Life Updates

Patriarchy in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire

Written for my 2019 Spring Class, Modern Drama.

Patriarchy in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire

Modern pop culture has largely turned Tennessee Williams’ most significant play into a punchline. Today’s generation is more familiar with a drugged-up Elaine on Seinfeld screaming the name “Stella” or the Simpsons’ musical parody episode in the early 1990s. The play, written in 1947 and memorialized in film in 1951, is not a comedy, and Marlon Brando’s star-turn as the violent Stanley Kowalski is more than a handsome man in a white shirt screaming his wife’s name outside the window. The play illuminates the role that patriarchy has played not only in our own lives but in the culture that we consume and continues to do so today. Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle arrives on her sister’s doorstep, and clashes with her brother-in-law, the aforementioned Stanley, in a vicious battle of the sexes that culminates in Stanley raping Blanche and the latter being sent away to an asylum, her fragile nerves entirely shattered. Williams’ play ends on this note—Blanche leaving, her sister Stella remaining with Stanley, and Stanley going on to live his life with his wife and child. In the film, Stella was depicted as leaving her husband, but it is difficult to imagine that lasting any longer than it did in Scene 3.

How useful is it to examine decades old literature and entertainment through the more modern lens of feminism? Is it fair to apply new sensibilities to culture our grandparents consumed? Is it right to call Stanley Kowalski a misogynist or characterize his relationship with Stella as an abusive one, with Stella showing the signs of being a battered wife? What is the value in approaching a play written before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and the 1970s using this view?

Pamela Anne Hanks argued that this is really the only way to look at older literature, referring to the contemporary response theory. She writes that “it is because the beliefs, values, and attitudes, the prevailing thought of the day, are themselves composed of competing elements that literature presents—not a copy of those thought systems but a reaction to them.” (Hanks) In other words, every generation sees something different in the entertainment they watch, and it is natural to look critically at these influential works that are often remade decades later and analyze what they tell us about our society today. Hanks was writing from the perspective of a more recent production of Streetcar, a television movie that depicted the ending rape scene in more graphic detail than either Williams’ screenplay or Elia Kazan’s Academy Award winning film. Williams himself clearly agonized over this rape scene; Brenda Murphy referred to several versions of it that would have offered very different ideas to the audience. In one, “Blanche and Stanley seemed to have made love with mutual attraction” and in another version, cut just before the play premiered, Stella had a line to Eunice in which the word rape was used explicitly while she “held up Stanley’s pajama a top, which had been ripped to shreds, and said that his shoulders and back were covered with scratches.” Williams sent a letter to Kazan before the latter signed onto the production, suggesting that Stanley was not a cut and dried villainous type. (Murphy) He wanted to maintain a moral ambiguity—by the standards of the late 1940s and 1950s—and for him, a scene in which Stanley “springs toward her, overturning the table…she cries out and strikes him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist” created that ambiguity because directly after this stage direction, Blank “sinks to her knees” and Stanley carries her to the bedroom. For an audience in this time period, this can be construed as Blanche giving in and submitting. (Williams) No such ambiguity existed in the 1984 version according to Hanks—in the 1980s, Blanche struggles against her attacker who ultimately overpowers her.

How we envision consent and sexual assault between men and women has changed in the last seventy years to be sure. At the time Williams wrote his play, marital rape did not exist as a concept (and in some states, remains legal even today), and rape itself was a taboo subject. If a woman acted a certain way, she was clearly asking for it. The careful building up Blanche’s character throughout the play as a woman who has stepped outside the moral confines of decent society and engaged in premarital sex prepared the audience to believe Blanche was complicit in her own rape. When she is sent away to the asylum in Scene Eleven, the audience might actually be relieved to see the poor woman finally getting help while being assured that Stella and Stanley are free of her, able to go back to the happy life they lived prior to Blanche’s arrival. Anca Vlasopolos argued that in order to dominate and ultimately vanquish Blanche, Stanley had to “tap into the dominant discourse of patriarchy” and that ultimately, in many ways, Blanche could be seen as being punished for her nonconformity and promiscuous nature by being sent to an asylum. After all, what proof is offered for her committal? Williams does not offer any lines that suggest she has been diagnosed. Blanche is a woman alone in the world; Vlasapolos wrote that this ending suggests what women have always known: “we are not safe so long as the measure of insanity depends on the powerlessness of the individual.” (Vlasopolos)

