fiction, review

Sugar and Snails

What are we? Are we what we want to be? Or are we what the society wants us to be? Do we live freely? Or do we live in boxes? So many questions of identity, but we might only have one answer for all those, and it’s the complicated one. Identity is never an easy thing to talk about, it’s not even easy for us to ponder and decide the essence of our own identity. Anne Goodwin, in her debut novel Sugar and Snails, tries to formulate an answer of her own, where she uses a coming-of-age story to point out the restlessness we always feel when it comes to choosing, or determining, our identity.

For years Diana Dodsworth has been living alone, no love no husband, no boyfriend even. She only has one best friend and is busy with her job as a junior lecturer in the psychology department of a university. It seems to go on that way until one day her best friend, Venus Najibullah, introduces her to a widower colleague, Simon Jenkins. Diana never thought before that this time she would really fall in love with a man, but that happens and there’s nothing she can do about it. Lucky her, Simon feels the same way too and appears to look forward to having a serious relationship with her. Unfortunately, it’s still so hard for her to have such kind of relationship with a man, especially with her complicated past, teenage, rush decision, and never-ending restlessness even after making the decision. All those things continue to shadow her and gnaw away at her confidence as a woman, and as a human being. At the end, the only question swirling around her is: will other people accept her the way she is? Will the one she loves take her as she is?

Questions of identity will always be following us since there is no way we can avoid the clash between “the self that we want to be” and “the self that other people/society want us to be”. And that doesn’t only happen to teenagers, in my opinion. Adults can experience the same thing for the simple fact that society has a certain standard of “what we should be”, and when we fail to meet it, there is a huge possibility that the society will judge us wrong/deviant/strange and eventually banishes us from the group. And that’s what Diana cares a lot about: people’s approval. For thirty years she’s been afraid of “what people say”, clearly proven by her reluctance to bring her birth certificate out and her pretense of having fear of flying just so that she won’t have to produce her passport. She is described as a coward, afraid of facing the consequence of the decision she made in her teens.

Identity is a complex problem anyone could have, and the answer will always be rooted in our upbringing. To my thinking, we were all born pure, not knowing anything and not even realizing anything. As we grow up, we are molded into “someone”, consciously or not, by our parents, our family, our friends, and/or our environment. Whatever the result, that’s us. If we happen to experience an identity confusion then, once again in my opinion, it might be because our parents do not give us enough attention/guidance for us to be confident about ourselves. When our parents are not there for us, we will certainly seek for another role model, anyone who cares about us and gives us examples. And that’s what is being reflected in Sugar and Snails, where the main character doesn’t get enough love and attention from both parents and eventually turns to a friend for the role model.

Basically, Anne Goodwin’s Sugar and Snails has a nice story and a narrative style engrossing enough to make us keep reading to the last page. The overlap between the full-of-confusion past and the present which is filled with complexities and fear is woven ever so neatly that it’s capable of making the reader understand what actually happens, though it still needs time for them to recognize who actually the main character is in the past. The weakness of this narrative is, unfortunately, the love story. It lacks the intensity I think is needed to convince the reader it is the trigger for Diana-Simon conflict introduced at the beginning of the book. I also have a problem with the ideas implied in this novel. It’s not only the thing about identity (as I have elaborated above), but also about gender. If this novel really aims to blur the distinction between genders, then why creating “labels” instead? The saying that “boys don’t cry, that’s what girls do” and the moment when Andrew muses, “My fear of fighting, if nothing else, was proof I wasn’t meant to be a man” seem to me like an act of putting “labels” on people, on both men and women. What’s more, Andrew says he hates his body at some point. Now, this book seems to be in a campaign to love ourselves the way we are, so why the hate? If he hates his body, then he hates himself.

All in all, Sugar and Snails is not a bad book, but I just have disagreement with it on several things. I also think this book is the antithesis of its own message. So, as a whole, this book can’t be said to be a thorough work.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Beauty is a wound, beauty is a curse. That’s pretty much the after-reading impression of Cantik Itu Luka, Eka Kurniawan’s beautifully-crafted, painfully-punchy feminist novel. Or is it more appropriate, though, to call it a fictional summary of the modern history of Indonesia? Either way, Kurniawan has truly managed to weave strands of events of the past, in a humorously sinister way, and philosophical views on women’s beauty into a magical story about a family that is doomed from the start.

The semi-surrealistic tale starts with the resurrection of Dewi Ayu, a native woman of Dutch descent, after twenty-one years of her death. Upon finding out that her youngest daughter Cantik, an unfortunately very ugly girl, is pregnant with a child of nobody knows who, the storyline immediately brings us travelling to the past where the curse begins. Ted Stammler, a landlord in the Dutch colonization era, takes away a poor local woman named Ma Iyang and makes her his mistress. From this affair, Ted begets a bastard whom then he takes as his legal child. But neither his wife nor Ted himself know that his crucial decision will one day cause total chaos when their son and the illegitimate daughter fall in love with each other and bear another bastard that is Dewi Ayu. No time for mourning over the fact, however, because the time flies by and soon comes the period of wars: the German invasion of European countries, the looming of the second World War, and the coming of the Japanese to Indonesia. In the middle of it all, readers will see moments when Dewi Ayu is forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese and has to live that life for years afterward, even after the independence. And as the history keeps shifting from one period to another, even to the time when communism is at its glory, the plot unfolds complicated love stories between Dewi Ayu’s startlingly beautiful illegitimate daughters and the three men who represent the historical events being narrated. But theirs are not the romantic ones we can describe as sweet and tender, for they demand blood, tears, heartache, revenge, hatred and leave those women’s lives as bitter as the history they have to endure.

