RITA Reader Challenge Review

The Depth of Beauty by A.B. Michaels

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Erika S. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance category.

The summary:

In 1903 San Francisco’s Chinatown, slavery, polygamy, and rampant prostitution are thriving— just blocks away from the city’s elite, progressive society. Wealthy and well-connected, Will Firestone enters the mysterious enclave with an eye toward expanding his shipping business. What he finds there will astonish him. With the help of an exotic young widow and a gifted teenage orphan, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, where lust, love and tragedy will change his life forever.

A stand-alone novel, The Depth of Beauty is the latest addition to the dual genre series “Sinner’s Grove,” which chronicles the family and friends of a world-famous artists’ retreat on the northern California coast. The stories follow both historical and contemporary tracks and can be read separately or together for greater depth. Other titles in the series include the award-winning The Art of Love, Sinner’s Grove and The Lair.

Here is Erika S.'s review:

NB: Trigger warnings for the below description racism and threat of rape.

Well, I picked this book to review because I was late to the sign-up sheet and it was the only book left. Which wasn’t maybe the best sign, but you never know with these things, and part of my idea with this challenge was to get out of my comfort zone and try something new.

The Depth of Beauty is not the book to make me reconsider my comfort zone. Give me my comfort zone!

Set in San Francisco in the early twentieth century, the book follows Will Firestone, the eldest son of a prominent San Francisco family as he … does some stuff, I guess. Part of the story involves him becoming a better person by getting to know the Chinese immigrants living in Chinatown and learning about what it’s like to not be rich and privileged…soo, yeah.

He meets and falls in love with Tam Shee Low, a gross stereotype of a Chinese woman with bound feet (which he is super patronizing about). Later, Will slowly discovers feelings for Mandy Culpepper, a farm girl his sister adopts at age fifteen after her father is killed on Will’s job site.

I’m going to be honest – I didn’t finish this book. It was so long and so bad! Honestly I almost gave up right at the beginning, maybe twenty pages in, when Will first meets Mandy. Meetings are supposed to be a big deal in romantic stories, no? Anyway. Will goes to visit the family who have taken Mandy in after her father’s death. The wife (who might have a name? I don’t know) wants Mandy to stay and help her take care of their young children.

The husband, Dell, asks to speak to Will privately – he has a man thing to say:

Look, I’m a God-fearin’ man. I got a pretty little wife and three good kids. But I’m human. And the Good Book says we got to keep ourselves away from temptation whenever we can. We got to put up guardrails against the Devil. I’m not sayin’ Mandy’s the Devil, I never would. But I’m sayin’ you can’t spend too much time with her and not see how doggone beautiful she is.

The girl, by the way, is a fifteen year old who has just lost her father and is now a homeless orphan. Who has showed no interest in Dell. So I’m pretty sure what Dell is saying here, ultimately, is get this girl out of my house or one of these days I’m just going to rape her on account of her bein’ so doggone beautiful. Gross, Dell.

Now, I’m going to be honest here and say that I actually love romances with a hot older dude. I even love those slightly old-school guardian-ward romances (sorry). But they only work for me when the hot older dude is appropriately angsty about whether the younger heroine will want to be with a man so much older than her, and where he does everything in his power to minimize the power differential between them. Also he has to be hot and compelling as a character, so … yeah.

Mandy herself comes off as a ridiculous stereotype of a country girl with some sort of a running thing about chickens, only later in the novel turning into a frustrating Mary Sue-type character, beautiful and all-capable and totally devoid of flaws or characterization generally. She has a first-person journal running through the book, which adds little and mainly reviews events that have already happened.

And then there is Tam Shee Low, the other point of the love triangle, and the gross, racist, White Saviour garbage that taints all of Will’s interactions with her and literally every other Chinese character. Will meets Tam Shee through a businessman named Cheung ti Chu, a sleazeball who wants Tam Shee as his second wife. Cheung manufactures a reason for Will to meet her so he can show off his hot, submissive future wife. Instead, Will decides to save her, and sets up some kind of sewing school for Chinese girls so that Tam Shee can be an instructor and not have to marry Cheung. Then he falls in love with her, while also worrying if their two spheres can ever meet, what with her … not knowing about Christmas. For realsies (also, he just assumes she doesn’t know about Christmas, he doesn’t do anything crazy like ask her about it).

