This is a difficult book to review. On one hand, up until a specific point, I liked it. On the other hand, it turned offensive to the point of horror, demonstrating not only a repulsive prejudice but a use of lame stereotypical stock characters that detracted from the strengths of the novel. In the end, my enjoyment was dissolved by my own bitter disappointment.
Until that point of 0_o, I was loving this book.
Sophy is the only daughter of a diplomat, and has been following him around war-busy Europe. Now that her father has been assigned to South America, Sophy is to live with her aunt, Lady Ombersley, who will help Sophy find a husband. But Sophy’s father’s description of her is not at all the reality, and while most of Lady Ombersley’s family thinks Sophie is wonderful, her son, Charles Rivenhall, who has taken over management of the family’s finances and is as a result somewhat cranky in his responsibility, thinks Sophy is more trouble than she’s worth – and his fiancee dislikes Sophy, too.
Sophy strikes me as something of an original manic pixie dream girl, except for the diminutive tone of “pixie” because Sophy is very tall. She’s unconventionally attractive, memorable, energetic, irrepressible, and for God’s sake she comes with a small dog, a parrot, and a monkey. She’s got schemes. Plots! Plans! An almost diabolically ruthless intention to better the lives of everyone around her!
Of course, if you look up the book on TVTropes, Sophy’s listed as a “Chessmaster,” which she is, indubitably. She’s like a Manic Tall-Ass Chessmaster Dream Girl. She knows best, so stay out of her way.
(NB: If you follow the link to TV Tropes, I am not responsible for the approximate 4.5 hours of productive time you will lose. K?)
Sophy’s a bit like the movie version of Mary Poppins, with the vaguely sinister but well meaning and caring determination to making everyone all better, plus resolving every romantic pairing possible, including her father, who would be better off un-paired.
So what were the parts that I liked?
I loved the dialogue. I can’t even measure my giddy enjoyment of any scene in which Charles and Sophy debate, argue, attempt a civil discussion, and end up having a marvelously entertaining row.
I also loved the unintentional comedy from characters Sophy’s cousin Cecilia, and her aunt, Lady Ombersley. The idea that “no one can deny that nothing could be more ill-timed than Charlbury’s mumps” made me giggle for hours.
Sophy is a source of much consternation, with her determination to be literally and narratively in the driver’s seat. In one scene, Charles is discussing Sophy with his truly revolting fiancee, Eugenia Wraxton, after Sophy demonstrated to Charles’ horror that she is quite skilled at managing a team of horses. Miss Wraxton is most displeased for a multitude of reasons, from her desire for everyone to be miserable to her dislike of Sophy for taking Charles’ attention from where it ought to be (on Eugenia, of course):
“I am sure that it is not wonderful that she should have. To drive a gentleman’s horses without his leave shows a want of conduct that is above the line of pleasing. Why, even I have never even requested you to let me take the reins!”
He looked amused. “My dear Eugenia, I hope you never will, for I shall certainly refuse such a request! You could never hold my horses.”
But this is my favorite scene, because Sophy is so hilariously awful about the awful Miss Wraxton, and everyone can see (including the reader) how bad she really is, except for Charles, her fiance.
“Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be much obliged to you, cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!”
“But, Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton! She cannot help it, and I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!”
“I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!”
“Yes, indeed, but you have quote misunderstood the matter! I meant a particularly well-bred horse!”
“You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!”
“No, no! I am very fond of horses!” Sophy said earnestly.
Before he could stop himself he found that he was replying to this. “Selina, who repeated this remark to me, is not fond of horses, however and she -” He broke off, seeing how absurd it was to argue on such a head.
“I expect she will be, when she has lived in the same house with Miss Wraxton for a month or two,” said Sophy encouragingly.
The best parts of this book are the comedy, both in the dialogue and in the mad cap collective happy ever after-ness of the ending, which, much like a Shakespearean comedy, ties up every lose end so the reader is secure that every last person shall go on marvelously. Just don’t think about it all too hard or you’ll see holes. Big enough to ride a horse through.