We might argue that the way in which Williams constructed this narrative and Blanche’s story was part of another time, and that the character of Stanley could never be written today but unfortunately, that is not true. The patriarchal construction of our society has always lifted the man above the woman—we revere shows written about the anti-hero: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos. One of television’s most popular couples on daytime soap operas was Luke and Laura on General Hospital, and their relationship began with a rape in 1979. Two years later, twenty million people watched them get married and Princess Diana herself sent the performers a bottle of champagne. When the show revisited that storyline in 1999, after their teenaged son learned the history, Laura brushed aside her own trauma in order to make Luke feel better about what he’d done and convince him to return to their marriage. One of the most important romance novels began with a rape scene: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodwiss, published in 1973. The hero rapes the heroine because he thinks she is a prostitute. They go on to marry and live happily ever after. The rape trope in romance continued throughout the 1970s into the 1980s because women were not supposed to enjoy sex—they had to be talked into it, they had to be overpowered. One can even find this trope in the 1990s as Days of Our Lives depicted a marital rapist, Jack, who was redeemed by the love of a good woman, Jennifer. The couple of Jack and Jennifer came to be known as a so-called super couple, despite Jack’s past.  The society that thought the way Williams wrote Blanche’s rape offered even the slightest bit of ambiguity raised young women who read these novels and watched these soap operas in which women were sacrificed in favor of damaged men.

Another aspect of Stanley’s character that does not hold up to Williams’ claim of ambiguity is his violence and brutish nature. In several areas, Blanche is shown to have a poor attitude of her brother-in-law. She shows him derision by calling him a Polack and complaining about their small apartment in their run-down neighborhood. No one would blame Stanley for being angry that his wife’s sister, whom he is entirely supporting, shows no gratitude for having a place to rest her head after losing her family home. But Stanley takes his anger out on his wife, destroying Stella’s radio and then hitting her when Stella protests. He attacks his pregnant wife, and even his own friends step in. Williams’ stage direction reads that “Stanley is forced, pinioned by the two men, into the bedroom. He nearly throws them off.” One might think that this indicates that they do not approve of his rough treatment. But then they make excuses for him. “They speak quietly and lovingly to him and he leans his face on one of their shoulders.” Mitch, who later becomes Blanche’s beau, suggests that somehow the women are to blame because “poker shouldn’t be played in a house with women.” He says to Stanley “you blew your top” – they spend more time caring for Stanley and then only Blanche seems worried about the pregnant woman who was just struck by her own husband. Their upstairs neighbor, Eunice, to whom Blanche and Stella turn for the night, suggests that “you can’t beat on a woman an’ then call ‘er back”. (Williams) Eunice appears to be on Stella’s side, criticizing Stanley but at the end of the play, it is Eunice whom Stella tells that she could not live with Stanley if she believed Blanche, and Eunice is in sympathy with her. Both of them are women in a cold, cruel world that has just made it clear what happens to women who step outside of the traditional homemaker molds. When Stella ends up with Stanley at the end of the play, this fits in with the 1950s understanding of a woman’s role.  Vlasapolos writes that Eunice’s final assessment is “pragmatic” something even viewers who have sided with Blanche can understand. Eunice tells Stella about Blanche’s story “Don’t ever believe it. Life has to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep going.” (Williams)

Williams wrote his play intending for his figures to remain morally ambiguous. In that letter to Kazan, he wrote that “the only point the play makes, he insisted, is ‘the point or theme of human understanding…in the end you should feel—‘if only they all had known about each other.’” (Murphy) It is difficult, more seventy years later, to really accept this as the true point of the play. Would Stanley and Blanche have had different endings if they had understood one another better? It seems to me as a reader that they understood each other quite well. Stanley knew Blanche had lost everything, and that she had suffered a tragic loss of her husband at a young age. He knew that she felt as though she was superior to him (though no, he did not understand that Blanche’s superiority was little more than armor over an incredible fragile mind), and he knew that she had nowhere to go. He knew that his wife loved his sister for all her faults and depended on her. Stanley, even by Williams’ own standards, knew who his sister-in-law was, and that did not stop him from destroying her dignity, her hope for a future, and ultimately, even her own mind as it is clearly his sexual assault and her sister’s lack of belief in her that destroys Blanche’s fragile grasp on reality. Blanche also saw her brother-in-law as a brute who likely beats her sister. What more understanding was Williams looking for?

This play is a product of its time and a product of the way men thought about themselves and the world around them. Stanley, according to Williams’ is not the villain. No one is. Generations of women who have read this play, seen it performed or watched the adaptations, find that difficult to believe. Stanley Kowalski represents a piece of popular culture we are still struggling to excise: the brooding anti-hero that needs the love of a good woman to be better. Williams’ ending suggests that Stella and Stanley will probably be all right now that Blanche is out of the picture; that Stella and their child will soften his rough edges. This is why it is essential that society turns a critical eye to older pieces of entertainment to understand why women think it is their responsibility to fix a man. Why did Laura have to make Luke feel better about raping her? Why was Jennifer responsible for Jack’s redemption? Why did Stella have to stay with Stanley and sacrifice her sister? Popular women’s culture loves to write that women can save a man, that he can be redeemed through her morality and strength. One can cite numerous examples from soap operas and prime time television, from romance novels and even mainstream fiction. This is the trope that Williams’ Streetcar depends on:  men like Stanley can be fixed while women like Blanche are irretrievably broken. It was true in 1947, and in many respects, it remains true in 2019.

 

Works Cited

Hanks, Pamela Anne. “Must We Acknowledge What We Mean? The Viewer’s Role in Filmed Versions of “A Streetcar Named Desire”.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 14 (1986): 114-122.

Murphy, Brenda. “On A Streetcar Named Desire.” The Play and Author. n.d. (I have to track this source down, it was a pdf given to us in class)

Vlasopolos, Anca. “Authorizing History: Victimization in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.” Theatre Journal 38 (1986): 322-338.

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Books, 2004.

 

 

Writing

The Writing Process

The more time I spend writing, the more I learn about myself as a writer and what works for me. I’ve been working on the first draft of Fool Me Twice since August 18, a little under a month. In that time, I’ve written about 25,000 words. I had around 5k when I started based on the sample first chapter I wrote for the poll. That’s actually pretty good considering I started a new full-time job and I’ve been sick a bit.

But for this story, the linear way I usually approach my drafts hasn’t worked as well. I haven’t really gotten into the groove, turning out 4k without blinking (that’s how both books of Mad World were mostly completed in July Camp NaNoWriMo projects). But I sit down every day, pick at least once scene to write no matter where it is in the story and get a first draft done. My progress is maybe slower than I like, but every scene brings me closer to a finished draft.

I’m not really sure why that works for me right now. Typically, I prefer to straight forward because writing my scenes in chronological order allows me to build tension and explore characters and subplots. If something comes up in a scene that I need to add scenes for or change another one, I can make a quick synopsis note in Scrivener and keep it in mind when I get to the next one.

When I first started seriously trying to write in high school, one of the books I found in the library was The Weekened Novelist by Robert J. Ray, first published in 1993. I would have checked it out in 1996 or 1997. That method asked you to spend a weekend working on your key scenes — like inciting incident, turning point, climax, etc. That method has literally never really worked for me, but I’ve always found it interesting.

A lot of writing advice suggests you at least identify these scenes, whether you do it in discovery, drafting, or revision. I generally write extensive plot sketches and then create blank Scriv documents for every scene I think I’ll need. I always make a list of my seven anchor scenes (vocabulary learned from the incredible Lani Diane Rich and her How Story Works podcast) to at least make sure my pacing is structured well.

But that’s a hard approach to bring to soap opera fanfiction which, at least the way I write it, is hard to write beginning, middle, and ends for. Soap operas are designed to continue. Even a story that has a climax is supposed to do double duty and launch the next storyline for that character. I also almost always write more ensemble-based stories. Yes, Jason and Elizabeth tend to lead the stories but that’s because, A, that’s the fanbase where I found my audience so I’m kind of constrained by that, and B, I think these are characters and a couple that would do very well leading stories on GH.

So Fool Me Twice is a bit of a departure from my work up to date. It’s similar to Damaged, in that I’m really trying to write several leads and weave together complex storylines. Even in Mad World which has characters we’re following like Ned, Lucky, Taggert, Sonny, Carly, and the teens, it’s still very much Jason and Elizabeth’s story. And probably–it’s more Elizabeth’s story.

