Monday, October 1, 2007

Voices of the Night, by Lydia Joyce [1]

*/***** (1/5)

"Perhaps you are being the one taken advantage of," Maggie said with no small amount of asperity. "Perhaps I am using my body to try to tie you to me, to squeeze more money out of you. I have no regrets" --yet-- "so why should you?"

Wow, for a book with above average settings and prose, I was thoroughly disappointed by Lydia Joyce's VOICES OF THE NIGHT. Although I found our heroine Maggie King's spirit, pride and determination methodically admirable, there's nothing attractive about her from a physical standpoint to justify our hero Charles' instant and incessant lust for her. I absolutely hated our hero Charles, he's lusting after Maggie for no reason I could ascertain; he hasn't met a single woman who's fiery, spirited and determined before Maggie? Worse, Charles' behavior at the end of the novel takes stupidity and ineptitude to new lows. He can't figure out anything by himself and he doesn't think and observe. These historical-romance heroes like Charles are good for little more than looking pretty and flaunting the power and wealth they were born into, an attractive combination for a spirited, yet ordinary-looking heroine's happily-ever-after. I'd prefer romance novelists write strictly from the heroine's point-of-view than torture and annoy me with Charles' ludicrous thoughts and lack of brains. Or maybe have him appear sparingly to service the heroine from a carnal standpoint in the middle, and then drop by at the end so the heroine can marry into the wealth and title the hero was born into. As the villain continues to terrorize, our dumbfounded Charles cannot figure out his identity and worse, doesn't even make an attempt to think about it before the climactic conclusion which has him scrambling.

This book obviously belongs to its heroine Maggie King down to every word. A prostitute's daughter growing up amidst London's poverty first as a pickpocket and then a dancing hall singer, Maggie perseveres, finds love and exhibits a far more cunning persona than our dumb hero Charles could ever hope to match. The book is all about Maggie and her problems with the local mob boss Danny. I may have enjoyed maybe one, or at the most, two moments in VOICES OF THE NIGHT. I liked how Maggie was aggressive sensually, street-smart, compassionate and cunning, but Charles is an impotent Ken doll by comparison. There's nothing to Charles except have him there at the end so Maggie can marry into the title and wealth Charles was born into.

I was reminded of a prior book and a movie reading this one. The essential premise reminded me of MY FAIR LADY though this book's central plot and hero are nothing like the movie's misogynistic male lead Henry Wiggins and its focus. I was also reminded of Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL (**) also featuring a feisty, aggressive pickpocket of a heroine living in poverty whisked off by an weak hero born into his wealth, beauty and title. I thought Goodman's book had better prose and settings than this one though, and there were some genuinely witty exchanges in Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL whereas this one just resorted to having the hero lust after an unattractive child for the entire novel. Charles fails to think and act on his own to proactively protect the heroine from the villain hounding her.

The Story, possible SPOILERS ahead.

Tall, rich, and handsome Lord Edgington, Charles Crossham, makes a bet with his sister to pass off a street urchin as a lady of the peerage at the next Edgington social gathering. Charles wants his sister Millie to retract some harmful words slandering a girl Charles helped introduce into Society (unknown to his sister). If Charles is successful passing of a guttersnipe into society without anyone taking notice, Millie agrees to not only retract her harmful words, but to convince their mother to introduce the victimized girl herself next Season.

Meanwhile short, scrawny and plain-faced Maggie King and her "retinue" of poor friends ("chavies") survive day to day in poverty. Maggie is a dance hall singer and manages to make enough to pay for a small, congested flat for 8 or 9 of them total. The dance hall she worked at fired her and she can't seem to convince any other dancing hall to take her. She needs money to pay the rent and quickly all the while she ignores requests for a meeting with the mob boss Danny O'Sullivan.

At an audition, opera connoisseur Charles takes notice of Maggie and whisks her away for the wager he intends to win. He installs her in a row house, gives her an allowance of two pounds a week, arranges for new gowns, sets up all of her chavies with jobs and at schools, has tutors train Maggie in Society etiquette, speech and deportment, arranges for singing lessons to help Maggie after the wager runs its course. Charles gives everything he is to Maggie including going down on her. The main plotting with villain Danny and wager between Charles and his sister, both come to head at the party where Maggie must fool Charles' peers into believing she was gently bred.

As a warning, what follows details an account of my gripes with the plotting and especially our hero Charles.