The Chinese immigrants of Chinatown are exoticized and othered in every page of this book. They are prostitutes and Chinese mafia lords and opium addicts and polygamists and slave owners – unless they are the beautiful and helpless victims of such, in which case they just need to be saved by the friendly Mission lady and/or Will Firestone. The white inhabitants of San Francisco are Hollywood-style racists, who denigrate the Chinese and threaten to demolish Chinatown entirely. Unless they are Will Firestone and friends, in which case they are the only ones who can save Chinatown for its colourful, exotic inhabitants.

Don’t read this book. Seriously. It’s boring, it’s racist, all the characters are horrible. It’s long (479 pages) and it feels even longer. It’s not even bad in that so-bad-it’s-good way, where it’s bad, but at least you learned a new, fascinating way a book can be bad (like with dinosaurs!). It’s just bad. I tried to finish it – I tried so hard for you! I got shockingly far too, thanks to a whole lot of skimming. But it was grim, and I seemed to be getting no closer to the end, and I imagined myself like, reading and reading and hating every moment and never finishing, like some kind of literary Sisyphus. So I stopped. Don’t let my sacrifices be in vain! Don’t read this book.

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The Depth of Beauty by A.B. Michaels

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  1. 1
    Megan M. says:

    Yikes! That’s a lot of “nope” in one story. I don’t blame you for not being able to power through. I’ve gathered from other posts about the RITAs that any book can be nominated by anyone, but … really, who nominated this???

  2. 2

    Yikes. I’m horrified that this book is a finalist.

  3. 3

    @ Megan M:
    Writers nominate their own books. So that fact that this was nominated? Not surprising. But it’s quite depressing that it’s a finalist.

  4. 4

    I need to clarify. Books for the RITA are NOT nominated. Books are entered, either by the author or the publisher. The books are read and scored on a scale from 1-10 and finalists determined by these scores.

    What you are reading now are RITA FINALIST books. NOT “nominee” books.

    Okay? 🙂

  5. 5
    Hope says:

    @Cynthia – that’s interesting. So who does the scoring?

  6. 6

    Hope – the books are read by members of the RWA Published Authors Network (PAN) members.

  7. 7
    kitkat9000 says:

    @Cynthia – Even with that clarification something this bad shouldn’t have gotten through to become a RITA finalist.

    @ErikaS – Thank you for taking one for team and no, it was not in vain because I for one am not going anywhere near this dumpster fire.

  8. 8

    I have not read this book, but I know that one reader’s opinion does not make a book, nor should it break a book. Heaven knows there have been books in the past that I DNF (and I can think of a couple that WON the RITA that I DNF.) May not be your (or the reviewer’s), or even my cup of tea but others might enjoy it.

    Each RITA entered book gets 5 scores. The highest and lowest are dropped (for statistical reasons I sort of understand but can’t explain!) And having entered this contest and read all the finalist books in certain categories (I like to see what beat mine out, etc), I can tell you it is HARD to be a finalist. Being in the finals is a serious accomplishment.

    So hats off to this author for being a finalist.

    Thank you @ErikaS for the review. It’s TOUGH to break out of your comfort zone to read things you don’t normally read.

  9. 9
    Farah says:

    Um, no. I can excuse slow pacing, I can excuse not connecting with the hero, but racist othering of other cultures? No. I will not give hats off to this author, not when so many writers of colour are struggling. And I will side eye the judges who judged this to be a finalist.

  10. 10
    Omphale says:

    It does seem like this year’s selection is out of step with the Bitchery’s tastes. I’m wondering if that’s a fluke, or whether there’s some larger schism happening.

  11. 11
    Alyssa Day says:

    Hey Sarah! Will you please edit your headings on these? There are no “nominees” in the RITA contest. The RITA is a judged contest with finalists only. Thanks!

  12. 12

    FYI, this RITA category was new – the previous “Strong Romantic Elements” had been discontinued a few years ago, and this was brought back this year. It may affect the number of entrants, since it was not a category for several years in between.

