For Love and Revenge, or, My Problem with Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot (So Far)

The romance of the desert has the power to seduce… I ask you, have you ever loved so much, been so possessed by jealousy, that you might kill?
The crime is murder. The murderer is one of you.
I have investigated many crimes, but this has altered the shape of my soul.
I am detective Hercule Poirot, and I will deliver your killer.
How many great stories are tragedies.

Thus runs the voice-over in the trailer for the upcoming Hercule Poirot film Death on the Nile (set to open on 18 December but who really knows these days). The first time I saw the trailer and heard Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot utter these words, I laughed. And I laughed. And I laughed.

This movie is going to be atrocious, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Death on the Nile is Branagh’s second Christie adaptation, and based on the trailer it is going to be much like the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Before launching into my complaints I want to make it clear that I also enjoyed Orient Express a lot. What it gets absolutely right is that it couldn’t possibly have relied on the whodunit, as the outcome of the mystery is difficult to forget. Many who went to see the film surely knew what was coming, and yet the film manages to entertain throughout. That is no mean feat, and added to the lovely crisp colours and gleaming glamour of it, it is an enjoyable experience.

However, I have two major complaints. The first is that Branagh completely misunderstands how revenge, or, more specifically, extralegal justice works. Revenge is, after all, about setting a balance to the world. Branagh’s Poirot is blind to this, even accusing the culprit/s of misbalancing the world. Worse yet, the movie builds balance up as a central theme and then completely undermines its role in revenge at the end. At the beginning, it is made clear that Poirot is not fastidious for the sake of it, he just likes balance, as illustrated by the scene where he steps into a pile of what appears to be camel poo and decides to solve the situation by stepping his other shoe into it as well. The point is driven in every time he straightens something up. This would work wonderfully, were he merciful and understanding of the crime at the end. He is not, and I walked out of the cinema fuming.

My second complaint is the absolutely unnecessary, out of character and pasted-on love story that has been created for Poirot. Before falling asleep on the train, he gazes at the portrait of a young woman and murmurs her name, Katherine. Call me a purist, but canonically the great Belgian detective has no such love interest, nor do I remember any occasion where he would have sighed of romantic love. If there is a woman Poirot admires, it is the Russian jewel thief Countess Vera Rossakoff, the Irene Adler to his Holmes. Why Branagh did not place her in the film instead of an imaginary Katherine, I do not know.

I do have a vague idea why this seemingly superfluous moment of sentiment was placed in Orient Express. I suspect it was placed there in order to prepare the viewers for the next film. Death on the Nile centres heavily on love, and – SPOILERS AHEAD – it may serve Branagh’s purpose to signal to the audience that Poirot understands the power of love. I’m interested to see how much leniency is shown at the end of Nile, though with the way the point of Orient Express was botched I’m not overly optimistic. Whether decision about the end of Orient Express is political is also a disturbing question, as it may say something about how society wants us to defer to authority without question. Is love going to be a more acceptable reason for murder than justice?

Having said all this, I’m definitely going to see Death on the Nile as soon as I possibly can. The trailer promises more of the hugely nostalgic settings and fashion I enjoyed in the first film, and the cast is again top tier, with Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot, Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright among others. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it, and then gleefully complain about it afterwards.

“I have investigated many crimes, but this has altered the shape of my soul.” I ask you. What dross. I cannot wait.

How Mexican Gothic Helped Me Understand Mansfield Park

Jane Austen is not the first parallel you would draw from Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (2020). The book’s tendency is more towards Gothic romance, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, del Toro’s Crimson Peak. From the amount of fungi, it could also be related to a Jeff VanderMeer novel. Those are the clear signposts along the way, and what drew me into it in the first place.

It so happened, however, that Mansfield Park had been on my mind a lot about the time I read Mexican Gothic: I had two weeks earlier given a lecture on Austen’s unhappy endings with Mansfield Park as an example, and marathoned the 1983 adaptation of the same with a friend in the middle of reading it. As the credits to the last episode rolled, it hit me.

There are definite parallels between Mexican Gothic and Austen’s 1814 novel. The magical realism of Mexican Gothic allows Moreno-Garcia to take further the things that sit uncomfortably for the reader at the end of Mansfield Park. The claustrophobia of Mansfield becomes much more pronounced when viewed in tandem with the family at High Place, whose ominousness is much more glaring than that of the Bertrams of Mansfield Park.

The initial settings of the novels already bear a semblance. The Doyle family in Moreno-Garcia’s novel are racist, incestuous, and bloodline-proud, ready to commit atrocities in order to maintain their power. The English, described as ghostly pale in the Mexican setting, breathe colonialist superiority. While Austen’s Bertrams are only seen on their native English ground, they are similarly a closed society of people proud of their status and heritage. Like the Doyles, their wealth comes from exploitation: Sir Thomas owns a plantation in Antigua. In both novels, an outsider enters this circle and is devoured by it: Noemí Taboada comes to High Place to help her cousin, and Fanny Price leaves her family to live with her aunt, uncle and cousins. Both meet with malice, conscious or unconscious, by the family in the house. Slowly but irresistibly, they are integrated into the household only to serve a purpose, not out of any affection.

