I mentioned to Candy recently that I was reading Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter and she said that she was looking forward to hearing my opinion, since she had problems with it. Yesterday we discussed it at length, which turned into something of a tandem review:
Sarah: What was your problem with The Dream Hunter? I’m getting frustrated with it and want to know your reasons for irritation. The language is beautiful but I want to knock the protagonist’s heads together.
Candy: One word: Heroine.
Six more words: I wanted to choke a bitch.
Sarah: HA! You crack me up. Seriously.
I liked her a lot when she was a male running around the desert, and I’ve been able to sympathize with some of her motivations, but what I don’t get is how Kinsale is writing one big mis after another. It’s camped out on the border of flawed characters right before moving into stubbornness for stubbornness’ sake.
So what made you want to smack a bitch?
Candy: Yes, I liked her when she was in pants as well. Once she was in England, she went beyond headstrong into DOWNRIGHT MENTALLY ILL. Seriously. She made me cringe so hard. And the misunderstandings do pile on, don’t they? The thing is, they’re character-driven. It’s not like, “Oh, she won’t talk to the hero because…because she just won’t!” Zenia is a headcase, and what she does is absolutely convincing—and really, really maddening.
I really like Arden, though. I wish he could’ve found himself somebody healthier and more appreciative of him.
But this is from reading the book 10, 11 years ago.
Sarah: You know, I agree. But I think the Character-Driven Big Mis is easier to take because I know why it’s happening. i.e. she’s a nutjob because she was forced into one life by her mother, then was forced into another life by Arden’s mother, and really never figured out who she was. But it’s all very subtle – and certainly she was horrifically abused as a child so that her actions toward lunacy make sense.
But when she’s screaming at Arden that she bundles her daughter up to her ears and then heats up the room because she’s afraid of losing her after she thought he was dead, you’d think he’d get a clue. And you’d think that he would understand how alien she felt, English in the desert, Arabic in England, and cut her a break. He’s a bit of a self-absorbed butthead, in the sense that he can’t understand that she feels just as he does, and he KNOWS that, but won’t remember it at crucial moments.
His knowledge, actually, bugs me. He knows Bedouin customs, and he knows the marriage laws are different. Why hasn’t it crossed his doofy mind that she would worry that he would put her aside? He’s more English than he thinks, because he can’t believe she’d even think of such a thing, and she’s more Arab than she thinks, because she can’t get over fearing that he’d reject her.
Candy: Oh, man, I totally forgot about that scene. Ooof.
The thing is, Arden has been abused, too. And he reminds me in a lot of ways of a lot of intensely shy, intelligent, self-conscious people I know who were raised by stern, overbearing parents: he’s inordinately sensitive to some cues, and completely oblivious to others. Most of them seem more likely to pick up cues of disapproval than cues of approval/love. Honestly, it’s the same problem with Zenia, too. I’ve seen this over and over in real life with various friends of mine. And it’s a credit to Kinsale that she renders this so convincingly and instinctually.
Damn, I really need to re-read this book. Maybe not now, because I’m not feeling up to diving into the bowl of dysfunction that’s Zenia and Arden, but I’m really curious to see if my impressions have held true over the years.
Sarah: It’s certainly a bowl of fucked-uppedness. And I can’t figure out if my feelings of frustration with the characters are the point of the story, because I have to admire them for the multi-facetedness of their emotional misery, or if I’m frustrated because I think their actions disagree with their motivations as characters. Pardon my blasphemy, but did Kinsale get some of their actions wrong, or am I just frustrated along with the two of them?
A heaping spoonful of empathy on the part of either one might help, and I have to downgrade the book in my mind every time I see them come close to a resolution and then notice that I have a good half-inch or more of book to read so no, it’s not a real resolution. It’s temporary or at least a conduit to yet another conflict, and I feel like I’m reading a soap opera where the tension is beginning to seem sustained just for its own sake. No happiness for either of you! Ever! Neither character has any room for vulnerability, and I can understand that, but at the same time, there are moments of great kindness and empathy on each of their parts, but not at the times when it would be most useful. Since I know from previous scenes that it’s within their capabilities, seeing yet another inch to go with more bullheaded obstinancy on either part makes me nuts.
To quote a character from the tv show How I Met Your Mother: “You like him, he likes you, happiness doesn’t have to be so hard!”
But given that I just read her diatribe on conflict and wussiness in romance reader’s expectations, I have to wonder if I am prejudiced against the conflict. The piles of little things working against them create a complicated, tangled agony, and really, at some point, there has to be a break where she can just listen to him, for the love of God. As the agony continues, I’m with you on the smack-a-bitch lineup.
