Anatomy of A Polarizing Book

Note from Natalie: I am absolutely delighted to have another wonderful guest post here at the Radish from The Hypeless Romantic‘s Jessica.

Anna Cowan, Untamed

Anna Cowan, Untamed

Anna Cowan’s historical romance, Untamed (May 2013, Destiny Books, Penguin Australia) was reviewed here on the Radish by Natalie, who called it Magnificent and Flawed. For a somewhat obscurely published debut, Untamed has been read pretty widely, probably because Romanceland is full of seasoned (not to say jaded) readers on the lookout for something truly unique, and Untamed‘s “cross-dressing duke” is certainly that. The book’s popularity was also helped not a little by the sincere championing by popular authors who know how to use social media (especially Jo Bourne and Ruthie Knox).

To me, one of the most interesting things about Untamed is the reactions it provokes in readers. Some readers praise it to the skies. Others hate it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. And even reviewers who give it a good to fair grade (B to C in blog lingo, or 3.5 to 2.5 stars in Goodreads/Amazon terms) tend to say it has a mix of the terrific and the terrible. I thought it might be fun to look at some of the reviews to see what romance reviewers were looking for, what worked for them, and what didn’t. Note: there are spoilers in what follows.

Lynn at All About Romance praises Untamed because it is unusual and “plays with gender.” She also likes Cowan’s “distinctive voice,” revealed in “poetic language” and imagery. Finally, Lynn appreciates the setting, both somewhat unusual and well-realized, of the early nineteenth century rural manor house. Similarly, over at Dear Author, Janine says it is “something different, and deserves credit for taking a great many risks, especially with the gendering of the hero,” and praises the “thought-provoking and often beautiful” language. Dabney at Dear Author doesn’t talk about the writing, per se, but she mentions being “transported” by the novel.  She actually doesn’t “give a damn about this book’s sexual politics,” but rather appreciates the hero and heroine as “fascinating, sensual … fabulously unlikely.”

For every reviewer who praises Cowan’s strong voice and the loveliness of her prose, someone disagrees. Over at Badass Romance, Pamela says the writing is uneven:  “At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it falters, it can be frustrating. Artisanal, yet unruly. … There’s a choppiness when the POV switches unevenly to secondary characters.” Similarly, Kelly at Insta-Love deplores the “random and unsustained POVs from secondary characters popping up at odd times throughout the story.”

A recurring theme among reviewers is the feeling that at times the author was just too opaque, the motivations of the characters too hazy, the plot too full of ellipses. Kaetrin of Kaetrin’s Musings writes, “I felt, for most of the book, like I was playing a particularly elaborate game of cat’s cradle – it had the potential to be anywhere on the scale from a beautiful and magnificent creation to a crazy tangled mess.” Pamela writes, “The writing is at times so oblique that I had to re-read passages…” And over at Karen Knows Best, Willaful says, “I had trouble getting into this at first, because it’s the sort of book I find intimidating – one in which there are many complicated plots and undercurrents, and everyone seems to understands them except me.” Finally, this from GrowlyCub: “For a long while (till about p 270 of 320) I was convinced the cats must have mixed some opiate into my Michelina dinner, because, damn, I had NO clue who all these people were (Sophie? WTH is Sophie? oh, it’s Ma) and what all the allusions and illusions were supposed to tell me.” But RR’s Natalie, while agreeing that the writing was sometimes work, found herself “caught up in and having to unravel her prose to get at the meaning more than once (for some people this is a bug–for me, it’s a feature).”

Looking at reader reactions to the gender experimentation in the novel really gives you a sense of the diversity in Romanceland. Some romance readers, like Lynn Spencer and Janine, enjoyed Untamed in part because of its unusual take on gender. One gets the sense that such readers hope for more of this type of experimentation in the future. But others, like this reader on an All About Romance message board, appreciated the experimental gender politics, not because she hopes the genre moves in that direction, but as an occasional diversion from the norm: “I would not want to read books like this all the time because the traditional gender roles are one of the things that, for me personally, is a central part of reading romance (masculine men, feminine (which can still mean strong) women) – but this book turned it all on its head and I was entranced.” Some readers didn’t care at all about the gendering of the hero and heroine, while others felt its importance (especially the significance of the “cross-dressing”, which was really, to a disguise more than an identity) has been overstated.