2015 English edition’s cover

Cantik Itu Luka seems to come up with some ideas, materialized in its subplots and lines of narration. Women’s beauty, for instance, is being described as a power which can conquer and has to be conquered by the power of men, the brutal power of physicality. Alamanda, one of Dewi Ayu’s illegitimate daughters, affirms this paradoxical fact when she points out that before the independence men “use” beautiful women to heal the mental wound they have to suffer in the middle of wars, while after the independence beautiful women “use” their physical quality to play with men. But that’s not all. The narrative can also be considered bearing the writer’s criticism of the history of Indonesia. With his dark humor and satire, Kurniawan mocks the inevitable historical fact that after hundreds of years fighting against the colonizers, namely the Dutch and the Japanese, the fighters of Indonesian independence did not get the win they deserved on the battle field but had to live with the idea that everything was done on the negotiation table instead. He symbolizes it with the Shodancho’s remark:

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

Kurniawan also talks about the massacre of 1965 here. But instead of glorifying it like any other writers, he chooses to explain why and how communism boomed in the newly liberated, poor Indonesia. He doesn’t take sides, too, in my opinion, for he tells openly about the horrible things communists could do—getting rock-and-roll music lovers into jails and killing the high-profile generals—without any tendentious, judgmental tone on it.

Cantik Itu Luka is a rich novel with a layered narrative and complicated structure, very blunt and explicit in its telling. It is a good thing, but sometimes Kurniawan is just too vulgar and crude, especially in narrating the sex scenes. It feels unpretentious that way, though, daring to give itself a bad name for being so honest in everything, not only in its telling people what the writer has on his mind but also the way he says it. Thank God the humor helps, although more often than not the reader has to endure his stark satire. What’s so powerful and sharp about this book is undoubtedly its characters. Every single person making appearance here is very well portrayed and elaborated, not only through their narrated descriptions of physiques, emotions, and also behaviors and attitudes but through their dialogues, too. Kurniawan has truly done a great job on that, looking at how many characters he creates to people this book with. If I have something to complain, then it is the feeling I got that it’s too “Latin American”, with its magical realism formula. The (Indonesian) grammar is also a problem, with incorrect marks and horrible sentence arrangements. Not that it matters too much, though. Some readers might not even notice them.

Overall, Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka is a fabulous work, despite its few weaknesses. It summerizes our bitter history in a surrealistic, satiric way some people might not be capable of doing, and provokes our thoughts on women’s physical beauty. It triggers our (cynical) laughs, without (actually) trying to be funny. And it gets us thinking, without (really) trying to be serious.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Hotel Iris

newest Vintage edition’s cover

Once again, Yōko Ogawa has mesmerized me with her simple yet wondrously enigmatic narrative. Reading Hotel Iris, I couldn’t help but let myself drowning in its every line that I wasn’t capable of just passing through the plot without scrutinizing what actually happened. I honestly didn’t think Ogawa set the atmosphere to be so nuanced on purpose, and yet it managed to flip my emotion endlessly from down flat and calm to violently churning and disgusted. Ogawa really has it in her to create a story which gets the reader reeling and thinking even when they don’t realize it.

Set in a seaside little town, the story of Hotel Iris begins as Mari, a 17-year-old girl, recounts the first time she meets a strange old man whom she knows to be, and henceforth calls, the translator. It is just a day before the summer arrives and the translator takes a lodging at the title hotel apparently to spend the night with a prostitute. But things go wrong as suddenly the middle-aged loose woman starts shouting and screaming names at the translator, leaving him to bear the shame and pay the rent and more. Mari should be afraid of him, or at least disgusted by the sight, but she feels none of those. Instead, she feels attracted and enchanted by the voice of the translator, which radiates dominance and power yet so soft and deep that she finds it lulling. At this point the reader must be starting to think that there is something wrong with Mari, for from then on we can see the girl and the translator forge a complicated, inexplicable relationship nobody nor nothing can explain. They meet in secret, with Mari stealing times between her grueling duties at her family-owned hotel, and involve in lurid actions of unusual, bondage kind of sex. But what they have together doesn’t only go as far as physical intimacy, for there are also affection and “otherworldly” love. Somehow Mari knows that they cannot stay together the way they want it, but she also realizes that there is definitely no way out for their situation.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that both Mari and the translator are particularly unique characters I’ve never encountered in any fiction books before. But they do have complexity of their own, one that gets the reader wondering, “There must be something wrong with them, but what?” It is not my first time having a taste of something about bondage sex with layered characters, but these ones created by Ogawa are really mind-boggling because she doesn’t seem to present them to the reader deliberately as troubled persons. Reading them through, we will only think that they are just ordinary people, a young girl and an old man we see everyday in the street. However, once they shift to their secluded world, they sort of change all of a sudden into people we do not recognize anymore, people with totally opposite natures. It is not merely about a quiet, obedient girl versus a sexually inexperienced virgin eager for some humiliating, thrilling sex; nor is it merely about an awkward, seems-so-normal old man versus an anger-ridden dominant. There is something more to their characterizations, something more than meets the eye, and it is trapped in the shore road they tread on every time they feel like bringing their intricate love to the territory of pain and pleasure.

