the day because I’m currently, shall we say, between blogs. (Why do I get a kick out of saying that?) You see, I needed a public place to post this review, and Toni obligingly said I could use hers. I promise to keep it lively and well-fed and return it in good shape when I’m done.
I had a good feeling about this book. The author, Sherry Thomas, loves Judith Ivory and Laura Kinsale, my two favorite romance authors. And the excerpt I read made me smile with quiet glee at the clear intelligence in her smooth authorial voice. And so far it’s gotten nothing but glowing reviews from romance review sites.
But I’ve been reading a lot of genre novels (and hell, non-genre novels) lately that have gotten great reviews here, there, even everywhere. That start off strong but fizzle around the beginning of Act 2 because the author only had that first setting-things-up section in her. Or he just didn’t think through the whole story. Or she forgot her characters shouldn’t do random stupid things just because the outline said they should. Or… well, you get the idea.
So I was eager but also nervous, especially since I won a copy of this book in a giveaway at Dear Author on condition that I write about it, and really, who wants to write a negative review of a book when you know the author (who you’ve never met) will likely read what you say?
So with this long preamble out of the way, what did I think of Private Arrangements, the debut historical romance from Sherry Thomas?
I loved it.
The novel takes place in England in the late 1800’s. It’s about a marriage that started out passionate and promising, but through a, shall we say, problematic choice on the woman’s part, fell apart quickly. The story picks up ten years later, after Gigi has filed for divorce. Camden has one request before he signs the legal documents. Now they have to deal with each other.
It’s an intriguing setup, though, granted, not an entirely original one. But there’s no entirely original plot in existence; the pleasure of a read is in how the author develops the flesh and muscle of story from those bare bones. And Thomas does a wonderful job. For the first half of the book, she alternates chapters between the current story and what happened ten years earlier. It’s a smart way to show, in a visceral, intimate way, both how these two people belong together and how they broke apart so dramatically. I was equally invested in the story in the present and the one in the past, which is no easy feat.
I love Gigi’s character. The very same traits that make her delightful to read also act as her Achilles heel. She’s determined, ballsy, strong, and confident. And it all makes sense, given her background and her mother’s strong (and oddly sympathetic) desire for her to marry well in order to ameliorate her father’s commoner heritage. I fell in love with Gigi almost right away.
Camden is somewhat more problematic for me. Oh, he’s appealing and interesting in his own right, don’t get me wrong. But some of his actions… well, I’ll get back to that in a minute. But overall, he does work for me. What works most is that he <i>gets</i> Gigi, completely and immediately. He sees how she operates and (mostly) admires her for it. And he too has a great deal of strength and determination, as is natural, given his own difficult (but loving) upbringing. These two feel like well-matched equals.
These are not cardboard cutout characters. They feel real. Their actions largely make sense. Neither fit entirely into the Haute Ton (did it still exist as such in late Victorian times?). Interestingly, in them both I can see budding modern sensibilities emerging in a traditional environment.
In far too many romance novels, a couple is estranged due to practically random misunderstandings and happenstance. As a reader, I often feel like shouting at the characters, “JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER!” or “IT WASN’T THAT BIG A DEAL, GET OVER YOURSELF!” Not so here. What Gigi did to cause the split ten years ago would absolutely be hard to forgive, hard to get past in a relationship. It’s also entirely consistent with her character. And yet it’s also entirely easy to empathize with her motivation in doing it.
I did have trouble with Camden’s initial response, however. Certain aspects of it felt forced, not emotionally true. I think this could have been avoided with a judicious use of backstory to illuminate exactly why the news hit him the way it did. I suspect Thomas struggled with this passage; the writing is not nearly as polished and acutely observed as it is in the rest of the book.
I also had some trouble with his request in the present. He wants an heir before they go their separate ways. Which I’m not sure I buy. He has siblings, and presumably can have an heir through their children. Or he can remarry. More importantly, he acts like he hates Gigi, even ten years later. He talks and behaves like sex will be an abhorrent chore. It’s clearly a lie, but I can’t tell if he’s lying to himself or just to her. So all I have to go on is what he says and how he acts. It’s too large a cognitive dissonance. As a reader, I needed a slightly larger insight into his current perception of her and what it means to choose to have a sexual relationship after they’ve been estranged so long.