Some readers did not appreciate it in the least. Here’s a comment from an Amazon reviewer: “The hero dresses in drag. I’m sorry it’s hard to fall in love with a dude wearing hoop skirts, a giant powdered wig, and makeup.” Sara of At the Window Seat on a Rainy Day, writes, “I know this will make me sound like the biggest square out there; however having Kit and Jude so far outside of the standard roles didn’t work for me. Granted, I was completely engrossed in their story, but the traditionalist in me kept waiting for both characters to do SOMETHING within the normal outlines of Hero and heroine.”  Yasmin M’s one line, one star review at Goodreads – “What in the name of fuck?” — is perhaps the most succinct dismissal of Untamed on this basis.

Some did not feel Cowan went far enough in her experimenting, noting that by creating a feminine hero and a masculine heroine, Cowan merely swapped genders, rather than deconstructing the gender binary. As Pamela puts it, “I’m not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are ‘worn’ by the opposite gender.” And as put by Alexis Hall at Goodreads:

…Darlington identifies quite explicitly as unmanly man (and suffers for it, as his father’s hands) but … since his non-manly behaviour seemed to centre around passivity, weakness, fearfulness etc. it just reinforced the notion that masculinity = strength, effeminacy = weakness. Which is, of course, nonsense, as well as being problematic.

However, this reviewer disagrees, praising

how gender neutral both Kit and Jude are written, even so far as their names are interchangeable for the sexes (hers in the abbreviated form). As a reader I come into a story with ideas about what defines a hero or heroine’s role in the story, allowing for very broad interpretations about how those roles will fall under the rules of Man and Woman. Ms. Cowan seemed to throw that rulebook out the window and reformed both her leads into something in between, with both of them having masculine and feminine traits.

One of the most interesting differences of opinion is how warm or cold the story is, how connected emotionally the readers feels to the central love story. Lynn Spencer writes that “while I found the interplays between Kit and Darlington intriguing, I also at times felt disconnected from the story. Darlington uses his words to push people away and this applies to readers as well sometimes.” And in the comments in the Dear Author review, Kay writes, “What does make a difference is whether the novel strikes a balance between being cerebral and moving the reader. UNTAMED, one can say, is cerebral, whether you think that quality is muddy, or clear. But it did not move me; it is, for me, a cold novel.” The five star reviews on Amazon tend to focus not on the experimental nature or the writing, but on how moving this book is: “I laughed with them, cried with them and felt my heart break a little for them at times.” and “Prepare to be so moved that you won’t be able to move” are typical. In her Tumblr, Brontides and books, Daisy-Mai writes, “I really have to commend Cowan for her writing in Untamed. This style was simple but beautifully executed, evoking so much emotion from me that it had in tears at many stages of the book.”

Anyone who liked the book at all tended to like the heroine, Kit. But there is a lot of disagreement over the hero, Jude/Duke of Darlington. Many reviewers loved him as that beloved type of romance hero, the tortured yet vulnerable man with Something Awful in His Past. Others could not get over the fact that Jude’s charm and power were so often described but so rarely in evidence. Still others found his immorality, his selfishness, and his manipulativeness impossible to reconcile with an HEA.

Of the secondary characters, the heroine’s brother-in-law and his relationship to the heroine’s sister are the subject of most readerly disagreement. For DA’s Dabney, the portrayal of BenRuin and Lydia’s relationship was “deft and moving”, and for Pamela, “This secondary hero, the ‘great Scottish lummox,’ nearly overtakes Kit as my favorite character.” But AAR’s Lynn felt that “naming Kit’s brother-in-law Lord BenRuin was just hilariously bad.” For Dear Author reviewer Sunita (who did not review the book but commented on it), BenRuin “was almost a parody of the Highland Scot who is not the hero in a Scottish Historical, and he is described as ‘large and brutish’ early on.” GrowlyCub blames the author more than he character when she describes BenRuin as “1 big lummox of a husband, who desperately loves his wife, but for which we are supposed to detest him…” And Alexis Hall, on Goodreads, admits to the stereotyping, but “really liked” him, despite feeling his reconciliation with wife Lydia was rushed.