  13. 13
    Lizzy says:

    I think racist and othering depictions of POC should disqualify a book from being a finalist, full stop. In 2017 it’s unacceptable to have books in the running for the most prestigious award in romance that rely on tired, racist tropes. This finalist and the Nazi hero from a year or two ago give me serious concerns about the judgement of the RWA and the panel of judges who score them. I absolutely understand not being on the same page as other readers, there are some very popular books that I actively disliked or felt meh about but I think there should be a handful of things that automatically disqualify a book. I would suggest racism and sexual assault by the hero or heroine as two.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    Since this review came in, I have been trying to read this book. I have made it through about 25% so far, and I have to take regular breaks. The racism is ghastly – everything that Erika says about the othering, the exoticism, token character portrayals, and the white savior characters is visible in the first few chapters. Read the sample yourself if you’d like to examine the text.

    The debate of semantics and the RITA process happens every year. I empathize the challenge of running and judging a contest in a marketplace that expands exponentially every year, and of trying to accommodate a genre that changes hourly. But to echo what Farah and kitkat9000 said, it’s unacceptable and I think harmful on multiple levels that this book is a finalist.

  15. 15

    I already expressed my anger in on Twitter after reading this review, but after SB Sarah‘s comment above I had to go look at the sample. I’m not sure how there’s a “depth of beauty” in a book that has the protagonist musing that you can’t tell one “Oriental” man from another. And, oh, he’s not discriminatory like the city’s other businessmen. He does business with “Chinamen” and has found they’re “intelligent, shrewd” and yet “inscrutable.”

    No, thank you. My hat is not off to this. And I’m sick at heart that we YET AGAIN have to look *back* on a RITA finalists’ slate and wonder how this kind of work got through. Asian romance readers EXIST. Asian RWA members EXIST. We are not just exotic wallpaper in harmful and hurtful historical fiction.

  16. 16
    Tam says:

    Whoa. And um, whoa. Thank you for biting the bullet on this one so I never accidentally pick it up.

  17. 17

    @ Farah

    Yeah, exactly. No hats off from me. Books I don’t particularly like often final in awards, but that doesn’t usually bother me much. People have different tastes.

    This isn’t the same. This one makes me ANGRY.

  18. 18
    Camille Jones says:

    @Suleikha Snyder:

    What really pisses me off about this type of careless racism in historical fiction is that many readers (and writers) defend it as “just showing the reality of the times.”

    Authors have complete control over the world they are building in their text. The careless use of racism under the guise of accuracy is bullshit. I’m a black woman, but I still reached out to other black writers of historicals to discuss the use of racial slurs. Because language matters–readers today matter. POC read for escapism just as much as non-POC. And considering that so many people encounter other cultures and histories through entertainment, it is incredibly irresponsible to perpetuate harmful narratives that continue to influence how ethnic & cultural groups are named, viewed, and treated today.

  19. 19

    @ Suleikha, Sarah

    Thank you for taking a look at the sample because I don’t think I can stomach it. This one has upset me all afternoon. I think it’s affected me particularly strongly because I’m part Chinese.

    I admit I don’t know much about San Francisco Chinatown, but I recently read a non-fiction book about the history of Chinatown in Toronto, and…it wasn’t like this.

    I’ve written books with Chinese-Canadian heroes and/or heroines. Some of them I can’t sell. Perhaps I should make the characters mafia lords or prostitutes instead of landscapers and pharmacists, if this is the sort of thing that finals for major awards. It’s depressing.

    Thank you, Erika, for taking the time to write this review.

  20. 20
    mharvey816 says:

    Honestly, I would have peaced or just on the blurb. Calling a woman “exotic” rarely bodes well for me.

  21. 21
    ClaireC says:

    Just the summary of the book was giving me big “nope nope nope” vibes, and the review only confirms that. Thank you for taking a chance on this book and soldiering through as much as you did.

  22. 22
    Karen H near Tampa says:

    This is just another year in which I read the reviews here for the RITA finalists and feel that this is not an award I can respect. This seems to happen every year. I know people have different opinions and some people like things I don’t and vice versa, but the reviews on this site always touch on very valid points that should not be celebrated. Sometimes, the reviewer points out that the writing is good and the unfortunate points are handled well, but here’s another one where that’s not the case. There are so many thousands of romance novels published every year that it’s amazing to me that these may possibly be considered to be the best. I honestly respect the SBTB reviewers a lot more than the RITA reviewers based on my many years of reading the very thoughtful and detailed reviews on this site about what’s getting nominated (sorry, Cynthia, but I don’t feel there’s any defense for this book and the previous one with the Nazi “hero” being a finalist).