From here, the novels progress in different ways, much due to the difference between the protagonists. In Mansfield Park, Fanny becomes nigh invisible and tension comes from the sexual overtones brought in by the Crawford siblings: the evil, as it were, emanates from the Mansfield parsonage. While Fanny does not approve of the town notions of the Crawfords, nor the frivolity they inspire in the Mansfield youth, she is incapable of stopping the course of events. As she herself declares, with uncommon certainty, she “cannot act”. Noemí is in every respect Fanny’s opposite: she remains strong and central, rational, and itching to act against the threat to her and her cousin. This threat, a long history of murder, abuse and incest lives in the family and the house, quite literally, as it turns out.

It is at the close of the books that both the greatest similarities and differences lie. Moreno-Garcia takes the captivity of the heroine further than Austen through magical realism and the fungus that binds the inhabitants of High Place to the house and each other. The Doyles intermarry, or rather the old Howard Doyle has, wedding his sisters and daughters and devouring his children to keep his longevity, and the fungus-power-enhancing blood clear. In time it has become necessary to bring in outsiders as inbreeding has its effects, but these people have all perished, one way or another. The outsiders to the family at Mansfield Park also seem to drop away: the Crawfords leave, Dr Grant dies and his widow moves away, Rushworth never returns. And just like in Mexican Gothic, those who belong to the house and leave come to harm: Maria and Julia are disgraced, Edward loses in love, and Tom becomes grievously ill. Even Fanny suffers away from Mansfield. The house has a hold of them all, and they cannot be well unless they return to it.

In the end, everyone who returns to the Park becomes happy again. All keep bowing to Sir Thomas, the pater familiaris, and his happiness; Edmund and Fanny, first cousins, marry; and Fanny’s sister Susan is brought to the house as well, to take Fanny’s place as a not-quite-servant-not-quite-family, compelled by gratitude for being allowed into this grand family. Like in Mexican Gothic, those of suitable blood are allowed. The Bertrams, Prices and Norrises are related through the women in the family, but it is Sir Thomas who is in command. And in the end, nothing changes: the wealth of the Bertrams continues to come from their plantation in Antigua, that is, from disregard of their slaves, like the Doyles’s wealth comes from the silver mine where numerous local workers meet their death through the mushrooms that ensure Howard Doyle’s longevity and the family’s connection to the memory contained in the house through the mycelium.

It is also like roots or, indeed, mycelium that seems to keep the Mansfield Park in tact. One cannot escape it, because it reaches further than one can see or imagine, and it works so slowly it is impossible to notice. In Mexican Gothic it is literal, in Austen mental, and in both, inescapable.

Or, well, nearly so. While Austen invites us to ponder the darkness of such a situation of privilege and the methods of sustaining it, Moreno-Garcia goes a step further: she burns it to the ground. Mexican Gothic thus offers a relief from the tension that is present at the end of Mansfield Park, the tension of never-ending circle Fanny becomes a part of unlike Noemí who deliberately breaks it. The inactive heroine Fanny has no will against the Bertrams and no assertion, whereas the active Noemí decides to burn it all down and save the man she has come to love – a much worthier man than the odious Edmund Bertram, one might add, but that’s another post.

Is Mexican Gothic a Mansfield Park retelling? No, it is not. Has it been influenced by Austen? Hard to say – Google did not spit out any direct evidence. Has it helped me understand why Mansfield Park makes me so uncomfortable? Absolutely. The same white privilege and hauteur colours it, the same disregard for people considered “less”, the same aristocratic insistence on purity of blood and worthiness. For this, I thank Ms Moreno-Gracia and her excellent, creeping novel.

Not A Romance – Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue

I have a slight issue Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue (2019). My problem is that it is not romance.

Before you go get the pitchforks, hear me out.

More precisely, what I have a problem with is the marketing. This is a wonderful, lovely book, no denying it, but if you go into it as a romance novel, you’re bound to be disappointed. You are definitely invited to read it as romance – this is the blurb attach to the book from the Goodreads website where it was voted, by readers, as the romance novel of 2019 (which, as you can guess, pisses me off, especially when Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast, a truly masterful romance novel, was also nominated):

Author Casey McQuiston puts a delightful new spin on genre conventions with her debut novel, this year’s winner in the Romance category. Alex Claremont-Diaz—First Son and unofficial White House ambassador—has a problem. That problem is Prince Henry, an uptight British royal and Alex’s counterpart from across the pond. The trouble is that Alex doesn’t like the prince. Until he does. And then he really does. Uh-oh. (x)

See that? “A delightful new spin on genre conventions.” I can only assume this means a spin on romance conventions – and oh, if you are a romance reader, how a claim like this makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up! As a general rule, it means the book in question is not romance, and the rule turned out to hold with this one.