As for historical accuracy, reviewers have tended to agree that Untamed takes some serious liberties. Janine writes, “There is no explanation, despite the Regency setting, for why a woman who being publicly divorced would wield tremendous social clout nonetheless. There is no explanation for why a gay couple can show affection to each other in front of others without fear at a time when men were hanged for being homosexual” (although her latter concern is addressed by Maili in the comments, who contends that “Men (and women) can and did show physical and emotional affection towards each other in public including sitting next to each other in a loose embrace, sharing a bed, dining together intimately and such.)”.  And Dabney writes, “The society they best is one that even I, who rarely cares about historical accuracy, found jarringly dubious.” At Femdom books, the anacrhonisms took the reviewer out of the book: “The weakest part of this book is definitely the historical aspect. It seems to be set in a sort of regency-esque world, but it’s never at all clear when (I think this is deliberate). It would have been better set later, maybe late Victorian, as some of the things that the women do in this book (particularly Kit, but also Lady Marmotte) are so anachronistic for the regency style setting, it makes them a little difficult to believe.” But RR’s Natalie says, “Honestly, I don’t care. I often read historical romances as a particular type of speculative fiction, so deviations from what actually happened or how things worked tend to not bother me. Similarly, Lord Rose on Goodreads says, “There were some problems in the historical accuracy that bothered me-the divorce being the largest-although the book as a whole had such a weak sense of time that I could mentally transpose bits around in time and it would hardly change a thing.”

Almost everyone who endeavored to write an actual review of Untamed agrees that summing up this book a single grade is difficult to impossible. Lynn writes, “This book has burned itself pretty far into my memory, but I still found it wickedly hard to grade.” Janine says, “I’ve been wrestling with what to grade this book during the writing of this review, and my failure to come to a firm conclusion has brought me to a split grade.”  Pamela says, “Overall, I’m calling Untamed perfectly IMperfect — by which I mean this debut novel is uneven; flawed in many of the the right ways, and subversive in interesting ways, too.” And at FemDom, “Overall, it’s a difficult book to grade. … I’m conflicted. I didn’t always enjoy this book but it is outstanding – it stands out.”

I am one of those readers who really enjoyed Untamed, although I agree it is a kitchen sink full of  plots, characters, and tropes not entirely consistent with each other or fully fleshed out. Several reviewers say they had one experience reading it and another reviewing it, and I agree this book is very subject to the post-read hangover: the more you think about it, the further away its unique charms subside, the larger its problems loom

Reviewing the reviews, three things stick out.

The first small point is my surprise that no one complained that the hero of this novel had a recent sexual relationship with the heroine’s married sister. Maybe any reader willing to try a cross-dressing duke isn’t going to blink at that?

The second is how deep the level of difference and disagreement goes in romance reading and reviewing. For example, some readers picked this book up hoping for a genre-buster that detonates the gender binary while others were expecting a traditional Regency romance. Both readers read the blurbs, the jacket copy, and knew full well what the book was about. Explaining the difference in part is the fact that some readers viewed the cross-dressing duke as subversive while others felt that since heroines have dressed as men in many a romance novel, this wasn’t so much subversive as broadening a well-used trope. To take another example, some readers could not get into — or even pick up –  Untamed because they want to imagine the hero as their own. There are a lot of websites in Romanceland that feature book boyfriends, with pictures of good looking men who may resemble the heroes as described in romances. They focus in their reviews on how hot a hero is, which often translates to how traditionally masculine he is. None of those websites have reviewed this book yet, despite the major press it got from AAR’s review and Dear Author’s joint review and feature on Cowan. This point just reminds me the many different reasons romance readers might pick up a particular book.