  23. 23
    rube says:

    So, I’m sure others are doing this already, but I’m going to write a letter to the RWA expressing my concern over this and… I don’t know maybe suggesting a change to the judging process.

  24. 24
  25. 25
    Sara says:

    I am not surprised that you gave this book a DNF. After I finished reading the summery, I knew this book was going to be AWFUL.

    I also read the preview on Amazon, and I have to say, even if I disregarded the problematic elements, I still would not finish this book. The writing was uninteresting, the chapters were too short, and the characters all felt two-dimensional.

    Speaking of Amazon, I am disappointed this book got such a high rating. 4.9 stars out of 5 is way too high for this book. Even more so, when I discovered that the lowest rating the book got was 4 stars.

  26. 26
    P. J. Dean says:

    Yanno, all those “diversity panels” given at all those conferences to help writers pen characters that don’t look or live like them? A TOTAL WASTE OF EVERY PRESENTERS TIME! Seems writers are gonna write what they want.

  27. 27
    Elaine A says:

    I know it’s a small thing in light of the deeply problematic content within the pages, but I’m so bothered by the cover. The blurb sells both women as love interests, and yet the “beauty” is represented by the underage white woman (draped with pearls, no less), while the Chinese aspect gets…a lantern and roof detail.

    I’m with those who are disappointed this made it as a finalist in the premier contest in our genre. (And also thankful to have been saved from spending my money by a reviewer who is sensitive to representation.) I realize it’s a judged contest, but does this book’s inclusion suggest a lack of strong diversity among judges? I’d like to see the RWA make a much more declarative, affirmative push to embrace readers and writers of color, and to make certain the contest judges are as diverse and representative group as they can muster. I know it isn’t easy to recruit busy writers to become judges, but what a disservice to readers to tacitly promote (via RWA’s “stamp of approval”) such harmful, outmoded, and inaccurate content.

  28. 28
    Rose says:

    What the fuck is this?

    I really don’t care if the process includes nominees, judges, panels, or if they just pull them out with a claw from a toy tank in a bowling alley. This is bullshit. It gives the RITA contest a bad name, but more importantly, it’s insulting to romance readers as a whole. If this were submitted for publishing in “highbrow” fiction (another bullshit category, see another rant another time) it would never see the light of day. If you love and respect romance, why do it such a disservice?

    “Showing the times” isn’t an excuse. It’s an incredibly delicate exercise to look back at a time period rife with racism or sexism or anti-Semitism and display it with both accuracy and compassion. We’re still arguing centuries later about whether Shylock is gross caricature or clever commentary, and that’s Shakespeare. If it can’t be done well, leave it alone.

    I would argue that romance has an especially great responsibility to be aware of charged undertones (or overtones, in this case) of any -isms, because in romance the reader falls in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. Do not normalize racism or Nazism (or pedophilia! what the fuck) with a candy patina of romance. Use that power for good. Please.

  29. 29
    Rose says:

    Also, also, ALSO, one more goddamn thing, say it with me, complimentary racism is still racism. Even if every single Asian character in this book was described as being beautiful and brilliant and shrewd and charming and could fucking fly because of being Chinese, that would still be racist! Anytime you attribute traits to someone based on her race, that’s racism.

    I’m going to go sit down before I give myself a hernia.

  30. 30
    kkw says:

    I know I should just expect this by now. RITAs aren’t going to do a better job than the Oscars or the Grammys or the whole of our pervasively racist society when it comes to making choices and casting votes. I am at a loss for larger solutions, but I’m grateful for the reviewer’s work here.

  31. 31
    LMC says:

    I am saddened and dismayed that the RWA screening committees chose to ignore the racism in the first place.

  32. 32
    Mags says:

    Some of her Amazon reviews, especially the first 3, appear to be written by her friends. They only have reviews of her books posted and they all sound like they were written by someone who just read the cover copy. I always find it suspect when there are NO neutral or negative reviews. I didn’t make it to the sample chapter, I got hung up on the weirdness with the reviews and the utter awfulness of the premise of the book and the parallel timelines in the series.