But FMT is supposed to be Jason, Drew, Sam, and Elizabeth’s story. The reaction of this group of four people to Jason’s return, and the fallout of their complicated relationships. I’m weaving together strands of relationships where all of these people have been in each other’s lives, loved one another, hurt one another–and doing all the couple options justice. Even as a Liason fan who is intending for this to be endgame Liason, I want to do the Jason and Sam relationship more justice. I want to write a more realistic Drew and Sam. And I even want to have a more nuanced Drew and Elizabeth, post-reveal.

I’m also juggling those relationships with everything else that SHOULD have come with the reveal. I still have Kim and Oscar, but I’ve changed the nature of their relationship to Drew. Kim and Drew were married in 2012 when he went missing–Drew raised Oscar from birth. That makes, IMO, a more fraught story for Kim to walk into. I also want to write a better version of what happens when Franco lies to Elizabeth over and over again and is emotionally abusive (which he is, but the show decides to ignore). I want to have an Elizabeth who is actually the heart and soul of General, and not saying the same lines over and over again.

It’s three main storylines and seven subplots. And I’m almost sure I’ve bitten off too much. I may not meet my October 31 finish drafting date. But every day, I write another scene. And hope I can get closer to finding the right approach to really start banking word.s

Hunting for a Highlander (Lynsay Sands)

Note: I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review from the publisher. This book is scheduled for release by Avon on January 28, 2020.

Overall

I’ve read every historical romance Lynsay Sands has released, including all seven previous entries of the Highland Brides series. She’s an author who plays into specific tropes with an incredibly melodramatic style of writing. That’s not a criticism — as a soap opera lover, I love melodrama and there’s honestly not a lot of authors who can do it well. She’s one of them.

When I first started reviewing the Highland Brides series, I hadn’t yet identified why exactly I go back to Lynsay Sands over and over again because I don’t read a lot of authors who write in this style. And it’s because her melodramas are incredibly entertaining, almost always satisfying, and comforting. She writes lusty heroes and heroines who have a lot of sexual chemistry are always in the middle of murder mysteries, and I always know exactly what I’m getting when I pick up a Lynsay Sands novel.

The Buchanan brothers were introduced to us in The Highlander Takes a Bride when the sole sister of the rambunctious group, Saidh, gets married. There are seven brothers, and Hunting the Highlander is the fifth of their stories. Geordie is one of three unmarried Buchanan brothers who returns to the keep to find it filled with unmarried women looking for husbands to inherit their father’s land because they have no brother. This is a good opportunity for the Buchanans who have a lot of brothers but not a lot of titles.

Geordie seeks solace and silence by sleeping in a tree in the orchard only to be woken up one of the potential brides fleeing tormenters. We meet Dwynn Innes, heiress to a holding by the sea in the Lowlands.  Dwynn is not a typical beauty, but she and Geordie hit it off immediately and there’s not a lot of conflict as to whether they’re going to end up together. They’re immediately attracted to one another, but someone seems to want to cause Dwynn harm.

I really liked this book. I think that Geordie and Dwynn are probably my third favorite couple in the series (Ross and Annabel are always going to be number one). The attacks and attempted murder stuff is all fine and predictable. The most I can say in relation to that stuff is that it doesn’t drag the book down and it’s nicely paced. As always, both our leads get injured a lot which lets the other person confront their feelings. That’s a Sands trope I’m ready for.

I think my only critique of this book is the focus on Dwynn’s breasts. Her sisters lower all of her necklines to an excruciating degree (there are lots of times when we’re told her nipples are basically showing) and I feel like that doesn’t match the fashions of the time period. It’s a weird central theme that repeats until literally the end of the book. Early on, Geordie even sees Dwynn and only recognizes her because he’s looked at her breasts more than her face. It’s a discordant note in an otherwise delightful book.

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The Wallflower Wager (Tessa Dare)

I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Overall

This is the third book in the Girl Meets Duke series, and one that I was particularly looking forward to having met Lady Penelope Campion in early installments. She was the delightfully sweet animal lover who made sham sandwiches that Emma and Alexandra made their beaus pretend to like. I’m a sucker for any book with a lot of animals, and this definitely did not disappoint.

She lives alone with a chaperone who should probably retire, surrounded by her animals, but her aunt makes it clear that Penelope can only remain in London if she makes an attempt to marry and rejoin society. Otherwise, she will be forced to return to her brother’s estate, a fate she can’t face. Her next door neighbor is ruthless business man Gabriel Duke who bought and restored the town home next door. He knows social climbers will jump at the chance to live next to a member of the ton like Lady Penelope. He agrees to help Penelope re-home her beloved animals and keep her in London.

