Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rated R

I was introduced to romance novels (of the bodice-ripping variety) many years ago when we passed Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower around my dorm at my Seven Sisters college. Needless to say, it was pretty dogeared and the spine was cracked at the nasty bits. Now I had dabbled in Victoria Holt as a younger person (before I realized that she was telling Jane Eyre over and over again and that Charlotte Brontë told it better), but -- quite frankly -- I had never read anything like that before! And I've always been a little embarrassed about reading books like that ever since. As for listening, oy vey! Even though it's for my ears only, it's even more embarrassing.

I just took a Readers Advisory refresher so I could work in the Popular Library, and the instructors reminded me how important it is to read broadly. So, I found Amanda Quick's The River Knows on the shelf and decided to take the plunge. It was read by Katherine Kellgren, so I knew at least I was in the hands of a master (mistress?) narrator.

Louisa Bryce meets Anthony Stalbridge while lurking outside the bedroom of Elwin Hastings, the host of the society party they are both attending. When their whispered conversation about why each of them is in that somewhat compromising position is interrupted by one of Hastings' bodyguards, Stalbridge embraces and kisses Louisa in an attempt to deflect questions (ah! the old meet-cute). After this narrow escape, they learn that they each have suspicions about their host -- Louisa believes he is financially backing a notorious brothel, while Anthony believes Hastings is somehow connected with the suicide death of his fiancée a year ago. Louisa, who is hiding a dark secret or two of her own, convinces Stalbridge to partner with her to get to the bottom of Hastings' activities.

Of course, even though Louisa is a bit of a plain Jane (she wears spectacles, after all), there is a mutual attraction. Before too long, they are working together in all sorts of ways. During the first sex scene, I was thinking way too much about the mechanics of their encounter, which seemed particularly preposterous as the witty repartee was flying fast and furious in what appeared to be a somewhat awkward location and position. Funny ... I am having no trouble remembering this. :*-)

The River Knows (aside from the fact that the novel's suicides [3] all end up in the Thames, this title [along with the feather] seems way too oblique) is no-surprises romantic fiction -- there's the investigation plot alongside the romance (which slows down the story a bit), but really it's all about our hero and heroine. And they are just fine, thank you. Louisa is spunky and opinionated and doesn't care that she's poor and on the shelf (definition 4) and Anthony has all the riches he needs, but comes from a family that knows that other things are more important. Fortunately, he never really loved his dead fiancée, so he's free to love Louisa. And they all lived ...

Kellgren is good (no surprise). The surprise is how differently she reads adult novels. I am so used to hearing Jacky Faber from her, that the narrative restraint, lower volume, and more neutral characterizations are a definite change. She reads very quickly but precisely, and portrays the steamy parts with confidence and aplomb. Her individual characterizations come from all levels of English society, everyone sounds like a human being (occasionally tricky with the expository dialogue that shows up here), and she gives the novel's stock figures a little more life than they might have had were I reading this to myself.

Still, it's not my genre. I like romance in my novels (Pride and Prejudice anyone?), but this book feels very cloned to me. If you read one Amanda Quick you've read them all. Now, insert another roamnce author's name into that sentence. And then there's the whole shame of carrying around a book with that* on the cover! (Maybe this is why The River Knows has such a blasé cover, but don't you still know what kind of book it is, even without the author's name?) Is it the familiarity that readers crave, they know what they are going to get when they open the book? I like to be a little more adventuresome in my reading.

[*The classic bodice ripper cover was retrieved from Publishers Weekly's Listen Up blog, but they didn't say where it came from ... tsk tsk.]

The River Knows by Amanda Quick
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Brilliance Audio, 2007. 8:32

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