The two requirements of a romance novel are that the story focuses on the courtship plot, and that it has an uplifting, optimistic ending. The latter, McQuiston’s book assuredly does. The former, though… No. The focus is not on the courtship between Alex and Henry. The biggest clue of that is the lack of Henry’s point of view. Yes, we do see his emails, but we are not invited into his life, into his head, and, in the end, he remains unknown to the reader. Alex, on the other hand, becomes very familiar. We are acquainted with his aspirations, friends, family, personal struggles, even his passion for the state of Texas. We are constantly with Alex. We watch him work out his place in the world, as well as his sexuality, and in this, the book reads much more like chick lit than romance. Consider Bridget Jones’s Diary – we never see Mark Darcy’s point of view, and the focus is much more on Bridget’s personal development than anything else. That is what McQuiston does, too.

So while Red, White & Royal Blue is not a romance novel, it definitely has a love story in it, and a sweet and important one at that, especially considering the political situation in both the US and the UK right now – what a timely book, especially in terms of the turmoil taking place in the British royal court. After all, love does win.

McQuiston deserves much kudos for representation: different aspects of sexuality, race, and gender identity are handled in a delightfully and lovingly matter-of-fact fashion, mostly in half-sentences, which lends them a welcome aspect of normality. These became some of my favourite moments in the book, hands down. On the downside, I am so confused by the use of titles. Is not Philip Henry’s older brother? Why is Henry then addressed as Prince of Wales, when that is traditionally the title of the next in line to the throne? He should be some kind of duke? I am trying to convince myself this is artistic liberty, since so much of the book is a parallel universe kind of stuff. Otherwise I’ll lose sleep over this. (This is what happens when you read a ton of Regency romance.)

So, in closing, if you’re a romance reader, this is not romance. Be aware of that. It is, however, a good book and you should absolutely read it. I hope it reaches many young adults who may be struggling with their identity and place in this world – it offers comfort in that, I am sure. No doubt this is an important novel in its genre, it just isn’t the one advertised.

Lucy Vine’s Hot Mess (2017) – Bridget Jones for the Millennials

Ellie Knight is 29, single, has a job she hates and lives in a terrible albeit cheap flat.

Such is the initial setting of Lucy Vine’s debut novel Hot Mess (2017), and had her more recent novel Are We Nearly There Yet (2019) not been recommended as holiday reading in the UK Cosmopolitan I would never even have heard of the author – but it caught my eye, and BOY am I glad it did!

Let it be noted that I read very little chick lit, mostly because I love romance and in chick lit there’s no knowing whether the romance will be there, or satisfying if there are traces of it. Another reason is that very few of my friends read it and therefore I lack a reliable community to inform me what is actually good, and what to avoid. I don’t have the time or patience to wade through thousands and thousands of pages I don’t enjoy just to find a gem, so I got lucky here!

The last chick lit I read and enjoyed was Helen Fielding’s Mad About the Boy (2013), the new Bridget Jones novel. Bridget Jones, I have always felt, is highly relatable, and although I had my suspicions about updating her to the 2010s in the new novel, I was pleased with it. “A successful transition,” I remember thinking, “and surprisingly relatable, considering I don’t have kids! Truly well done.”

Well, Hot Mess is exactly the same kind of relatable as Bridget Jones – except it’s for the millennials. And heavens, did this book make me shriek at times. Friends have received multiple pictures of pages with quotes I found particularly apt, followed by #mood or #me when appropriate. I was so delighted to see the chick lit tropes I’ve been vaguely familiar with for years through media addressed in the voice this decade requires. I will next raise some points that especially struck me.

“I press send and check the time. The tax lawyer [her blind date] is nearly thirty minutes late, which seems very un-tax-lawyer-y of him. If he’s this chilled about timekeeping it almost gives me hope that he won’t be like a tax lawyer. I sigh, wondering at what point I should give up. God, maybe he’s here, but his phone has died? Maybe he thinks I haven’t turned up. I have no idea what he looks like because I made a point of not looking him up on Facebook because I thought ADVENTURE and now I hate myself.” (3)

What struck me possibly most was Ellie’s relationship with her body. It is vaguely implied during the first couple of chapters that she is a curvier girl. No numbers are mentioned, and she does not talk about it herself – it is very much in the details that may as well go unnoticed unless, like me, you’re self-conscious about your body. The issue is not addressed until her sister comments on her body, and what follows is relieving and reassuring: Ellie tells the reader about finding her teenage diaries some time ago and realising she has violently hated herself for over a decade. Deciding this is not how she wants to spend her life, she has worked to discard these toxic thought patterns, and has achieved a state of loving her body. (Do not worry – there are moments of insecurity, but they have little to do with her shape and more with the feminism of shaving!) Nor does her body seem to be a concern to anyone else, apart from her clearly body-conscious sister’s infrequent jabs.