Their meet cute is probably one of the most adorable you’ll ever read — Penny has adopted a parrot that flies away and ends up in the house next door in the middle night. Dressed in her night clothes, she goes to retrieve the parrot, thinking the house is empty, only to find her new neighbor in little more than towel, fresh from the tub.

I like this book. It’s cute, there are a lot of animals, and we get to see the returning supporting cast. I like Penny and Gabriel and their various adventures in re-homing many of Penny’s animals. Their romance is lovely, and Penny’s backstory is suitably tragic. It’s as well written as you’d expect a Tessa Dare book to be, and I promise you, if you love her writing, you will like this book.

I think the problem I have with this book is not the fault of Tessa Dare, but something a bit more subjective for me. Everything about this book is good — all of the dots line up, things connect, and it’s good. But I will probably never be able to re-read it.

I’ve always read my ARC books a few times to get the best review possible, but for content reasons, I won’t be able to read this one again. I’ll get into that in the spoilers.

Let me repeat that this book is good. I think that I’m just not able to be more objective than that, and I feel really bad. This is probably the reason books should have content warnings, to be honest. I wouldn’t have asked for this book as an ARC if I’d known the content. I still would have read it once because I adore Tessa Dare, but this is a topic I don’t ever read about more than I have to.

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The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh by Stephanie Laurens

Overall

I missed this when it originally came out and didn’t hurry to read it, probably because I hadn’t totally loved the first book in this trilogy, The Designs of Lord Randolph Cavanaugh. It was fine, but nothing that made me look forward to the stories of Rand’s younger brother and sister. The Cavanaughs are the younger half-siblings of Ryder Cavanaugh, the hero from The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh who married Mary Cynster. Their mother was Lavinia, the villain of Taming, so that makes this series slightly more interesting. After all, Lavinia was truly terrible but raised these kids. What would it be like to have such an utter sociopath as one’s mother?

Designs didn’t really address that and neither does Pursuits. I haven’t reread Taming in a few years (it’s on my list when I do the Cynsters next year) so I don’t remember much other than the big stuff. So I was a bit disappointed to see that thread wasn’t really pursued (ha) here. That being said, this is a sweet read that deviates a bit (in a good way) from the formula that I’ve come to expect from Stephanie Laurens.

When I think of Laurens’ books, I don’t think of characters or the romances. I generally return to her writing because I love her mysteries and her plots. She has a basic approach: her heroes are alpha males who pursue the heroines who generally need to be convinced to marry them. Her female leads are always strong-willed, intelligent, and a good match for the heroes. One of my favorite things about the majority of her romances is that hero values the heroine for that intelligence and they often work together side by side to solve the plot. Her Bastion Club was tour de force of these kinds of romances (save the terrible prequel, Captain Jack’s Woman, and the stalker in To Distraction).

This book isn’t quite the same. There’s more focus on the romance, actually, as our lead characters navigate a series of smaller mysteries as they get to know one another better. Lord Christopher “Kit” Cavanaugh is the second of Lavinia’s three sons and has come to Bristol to begin a yacht-building company. His new warehouse lease displaces a charity school run by vicar’s daughter Silvia Buckleberry, the maid of honor at his brother’s wedding. Silvia has a low opinion of Kit at first, but when he helps her relocate the school and goes on to sponsor it, she sees a different side of him.

Laurens also writes a lot of sex scenes in her books — I don’t generally review this stuff because it’s not really what I go to romance for so I end up skipping some of the scenes. But generally her leads have a lot of sex. Pursuits doesn’t have a kiss between her leads for almost two hundred pages, and then the single sex scene is in the epilogue. Instead of lust, Kit and Silvia work together to save the school, find out who’s sabotaging his business, and then who’s following her around Bristol. Silvia is a vicar’s daughter, and Kit respects that. I was surprised by how much I liked that approach. Kit and Silvia weren’t very interesting character on their own, but their romance was sweet and they worked well together. When he finally kisses her, it feels a lot more earned.

The mysteries themselves aren’t super engrossing, but they’re fun to read and follow. There are bits of this book that are a bit overwritten, but that’s part of Laurens’s style so I tend to discount that. This is a sweet book that is a bit outside her norm, and I really liked that.