Candy: And regarding Kinsale’s diatribe about conflict, and whether or not TDH represents wussiness on your part because you find it uncomfortable: I don’t think it does. I certainly don’t think it does with me. I’m one of the most masochistic readers I know. Pain? Angst? Mistreatment? Misunderstanding? FULL-ON DYSFUNCTION? BRING IT, BEYOTCH. Two of my all-time favorite romances are Seize the Fire and The Windflower, and given what the heroes put the heroines through in those two books, I don’t see how anyone could accuse me of not enjoying conflict, or flinching away from a book because I’m a tender widdle flowah who wants nothing but hugs and puppies and kisses in my reading material.
But TDH is different. TDH feels GRINDING. TDH exhausted me. It’s like seeing a codependent relationship played before your eyes. And it’s so maddening because you feel like the characters should be smart enough to break out of those spirals of destructive, hurtful behavior, but they don’t.
I think the difference between this book and the others is that they had more external conflicts that helped break up the action and inject some levity, and also because there were more good times than bad times. I could get why Merry wanted to stay with Devon, or why Olympia stuck with Sheridan. But Zenia and Arden? They had a brief idyll in the beginning of the book, and the rest of it’s pain, pain, pain.
Sarah: If you were grading it, though, what grade would you give? I’d have to say at this point, C+. Big ups for amazing writing, and truly lyrical and evocative descriptions to the point where I’d linger over paragraphs of description and then want to skip the dialogue because someone was going to say something obstinately bullheaded and I’d get irritated with them. I even emailed Kinsale because I’m a dork like that – even though I am having all kinds of frustrations with the characters motivations vs. their actions, I am mollified by the quality of the writing that I want to keep reading it, even if just to roll around in the prose like a kid in the leaf pile.
But down I go when it comes for the unending conflict – you were so 100% right when you said, “The characters should be smart enough to break out of those spirals of destructive, hurtful behavior, but they don’t.” I keep returning to a point where I ask myself, “Should he/she know better than to choose this course of action when they demonstrated some ability to accurately interact with this character a moment ago? Is it consistent with their character or is this just throwing more angst in the big pot of woe for the sake of super-sized angsty flava?”
It’s like one of those arguments you have where both parties are nearing hysterical temper and start firing outrageously random verbal bullets because at this point it’s just habit replaying itself – only it’s the TWO-THIRDS OF THE DAMN BOOK.
However, it’s still a testament to the quality of the book that I think about it that much. It’s not like I circle back and forth about the characterization of other heroines or heroes all the time that I’m reading. Kinsale’s characters are usually written at 500 dpi while the rest are at 72 or maybe 150, so I feel almost insolent criticizing them.
Candy: In terms of grade, I’m inclined to give it a B-. The writing and characterization are brilliant, but when it comes down to it, I didn’t really like Zenia, though Arden was a good deal more sympathetic to me—perhaps because he wasn’t so shrill, and perhaps because Zenia reminds me of the very, very worst aspects of myself writ large. And mind you, I don’t really need to LIKE the characters in order to like a book, but when it comes to a romance novel, I have to be invested in their happiness, and the dynamic between Arden and Zenia frustrated me too much for me to do that unreservedly. I can’t give it anything less than a B, though, because I had such a strong reaction to the characters, and because when I rooted for them, I rooted for them HARD. And because the ending just killed me with its sweetness, and gave me just a little bit of hope for the two of them. It speaks well of an author, that I talk about characters in such a way, and that I feel so frustrated with them precisely because they’re so alive to me.
And as for whether the conflicts were for conflict’s sake: again, it’s been a while since I read the book, but I remember that not being a problem with me. It didn’t feel contrived. And that, in a nutshell, is probably why that book captured me and maddened me at the same time.
Sarah: I’m resting at my final grade of C+, because, as you said, the writing was good and I was so invested in the characters, but I had a few problems with the ending, though it was indelibly sweet.
For one thing, what was her growth? Did she heal? Admitting that she had a problem, a big huge psycho problem, and that she needed his help? I felt the ending wasn’t solidified by enough foundation, and as you said last night, can I believe that they’ll last into neverending permanence? Not really. And with all the suffering, I wanted that reassurance.
In the end, I have to say, harshness towards the angst and the heroine aside, this was a marvelously written novel about two very flawed people who, despite being frustrating to read about, I rooted for. I wanted their happiness, even if it seemed they couldn’t be bothered to want it for themselves. It’s moving, detailed, vivid, and possesses some of the best descriptions and scenes I’ve read in awhile. But like any Kinsale novel, it’s not a book you put aside lightly. It’s an experience.