by Pam Rosenthal, historical (2006)
Signet, $14.00, ISBN 0-451-21947-3
Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation disappoints me.
This is a pity because not one of the female characters in The Slightest Provocation from the heroine down to her maid are typical romance novel stereotypes. If this book has a more coherent plot, I would be in heaven since this book would then have been one to read if one is tired of stereotypical characters. In its current form, this book is a chore to finish. I want to love it dearly because of the high number of very interesting female characters that are positively unorthodox compared to the usual self-declared on-the-shelf heroines and their sisters. I want to. I just can't.
Mary and Christopher Stanley are married for ten years but they haven't been living together for nine years. They were childhood friends that later indulged in sexual experiments typical of hormonal teenagers and believing that they were in love, they eloped when they were barely out of their teens. Within that one year, Kit, egged by his peers, committed adultery with all kinds of mistresses and doxies because, you know, we don't want people to think he's in love with his wife or anything now, do we. Mary seeked comfort in the arms of his best friend and he found them in a compromising situation. Oh my goodness, how dare the wife had an affair! That... that... slut. Instead of taking a pair of scissors to Kit's little buddy, Mary allowed him to leave her and they had lived separate lives ever since.
Throughout the years, she fell into the company with all kinds of creative people and even radicals, taking lovers from these people whenever she feels lonely. I like that she's not sitting at home waiting for the man to come home while he has a good time all over the place. In fact, she's not waiting for the man to come home. She's thinking of accepting the marriage proposal from a very nice man that she's been in a pleasant "arrangement" with for a while now. Meanwhile, Kit had been a soldier in the last ten years, recently retired, and has just recently joined the Home Office. She's consorting with radicals while Kit's first assignment is to investigate the probability of an uprising among the working class in the lands that belong to the his family, Mary's family, and their neighbors. This story is set in 1817 where the working class was rebelling against the worst exploitative fallouts of unchecked laissez faire practices, by the way.
I appreciate that Kit and Mary are willing to both admit that they were too young and immature when they married ten years ago. However, Ms Rosenthal is more interested in putting in flashbacks written in the most opaque manner possible or getting her characters to have sex instead of allowing the two characters to have any meaningful conversation that can convince me that they're more mature the second time around. In fact, these two actually don't talk as much as I'd like them to. And when they do talk, often Mary is being really rude and patronizing towards Kit, assuming that he's of course a useless and irresponsible fellow. She has the right to think that way of Kit, of course, since he fired the first shot, so to speak, during the destruction of their marriage, but in this story she spends so much time insulting or patronizing him that I don't really see how she can be happy with him the second time around.
Also, unlike Kit whom nobody is even pretending to believe is an intelligent man in this story, Mary is said to be intelligent but she doesn't come off that way, not when the need for her to make a decision sees her wishing that she can just forget about those issues that trouble her when she's not acting like a self-absorbed woman that expects the world to stop while she takes her time to get all emo'ed up about her life. Kit is a more responsible fellow now although it's clear he's just taking baby steps towards becoming a capable fellow. As a Home Officer agent, his actions in this book make me feel embarrassed on his behalf because they aren't the actions of a capable and confident agent, they are the actions of a man way out of his depths. Still, like I've said, nobody is pretending that Kit is a brainy one here so there's that, I suppose.
I like many aspects of Mary, like her radical leanings and her genuine beliefs in and advocates of the concepts of feminism of her time. In other historical romance novels, more often than not a professed modern bluestocking heroine will end up complaining that nobody wants to marry her, which isn't what Mary Wallstonecraft and her contemporaries were advocating back then. Mary, however, behaves exactly in a manner that those suffragettes would approve. She has her own life, she is financially independent, and she takes lovers instead of letting her life wither away because her husband has left her.
The other female characters are interesting characters in their own right, such as the really delightful Fannie Gandin who is young enough to believe that she knows everything there is to know about being pragmatic. She knows that she's beautiful enough so she's determined to contract an advantageous marriage. Only then does she expect to seek true love. With a fellow that she doesn't expect to be her husband, of course. Even Mary's maid Peggy is interesting since she offers a point of view from the servant class of events revolving around the upper class as well as matters of the heart. These women, like Mary, realize the stark reality of their lot and they don't make unrealistic concessions just to keep readers happy in some safe bubble where Avon historical romances are accurate depictions of life in England during the 19th century while they attempt to find a measure of happiness in their life. I like these characters and I won't mind seeing a story starring Fannie myself.
Kit is a pretty interesting flawed hero as well - he was a genuine irresponsible and easily influenced young man back then and, like I've said earlier, he is clearly not the type to be capable and do things like he's a hero. He's now making baby steps to be a better man and he has embraced responsibility and accountability. He also seems to really love Mary as in this story he's the one who often thinks about her in terms of him and her together while Mary comes off as the more self-absorbed one, always thinking and overanalyzing things to the point of overkill. It is a pity that Ms Rosenthal never gives Kit and Mary ample opportunity to really talk about matters. Instead, the two characters are too busy having sex or being flippant and arch around each other.
The characters are interesting and in the context of the romance genre, unique enough to be considered Originals in their own way. The pace of this story, however, is agonizingly slow. The subplot about the potential uprising of the working class people around the area becomes an excuse for Kit and especially Mary to indulge in long-drawn and very indulgent overanalyzing about everything and anything that crosses their mind. These characters can spend chapters just thinking and going on angst-ridden mental trips so that nothing much happens during this time. The uprising subplot peters off to anticlimatic denouement. But still, during the last few chapters of the story when Ms Rosenthal finally wraps up her subplots after what seems like an eternity in the land of the doldrums, Kit and Mary finally talk naturally about things that matter instead of coming off like pretentious drama students trying to upstage each other in lifting their eyebrows and trying to score points by insulting each other. I find myself thinking that if Kit and Mary have been like this throughout the whole story, if the pace of the story is like this as well, this book would've been so much more enjoyable.
The Slightest Provocation will probably make my list of the most disappointing reads of this year because the characters are some of the most interesting I can ever come across and the groundwork is there for this book to be really enjoyable. Instead, the pace meanders, the head-hopping is muddled, and the middle of this book is pure torture to read because I am so bored out of my mind by the psychobabbling and overanalysis going on in the characters' heads.
Sigh. How did we go so wrong with this book, Ms Rosenthal?
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