The characters were mirrored in a way that I enjoyed as well. There’s an amazing similarity between Eugenia and Sophy. Both are interfering busybodies, and both overstep their social boundaries on a continual basis. But the reader is invited to cheer for Sophy and loathe Eugenia because Sophy wants people to have what they want, and to be happy. Eugenia, meanwhile, would prefer everyone were miserable and perhaps even without meaning to do so, makes everyone around her unhappy.
As Sophy says of Eugenia’s engagement to Charles: “She felt it a pity that so promising a young man should be cast away on one who would make it her business to encourage all the more disagreeable features of his character.”
So what didn’t I like? GEE CAN YOU GUESS?!
I wasn’t thrilled with the abrupt happy ending, the sudden turnabout for Charles and the lack of not-fighting scenes for Charles and Sophy. And as Sunita pointed out via Twitter, Sophy doesn’t change or grow or evolve. She gets her way, and everyone around her is probably better off for her involvement, and they’re all happy, but Sophy doesn’t develop. She achieves through her own machinations, which, while entertaining, was not as satisfying as having her develop or grow as a character.
But what really soured this book for me was the anti-Semitism.
HOLY GODDAM HELL WAS THERE EVER ANTI-SEMITISM.
I got a warning, when Hubert, Charles’ not-doing-so-well brother says, describing his financial predicament to Sophy, “Faced with large debts of honour, already in hot water with his formidable brother for far smaller debts, what could he do but jump into the river, or go to the Jews?”
Jewish moneylenders. Oh, boy. So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender. And then the whole book went to hell.
…the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer…. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance.
Mr Goldhanger had the oddest feeling that the world had begun to revolve in reverse. For years he had taken care never to get into any situation he was unable to command, and his visitors were more in the habit of pleasing with him than of locking the door and ordering him to dust the furniture…. The instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity, so he now smiled, and bowed, and said that my lady was welcome to do what she pleased in his humble abode.
GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.
Hamfisted, clumsy characterization, over-the-top villainy, AND EXTRA BONUS BIGOTRY on the side.
As Sunita wrote recently, knowing the depth of Heyer’s own anti-Semitism and bigotry makes it a bit more difficult to savor her books. I’m not sure I’ll be picking up a Heyer any time soon, even though I have yet to read Venetia and Cotillion, and both have been recommended most highly. (NB: Since writing this review, I read Venetia; review forthcoming!)
Otherwise, my final impression is one of disappointment. Deep, bitter, offensive disappointment.
And thus I’m struggling with how to assign the grade. Even as I fill in all the fields, and code everything, I’m still hopping from grade to grade in my mind. I liked some of the characters, I loved the dialogue, I enjoyed the fast-moving yet flimsy structure that pulled everyone together into a suitable finale and the plot manipulations (aka Sophy manipulations) that caused them all to arrive at their suitable ending.
I abhor the wooden, stereotypical villain, his nearly meaningless role and the unnecessary bigotry and anti-Semitism. It was pedantic and poorly done, and while I’m now unhappily acquainted with Heyer’s own anti-Semitism, I’m still baffled by the nearly elementary and frankly stupid use of the character. I very rarely presume to know what the author was thinking while writing, but in this case, the insertion of stock caricature is so disturbing, it’s as if Heyer said, “Hmm. I need a really evil guy for the heroine to vanquish with her charm and some stuff concealed in her muff! And to make him really, really evil, in case you missed the evil, nefarious, greasy, dishonest, cheating and greedy parts of his character, let me make sure you don’t miss it by making him JEWISH!”
(Also: no, not that muff. Sorry.)
So, frankly, I can’t praise this book any more than I already have. The parts of dialogue I so adored are not nearly enough for me to overcome what I found so repulsive. Without Goldmember, I’d have probably graded this book at about a C+/B-. The story was entertaining but I didn’t feel any real empathy for Sophy the way I would for a heroine who grows, learns and evolves in the story. I was initially wonderfully entertained, but with the major flaw highlighting all the other smaller flaws, I cannot recommend this book any more than I’d recommend buying fruit that was rotten inside.