Don’t get me wrong: the family relationships in this book are fundamentally loving. Having lost their mother to cancer, Ellie and her sister Jen react in very different ways: Jen has moved to the US with her husband and daughter, whereas Ellie has elected to stay in the UK and look after their adorable, recently early-retired dad. In addition to her biological family, I would say Ellie’s family also consists of her friends, besties Sophie and Thomas and work friend Maddie. It must be admitted: as a reader of historical romance, it is refreshing to see a heroine struggle with evolving friendships and other platonic relationships and actually have strong ties with those people. Vine writes long-time friendships very convincingly, as well as the awkward phase of grown-up friendship when some are settling down and forming families and new identities while some are still not settled. The negotiations between the pressure to settle down and start a family and the quest for affective individualism are well-depicted, through several people, fairly-new mum Sophie being my favourite.

And speaking of pressure to settle down! Tinder. Dating. Ellie really makes an effort, but at least personally I enjoy how much she struggles with dating. Vine captures the frustration and stress that online dating creates. It is much like what I said about reading a genre you’re not actually with: who has the time to kiss all those frogs? Ellie tries, and tries hard too, but is accused of having high standards (or “mandards”, coining words in a true Bridget Jones fashion) and not being ready to give whatever loser comes her way a chance. Her friends mean well, but the pressure is really immense. The only person who does not push her is her dad – who is himself starting to date again.

He is also writing a novel, updates of which he emails his daughters. These are some of the funniest bits of the book. They are bad writing (Vine clearly showing she knows what bad writing looks like) and very much in the vein of 50 Shades of Grey, although much more innocent. And ­– this is what I really want to say about it – in a great bit of subtle characterisation, Vine does not resort to “breasting boobily” language. This is a white, 60-year-old heterosexual man writing badly, and not a mention of breasts. That is because Alan Knight respects women. The bodies of the women appearing in “75 Hues of Tony Braxton” are not even mentioned. I am delighted.

Anyway! I digress. Let me wrap up.

I read Hot Mess in a day. I was having too much fun with Ellie, too much fun exclaiming delightedly when Vine seemed to be writing about me, too busy giggling at a good observation. I would happily recommend this as your first chick lit. Yes, it does have flaws – there is a career-related incident that came out of nowhere that particularly struck my eye – but as a whole it’s an impressive debut, and I guarantee a good time. I’m definitely getting my own copy, because this is certainly comfort reading material.

I already have library holds on Are We Nearly There Yet and What Fresh Hell (2018). I’m ready for more.

A Little Update: Spring Travel to PCA!

I’m leaving on my more or less annual trip to the US tomorrow morning!

The reason for this trip being semi-regular these days is a conference – the PCA, or PCA/ACA, or, the Popular Culture Association & American Culture Association conference. It’s a HUGE event, with an astounding number of Areas for all kinds of phenomenons of popular culture. When you’re a member, you can attend talks in every area, and there are all sorts of fun activities, movie screenings, special guests, etc. This will be my third time attending the Romance Area, which has grown big enough that we have three full days of papers!

PCA Romance Area is a wonderful place to get started if you’re interested in academia and have thoughts you’d like to share! It’s a very warm community (our area chairs Jodi McAlister and Heather Schell constantly overwhelm me with their kindness and ease) and you don’t have to be an “official” scholar to attend – I participate as an independent scholar, and we get some overlap from film and philosophy and other fields, so it’s a flexible field. The conference is held over Easter every year, in different cities. This year we’re in Washington, DC.

This year, my paper is titled “Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime: Revenge in Sarah MacLean’s Rule of Scoundrels Series”, and I plan to write a short version of it here for you, since I’ve been having a really good time with it! Revenge in romance is so interesting!

Doña Sofia Salvara and the Problem of the Legacy of Second-Wave Feminism

It was a matter of time when I would write here about one of my favourite books, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006). Just a brief introduction to my relationship with this as-yet-unfinished series: I first read Lies ten years ago, and I re-read all three books currently out on a regular basis. I write essays on the series for my own amusement and talk about it with friends and online; I even gave a presentation on The Lies of Locke Lamora as Renaissance drama at World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki in 2017. On this, my 11th re-read, I’ve already found three new things I’m very excited to write about. They will probably find their way to the blog eventually, once I decide to what extent I want to use them in my already-existing, longer papers.

 

THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.

 

One of the main complaints readers have of The Lies of Locke Lamora is the lack of women. I hear it loud and clear, and agree: especially in the first half of the novel, female characters tend to be minor, and one of the major ones gets killed off within a chapter.*

However, whenever the female characters of the novel are discussed, it seems to me that the only one people mention is Nazca, and I would like to blame this on the inheritance of second-wave feminism. Nazca is what might be referred to as a “cool girl”: she wears iron-shod boots, she’s very clever, she’s outspoken, she’s bold. She is a born leader and, if so inclined, gives her father and brothers a run for their money. This is what seems to appeal to readers; this is a woman who does not care to fit into a particular mould of femininity.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Nazca and would have liked to see more of her. What rubs me the wrong way is that people always mention her, and leave out Doña Sofia Salvara and Doña Vorchenza, the two women who, by the end of the novel, occupy possibly the most powerful position in Camorr (because honestly, the Duke seems to do very little). And why is this?