Though not as cryptic and eerie as all novellas in The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris is still surprising in some ways, especially when Yōko Ogawa shows Mari’s daring to pursue what becomes her heart’s desire and indulge her passion for commanding love behind her pitiful helplessness. The narrative is just as simple, and doesn’t really have any twists nor turns, but shocking all the same. On the surface, it seems so smooth without so much as a bump that the reader can read it easily and enjoyably, but when we look at it more closely, there are more unpleasant moments than we actually want to know. Ogawa seems to want the reader to see, even though not understand completely, the nature of Mari and the translator’s relationship—what happens between them and what they have together—through the melancholy narration voiced by Mari herself and the gloomy love letters written by the translator, which in turn compile the whole storyline. The sex scenes might be a bit disturbing for those who never read anything like this before, and way too horrible for those who find BDSM thing quite abnormal. Be that as it may, I think Ogawa can handle them pretty elegantly that they don’t look too much vulgar nor terrible to my liking, and feel rather saddening instead. The way to the ending is too short in my opinion, but to be fair, it’s only a novella so no one would expect Ogawa to prolong it in any way. Besides, the conclusion is what I expect from a story like this.

Overall, Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa is a truly marvelous work. I wouldn’t say that it’s flawless, but it’s up there. By this book, Ogawa has really made me fall in love with her, not because she is a brave author who dares to write something disturbing, but because she can do it with clever elegance.

Rating: 4/5

others

Much Ado About Fifty

fifty-trilogy

I’ve restrained myself from reading 50 Shades Trilogy for so long, until the trailer for the first book’s movie adaptation came up on YouTube last year and I thought, while watching it, that the result will have to be great. And, seriously, I’ve restrained myself from writing anything about the books (no reviews, no articles, no nothing other than a little comments on Goodreads), until all people seemed to decide to make such a fuss about Fifty Shades of Grey and turn the Internet choke-full of their ramblings about it now that the feature film will soon hit the big screen in February.

Honestly, people. Why the fuss? Alright, I admit that I liked the books much (okay, lit snobs, now you can either smirk at me or get out of my way), but I just don’t think that we should talk and talk about it and overanalyze everything. Really, people are so making such overreacting comments that:

  1. the book poorly lacks literary merit (it’s a commercial romance novel, what do you expect?)
  2. it contains BDSM lifestyle and erotic, explicit sex scenes… and here I’m wondering why no one’s talking over and over about Tara Sue Me’s books? (yes, I sneaked into my sister’s ebook collection… yes, yes, I know.)
  3. it glorifies women’s secret, dark, sexual fantasies (does anyone read romances, at all?)
  4. it’s a shameful thing to read
  5. ..
  6. ..
  7. ..
  8. all those points above rolled into one.

So, why am I now talking about it here in my blog? You might be wondering what’s happening in my head. First, let me make myself clear: I don’t do romance. I mean, I don’t read romances… a lot. I do read them sometimes (aside from my romance-translating job), but it’s not the happily-ever-after ending that I seek for. In fact, I prefer a sad ending to conclude a story, a cliffhanger at the very least. When I read romances, I mostly seek for escapism. God, I need escapism. And if the story is so much to my liking, then it’ll be an added bonus.

So, when the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, came out like three or four years ago, it was my sister who was so excited to read it, and became very much fond of it. Seeing her loving the book so much, I was like… “What is it actually about?” And then she told me… no, she talked and talked about it all the time that I got the point: just another fairy tale. So what? I’ve read several romance books at that time so I already understood that those mass market products actually contain a chunk of feminism, if you want to take women’s sexuality into account. But I seriously didn’t get what it was about the book that could drag so many people women into reading it, but I didn’t want to waste my time following the trend, either. The hype’s continued, and I kept avoiding the book. Until last year, when the trailer of the movie adaptation hit YouTube. Out of curiosity, I opened the video site and watched it. For a stunned minute, I thought, “Oh, okay. Looks great. The director must be a genius.” To be honest, the trailer looks so slick and shiny, in my opinion. And then and there, my curiosity got the better of me. I decided that it was time to read the book.