    Out of curiosity, I checked out the Goodreads reviews which are more spread out, but one of the 5 star reviewers writes <q cite="This book sounds great! I hope to win, read it and enjoy the story … If I win, the review will be updated once I read the book 🙂 Kind of sounds like someone bribed readers with a free book contest to get some of the 5 star reviews?

  33. 33
    Mags says:

    Forgot the close quotes and the >…. The quote ends at the smiley

  34. 34
    MsCellanie says:

    I don’t understand how this keeps happening is there a “Sad Puppies” type of group in the RWA that wants to tank this genre award as well? If so, why isn’t anyone saying/doing/reacting to it?
    If there isn’t, why isn’t the RWA doing something? Keeping blatant racism out of your award finalists seems like a pretty easy thing to do. I don’t understand why they’ve chosen to promote it. Even if they don’t care themselves – I would think that as a group that wants to be taken seriously, wants their authors to be taken seriously, and wants their awards to mean something, they’d take a few hours and screen the submissions first.

  35. 35
    Jenny says:

    I don’t think this kind of caricatured writing can even be justified by saying “it’s showing the realities of the time period!” Unless you’re writing in the 70’s (or writing from the pov of somebody in the past), these caricatures just come off as ignorant. The author does know that Chinese people are people too, right? Even if the main character thinks they’re all the same, they should still all act like individual people. Of course, from what other people have said, it seems like all the different cultures were given a broad brush characterisation, so the author probably just didn’t care about nuance.
    And kicking the orphan out because she’s just too hot and tempting? Ugh.

  36. 36
    sarita says:

    I knew there was a problem here in the first line of the summary, where it describes 1903 SF’s elite society as ‘progressive.’ uuuuuuh nope. And add in that this is said to contrast with the barbaric practices in Chinatown, then wrap it up with a rich white hero on a ‘journey of self discovery.’ Gag me.

    The thing about racism in historical fiction is that there’s a difference between portraying the attitudes of the time, and writing as if those attitudes were justified. The people of the past didn’t actually fit the stereotypes held about them then any more than people now fit current stereotypes.

  37. 37
    NT says:

    Mags,
    Plenty of authors, new and established, host book giveaways on Goodreads. There’s a full list of current ones here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway . I’ve entered some of them myself, because, hey, free books. There’s nothing sneaky or nefarious about it, and it’s not much of a bribe since readers can post what they want (and it looks like her negative reviews came from free copies too). I’ve seen readers who seem to rate a book 5 stars when they enter for some reason without reading the book, but then, I’ve seen readers give 1 star for books they haven’t read too. A lot of people use GR as a personal library and their reviews and ratings aren’t intended for anyone else. It happens.

  38. 38

    Maybe the book needed a character who shows the other side of life in the Chinese community. A businessman, for example, who is successful despite facing prejudice every day. Someone who forces the main character to look at himself again. Anyway, that’s what I’d have done.

  39. 39

    The blurb lost me at “exotic”. Unless she has antennae, it’s a racists trope.

  40. 40
    Jeannie says:

    I have not read this book, so I can’t say much about it. I do have broader thoughts about why stereotyped and cliched portrayals of “the other” are often overlooked as normal (or even more correct than a nuanced depiction) by people who have been exposed to nothing but stereotypes–but won’t go into it much deeper here.

    I do want to say that I am (guiltily) a little happy that 1) There is a mainstream with central romance category this year and 2) two of the books feature Chinese characters prominently even if one is considered to be a two-dimensional representation.

    As I’ve said, I haven’t read this book. But more representation for Asian characters would mean there’s more good as well as bad. When there’s so little representation, the stereotyped ones feel all the more wounding. But with a range of representation, there can start to be a wider understanding and discussion.

    For everyone feeling that this book didn’t do Chinese culture any justice and reflects poorly on the RITA process, consider that the other finalist — The Moon in the Palace by Weina Randel — is an awesome depiction of feminine power where women are heroines, villains, sisters & enemies. Sometimes all at once. And it’s set in Tang Dynasty China about a woman that we should learn about in school books.

    Not to say this book cancels out the other one in any way. Just saying read The Moon in the Palace. And feel the balancing of the scales a little bit.

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