The third is how variable reading and reviewing is. You can take a reader — say, me — who normally doesn’t care a whit for historical accuracy, but if you put a woman of no social consequence in tight breeches with a pig in matching silks on a leash at a ball and have everyone in attendance in awe of her, you’ve lost me (at least at that moment). Or you can take a reader who normally does care about historical accuracy, but give her a love story so moving or writing so beautiful that she can’t be bothered to complain.  So many reviewers resorted to metaphors to describe their complex experience of reading Untamed: a spider web, a jigsaw puzzle, a many-branched bush, a cat’s cradle.  That’s very much how I feel about romance reviewing after writing this post.

Comments

  1. says

    I completely agree with you about the pig. In fact, even if she had been sans pig, the idea of her captivating everyone while dressed as a man seemed rather improbable, to the extent that I stopped reading and had a good scoff at that moment. However, I think I still rated it 5-stars at Goodreads. (Too lazy to open tab and check, obviously). This is mainly because even with the problems, I still found it gripping. I did have an issue with Jude’s affair with Lydia, but I felt that it was part of what made their characters in need of growth. I also liked what Cowan did with how Lydia and BenRuin find their way to a real marriage.
    In any case, it’s been a long time since a romance really demanded my close attention, and didn’t clobber me over the head with ordinary, so even though it’s got some problems, I’d still rate it above average.

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  2. says

    I haven’t read this book, yet, though I plan to at some point. But I loved reading this post which summarizes and analyzes the reviews of it! Could be the start of a whole new feature :)

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  3. Jessica says

    @cecilia: I feel just the same as you on all of those issues. As much as I disliked the last experiment I read of two books from two different perspectives (Julia Quinn’s Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr. Cavendish, I Presume) I was actually kind of hoping for Lydia and Ben Ruin’s book.

    @Jorrie Spencer: I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’d love to do it again.

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  4. says

    Great analysis!
    I did note the ickiness of the sister thing in my Goodreads shelving, but I think I just couldn’t fit it into my review. I tend to leave things out for the sake of review cohesion.

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  5. Jessica says

    @victoriajanssen: Yes, isn’t it? It really proves the old adage that a book becomes new with every new reader. Or something like that.

    @willaful: I just find it odd that it’s the least controversial aspect of the novel. I find it unusual in today’s historical roms — at least the ones I read — to have the hero in a sexual relationship with anyone else once he meets the heroine. I know that was more common back in the day.

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  6. says

    I think they do break it off pretty soon thereafter. Possibly we’re all just getting jaded. ;-) But yes, I do know some readers very bugged if the hero has sex with anyone else once they’ve met. And having sex with two sisters, even consequtively, is icky. But not a dealbreaker.

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  7. says

    Fascinating post Jessica. I did note the “ick” factor of the prior relationship between Lydia and Jude but when it came time to write my review, I had so many other things I wanted to say and I couldn’t say it all. And, by the end of the book, it’s true that it ceased having a lot of importance for me. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t, at least by then, an issue for Kit (or Lydia).

    this book is very subject to the post-read hangover: the more you think about it, the further away its unique charms subside, the larger its problems loom

    This. My review was one of the earlier ones (I *think*) and I must say that after reading Growly Cub’s review and listening to others’ opinions on the book some of the things I had passed over or missed altogether became clearer to me and I found I couldn’t really disagree. I kept my review the same though, because that was what I thought when I finished reading it and to go and change it based on outside influences seemed inappropriate. And, I’m not convinced my grade would have changed.

    I do think some of the use of language in the book was so very lovely and I’m looking forward to reading more from Anna Cowan but in hindsight, I think Growly Cub was probably right as regards the way gay men and men in general were portrayed in the book.

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  8. HJ says

    I read this article with interest because I did not manage to finish this book. I saw one review, noted that it involved cross-dressing (which is a trope I like in historical novels, although needless to say the vast majority of cross-dressing is female dressed as male), and downloaded a sample straight away. I didn’t even finish the sample. I’m struggling to remember why, but I think it was a combination of the writing (I thought it wasn’t very good) and the historical inaccuracies (they matter to me).

    The fulsome praise mystifies me!

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  9. says

    I almost always work the other way — I remember the things I loved and the things I disliked become weaker. I’ve been tempted to raise my grade for this (as well as other.s)

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