In a nutshell, I did read Fifty Shades of Grey, and its two sequels. And that’s it, I liked them all. I never thought I would. Well, if you just peel off the BDSM thing and the awkwardly written narrative, then you will get some nice, emotionally intense love story. I cannot say that I normally like Cinderella-fairy-tale kind of love story the way 50 Shades are, but there’s something more about the books that makes them so unbearably appealing to me. Perhaps it’s the witty email banter and dialogues, showing the reader that women can be as dangerously smart as they are plain. Or perhaps it’s the way the set of books boosts our morale. Well, I’m not sure about the statistics, but how many women out there who are constantly living in a shell of insecurity, hiding behind cosmetics, plastic surgeries, diets, and yoga just to get called beautiful? The mythically dashing, gorgeous, rich Christian Grey can make the ever-insecure Anastasia Steele feel beautiful and sexy without her having to do anything but staying plain (and smart). This is what 50 Shades do. In fact, generally speaking, this is what romances do: morale boosting. It’s important for us. It’s important for (most) women. If Catherine Anderson or Eloisa James or Sabrina Jeffries or any other romance writer does not get raved about the way E.L. James does, despite their best-selling authors status, then I’ll blame it on the lame promotion. Or the less than attractive title and/or cover. In short, I’d say that 50 Shades Trilogy has just the same quality/value as Jeffries’ A Dangerous Love or Anderson’s Blue Skies. And if people are still shocked or rambling about the erotic sex scenes 50 Shades have, then they should really try Stephanie Laurens (I had a very hard time translating her book, trust me). Or any other erotic romance, for that matter.

So, you see? There’s nothing to fuss about this Fifty thing. There’s no need to overanalyze it. I really think you should stop now, before the Internet explodes.

That’s all my own ramblings. I’m going to stop now, and get back reading Gone Girl.

 

Banner_OpiniBareng2015-300x187Note: This post is submitted into BBI’s Expectation-themed Opinion for January.

fiction, review

Reflected in You

Indonesian edition’s cover

I was so caught in Sylvia Day’s Bared to You that it would be impossible not to read the next number in her Crossfire series, Reflected in You. To say that it’s better than the previous one wouldn’t feel right, but, on the other hand, I have to admit that it has qualities I deem magnificent: unpredictability and meanderings of a storyline. Horrendous, upsetting sex scenes are strewn all over it, a bit too much to my taste, but it has already been the characteristic any erotic romance has. As always before, its atmosphere emanates emotions and jealousy, and smells heavily of lust.

Reflected in You continues the story of Eva and Gideon where it leaves off. It opens with they arguing about their time together, ending with Gideon keeping an eye on her through a female bodyguard. Upset and irritated, Eva avenges it by putting a male bodyguard beside him. It may end their arguments over spying on each other, debatably out of concern for respective safety, but it doesn’t end the tension between them, with their never-ending fights and their sexual solutions. The real problem starts when Eva meets her ex-boyfriend, Brett Kline, a rising-star rock band lead singer, and stupidly returns his kisses in front of Gideon. The blazing rich man then punishes her with sex, the scenes being narrated making her seem like, if you’ll excuse my French, a slut rather than his significant other. The overuse of sex to express something unsaid also appears when Gideon has to avoid Eva for seemingly no reason and makes her think that they’ve already broken up and he comes back to Corrine. Up to this point, the narrative seems to me merely showcase two childish people with fervent desire for sex, not that I’ll blame it, looking at the genre. However, the conflict starts belatedly to feel interesting when Nathan Barker, Eva’s half brother, is found dead and Gideon comes under suspicion. The atmosphere suddenly turns from lustful to a little bit thrilling, and the author cleverly denies the reader the clear answer.

As the story gets more twisted, Sylvia Day describes the characters of Eva and Gideon in an even more twisted way. Eva seems more jealous, maniacal if I may say so. She has every reason to be jealous, but her overreaction and manner make her look shamefully ridiculous. I personally don’t have any respect for her, and her willingness to stoop so low as to give in to Gideon’s rough sexual lust robs her of the strong, determined character she should have. As for Gideon, I can thankfully say that his character develops better. He may seem so quiet in some ways, unwilling to express what’s inside his mind except through his sexual prowess, but his change in action and behavior is very much intriguing. His mood swing is also attention-gripping, though not in a pleasant way. I cannot say I adore his character, but at the very least he’s not annoying. Day describes him greater than she does in Bared to You, I think, daring to make him look mean, antagonist, and truly dangerous.

Though basically it is still an average erotic romance book, Reflected in You brings up something fresh with it. I never though it could be twisted in a tangle of murder and jealousy. Despite its sex-strewn narrative, it has a storyline no reader wants to leave off, so compelling and nicely flowing. It has more twists and turns, more intricacy, more intrigue. It is something more than what we read. The emotions show more clearly and feel stronger, in spite of the fact that Gideon is portrayed more silent. The core idea of the story is still characteristically romance, but its side elements are more interesting. The second half of the book serves the reader with a bit of “suspense”, which somehow reminds us of a crime novel. The murder of Nathan Barker really makes Reflected in You richer and more colorful, although in the end it seems a little bit detective-wanna-be. The thrilling atmosphere is so dense and, oddly enough, it can somehow fit the entire second half narrative where the case starts. However, I still have an objection to using sex as a problem solution, a means to measure one’s love and seriousness. I think it’s just normal for an erotic romance to have vulgar sex scenes strewn all over it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to deliver such ideas above. Sometimes a book is an entertainment, and sometimes it’s an inspiration. And when it inspires the reader to even think the wrong way, then it can be dangerous.