My greater interest here lies on Sofia Salvara. She is first introduced to the reader as brazenly flirting with the man she assumes is Lukas Fehrwight. She is presented as the wife of Don Lorenzo Salvara. When – and this is what sparked this post – she signs a promissory note to “Lukas” it is noted that she does so “in the curving Therin script that had become something of a fad among literate nobles in the past few years” (204). She dresses well. She is a botanical alchemist, something described as a suitable hobby for ladies of the nobility.

Most of these characteristics are undermined in text: Sofia flirts with Lukas to throw him off and to help her and her husband gain advantage over him in business negotiations. She is indeed the wife of Don Salvara, but clearly the brains of the operation in a partnership of equals. While she signs the promissory note her words drip venom – which, incidentally, her craft does as well, as it were; as an alchemist she is as good as a poisoner, something mentioned several times in the book. She is a lady of fashion and status. She is feminine and shrewd, even ruthless.

But she gets shrugged off by readers, and this is where second-wave feminism, to my mind, shows. Never mind that it’s a long time since the second wave was happening; it’s in us anyway. The idea that to be feminine is bad still persists, although there has, thankfully, been pushback. While the second wave did good work in opening possibilities for women, the idea that women therefore must engage in masculine-coded activities and behaviours or be seen as weak and subdued persists. I think it possible that the change is happening very slowly in the reception of literature, especially when looking at male-authored fiction. If a male author is writing a soft woman, it’s not unreasonable to get your hackles up.

However, in a book that is so full of deception and distraction, it’s important to look beyond the words to what is happening. It was the word “fad” that alerted me. I had been wondering why people never mention Sofia. I had assumed perhaps they never made it far enough in the book to really enjoy her (chapter 9, “A Curious Tale for the Countess Amberglass”; a lot of people seem to give up around chapter 6). But is it really the fact that Lynch uses so many female-coded words and actions in connection to her? Are readers dismissing her because so much of The Lies of Locke Lamora is about seeing what you expect to see?

And perhaps this linguistic deceptiveness is why I have less to say about Doña Vorchenza; she is introduced as an old, eccentric woman and in the same chapter revealed to be a lady of steel in a position of considerable power. The deception is less about her character than her status, the latter of which has been built from almost the beginning. I confess I have no idea why readers don’t talk about her more; she is a veritable dragon.

While Lynch introduces many amazing women in the subsequent novels – Zamira Drakasha, Ezri Delmastro, Selendri, Archedama Patience, and, of course, Sabetha Belacoros – it is very much Sofia Salvara who is my very favourite. Society lady, scholar, confident, clever, and, eventually, a political leader. She is shown to engage in society and feminine-coded actions without it negating her intelligence and quiet power. And I hate to see her go unmentioned, just because the notions of what a strong woman is like are still rigid. There is a strength in knowing your own mind and who you are, both soft and hard, and Sofia is a great example of that.

 

*Whether Nazca Barsavi is fridged or not remains a debate. My personal view is that technically, she is not fridged, because her death affects the actions of her father more than those of Locke, who, while close to her, is liminal in the affair between Barsavi and Grey King. I may dedicate a post of its own to this issue.

References to Scott Lynch novels are for the Gollancz 2007 paperbacks.

The Favourite (2018)

I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite last night and I keep thinking about it. What a brilliant, complex, beautiful, uncomfortable, intriguing film!

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it, really, so this is a bit of a ramble of the foremost things on my mind.

What gets me is the complexity, more than anything else, I think. It’s an intellectually stimulating film. The basic plot is fairly simple, and if you wanted to leave it at that it’s already an enjoyable piece. It doesn’t let you get lost, and, personally, I love how well characters are introduced – I have very bad facial memory and have seen movies where I don’t know the name of a single character because they aren’t introduced clearly. In this movie, I know who is who, even if at times someone’s name is mentioned for the first time without them in the frame.

However, back to the complexity, and is where I use People Are Wrong On The Internet as a jumping-off point. See, someone said The Favourite is boring.

Boring?

Of course, for each their own, but to my mind anyone who claims this movie is boring was only watching and not reading it. (Also I am sure this is the same kind of person who says “nothing happens” when in fact everything is happening.) If you think this is boring, I don’t think you understand the setting or what is really going on.

What I saw was three women, from different backgrounds and with different flaws and different experiences of life struggle for power in a society that primarily allows men to be openly powerful. Very notably, the men in The Favourite are peripheral; Marlborough is off at war, Godolphin’s appearances are short of confined to trying to persuade the Queen to his side, Masham is a frivolous puppy. The only slight exception is the foppish Harley, the effeminate one, and even he needs to court favour and alliance with the women if we wants to succeed.

