The Silk series
by Mary Jo Putney
15 July 2006 book review
I recently had a book recommended to me due to its subject matter: a woman overcoming horrifically thoughtless and emotionally scarring abuse from her father (she was the 5-year-old discoverer of his messy suicide). In fact, all the author's works were recommended to me, as she apparently is a romance writer who takes the time to create relatively accurate historical stories. The book in question was Veils of Silk, the third of the Silk series.
In the process of searching for that book I also found book two in the series, Silk & Secrets, and ended up reading them both (for those who are curious, the first book is Silk & Shadows, but I have not read it and do not review it here). After reading the second and third books in the series, I can now authoritatively say I'm unfortunately not a fan of romances, no matter how well-written -- but then I'm also not their target market.
What do you mean?
Many years ago I wrote a review for a fascinating anthropology class on popular culture, on the book titled Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, by Janice A. Radway. Since then other excellent books have been written on the appeal of romances and other popular culture. However, at the time Radway's book came out, romances were ordinarily simply dismissed out of hand as "low brow trash."
Thus Radway's book was a seminal work, in that it took a careful and scholarly look at romances: their creation, their perception by the public, and their authors and audience. One of the parts that stuck with me over the years was the author's conclusions, based on her research, into why women read romances so avidly: as coping strategies and escape from the unbearable but inescapable lacks in their lives -- most specifically a lack of nurturing.
I know I don't like to be stuck, even if just inadvertently, in a situation which requires such escapism. Admittedly, I still need escape and nurturing as much as the next person, but I think what I find nurturing isn't quite what Radway's housewives are seeking.
Further, I find myself uncomfortably agreeing with Radway's conclusions regarding the societally acceptable function fulfilled by the romance novels themselves in defusing oppositional thought. I know I too have similar coping mechanisms, even though I wish I didn't need to. I can see the same type of frustration expressed by men occasionally as well -- through, for example, constant consumption of simplistic, plotless action movies where the hero always wins due to thoughtlessly blowing everything up. I wish emotional crutches like these weren't necessary for any of us; I wish I knew more ways to make life less frustrating and truly better for all.
But what about the books?
They were well-written, on the whole. As I previously mentioned, the author was recommended to me as someone who did her historical research; I'd have to agree. One of the books' backgrounds was India, and the other was in the mostly-Islamic Middle East. Both were set in the mid-1800's, and shared a few characters. Admittedly my exposure to both India and Islam is encompassed by a few excellent college classes, so I certainly do not consider myself an expert on either subject. However, within the parameters of my knowledge I spotted no obvious errors.
I'd have to say the author did a better job for her readers of envisioning the desert lands than India. In Veils of Silk, her book set in India, the background felt a touch more like an imagined realm where she was mostly repeating what she'd read or heard from others. However, in Silk & Shadows I could easily "sense" through her descriptions the almost incandescently shimmering desert heat, the sweaty creak of leather saddles, and the ever-present dusty smell of the sandy desert. Heck, at one point I amusedly wondered why she hadn't titled the story "Silk & Sand." Yes, yes, I know... not romantic enough.
Thinking about the evocativeness of the writing, I'd guess she's never ridden a camel, though -- that incredible swaying gait is extremely comment-worthy! Camels are called ships of the desert for a reason, and it isn't because they are smooth sailing. Still, that's just a personal observation, not a critique of the novel. Frankly, I wish I could take the time out to do fun research on fascinating subjects like this, so I could write novels too. My main issue is I have no idea what to write the story about.
One of the more fascinating realizations I had while reading both books was the types of generalizations made. Nowadays in the Western world it's not politically correct to make sweeping statements about the Eastern world. However, romance novels thrive on iconic generalities -- in some ways I think they need those quickly evoked, non-conscious societal assumptions. Thus we have no inscrutable Asians, but we have plenty of "tempestuous Russians," "fiery redheads," "icily reserved English," "dour Scots," and so on.
I'm always vaguely disappointed by these sorts of generalizations. I understand they're a quick emotional shorthand for the readers, which allows them to mentally fill in the details they prefer... but surely we can surpass these simplistic assumptions by now? Why are the women always soft and slender, with big busts? Why are the men always hard muscled and square-jawed? Surely both men and women can be attractive without being quite so dependent on nothing more than stereotypical, gender-role-related physicality?
Why do the women always operate off of nothing more than emotion and so-called instinct, while the men are invariably the logical ones who are only with difficulty persuaded to the women's point of view -- only to later discover the women were right all along! Whew, thank goodness for the women -- shoulda just listened to them from the very beginning, right? Argh. I find that disturbingly stereotypical also.
What about the sex?
