Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

The thing about Twitter is that it's possible to eavesdrop on other people's exchanges. And so it was that I saw Barry Goldblatt recommend this title to Jenn Laughran when she was in a Regency sort of mood, and I made note of it and scored a copy for myself shortly thereafter. It is (as I believe Barry may have described it) an Austen novel with glamours.

Kowal obviously has read her Austen, and the book pays tribute to several of her stories. Our heroine, Jane Ellsworth, (besides being named Jane) is 28 - one year older than Anne Elliot in Persuasion, with the same good nature, usefulness and (hidden) romantic nature as Miss Elliot. Jane has a younger sister named Melody who is reminiscent of Marianne Dashwood (especially in being somewhat melodramatic and self-absorbed), but rather more mean-spirited than Miss Marianne.

There's a neighbor girl named Beth Dunkirk, who proves to be a bit like Marianne Dashwood mixed with Jane Fairfax, and her brother, Mr. Edmund Dunkirk, who appears at first blush to be the sensible sort of neighbor that an Austen heroine might wed - an Edmund Bertram, perhaps, or Mr. Knightley (Jane Austen's two favorite of her own heroes). He is admired by both of the Misses Ellsworth, although Melody later sets her cap at the dashing Captain Henry Livingston, as do any number of other young ladies in the neighborhood.

Jane Ellsworth may be plain (or, depending on whom you ask, positively homely), but she is extraordinarily talented in her ability to manipulate glamour. Jane is too scrupulous to use her skills to improve her own appearance, knowing that at some point, people would see her without the glamour, and preferring them to know her true appearance. She can, however, manipulate glamour better than almost anyone in the neighborhood. That is, until Lady FitzCameron hires a professional glamourist to create a glamural in her dining room.

Mr. Vincent is as off-putting in his way as Mr. Darcy is in Pride and Prejudice, although rather than refusing to dance with Jane Ellsworth or declaring her "not handsome enough to tempt me", he seems insulted by and/or angry at her ability with glamour. I immediately starting shipping the pair of them, hoping that Jane's hopes for a match with Mr. Dunkirk would come to naught. I shan't tell you if I was right or wrong, but I shall say that I grinned my fool head off throughout this book and am looking forward to a second reading.

For Janeites, it includes sly pseudo-references to Austen's novels (at least, I assume they were intentional nods to the novels), such as this bit about Mr. Ellsworth, found on the very first page of the novel:

The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect. The Honourable Charles Ellsworth, though a second son, through the generosity of his father had been entrusted with an estate in the neighbourhood of Dorchester. it was well appointed and used only enough glamour to enhance its natural grace, without overlaying so much illusion as to be tasteless. His only regret, for the estate was a fine one, was that it was entailed, and as he had only two daughters, his elder brother's son stood next in line to inherit it. Knowing that, he took pains to set aside some of his income each annum for the provision of his daughters.
Compare this with the deceased Mr Dashwood, whose estate was entailed to his son (from his first marriage), leaving his wife and children without a home, or with Mr Bennet, who not only had an entailed estate, but also often wished that he'd set aside an annual sum for the provision of his wife and children, or with Sir Walter Elliot, who had to lease out his estate in order to "retrench", having overspent his own income. There are other similar instances, where something in Shades of Milk and Honey echoes or reverses something from an Austen novel. For instance, there's a scene where Mr. Dunkirk and Captain Livingston seek to outdo one another by discussing their horses and pointers - in an Austen novel, such conversation would mark the both of them as somewhat foolish characters, for it's only the foolish gentlemen (such as Sir John Middleton from Sense and Sensibility or Charles Musgrove from Persuasion) who fixate on "sport". And Mrs. Ellsworth, like Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice or Mary Musgrove from Persuasion is completely hypochondriacal, often engaging in something approaching competition with her neighbor, Mrs. Marchand, over which of them has the worse ailment or case of nerves.

Oh, the romance! The manners! The Regency details - plus magic! And the romance of the gift of a journal! And (call me crazy - I'm sure I would) the echo of Little Women in the description of Mr. Vincent - and, in some ways, in his interactions with Miss Ellsworth. I am all aflutter. And absolutely, blissfully happy that I happened to be on Twitter when this book was mentioned.

I bought the hardcover, which I had to order online as it was no longer in local stores; there's a paperback edition due out in June.

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