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The Obsession by Nora Roberts

Overall

Every time I reread a new Nora Roberts release, I always go back and start reading some of her older work. I just finished Under Currents which I sort of liked but didn't love. It reminded me of The Obsession without the payoff or follow through. So I returned and reread The Obsession, including the first two parts which I usually skip -- the backstory of Naomi before she shows up in the Cove, basically. It's the same way I skip the first part of The Witness and start the book when Brooks shows up.

It's not because either of these parts are not well-written or important to the story, but when I reread romance novels, I'm usually more interested in rereading the romance part of it and in these stories -- the romance doesn't start until the hero and heroine are on the same page.

I like The Obsession, but it's not my favorite of these kinds of books (that's The Witness, literally my favorite NR book). I think the set up is really interesting -- the daughter of a serial killer grows up and is stalked by someone who is copying her father's crimes. The narrative follow through is decent (everything connects and there’s thematic resonance). I even like the supporting cast a lot.

I read a lot of reviews when this came out and saw some readers complaining about the excess of home restoration detail you get in this book. This is incredibly common in Nora Roberts’ novels. In the In the Garden trilogy and the recent Under Currents, we spent a lot of time with landscaping. In Birthright, we learned about archaeology. In The Witness, there was computer programming. The Inn Boonsboro trilogy was also heavy on construction and the local businesses (though that was partially an advertisement, heh).

It never drives me out of the story, to be honest, because I understand why it’s being written this way. It’s made very clear in the narrative that since the day Naomi graduated college, she’s been on the road. She’s moved around a lot. She arrived at the Cove, saw this house, and bought it. And this is the first home she’s had since her childhood.

So every time we stop to talk about Kevin and the work he’s doing or Lelo and the landscaping — it’s part of the construction of Naomi’s new life and the home she wants. The life she’s building. The life she’s not so quick to run away from when her past follows her there. It’s part of Naomi’s identity, and I’m okay with it. It works for me, but I can understand why it wouldn’t work for other readers.

The central narrative conflict is good and I like the resolution of the mystery. I like the romance, even if Xander isn’t really the most interesting of heroes. He’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with him. But there’s also nothing wrong with him, if that makes sense. He’s just someone who’s incredibly patient with Naomi but doesn’t seem to have any vulnerability of his own. He’s kind of a flat character in that I’m only interested in because I want Naomi to be happy.

This is one of those books that makes me very sad that Nora Roberts doesn’t write connected books in her hardback releases because I love Mason Carson, and I desperately want his HEA. He’s probably my second favorite character and I’m a bit sad we’ll never get more of him.

I like this book. It has almost everything I go to Nora Roberts for, with the exception of a truly dynamic second lead.

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Under Currents by Nora Roberts

Overall

Under Currents is a return to an old formula for Nora Roberts, one in which she has deviated from in her last two hardback releases, Shelter in Place and Come Sundown. Those releases read more like straight suspense mysteries with romance as a subplot. Both were good, but they showed Nora Roberts stretching her writing muscles and stepping out of her role as master romance writer. In Come Sundown, the main story was the tragic and disturbing kidnapping of a woman who was then kept in captivity for decades while Shelter in Place examined the survivors of a mass shooting. I liked both of these books, but I haven’t been driven to return to them.

Under Currents takes place on familiar ground. Like Carolina Moon, The Witness, and Obsession, we’re in a small town filled with vibrant characters, warm family ties, and the seediness that often lies beneath the thin layer of old-fashioned values. We follow the hero, Zane Bigelow Walker, primarily. He’s our protagonist for the first 130 some pages as we live through his abusive childhood and the night that changed his family and future forever. The heroine, Darby McCray, doesn’t show up until Chapter Eight. If you read Obsession and The Witness, you’re familiar with this narrative style.

I liked this book. I don’t know if I loved it. I think it’s because I just wasn’t sure what the plot was, and I didn’t know what to expect. I think that’s good in a lot of ways — having read so many of Nora Roberts’ novels, I was expecting a central plot that was hinted at in the beginning and then given to us at the climax. This was a lot more episodic in a way that I can’t quite say I was expecting.

We spend a lot of time with teen-aged Zane, then follow Darby as she sets up her landscaping business. Then we follow their relationship for a little while. Because we start with Zane, I expected his story to drive the plot. But it doesn’t. Nothing really does. And I don’t know if I like that. I guess their romance pushes the plot but I’m not sure their romance was all that interesting.

I think this is a book that I want to reread now that I know what to expect. I liked the setting and the supporting cast. Nora Roberts has a way of constructing characters that make you want to read more about them, and that’s no different here. Zane has two nephews who are quite charming, and another author might write their story later. But alas, Nora Roberts never returns to her characters in her single titles.

This is a good book and I’m sure a lot of people will like it. But it didn’t have enough of what I go to a Nora Roberts for — there wasn’t enough conflict in the romance and there wasn’t enough suspense in the mysteries. It kind of meandered in a way that didn’t entirely satisfy me. It’s well-written, and I like Darby and Zane. It just feels…thin.

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The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes

Note: All of my GB reviews not only talk about the book but the way the book fits into the universe Burrowes built because so many of her characters flit back and forth. So I will be talking a lot about other books and the universe as a whole.

Overall

You know you’ve got an intricately connected universe when even the author doesn’t really know which order things happen in. The Virtuoso takes place before Jack in the universe, but it also takes place during Darius and after Nicholas. I knew that second part, but I had forgotten just how close to the end of Darius this particular book is set. So I reshuffled the list to be a bit more accurate, and will be going back to read Darius & Nicholas next. I’m not mad about this — it’s actually kind of fun to read this universe like it’s a puzzle. When I was reading Jack, a Lady Val showed up at the wedding and I remember thinking — wait, did Val and Ellen already get married?

I read The Virtuoso when it was released, but I wasn’t quite a Grace Burrowes fan yet. I didn’t reread either The Heir or The Soldier and none of the Lonely Lords series that feature Valentine had been released yet so I remember sympathizing with Valentine in this book, but honestly, you really need to be steeped in this character and have read all the previous times he’s shown up because when I finally got to Valentine in this book, I was so much more invested in him. Ellen also makes a brief cameo in an earlier book, David, in which she is close friends with Letty’s vicar brother, Daniel. He is not mentioned in this book, but has obviously quit the area.

Valentine Windham is introduced briefly to us in Douglas with the rest of the Windhams, but we get to know him in David when he becomes a confidante to both David and Letty. He shows up in a few other books, but it’s in David, The Heir, and The Soldier that we get our best look at him prior to this book. He’s a musical genius who depends on his extraordinary ability to play the piano to communicate. At the opening of this book, he is told by David that he might not be able to play the piano anymore due to an injury to his hand.

The opening line is David’s declaration, but it really doesn’t pack the same punch if you haven’t read the earlier books in the Windham series when it’s clear that playing the piano is how Valentine has managed to function given the devastating loss of two of his brothers, one right after another. Feeling trapped in town by this idea he can’t play piano, he decamps to Oxfordshire and an estate he’s won from the Baron of Roxbury, Freddie Markham. He takes with him Darius Lindsey, a hero of a later book and connected to several other characters we’ll read about at some point.

On the estate he finds Ellen FitzEngle, a widow with whom he shared an encounter with when he was doing David a favor. She’s briefly mentioned a few times in subsequent books, but this is the first time we get her name from Valentine. Ellen is the widow of the late Baron Roxbury, and Valentine finds her situation to be strange — why did her husband not provide better for her? Why is she tucked away in a tiny cottage?

Ellen offers some guidance and company while Valentine works to restore the estate, and they fall in love but she’s got secrets that might explain why someone is trying to destroy the house he’s rebuilding.

I adore this book. It really shows off the complicated and intricate universe Grace Burrowes has built, and you can always tell the books she’s already written from the deeply rich characters that return. Darius shows up just enough here to make one interested in his story (which I’m not looking forward to because it’s my least favorite trope in the history of romance), but Devlin also drops in as does Westhaven, Nick Haddonfield, and the Belmonts. Ironically, we see and hear more from Axel Belmont’s son, Dayton and Philip, than we did in either of the Belmont brothers’ books. Jack shows up as the magistrate, so we get to see him rebounding after the events in Axel. It’s got a great supporting cast.

The mystery is really fun too — the who is never in doubt, but the why remains a mystery throughout and it’s quite tragic. You might feel like Ellen is a martyr at points, but she’s a woman who is entirely alone in a world that does not treat women well. Her fear is palpable and completely understandable. I really love both of these leads and am completely invested in their own personal journeys as well their romance.