All in all, Reflected in You is pretty much like what I think Bared to You is, a mere romance book, nothing more. I wanted to look at it differently, what with its fresh intricacy and character development, but the ordinary basic idea and Eva’s hatred-triggering portrayal got in my way. I can only say that I don’t really like it, nor hate it.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Bared to You

Indonesian edition’s cover

The book industry is currently being peppered with erotic romances. Not that the genre has never existed before, but I always have a feeling that we are now overwhelmed by it. I’m not into it, and I don’t know anything about it. But the hoopla brought me to trying to read one of its products, Bared to You by Sylvia Day. First published in 2012, it tries to bring up BDSM theme, which is so highly favored these days like you wouldn’t believe. Only it fails in some ways, leaving the reader wondering if it is truly what it claims to be.

The story is about Eva Tramell, who has just moved to New York and got a new job. In her workplace, she meets the handsome, sexy, dark and dangerous Gideon Cross. The man happens to be the owner of the building in question, unabling her to run for cover after he blatantly declares his fervent desire to get her into his bed. But lust at the first sight happens, as always in any kind of romance, and Eva cannot deny the fact that Gideon’s handsome and sexy figure haunts her everywhere she goes. Gideon keeps chasing after her and approaching her in any way possible to get what he wants, while Eva keeps running and resisting Gideon’s strong sex appeal. But she terribly fails to do that, so they agree to have sex with no strings attached, without any bond tying them. Problem: Gideon loses control, and he never loses his control. That goes to show that there’s something more in their relationship, even though it is so subtle that not any one of them realize it. However, slowly they start to feel bound to each other, and it’s just about time. But they’re so afraid of taking a further step, looking at what happens in their pasts and the trauma they both have to bear.

Eva Tramell is the embodiment of a pretty, sexy, strong career woman of today’s America. Her quick temper and jealous nature make her look a little bit childish, and her insecurity is unmistakable. It’s so normal, I think, to have such quality since most women have the same problem, be it in reality or in common romance novels. I will not say that her character is so usual, neither will I say that she’s so different from other romance heroines I’ve encountered in love stories so far. I can only tell that her character is very much annoying, making the reader feel not even one iota of sympathy for her. Her childish manner and upsetting jealousy are so unbearable. And I really wonder why many romance writers I know like to couple a woman like Eva to a man as stubborn as she is like Gideon Cross. And his character is even more common than I think Eva’s is. A handsome, sexy, gorgeous, intelligent billionaire, Gideon reminds me of any “romance man” I know of, at least so far. Therefore, I don’t think I will be talking about him further. What becomes my interest here in Bared to You is the character of Cary Taylor instead, Eva’s bisexual friend. Not only that he is a bisexual, but also he is a very troubled, damaged person. I like how he is described unable to decide what he really wants, confusing one thing with another, and plunging himself into an uncertainty of sexual taste. Taylor is definitely an interesting, quite memorable character.

Saying that all romances, and its sub-genres, are just the same would be too cruel, for I myself haven’t read enough romances to say so. But, to be honest, I don’t think Bared to You has offered anything new, nor been distinctively different. The plot, the characters, the love story, the whole narrative are all so typical. The fact that it’s bringing up BDSM issue doesn’t help any as well. Reading it only gave me a feeling that I read a romance, a typical one, that’s it. However, putting that feeling aside, I have to admit that Bared to You has a few good qualities: an intricately difficult relationship between the main characters, heartwrenchingly troubled pasts, and a superb style of storytelling. I can say that I enjoyed the book, not in a way I usually did other romance books, but in an unexplained, emotional way. I was drawn into it, unable to get out until I finished and closed the book. This is a new, strange experience to me. I’ve never felt quite like this before when reading a romance. It must have been Day’s smashing style of writing, or something about it. What so unfortunate is that Bared to You implies a very unacceptable idea: when you have a problem with your significant other, turn to sex. Making any comment on this would be very ridiculous because it’s a romance, an erotic romance, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a very narrow-minded notion, as if sex can solve everything, not only our unruly sexual hormone.

In conclusion, Bared to You is nothing but a romance book with many typical aspects, yet inevitably gripping. I have nothing more to say.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Portrait in Sepia

Indonesian edition’s cover

There seems to be no end to talking about women, for the fluidity of our social cultures and systems and the diversity of our viewpoints on womanhood will remain existing and always bring about endless, sometimes useless, discussion. Some female authors can actually point out women’s issues that are worth discussing, and even though they don’t really offer any solutions, what they have to present to the reader is not some nonsense we don’t feel related to at all. Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia doesn’t need any claims of being a feminist novel, yet it’s somehow capable of telling, and elaborating in the process, a story of unfortunate women and the suffering they have to endure in their time and age. Every woman who appears in this book is doomed from the start, to heartache, social restrictions, physical embarrassment, disgracefully gray status. Living in the 19th century, all they can do is stay quiet and resigned. But at some point, they show the reader that they can still stand up and hold their heads high.