Towards the end, Charles watches a blatantly distressed Maggie abruptly leave a room full of guests in the middle of a game, and yet he fails to notice the villain (whose identity is a secret to Charles) trail after her. He can't put 2 and 2 together at all? Instead of trying to figure something out and T-H-I-N-K on his own, he spends the rest of the time trying to convince Maggie to tell him who, amongst the guests, she suspects. My gawd I was dying a thousands deaths at this doofus of a hero rack his nonexistent brain to try to figure things out. To the very end, he's completely incapable of putting two and two together on his own and needs Maggie to drop small hints before finally convincing her to spell it out for him. She refuses. Her hints? Maggie asks subtle questions behind the origins of the wager which Charles should have been thinking about and piecing together on his own way before!! Charles = biggest inept dolt in the world. Charles notices nothing and thinks for himself even less. While dressing Maggie, we have: "...the shape of the revolver seemed to shout itself through the cloth of the pocket, but Charles did not seem to notice." Have I mentioned what an oblivious dumb ass Charles is yet?

If Maggie can rise and overcome in Charles' upper-class world by fooling them, I don't understand why Charles can't even make an effort to help Maggie in her world by neutralizing her nemesis Danny. The mob boss Danny O'Sullivan torments Maggie, Charles knows about it, and yet he doesn't even make attempt to dig deeper behind the connection between Maggie and Danny, let alone try to extricate Danny. He pusillanimously accepts Maggie's decision to escape Danny by leaving the country after the end of the wager. He doesn't have to try to strongarm Danny or anything, but maybe he could think of something from a patrician's point-of-view to help remove Danny? Or try to find out more about Maggie's history with him? Or barring all of that, at least investigate what role Danny played in Charles' wager with his sister since Danny apparently set up Maggie's audition which started it all? Instead of proactively doing any of this however, Charles meekly waits around for Danny to strike...

I didn't quite appreciate the way Charles comes to condescend High Society after spending time with Maggie. After Maggie, Charles views those of his class beneath him and their concerns petty (which they probably are), but he cultivates a healthy aversion to the thoughts and concerns of all people from his class, and seriously hates his mother and sister. "Yet his sister's manner of speech was not so different from that of most of the women of his acquaintance. The sophisticated ones were arch and their words barbed, and the ingenues simply burbled..." He's too good for his peers all of a sudden? What does he want them to talk about instead, was he too naive to understand the different concerns between the poor and rich from the beginning? It's reality, get over it, start helping the poor if you feel guilty for being rich, or start living amongst the poor if you feel you're too good for the rich now. I really could have done without Charles' supercilious, condescending attitude towards the upper classes. The contrasting concerns between the poor and rich seemed like a revelation to Charles, is he really that naive? More nonsense from Charles in the same vein: "Part of [Charles] wondered if [Maggie] could possibly ever be taken for a lady, not because she was too coarse but because she had an edge, a certainty and strength and definitiveness that he had never seen emerge from protected parlors of the gently bred." First what does "edge, a certainty and strength and definitiveness" exactly mean? It's too vague. And now not only is he too naive to understand the starkly contrasting problems the poor and rich deal with, but again he wants to generalize all of the "gently bred" as insipid and thoroughly lacking in character. Late in the novel, Maggie receives another note from Danny and after she shares the note with Charles, like a wide-eyed dolt, Charles asks, "What should we do?" Maggie confidently answers she wants to kill him. Charles is in awe of Maggie's determination from living amidst less-than-favorable conditions. Is he really that clueless? I had a tough time abiding this naivety and condescension in Charles' characterization.

I don't know, I really don't believe guys are as deep as so many romance novelists would have us believe. Charles' instant, lascivious desires for child-like, plain Maggie so early in the novel jarred me out of my reading every time. There's really nothing about Maggie for Charles to go ga-ga over: no lips, ordinary hair, plain eyes, no legs, no buttocks, no breasts. When VOICES OF THE NIGHT's heroine Maggie steps onto the stage, our hero Charles finds himself attracted to how proudly Maggie carries herself: chin up and shoulders squared. Now Maggie's proud bearing engenders admiration definitely, but lust? Maggie's miniature, thin, child-like frame and grubby appearance doesn't cool Charles' desire for her one bit. I was a bit repelled by Charles' attraction to Maggie. The book mires Charles' introspection and thoughts with references to Maggie's sharp mind, proud demeanor, "definitiveness," etc., etc. How, then, is he physically attracted to her? It doesn't seem like Maggie possesses any visibly desirable characteristics, and I found Charles' attraction to child-like Maggie 40 pages into the novel on the first day they meet a bit disconcerting to say the least. He wants her based on her proud constitution and, at times, snide remarks? Joyce never fails to remind us how small, frail and scrawny Maggie is and every time she's in Charles' arms, I have this creepy mental picture of a pedophile with a small child. I wish the book stuck to writing from Maggie's perspective because Charles' amorous thoughts towards a small, scrawny Maggie seemed forced, and prompted me to stop, shake my head and remind myself: ah yes, this is a female author writing this guy after all, I have to make some allowances for these unbelievable desires towards a grubby, child-like heroine. These jarring moments occurred every time we're privy to Charles' thoughts.