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Jack by Grace Burrowes

Overall

I had only read this book once and didn’t really remember the storyline all that well. After finishing Axel, where we met both Madeline and Jack, I have to say I wasn’t really looking forward to reading their book. Neither of them made an impression on me as a character I wanted to know more about.

Sir John Fanning (Jack) has taken over as magistrate, something Axel hinted about being a good idea in his book. He spent a lot of time in India (twenty years, putting him in his late thirties) and has returned with an Indian butler who was the brother of his wife, a half-Indian woman who died before Jack returned. His demanding mother is coming for a long visit and Jack wants to organize his household, so the Belmonts suggest Madeline Hennessy join him as his mother’s companion. Madeline reluctantly goes. At the same time, Jack is investigating a series a petty thefts that is plaguing the local area.

So for the most part, I ended up really liking this book and these characters. My chief complaint about Jack is that the most interesting part of his story happens in Axel, and that’s one of my big pet peeves. He tell Madeline that he abused opium, but he doesn’t really get into it. I really don’t appreciate when a main character’s back story is in another book.

But would that have bothered me if I hadn’t read Axel? Probably not. I think there’s enough in Jack to make it work and other readers won’t notice it. Jack’s story was somewhat important to the end of Axel, and as Jack was written much later, I’m almost positive Grace Burrowes did not initially plan to have him be a hero. So maybe that explains it.

Madeline is an incredibly empathetic character as her story is unraveled throughout the book. I forgot how much I liked her. She’s very strong but also ridiculously stubborn and proud. The trope of the housekeeper falling in love with the man of the house is probably one of my least favorite in romance fiction because it literally never happens the opposite way (I can think of maybe two or three off the top of my head) and as both Jack and Maddie point out — women are uniquely vulnerable in this time period and it is so easy to render them powerless.

But I appreciate that Jack did recognize this fact and made it clear that Maddie was to direct everything between. He asked permission every five minutes and always gave Maddie an out. Informed consent is pretty sexy.

I liked this book a lot. There are few things that bothered me just a little that stop this from being a full-fledged five star, but there’s a lot to like in this book and I’m glad I reread it.

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The Soldier by Grace Burrowes

Overall

There’s something about this book that has never worked for me. This is the third time I’ve read it from beginning to finish since it came out, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I like her other books.

Devlin St. Just has just been created the first Earl of Rosecroft, taking over the estate of the villain from the The Heir, Anna’s brother whom Devlin killed in order to save her. He travels to the estate in Yorkshire where it has been neglected where he finds that the brother, once the earl of Helmsley, left behind an illegitimate daughter who is nominally in the care of a cousin, Emmaline Farnum. Emmie grew up as an illegitimate child left in the care of her aunt who was Helmsley’s mistress and Bronwyn’s mother. Devlin takes Bronwyn (Winnie) under his care and brings Emmie to stay at the estate to serve as her governess.

I think honestly the book collapses under its own weight. Devlin is suffering from what we would call PTSD today, but obviously not as well understood in Regency Britain. This is probably the best part of the book and one of my favorite things about Grace Burrowes’ writing is that she lets her heroes be emotional and vulnerable with each other. Toxic masculinity doesn’t play a role in her books.

But the problem is probably Emmaline. There’s a lot to like about Emmie. She’s incredibly generous and empathetic. She’s known real tragedy and pain in her life which allows her to be the person that Devlin desperately needs at this point in his life. She’s unselfish almost to her own destruction.

But there’s a piece of her story that simply fails for me and I’ll have to get it into specifically in the spoiler section. Suffice to say, she keeps a secret from Devlin that the author also keeps from the reader and I hate it. Because it requires Emmie to lie to Devlin, but in a few spots, Burrowes even lies to me as a reader. I mean, the secret is almost obvious which is why it’s ridiculous that the reader isn’t brought in earlier.

The supporting cast is pretty good—Douglas and Valentine play large roles here in Devlin’s recovery. I don’t entirely buy the depth and strength of Douglas and Devlin’s friendship but I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t bother me. Winnie is also very sweet, and thus far, Burrowes has avoided a lot of tropes of cute children in romance novels. The Windhams show up briefly, but not for long. The local vicar, Hadrian, will return in a later Lonely Lords book and shows up well.

Ultimately, this book fails for me because I can’t ever quite sympathize fully with Emmie. While the romance is well-developed, I am increasingly frustrated by Emmie and her ridiculous secret. The book is well-written and others will probably like it fine.

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