The story gets us focused mainly on Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Tao Chi’en and Eliza Sommers of Daughter of Fortune, who lives a traumatic life and suffers horrible nightmares. Those upsetting dreams are deeply rooted in the death of her beloved grandfather, a haunting childhood experience that later defines the course of her troubled life. Paulina del Valle, her rich, demanding paternal grandmother, takes care of her and tries her best to erase Aurora’s memories and redefine her self and being by giving her luxury, education, even unlimited love and protection. But none of those can ease her pain nor dim her sufferings, for there will be always a huge hole in her heart and memory. Then, when she thinks she’ll never be happy, Aurora meets Diego Dominguéz, a country man she thinks of as her first and forever love. He gently courts her, and asks her to marry him. But what’s supposed to be a dream marriage turns out to be another nightmare for her. His betrayal leaves her torn, embarrassed, lost, but she sees no way out because tradition and the religious belief of their society bind her to an anti-divorce law in which a married couple cannot be separated by anything for they are united by God. Unable to do anything, she’s resigned to live that painful life until one day, she finds her true sanctuary in the arms of a man who can truly appreciate her and love her as she wants to be loved and fights back against the unfairness of the fate.

Allende describes female characters who are trapped in an old patriarchal society which robs them of the right to make their own choices. Once they plunge into an unpleasant situation, here disastrous marriages, they cannot get out of it. Aurora, Paulina, and even Susana have no choice but to stay where they are and bear all the unhappiness clouding their married lives. All three of them are stuck, the epitome of patriarchal dolls moving with strings attached. However, while Aurora seems too weak and innocent at the beginning, Paulina always knows what she wants to do and to have and makes something of herself. Aurora is a bit late in finding what she truly needs in life, but she soon comes to realization and does not let her fate, and the unfair society system, dictate her choices anymore. Interestingly, on the other hand, Susana seems so content with having an affair with her brother-in-law, while ruining another woman’s life and dreams in the process, to compensate for her inability to dissolve the marriage she never wants. Any way you slice it, we can’t deny the fact that those characters are women in trouble, who become the base of the whole story.

Portrait in Sepia is, obviously, a dramatic tale of womanhood of a constricted and constricting society. It’s revealing how a marriage can be both bliss and an unavoidable disaster, how a man can do whatever they please when a woman is bound to law and tradition they cannot untangle themselves from, how a secret love affair is the only way to solve a problematic marriage that is so unfair. Allende also talks about women’s sexuality here, which I personally deem important in the realm of feminism. The way she narrates every sex scene and the talks on sexual relationship emanate the unrecognized inner power of women. It is wrong, I have to say, to liken sexuality and femininity, but it is also undeniable that sex has been part of the physical politics of women’s bodies. This idea is very clear in the description of the character of Nívea, who refuses to be dictated by motherhood and enjoys sex as it is, using it as a weapon to get her husband always on fire.

The narrative is as randomly arranged as that of The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, which I now think is Isabel Allende’s typical style of writing, at least so far. However, while this kind of narrative works so well in her other works above, this time it’s quite disturbing. The hasty flow makes it dizzying to my eye and, worst, doesn’t help some characters develop well. The character of Feliciano de Santa Cruz seems to change in a second, drastically from a loving, passionate lover into a deceitful, playboy husband. Aurora’s and Iván Radovic’s mild friendship also turns to be a lustful relationship in a snap without detailed elaboration. It gives the impression of not being carefully handled, or rather, written. Nevertheless, awkwardly, it is still engaging and beautiful in a dramatic way. I liked the story, and especially the basic idea. The conflict Allende presents to the reader is very much heart-wrenching and connected to women in general, despite its historical specificity. What so unfortunate about this book is that Allende apparently decides not to use her “magical realism” prowess here, and let it be a simple historical/general fiction instead.

On the whole, Portrait in Sepia is a great read, pretty absorbing and interesting, in spite of the weaknesses in its plot and character development. Without looking at those failed aspects, this book is actually a wonderful work of feminist fiction.

Rating: 4/5

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One Night with a Prince

Indonesian edition’s cover

At last, the Royal Brotherhood trilogy has come to its peak. Sabrina Jeffries ends it with One Night with a Prince, a not-so-stunning-but-enjoyable historical romance with typically stubborn characters and an air of hatred and vengeance. Once again, Jeffries comes up with an idea about an illegitimate child who’s seeking revenge for the suffering of his mother. As always, the historical aspect we find in any of Jeffries’ works is never merely a sticky note glued at the corner, and so is it in this particular number. Still set in the Regency era of Britain, One Night with a Prince offers a quite unusual event through a quite usual plot.

Taking place about a year after the second installment, To Pleasure a Prince, this last part has a story of Gavin Byrne, the oldest among the brotherhood, the farthest from nobility, and with the hardest childhood of all. Among his half brothers, he is the one having the deepest vengeance for their sire, Prinny. His chance to take revenge on the regent comes when Christabel, the widow of Marquess of Haversham, comes to him for a favor. She asks him to help her sneaking into Lord Stokely’s house party to get back her father’s secret letters about Prinny. Byrne knows very well that this is his slight chance, if any, to make Prinny pay what he’s done to his poor mother.

But Christabel is more than determined to secure those letters so that her father won’t be accused of treachery and punished by the Crown. And she is willing to do everything to get her hands on those letters, including becoming Byrne’s sham mistress. Playing a sham couple is never an easy thing for Christabel, and not for Byrne, either. Almost from the start, he has fallen for her charms and wit, and he’s already known that he is in danger, his revenge is in danger, and most of all, his mission is in danger.

Some reviews said that Gavin Byrne is the best and the most loveable hero of all the Royal Brotherhood men. But I see him as stubborn as Marcus North, as selfish as Alexander Black. At some point along the book, I even hated him for thinking only about himself without sparing a little room for others. Thankfully, Christabel is such a determined, strong, and clever woman who will not fall into a man’s arms just because he seduces her nor because she’s in love with him. It’s so satisfying to see her push Byrne to the limit and drag him back to his human nature. Christabel’s character is just lovely, reminding the reader that sometimes women have to say no and be persistent in what they are doing.

Like in the other two of the Royal Brotherhood series, Sabrina Jeffries is pretty much serious in working out and presenting the historical aspect of One Night with a Prince. Though not truly accurate, the book tells the reader a bit about Prinny’s secret marriage and its impact on the throne of Britain. The tiny bit of that British history becomes the foundation of the story and is interlaced with the conflict inside. I was not really attached to the story being told, I must say, but the interaction between the two main characters had drawn me into it, and the way Jeffries tells it is captivating as well. So far, Jeffries’ style of storytelling never fails to stun me, even though some of her ideas are disappointingly dull and her typical plot and characters are almost all similar. One Night with a Prince is one of those which is very much disappointing in the plot and character departments, for they are just same old, same old. I really wish Jeffries could come up with a different kind of plot and a totally new characterization. An author indeed needs a trademark, but telling the same thing in the same style almost in every book is sometimes unacceptable.

All things considered, One Night with a Prince is just averagely nice, because I cannot say that it is as stunning as I hoped it was. Some aspects are presented brilliantly, but some others are hopelessly dull to my way of thinking. However, I appreciate Jeffries for ending the series just right here, and for not prolonging it with another and another book, as is the case with her Swanlea Spinsters series. I would say that this book is recommended to those who seek for entertainment, and, of course, who are Sabrina Jeffries’ die-hard fans.

Rating: 3/5

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The French Maid

What do you really want in a short story? A short story is nothing more than simplicity. But something simple can sometimes be more satisfying than a long, intricate masterpiece. Sabrina Jeffries’ The French Maid is a great example of it. Set in a historical period of England, this work of romance suggests an idea about beauty and insecurity, two things women are always associated with. Jeffries may not be the only writer, or rather, the only female writer, who explores this particular theme, but here in The French Maid she plainly elaborates the main problem with women’s self-confidence through a story of a troubled marriage.

The story introduces us to Henry, Lord Langston, a very busy British prime minister with indifferent nature and not much attention for his plain wife, Lady Eleanor Ruskin. He’s too drowned into his work to allow himself time to come to her bed, or even to dine with her. While on the other hand, Eleanor never fails to attend to him, obey him, do what he wants her to, do everything. It is then unsurprising to see Eleanor having an issue of insecurity, unconvinced that she’s beautiful enough to make him love her. Well, it is true that Henry marries her for her father’s political connection and her mother’s outstanding position in the society. But it’s also true that Henry has a thing for her, a certain affection for her, albeit it doesn’t show. So there is this bit of misunderstanding going on between them. But it is not long until comes a French lady’s maid named Babette. The coming of the maid becomes such a blessing for Eleanor as she washes away her insecurity, beautifies her, makes her a sexy nightgown to seduce her husband to her bed, teaches her how to be confident and tells her not to give up her husband’s love before she tries to win it.

The characters of Henry and Eleanor may not be the typical stubborn couple Sabrina Jeffries usually sets for her novels, but such a shame that she doesn’t seem to explore more of their nature. I can see that Henry is a sad and wounded man, deliberately setting himself to become a stiff person without love and compassion. But the lack of detailed description makes him only appear to be someone indifferent and fearing love. The revealing change of his character almost at the end of the story is merely encouraged by Eleanor’s sensual surprise for him and the passionate lovemaking it spurs. Once again, as ridiculous as it may seem, I cannot agree with the idea that sex is the answer to everything, especially to the problem with a person’s personality. It’s truly a downside of the whole characterization. The positive side is, to my relief, that Jeffries describes Eleanor’s character better, both physically and mentally. Everything about her is well depicted, her insecurity, her restlessness, her deep love for Henry, her physical lack. At the very least, Eleanor can shoot through the narrative and attract the reader’s attention.

The French Maid is a unique story, I’d rather say, and the final execution of the idea seems too clichéd. But that’s what we get when we read a romance. Nevertheless, the issue of insecurity is always interesting to discuss, especially in the realm of womanhood. There is always a notion that men try to love women they are attracted to, so without a pretty face, or at least an attractive looks, there will be no love. This is what subtly yet vividly proven in The French Maid. Without trying to degrade the womanhood nor the importance of sincerity in a love relationship, Jeffries wants to point out that love can be fought for, must be fought for, even if by way of beautifying ourselves to catch our loved ones’ attention. This may sound a bit sexist to some people, but we have to admit that beauty and sexuality have been parts of feminist ideas these days, and romance is always on the front line to suggest and spread those ideas. Beauty is not the only deciding factor, though, for there are many other things to consider in making a relationship work, as we can see at some point in the story. Jeffries is really genius at concocting all those complicated things in a light but gripping narrative, and she formulates it very well, without leaving a hole in it. The plot is nicely flowing and the way Jeffries unfolds it is very sweet.

All in all, The French Maid is a very nice short story. It may be too packed and lacks of detailed characterization on Henry’s part, but the idea is very natural and the run of the story is just sweet and romantic. I can say that this is what romance writers should write about. And this is really something I would recommend to any romance readers, and other readers who want to get more insight into a bit of women’s issues.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories

Women’s problems have been recognized through the ages, and will continue to be so. They’re perpetual things that are impossible to resolve by means of any ideas, any politics, nor any regulations as long as women exist. Even as the world changes, so do its various societies and cultures and thoughts, women remain the most problematic sex of the two. Women’s problems will never cease to roll out because they get along with personal subjectivity, depending on how people of each society see a woman as a human being. They are numerous, diverse, complicated, insolvable for there never seems to be any satisfying solution. And some of them are crammed into a collection of short stories written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I cannot say that The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, the title published by Dover in 1997, is able to contain all of the problems suffered by women, nor that it provides even the most decent solutions to those problems, but it at least gives us a flash of insight into what women of her era and society had to undergo as human beings.

The collection consists of several short stories, but there are only some that really got my special attention. The third number, The Cottagette, brings out a story of a woman who falls in love with a man by the name of Ford Mathews, one who is too good to be true in a real life. How the story ends, I would say, is so much like how those of romance novels conclude. It is clearly the embodiment of dreams of most women, the thing that would surely be very much preferred by women of any age and society, that would make them dance on the cloud nine. Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, the story Turned brings back the unpleasant memory of trouble no woman ever wants to get trapped into. This is a story where women are warned and alarmed that they are facing what I would call the natural “animal” instinct of men. It doesn’t matter that they already have a beautiful, capable, loving and trusting wife, they seems to be unable to stop themselves from touching another woman. It’s not a made-up story, it’s real and it’s everywhere around us. We just have to turn our head and we’ll find it. I liked it when Mrs. Marroner finally finds out about what her husband has done and says:

“This is the sin of man against woman. The offense is against womanhood. Against motherhood.”

By saying that she realizes, and is convinced, that it is not her servant’s doing, but her husband’s. Looking at the innocence, incapability, and ignorance of the said servant, Gerta, one cannot possibly blame her for what has happened, although we cannot omit the likelihood that the case can go the other way around, in a much different circumstance. There are several things to consider: who is the superior one, who is the seducer, who encourages the deed, and who has the power. There is also a fact that some women are not strong enough to say no and act on it.

And there is this particular story which intrigued me most about a woman who changes places with her husband. It somehow tries to suggest that if a man were a woman, he’d surely understand her problems, her needs, her wants, her feelings, and her position. It intrigued me not because such thing is impossible to happen in this real, cruel world, but because I don’t believe that a man can probably understand what it is like to be a woman even if he puts himself in her shoes. Roles can be reverse, but I cannot say the same for emotions. It is us only who can understand fully the state of being ourselves, not the other people, much less the other sex.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories is a convincing collection of stories about women, one that can perceptively look into and beyond the problems of women, the state of being a woman. I found each narrative well-written and succinct, kindling fervently our sympathy and empathy. Women’s problems are changeable, responding to the ever-changing world, but I believe these short stories written by Gilman, at least some of them, are still relevant. They have several different female characters, with different portrayals, too, but those women described in each story are definitely one representation of the entire womanhood. I may not agree with some ideas subtly conveyed in some of the stories, for I have my own opinion about some things, but don’t we all? Women’s issues are not subjected to objectivity. What becomes our problem, is what we see as a problem.

Finally, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories is an interesting book. It somehow doesn’t show how to solve the problems of women, but at the very least it’s successful in catching the existence of some of them. I have to say that I wasn’t too much impressed by some of the tales being told, but generally it woke me up to become aware of my self and my surroundings.

Rating: 3.5/5