And the power dynamic between the women keeps fluctuating throughout the movie. First Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is the dominant one, then Abigail (Emma Stone), and eventually Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who just won an Oscar for the performance). The ending scene made a strong impression on me, and I haven’t quite gotten it decoded, but I would say it closes the cycle and reminds us that power is still male-coded, and even when women have power, it is subject to this male domination. The language of power is male, as also seen in Sarah’s male attire. This is, if anything, a bitter reminder, at least to my mind. But it is an angry bitterness.

There is a lot of anger and aggression in this movie, really. It’s violent without blood or gore; its brutality comes from body language, the threatening music, and the use of language. It is ever present. Sarah is gloriously dangerous, with her commanding ways, quick temper and sharpness. I’m also deeply fascinated by the strangely violent yet weirdly affectionate courtship of Abigail and Masham: while he is, as a man, threatening, the violence in their flirting comes from her.

I think the aggression and brutality are an important factor in the discomfort of this movie. Combined with the historical setting and the world of period drama, language alone can be surprisingly violent. It has the potential for subversion, and that potential is definitely made use of in The Favourite. A man using degrading language to a woman or swearing otherwise is common enough, but having a woman refer to her father as a “cunt” is different. It is powerful. It does not, in your average period drama, happen. Combined with women shooting game (it just now occurs to me that is a rather phallic option and probably requires more attention, especially when Sarah wields a pistol and Abigail a rifle) and Sarah dressing in men’s clothes and, in at least one scene, using the kind of predatory body language I would expect of a Lovelace, there is a definite air of brutality and threat. Lanthimos breaks the expectations the audience has of a period drama, and the atmosphere becomes heavy with the uncertainty of just how far these women might go to hold on to power.

How can this possibly be boring?

I already know I need to see this again. There are so many scenes, moments, shots, that require more attention and thought, as exemplified by my gun epiphany above. So many details that are clearly intentional but the significance of which escapes me after just one viewing.

The Favourite is definitely a film that will stay with me and that will keep on giving. My feelings are perhaps best described by some lyrics from the song “His Kiss the Riot” from Anaïs Mitchell’s gorgeous musical Hadestown:

Now it thickens on my tongue
Now it quickens in my lung
Now I’m stricken, now I’m stung

I recommend seeing this movie. It is strange and powerful and left me stunned.

More posts possibly to follow when I’ve thought about it more and when I acquire the DVD.

Pieni palopuhe rakkausromaaneista

Tietooni tuli tänään, että suomalaisessa kirjablogosfäärissä liikkuu edelleen valheita ja vääriä todistuksia populaariromantiikasta. Alan harrastajana ja tutkijana en kestä yhtään, joten ajattelin kirjoittaa aiheesta lyhyesti. Enemmän luultavasti sitten ystävänpäivän tienoilla, kun romantiikasta tulee jos jonkinlaista esseetä ja artikkelia muutenkin. Haluan kuitenkin jo tänään kommentoida paria aihetta, jotka asiantuntemattomassa romantiikkakeskustelussa eniten raivostuttavat.

Aloitetaan vaikka ihan sillä, mitä romantiikka kirjallisuusmielessä on. Romance Writers of America (RWA) esittää kaksi vaatimusta: tarinan tulee keskittyä romanttisen ihmissuhteen kehitykselle ja siinä tulee olla emotionaalisesti tyydyttävä, positiivinen loppu. Yksinkertaista, eikö? Tämä määritelmä sallii siis sellaisenkin kirjan, jossa päähenkilöt eivät päädy yhteen, jos lopussa on toiveikkuutta, mutta väittäisin, etteivät genren harrastajat hyväksy tällaista ratkaisua – tai hyväksyvät ratkaisun, mutteivät kirjan paikkaa romantiikkahyllyssä. Onnellinen loppu on melkein aina myös aspekti, josta nuristaan: jos tiedän, että kirja päättyy onnellisesti, mitä järkeä lukea se? Ja eivätkös kaikki rakkausromaanit ole sitten ihan samanlaisia?

Anteeksi nyt, mutta mitä mielikuvituksen puutetta! Mitä heittäytymiskyvyttömyyttä! Olen lukenut useampiakin rakkausromaaneja, joissa epäilin viimeiseen asti, ettei tarina voi päättyä onnellisesti, koska miten ihmeessä kaikki langat saadaan solmittua seuraavan viidenkymmenen sivun aikana? Siitäkin huolimatta, että olen tiennyt olevani rakkausromaaniveteraanin käsissä! (Kirja, joka on tässä erityisesti mielessäni, on Julia Quinnin vuonna 2015 ilmestynyt The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy.) Juuri tieto onnellisesta lopusta edesauttaa kirjan tapahtumien myötäelämistä ja tunteisiin antautumista. Kun tiedän, että kaikki kääntyy parhain päin, voin rauhassa surra, pelätä, suuttua, ymmärtää. Ja kuulkaas, on huikean haastavaa valita haluamansa kaava ja troopit ja sitten luoda niiden puitteissa jotakin uutta ja yllättävää. Nostaisin tähän esimerkiksi Mary Baloghin romaanin A Summer to Remember (2003), jossa käytetään fake engagement –trooppia hyvin tehokkaasti ja – populaariromantiikan jatkumon näkökulmasta – erittäin hienolla tavalla. Balogh on muutenkin taitava kääntämään konventioita päälaelleen. Kun näin toimitaan, lukija pääsee kyseenalaistamaan tavan jolla lukee tekstin vihjeitä sekä tapoja, joilla asiat on ennen tehty.

Se toinen asia, joka yleisessä romantiikkakeskustelussa rassaa, liittyy juurikin rakkauskirjallisuuden jatkumoon. Aivan liian usein puhutaan Fabiosta, raiskauksista ja siitä, kuinka romantiikka aivopesee naisia. En ole millään muotoa kieltämässä, etteivätkö nämä asiat olisi olemassa: Fabiohan on toki ollut useiden rakkausromaanien kannessa, genressä on esiintynyt raiskauksia ja epäselviä suostumustilanteita (ns. dub con, dubious consent) ja jälkimmäiseen liittyen toki erittäin vaarallisia asenteita naisten omaksua. Mutta jos asioihin lainkaan perehtyy, voi huomata, että kaikki kolme kohtaa liittyvät vahvasti 70- ja 80-lukujen romantiikkaan. En aio ryhtyä tässä selittämään genren murrosta, siitä voi kukin halutessaan lukea useammastakin asiantuntevasta teoksesta joita liitän tämän päivityksen loppuun. Jos kuitenkin olet lukenut yhden rakkausromaanin, ja se on kirjoitettu ennen 2000-lukua, henkilökohtaisesti en osaa ottaa mielipidettäsi koko genrestä millään tavalla vakavasti. Ihan kuin olisi jotenkin käsittämätöntä, että genre voisi kehittyä neljässäkymmenessä vuodessa! Kuvitelkaa!

Yleinen ohjenuorani on, että jos aiot puhua romantiikasta genrenä, kysy ensin itseltäsi, mikä on tuorein genren teos jonka olet lukenut. Hyvä jatko on, saitko sen ilmaiseksi Amazonista tai nappasitko kirjaston kierrätyshyllystä – vai suositteliko joku genreä tunteva sitä? (Enkä siis halua millään tavalla väheksyä kirjastojen kierrätyshyllyjä! Oman kotikirjastoni sellaisesta löytyy usein laaturomantiikkaa, viimeksi nappasin mukaani Loretta Chasea, Suzanne Enochia ja Gaylen Foley’a!)

Ai niin, ja koska tästä oli twitterissä epäselvyyttä: kyllä, harlekiinit kuuluvat romantiikkaan mutta eivät määritä sitä. Harlekiinit eli Harlequin-kustantamon sarjaromanssit ovat hyvin oma lukunsa romantiikassa. Niitä löytyy eri linjoissa, joilla on omat sääntönsä ja vaatimuksensa. Ne antavat lukijalle juuri sitä, mitä tämä haluaa: jos haluan lääkäriromanssin jossa ei ole seksiä, saan sellaisen takuuvarmasti. Vähän niin kuin seksi- ja väkivaltavaroitukset elokuvien alussa! En joudu lukemaan sellaista mitä en halua, en joudu pettymään. Henkilökohtaisesti en tiedä mikä tässä ajatuksessa monia niin hirvittää. Joskus on kiva yllättyä, mutta joskus haluan vain juuri sitä, mitä teki mieli. Menit kahvilaan ja tilasit suklaakakkua, mutta saitkin porkkanakakkua? Onhan porkkanakakkukin hyvää, mutta olisin halunnut sitä suklaata.

Pähkinänkuoressa ja vielä kerran ennen kirjalistaa: romantiikka on kehittyny 70-luvulta. En tiedä muita niin tarkkoja ja analyyttisia lukijoita kuin romantiikan ystävät. Lukekaa jotain uutta ja lakatkaa nojaamasta ”faktoihin” jotka ovat ikivanhoja tai parhaassa tapauksessa sekä ikivanhoja että muualta kuultuja. Lukekaa hyvää, tuoretta romantiikkaa. Älkääkä vähätelkö onnellisia loppuja tässä toivottomassa maailmassa.

 

Kirjoja genrestä

Carol Thurston: The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (1987)

Pamela Regis: A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003)

Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (2009)

Jayashree Kamblé: Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology (2014)

Catherine M. Roach: Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (2016)

(Listasta tarkoituksella jätetty pois sellaisia kirjoja, jotka ovat auttamattoman vanhentuneita vaikkakin edelleen tutkimuksen perusteoksia.)

Re-Reading Persuasion (and Hello!)

Hello, friends! This is my first post on a brand new blog, and partly why I have taken so long to set the whole thing up – first posts are always so awkward. I have decided to solve this problem by doing all the housekeeping as a preface to an actual post!

Housekeeping

Long story short, my name is Veera and I have Thoughts and Feelings about things, mostly books and related media, and while I enjoy writing academic papers I need a place for my stray thoughts. Therefore, you get essays! And book reviews, very likely! And whatever crosses my mind or catches my fancy. Most of it will, I imagine, be in English, but occasionally there might be posts in my native language Finnish, because I’m trying to consume a little bit more in it and practice writing in Finnish again. (Most of my communication, education, and cultural consumption has been in English for over a decade, partly because of inclination, partly because of education, partly because of availability.)

 

Re-Reading Persuasion

What I want to talk about today is re-reading, and particularly re-reading Jane Austen’s posthumously published Persuasion (1818). I’m an Austen fan, as those of you who know me personally or indeed have encountered me anywhere on the internet will know, and this is what I believe to be my fourth time reading this novel. While I do re-read an Austen or two every year, this time I have the excuse of the book club I attend every month. (If you’re in Helsinki and want to read and discuss books in English, The English Book Club at the Finn-Brit Society is da bomb!)

Now, I’m not very far into this re-read, maybe a quarter, but it’s already striking me how much this book benefits from a revisit. I have never read it without knowing what was going to happen: my first experience of Persuasion was the 2008 ITV movie (adapted by Andrew Davies), so I would almost claim I never got to read the book for the first time in the sense of Let’s Find Out What Happens. However, I don’t think Persuasion suffers from this. If anything, it is even more heartbreaking when you know how deep the connection between Anne and Wentworth is before we even meet him – and when you know that he still loves her, despite his hurt and anger. In fact, I don’t think that the end of chapter 3, for example, has the emotional impact on the first reading it does on the second: upon learning that Kellynch Hall is to be let to Admiral Croft whose wife’s brother is a Mr Wentworth, Anne, flustered, cools her thoughts with a walk and says,

with a gentle sigh, “a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.” (19)

The beginning of the next chapter clarifies that she does not mean Mr Wentworth, spoken of earlier, but his brother Captain Wentworth. However, at the end of chapter 3 I enjoy the cliffhanger (for what a delicious romantic cliffhanger it is, implying but still mysterious) and, perhaps even more, the knowledge of whom we are speaking before the clarification. Or perhaps the greatest enjoyment is getting both, a dramatic ending to the chapter and the Knowledge.

A thing about Jane Austen that I find so brilliant is that there is a quote for everything, and the quotes are still relevant today, because people don’t really change and human relationships remain similar even as times change. Who cannot relate to this?:

There had been a time, when of all the large party now filling the drawing-room at Uppercross, they would have found it difficult to cease to speak to one another. With the exception, perhaps, of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who seemed particularly attached and happy, (Anne could allow no other exception even among the married couples) there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement. (46)

This, I think, is what Austen’s staying power comes from. She observes emotions, social situations, and humanity in general in such a way as to resonate across centuries. I’ve never understood why people think her novels boring. How are you bored by the human experience? (It is the patriarchy, of course. It boils my blood that we’re supposed to consider the while male experience universal when it’s tedious at best and atrocious at worst.)

Of course, many perhaps enjoy more action and drama on a grander scale in their fiction, and that is fine and fair; but to claim nothing happens in Austen is preposterous. I have just finished chapter 8, at the end of which Anne has left the piano for a moment and returns to the room to find Wentworth, who has been giving her the cold shoulder as if there was no previous acquaintance between them at all, seated at it. He rises and says, “with studied politeness, ‘I beg your pardon, madam, this is your seat’” (52) and will not sit down again despite her protestations. Now, it may seem that nothing has happened, but if you think about it, there is a lot going on. First of all, he’s standing on ceremony in a close family circle, with a woman to whom he was once engaged. Moreover, though, he’s assigning the piano stool as Anne’s seat and therefore making her the musician, not a dancer. Dancing is a form of courtship: young, eligible women dance, and older women, spinster and matrons, tend to stay to the sidelines to observe – or provide the music for the dancers. It is quite cruel of Wentworth, actually; he is saying he considers Anne ineligible and outside the interest of a young man looking for a wife. I don’t know how this is supposedly “nothing happening.”

As you can see, I did not lie about having Feelings about things. The nuance in Austen is always delicious, once you stop to consider it; if you feel you need guidance with Austen – and I know I have benefitted greatly from the explanations and observations of those well versed in her works – I would recommend John Mullan’s exceedingly interesting What Matters in Jane Austen? 20 Crucial Puzzles Solved (2012) which poses questions like why the weather is so important, do sisters actually sleep in the same bed, and role of the piano forte, and so on. In my experience, reading Austen becomes better and better when one reads criticism and essays on her works!

I’m very excited to enjoy the rest of Persuasion again (and get to the letter, oh, the letter!) and to discuss it with my book club. I would like to conclude this post with a well-known moment from Persuasion, which always makes me giggle. The Musgroves have lost a son, who is spoken of with affection after his death:

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. (37)

And people think Austen is soft, fluffy, and boring.

 

All page numbers refer to the Norton Critical Edition ofPersuasion, second edition, 2013.

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