A reader emailed me to tell me about this book back in August, and after reading the description online, I bought it. I wanted to like it – mathematician heroine! Not All Lords and Ladies Up In Here! So many things I was curious about, and I went in eager and excited.
I very quickly lost patience with the heroine, the hero and the plot, and was disappointed by how difficult it was for me to connect with the heroine. But while griping to Jane via email about my struggles to find a book that gave me Good Book Noise™ I was surprised when she recommended this very book – because she'd enjoyed it.
So we debated about this book on the latest podcast, and I discussed briefly my problems with the heroine, but I wanted to explain myself more fully.
Lydia is a mathematics genius who lives with her sister and her aunt in a somewhat perilous financial status in a not-too-excellent-but-not-hideous part of London. She discovers that her aunt has pawned a necklace that is very important to her, and goes to see the man who bought it, Alexander Hall, Viscount Northwood. Alexander is not willing to part with the locket, and is very curious about Lydia's daring and persistence in getting the locket back. They agree on a series of bets based in part on Lydia challenging Alexander's mathematics skills. When Alexander, who has been trying for years to carefully redeem his family socially after his mother ran off in scandal, realizes he is very attracted to Lydia, he learns that she has big secrets that could derail everything he's been working toward for himself and his family.
So here's what made me irritated, in a list.
The hero has a maddening case of insta-love that's right on the heels of insta-lust. He also resolved things that should have been bigger issues much too quickly for my liking. He is struggling to restore the respectability of his family despite his mother's scandalous affair and departure from England, and despite increasing anti-Russian sentiment at odds with his family's presence and investment in Russia. The scandal (I'm avoiding a big spoiler here, so forgive my vagueness) he is confronted with, I thought, would have given him more than a paragraph or two of rumination. But he works it all out in the space of a page – when this secret was driving much of another character's motivation.
I was so curious about Alexander's love of Russia, and the way he and his family would discuss it. Each person in his family said something about Russia in a way that made it clear it was a place they loved and missed, even though admitting that fondness publicly would be unacceptable. I am sorry that it wasn't more of the story. They seemed to be balanced on the uncomfortable point of knowing that social acceptability is important for specific, tangible reasons, but also knowing that their social acceptability based on the narrow standards was unlikely.
Here's Lydia's aunt, who I never warmed up to either, talking about Lydia's meeting with Lord Northwood, highlighting the prejudices Alex and his family were working against:
Curiosity narrowed her grandmother’s eyes. “So what was he like?”
“Lord Northwood?” Lydia searched for words. “Polite, I suppose. Implacable.”
Compelling. Handsome. Tempting… Lydia cut short the thought. She must not think of any man in that way, least of all Lord Northwood.
“Hmm.” Mrs. Boyd tapped her cane. “From what I understand, Lord Rushton’s sons have something in their blood, Cossack ancestors and all. The earl has an ancient family that extends back to the Normans, I believe, pure English lineage there. Not from their mother, though. It accounts for their roughness, that Russian blood. Even before the scandal, Lady Chilton was concerned about the prospect of her daughter marrying Lord Northwood.”
Lydia blinked. An unpleasant emotion rose in her chest, something greenish brown, the color of slimy grass beneath a layer of slush. “Lady Chilton’s daughter is going to marry Lord Northwood?” she asked.
“Not anymore, no. They were affianced at one time, but then after Lady Rushton behaved so abominably, Lord Chilton called off the engagement. He refused to have his daughter associated with the Halls, despite their wealth.”
Lydia let out her breath, realizing that her hand was trembling slightly.
“All those brothers, and the sister, too, have spent a great deal of time in Russia,” Mrs. Boyd remarked. “It’s no wonder they’re not much in demand. I’ve heard they’re a bit uncivilized.”
Lydia bit her tongue to prevent a retort. Although she was loath to admit it, she thought her grandmother’s commentary on Alexander Hall had some merit. Despite his impeccable appearance, something feral and turbulent gleamed in the viscount’s eyes—something that called to mind Cossack soldiers, silver sabers, and the wide plains of the Russian steppes.
(My note at the end of that last paragraph: “What?”)
Alexander and his family are not able to be themselves, their partly-Russian, Russia-loving selves, and be acceptable as they were. They had to deny and minimize that part, and the part where Alexander's mother ran off in a big humiliating and hurtful scandal. When they talked about Russia, it was with a loving and sad tone, as it was clearly a place they missed, and I wanted to know more about that than I ultimately did.
I wanted to root for Alexander, but I never believed in the chemistry between Lydia and Alexander, either. I felt like I was being told about it, repeatedly reminded that there was a “strange power” vibrating between them, some undeniable connection — that they reacted to in rote and wooden fashion. They seemed more drawn to each other because of their roles as the hero and heroine more than any deeper attraction. Their repeated proximity near one another seemed forced and contrived at times, and I never believed they were driven toward each other. I thought they were being driven even though they didn't quite fit, like pressing a jigsaw puzzle piece that looks really really similar to the curved space but isn't meant to go there.
Finally, and I talked about this at length in the podcast, Lydia is a supposed mathematical genius. She is attempting to mathematically quantify human relationships, and works on math problems of her own creation most of the time. She's respected among other male mathematicians and her education has been unique for her gender.
At no time did I feel like Lydia's actual discussion and use of mathematics was anything more than a veneer applied to her character. She repeats theorems and ideas but they have no connection to the story or context in which she repeats them to herself. As I said in the podcast, she might as well have been repeating Successories or tongue twisters. I get, as Jane pointed out, that the repetition is comforting to Lydia, since some social interactions baffle her, but I never got the sense that she understood what she was saying. I thought she was repeating words without comprehending them, or having any reason to connect them to the moment she was in. WHY those words, why THAT theorem, why THAT moment for THAT particular rule?
For example, here's Lydia, when she's emotionally overwhelmed:
The sine of two theta equals two times the sine of theta times the cosine of theta. Lydia repeated the trigonometric identity until the threat of disturbing emotions had passed.
I never understood why this was comforting. She's repeating words and not giving any demonstration or indication that she understands them.
Much like the development of Lydia and Alex's relationship, I felt as if I was being told that Lydia was a math genius, and the use of mathematic language was supposed to support that idea. Instead, for me, it highlighted how much Lydia didn't seem to know about math. Her repetitions became meaningless because they were never explained nor connected to the scenes or to the characters, and they had as much meaning as cliche by the end. I never quite understood what it was that math did for her that she relied on it so much, and felt that by the end of the story, her repeating of theorems and devising of problems were a superficial eccentricity applied to the outside of her character. I didn't see any influence or embedded subtleties in her behavior to echo the outward verbalizations and mental recitations of mathematics that were supposed to be essential to her character.
I felt that the answer from the story to my question, “WHY is that mathematic theorem important to her at that moment?” was, “Well, because it is.” That does nothing for me in understanding a unique and genius character. Her repetition and use of mathematics seemed like a veneer, merely extra words and mathematic language applied to a stock character.
In the end, there's a villain who is SO EVIL he might as well twirl a mustache and tie all of them to a train track with rope made of barbed wire and bad intentions, a build of suspense that made me roll my eyes more than turn the pages, and a set of characters in circumstances I wanted to like but I never engaged with successfully.
I was so curious and eager to read about these characters as they were described, but by the end, I felt that they didn't seem more developed than their descriptions. There was a lot of possibilty in the story, characters that were new and different. I wish it had been more.