Yeah, yeah, I'm getting there, sheesh. Yes, I understand a big part of romances is the sexual tension, and I'm as much a fan of fun sexual tension as the next person. But for it to be believable to me, could we please not have the couple acting like morons in order to create the desired tension?
If I read one more instance where one of the couple silently, sufferingly, and "nobly" decides they simply can't bring it up again, whatever 'it' may be -- it's just too painful! -no, no, they must just doooom themselves to misery for ever for the sake of the loved one... oh, to be able to give the angsty perpetrator of that sort of nonsense a good, swift smack to knock some sense into them! Pages of pointlessly self-inflicted suffering do not equate to sexual tension, for Pete's sake!
About this point you're probably thinking, "Yes, yes, angst, whatever. What about the sex?" Why yes, there was some. Yes, it too leaned rather heavily on unrealistically generalized male-dominant cultural assumptions -- and as a consequence mostly left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. It was such very, very wondrous sex -- all clean and breathlessly perfect and artsy.
Does anyone actually have sex that pristine, outside of porn movies with their multiple takes? Has anyone really managed to eliminate all the mess and fun and gender-bending potential of truly sharing, loving sex? To me sex should be real, alive, personal, generous, sometimes uncomfortable, always interestingly negotiated, sometimes giggly and silly... it shouldn't be nothing more than simplistic, culturally-assigned gender roles such as "active man bouncing on top of passive woman."
What about the romance?
The problem I face with the nurturing capabilities of romance novels is, I guess, that I want to be nurtured in a particular way -- and this isn't it. Motherhood, being economically dependent on my husband, losing my name by becoming someone's wife, sometimes even being considered his property... yikes! I don't find those particularly nurturing or self-enriching. I know they are and can be for other women, of course, but they aren't for me.
Frankly, the amount one of the women gave up for her husband (which I did not see reciprocated by him!) simply appalled me. She was a crack shot, a marvelous horseback rider, a leader of men to battle, and a locally renown warlord. Through her efforts a formerly dying, half-abandoned little desert town re-fortified itself, threw off the routine bandit raids, started growing its own crops again, and became a center for tolerance and aid to weary, bandit-harried travelers.
How could she throw that all away? The classic answer is, of course, "for love!" -- but why is it always the woman who must sacrifice for love? Why didn't the husband decide to stay and help her instead? A reason is given in the book, of course -- one always is -- he'd just inherited a title and thus had to return home. Frankly, the idea of that poor woman exchanging her former life of strength, excitement, independence, and worthy leadership of others, to be the much-coddled breeder for her husband's family... repulsed me.
What do you want, then?
Yes, I know you didn't really think that -- ah, vanity press. ;)
I know I want to be nurtured as much as the next person, darnit! However, having my Self subsumed into another (however lovingly) does not make me feel either nurtured or emotionally renewed -- it makes me feel smothered and ignored. Whether vicariously through a novel, or in "real life," I would dearly love to experience a nurturing that was based on my expressed needs and desires. I want to be really communicated with, not just coddled occasionally when it's fun and convenient. Further, I don't feel that desires should be hammered into a lover's head with a pickaxe in order for him or her to "get it," nor do I want to reduce that fragile, delightful sense of anticipation to a typed, double-spaced bullet list of demands.
Having to organize it all myself isn't the answer either. If that were what satisfied me, I'd nurturingly entertain myself on my own, and get rid of the aggravation of having to manage someone else's expectations while trying to enjoy and re-energize myself. What I truly want is that sense of someone who actually listens to me, who cares about and considers what I want and need, who's willing to make an effort ahead of time in order to create a wonderful moment for me. That's what I do for someone I love, after all.
It doesn't have to be huge and expensive, either. I'd be just as delighted by an evening of dancing, or dinner and theatre, as I would be by a really interesting and challenging intellectual discussion on a subject I found fascinating -- or perhaps best of all, Omar Khayyam's wonderful and famous date:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
Okay, so I'd probably prefer a jug of iced tea, but you get the idea. ;)
Closure and clean-up
I'm rather harsh on these two novels, but to be fair they weren't written for me. There are plenty of people who find Putney an extremely satisfying, exciting, educational, and fun read; I would not deny them that. The very fact I also am floundering around looking for nurturing is another example of the universal validity of this need, and that it is answered in different ways for different folks.
Further, the books seem relatively well-plotted to me, appear technically well-written and researched, and I believe could be quite absorbing to the right audience. I greatly enjoy reading religious philosophy, for example, but I know that's not for everyone either. So, if you believe you are the right audience for these books, I highly recommend them, especially Silk & Shadows -- up until the end I found it mostly a ripping adventure yarn. Please don't assume I'm the be-all and end-all on the subject of romances -- try them yourself and see what you think. I'd love to hear where you disagree and agree with me.