Conspicuously, not even once does Charles use the word "pretty" or "beautiful" to describe Maggie (even though he's attracted to her). Not even when Maggie dresses up and bathes much later in the novel. Why is Maggie allowed to see Charles as handsome (fairly consistently) but Charles not allowed to see Maggie as beautiful if the attraction is mutual? Maggie notices Charles' broad, tall frame at every turn and how he's "very handsome." Later, the novel has Maggie view him as, " so handsome, unmistakably rich, so smooth and golden, like an idol..." At the dinner table of the party where Maggie acts like a lady, Maggie again sneaks a peak at Charles and is struck by how much he looks like a "handsome Adonis." So why isn't Charles allowed to think of Maggie as "pretty" or "beautiful" even once? Instead, he has deep thoughts admiring Maggie's mind which cause him to have a hard-on. Wow, VOICES OF THE NIGHT harbors a deep, inflated picture of the male psyche and its sexual desires, while simplifying Maggie's attraction for Charles based on his tall, broad-shouldered and handsome countenance. I didn't like any of it.

Much of Charles' salacious reactions to Maggie seems more like a girl's response. For example, "...reaction shot through his body from groin to gut..." Why does this sound like a girl's warm, tingling reaction rippling through her center? A guy's lust isn't this deep! Or better yet, why this reaction at all? What's the foundation? Maggie's intelligence and pride? And this triggers lust? Seriously? So point me to a romance novel where a woman is attracted to a poor, untitled Plain-Joe of medium height for his cunning mind (except Hoyt's THE LEOPARD PRINCE ;)).

Many of Charles' thoughts and musings on Maggie seemed like what a romance novelist pressures on her romance hero, not really a guy's plausible reaction. For instance, "Maggie's face rose in his mind, cunning, wary, her expression alive with intelligence and precocious knowledge of the evils of the world..." And this subsequently drives him to lust: "...the memory came of her, in his arms, her small body drawn...he shifted uncomfortably, willing his erection away..." ?! Again, I have to shake my head and continue as dissonant as all this sounds to me given Maggie's very unattractive appearance.

Lydia Joyce sure doesn't miss a chance to convey Charles' amorous desires for Maggie (yet jarring) in every passage from Charles' perspective. Even when the neighborhood villain brutalizes Maggie's friend Nan, and Maggie's hand visibly tightened on a boy's arm, Joyce makes Charles think again about his desire for Maggie again. So a woman is brutally beaten and raped, Maggie hand simply "tightens" around another boy's arm as a reaction and you have Charles wishing it were his arm? Are you kidding me? It is this type of baseless, lustful introspection from the hero's perspective which make this novel very difficult to digest, I mean a woman was just beaten and raped and Joyce is more interested in making Charles feel more lust for a small, thin, unattractive girl like Maggie.

No, guys really aren't that deep... considering what Charles has to go on, his desire for Maggie seemed way too forced. Later in the novel, at the actual party, Joyce describes her heroine Maggie like so: "...her painful slenderness was transformed into ethereal sublimity, the translucency of her skin glowing like alabaster in the pale light of the gas jets." It isn't clear if this is Charles viewing Maggie as such, but if it is, it's another contrivance. What does "ethereal sublimity" look like anyway? Is that supposed to be pretty? Am I too shallow to ask? In my opinion, it's another example of romance's persistent contrivances at matching up tall, rich, "very handsome" men with ordinary, Plain-Janes.

Other times I had to laugh and ask myself if any guy would truly believe the utter bullshit Charles spews half the time in his thoughts and words. For example, when he's sermonizing, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." Oh... my... lord. Does he even know how he sounds? This is so damn stupid, I don't have the proper words to express my reaction to Joyce's laughably ludicrous characterization of her hero Charles. Is he trying to be deep? Brooding? Tortured? All of the above? Well, it's coming across as foolish and preposterously idiotic.

It's a good thing I was reading Hiaasen's SKIN TIGHT at the same time where the men are hunks and the women are pretty to substantiate the guys' initial lust.

No comments: