Friday, February 22, 2008

Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books

Nicola: On the advice of my esteemed co-blogger, over the last couple of weeks I have jumped into the Julia Quinn/Bridgerton books with both feet. Errr, eyes? Anyway.

There are eight books in the main series, one for each Bridgerton sibling. Due to a combination of UBS availability, lack of patience, and issues with reading comprehension, here is the order I read them in: 8,1,2,7,3,5,4,6. Happily, that means I can vouch for the ability of each book to stand alone.

O’Donovan has said that the great thing about the Bridgerton books is the loving and witty interaction of the large Bridgerton clan, and the ongoing glimpses of the various inter-relationships. I’m going to take it a step further and say that the great appeal of the Bridgerton family is that they are a literary and real-world rarity: a functional-- as in the opposite of dysfunctional-- family.

O’Donovan: I’ve been musing about this since Nicola first mentioned this notion and I completely agree … and yet. As someone who grew up in a family that is almost sickeningly functional and strong, I shy away from “functional” as a description precisely because it has a connotation of perfection, at least as people use it in talking about families.

Nicola: Funny, I always thought the word “functional” was sort of damnation by faint praise. As in, defined by a lack of deviant horrible behavior….

O’Donovan: What I love about Quinn is that her families are functional – if the function of a family is to love and support one another – but they also manage to be irritating, challenging, suffocating and quirky. I like that she gives us something better than Ozzie-and-Harriet-style perfection: It’s a bunch of very “real” fictional people all bound by a commitment to each other.

The funny thing is, that’s pretty much the description of all the best (romantic) love stories, too.

Nicola: yep, check, check, and check. I also grew up really really lucky: although mine is a family of 3 girls, and not the 8 siblings of Bridgerton fame, I have a large, close extended family and that’s a really accurate description. There’s lots of internal joshing and teasing that occasionally approaches jabs and pokes, but to the outside world? It’s a united front, all the way. Are they perfect? Heck no. Do they drive me crazy? Oh yes. Would I change the slightest thing about any of them? Not for the sun and the moon and the stars.

So, then, moving on: when I first got married, my mother-in-law gave me a book called The Good Marriage. Without going into a lot of details, what the authors identified as a “rescue marriage” was of particular interest to me. In trying to add some context for you, I find my options are the one-sentence sound-byte:
Description of a rescue marriage: The healing that takes place during the course of the marriage is the central theme.

Or alternatively, four chapters worth of empirical description--you’ll have to get hold of a copy of the book for that.

The bottom line is, I recognize most of the Bridgerton-Spouse relationships as rescue marriages, or at least one such flavor. The Bridgertons, by and large, are fully realized, emotionally healthy adults, though of course not without their insecurities and yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams—and isn’t that a refreshing change of pace? Their spouses are mostly abused and damaged, feeling by turns envious of the Bridgerton family warmth, unworthy to join it, overwhelmed by it, and finally, embraced and healed by it. That last phase is particularly delightful to see in small bits and pieces of later books and epilogues, and a big part of the appeal that O’Donovan spoke of in her post on Relational Romance .

Does this mean that the Bridgerton half of the couple is the rock, the strength, selflessly giving to a weaker spouse who’s a needy, emotional black hole? Well, no, because that would be really irritating, not to mention boring. What most of the Bridgerton sibs have in common is a guilty wish to be more separate from the pack, to be recognized as an individual.

And the non-Bridgerton spouses are anything but weak. It’s more a case of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger*”, and the experiences of these partners give them an almost Herculean strength. Watching them learn to accept a partner, to set down a little of their burden, is a moving experience every time. Often, their difficulties are what allow them to see beyond the fa├žade of Bridgerton strength to the individual’s needs and the weaknesses that they don’t dare show.

O’Donovan: This is a very key point, I think, but I want to address the one Bridgeton book where it was turned on its head. In When He Was Wicked, I think Francesca is the “rescued” half, and she is rescued, at least in part, from her stifling identity as one of eight Bridgerton siblings. That turnabout has made it one of my favorite JQ books, and I thought it widened the scope of the series from the “cool family rescues the world’s strays” theme to the breadth of strengths that you describe here.

Nicola: Now that’s interesting, because Francesca’s partner in WHWW, while not abused, has certainly done some emotional suffering, and I don’t think of Francesca as in need of a rescue. But I agree that they are the most evenly matched couple, in those terms. I also loved this book (just finished it, in fact) and thought it was interesting that while I was formulating all these thoughts about the Bridgerton family, here was this book waiting for me that takes place almost entirely separately from the family. It’s not that Francesca doesn’t seem like part of the family, it’s more that the family and its dynamics don’t really play such a major role in this story as it does in the others. And to be honest, I have a certain soft spot for heroines who aren’t virgins. (Make of that what you will.)

Julia Quinn does a very nice job, all in all, of consistently demonstrating that a person’s greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness. The spouses that the Bridgertons find themselves with are tenderly complementary in both ways.

* "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Ugh. I hate that sentiment: it basically rationalizes abuse. It's true that crappy experiences CAN make you stronger, but they can also wear you down and damage you without killing you..... well, anyway. Pet peeve. Sorry for the tangent.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Knights In Shining Armor

Who can resist? Medievals, when they're well done, are such a lovely treat.

Yes, I know the real medieval knight bathed rarely, probably had bad teeth and beat his wife regularly with a stick no larger than his thumb, but ... but... well, just shaddup about all that OK? It's called suspension of disbelief.

I had an impulse to go back and re-read a bunch of these to be completely sure that I should recommend them to you, but, well, I have a stack of other things I haven't read yet calling my name, so here is a list based on memories from the last couple decades before Regencies took over as the only saleable era of the moment. If some of them don't hold up, I apologize, but what can I say, I enjoyed them at the time.

>Roberta Gellis, the Roselynde Chronicals (ooh, score, there are some new ones)! Well-researched without being cumbersome; densely plotted. Lovers of a great Robin Hood story will enjoy the royal politics and intrigue that drive these books. Gellis' heroines are appealing to me because they don't come off as hapless victims of gender oppression; they know they wield the political power of subtle influence. Women like Gellis' heroines are the reason for the saying "Behind every great man is a great woman."

>Catherine Coulter’s “Song” series: Those of you who don’t need magic or ghosts or time-traveling to imagine yourself atop the crenellated walls, bright pennants snapping in the breeze, should check these out. I’ll admit that I read them quite some time ago, so some of the details escape me. What I do particularly remember about them is that the women’s work of running the castle – ensuring that all of the household is clothed* and fed, and that the sick and wounded are attended to—is portrayed as important, and non-trivial, and not easy… (is that redundant?)… that the marriage and the responsibility of a fiefdom was a partnership, in a strikingly full-circle sort of way to modern times.

*bearing in mind that “clothing” a small town involves raising and shearing sheep, carding, spinning, weaving, & dyeing before they ever get to the sewing part, and scissors were high-tech…

>Lynn Kurland: Her books about Artane start out as straight historicals, then acquire a trio of entertaining comic-relief matchmaking ghosts, time travelers, and ever-more fantastical plots involving ghosts coming to life and other unlikely events. She has also written about cats who are angels in disguise and a number of straight up fantasy novels which I have heretofore missed. If you loved fairy tales as a child, if you've ever dreamed about going back in time (while retaining certain personal hygiene habits and products), Kurland knows exactly how to tap into those fantasies. The stories are rich with details, layered plots, and interconnected characters. Her protagonists, both male and female, have their flaws and challenges (frex, being dead) but they also have distinctive personalities, quirky humor, and best of all, the relationships are superbly written.

>Christina Skye’s Draycott Abbey series: A benevolent and powerful ghost guards Draycott Abbey through the centuries. Time-travel and an ongoing good-vs.-evil battle puts these squarely into the realm of romantic fantasy, so if you prefer more realism, pass these by. But if you like a little magic along with your castles, you won’t regret checking these out. I will concede that as the series continues they seem to get a bit labored or repetitive. I like her contemporaries too ("Code Name" series) and I think she probably switched just in time to keep from getting too stale.

>Marsha Canham—from Scotland to Wales, Sherwood Forest to “Bloodmore Keep”, Canham delivers. You’ll find little touches of magic in these books, but in a sort of mystical sense, without the comic effect of Kurland and Skye. Just enough to make you sigh and wish. Lots of adventure, politics, and passion. I strongly recommend, although I’m having a little trouble putting my finger on exactly why I like them. You’ll just have to trust me on these.

>Johanna Lindsey: It is with a certain reluctance that I include these. To be honest, I can’t remember a single thing about any of these, except that I really, really loved them, especially the Viking ones. The thing is, I was 13 or 14 at the time. And the cover blurbs sort of make me cringe today. So, if you’ve been living under a romance rock and never heard of JL, check them out, but at your own risk. Unless you're 13 or 14, in which case you should totally go for it.


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