The secondary romance added a much-needed effervescent fizz (especially one particular scene toward the beginning involving a kitten in a tree) – though it did take up a tad too much time in the telling, especially late in the story when I no longer needed as many bubbles to balance the main plot.
(While I’m critiquing, I do have one teeny tiny itty bitty language nit: eyes don’t meet, gazes do. And I’m not sure gazes should ever intertwine.)
Again, these are all small, small problems. The story WORKS. This novel is beautifully, masterfully written. The situation in the present ends up circling back in a lovely way, with Gigi’s current dilemma echoing Camden’s past dilemma, while another choice she makes shows how much she’s grown in the interim. All the characters are well observed, and the beats and scenes have a lot of emotional truth. And Thomas’ voice throughout is just wonderful. Witty, vivid, and altogether delightful to read. I stayed up far too late the night I got the book in the mail, wanting to keep reading just a little more and then just a bit more after that.
I think the theme of this novel is morality. What will we do to get what we desperately want? How far will we go? What happens when it backfires? And, conversely, how can we learn to forgive, to accept? In the present, Gigi has a sweet, fairly platonic relationship with a younger man; he’s an amateur artist. Part of what she loves in him is his open, uncomplicated, accepting warmth. He has a woman friend, a potential partner, but she criticizes his art, pushes him to do more, be more, be other than who he is.
In fact, maybe this is the true theme. We get to see how their early crisis has altered both characters ten years down the road, making them stronger but also in a way making them more truly themselves. In the end, this story is not only about the right, moral choice (and it is), but is also about perception and acceptance.
I think it’s no accident that Sherry Thomas has created in Gigi a fascinating, hyper-alive woman, but also one who bucks convention and acts from a very strong sense of self. In the secondary romance, Gigi’s mother explicitly sets out to act like her daughter, contriving a situation to make a duke fall into her lap (so to speak). And yet Thomas does something wonderful: the duke observes her without her knowledge. So he walks into the supposed trap knowing exactly what she’s up to. Which is a wonderful reversal, but it also works thematically: he now knows who she is, knows what she’s up to, in a way he knows the worst of her. And therefore when he thaws toward her, he’s thawing in truth, with full knowledge. Exactly what Camden couldn’t do. Camden knew Gigi, knew what she was capable of, but when she actually went there and did that, he couldn’t accept, couldn’t forgive. In the present, as they become closer and more able to put aside their anger, part of the way the reader can tell is by how much they share of themselves. Of their nonsexual selves. A lovely, understated emotional turning point involves a simple moment where Camden shows Gigi sketches of his work. Sharing who he is with her. And unlike Freddy’s lady friend, she responds by getting it. Getting him.
I want to reread this novel to analyze two things: First: how she made the sex scenes so damned sexy without resorting to the usual clichés. The language is fresh and the characters’ actions are very specific to that moment in the story.
Second: how she played the dark against the light. In the first half of the novel, the present day storyline is tense and painful. The characters show so much hardness on the surface, so much hurt underneath. But the early chapters set in the past are lovely, light and warm. And yet also increasingly painful, since you know what’s coming. In the second half, the past drops away, its story told. The interaction between the two in the present becomes more complicated: dark intermingled with light, hard with soft, as they tear down the walls and rediscover each other. Finally, the ending feels truly deserved. These people belong together. And Sherry Thomas belongs on my keeper shelf.
After reading this, it’ll be hard now to pick up yet another frothy historical romance with paper-thin plotting and contrived characterizations. I think I’ll switch gears for a while, read a few hard-boiled mysteries, maybe some lyrical, poignant fantasy. Sherry Thomas has another book coming out this summer. That’s not too long to wait, right?
This one, though, comes out this Tuesday, March 25th.