Misfortune by Wesley Stace
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: January 1st, 2005
Format: Paperback, 560 Pages
A young baby boy is being thrown out with the trash. Unwanted and alone a chance of fate has him picked up by the richest Lord in the land, Lord Loveall. Lord Loveall has been mourning all his life for his dear departed sister and when he sees this baby he assumes it to be a female and a chance to have his sister back. But Lord Loveall can't just miraculously have an heir, a quick marriage is arranged with his sister's old governess, Anonyma, who has stayed on as resident librarian at Love Hall to catalog the works of her icon, the poetess Mary Day. Anonyma agrees to raising "Rose" female because Mary Day had some interesting theories on gender and Anonyma sees a chance to put her heroine's thoughts into action. An experiment if you will. For many years the couple are able to keep up this farce, until one day the world crashes down on them in the form of puberty and Rose can no longer hide who he is.
Rose flees in the middle of the night without a trace, unable to face what he is or his feelings for his best friend. He takes to the continent and eventually ends up where all those pilgrims seeking answers often end up, the Levant. Rose's journey won't be an easy one, through awkward sexual awakenings, near death fever dreams, and chance encounters, Rose begins to embrace the odd life that he has been given in this strange world and the companions in his journey who truly love him. Though while he has been traveling, trying to put himself back together, things aren't going so well at home, where Rose's absence is duly noted. The familial vultures have swooped in to claim what they have always lusted after, Love Hall. A scandal would be so unbecoming so Anonyma withdraws into the works of Mary Day... what does she have now that Rose has fled? It will be up to Rose to save the day, once he saves himself.
Misfortune is a Dickensian tale with at LGBTQ mindset. Full of interesting incestuous characters I felt that it never quite lived up to it's full potential due to the shifting narrative that, in the end, opted for a shorter, sleeker story with annoying time jumps, instead of becoming a book of true Dickensian girth. Now I'm not saying that I wanted every detail on Rose's debauched journey to Turkey, but covering such an expanse of time as a fever dream seemed indulgent of the author. In fact, that might be the crux of my problem, the modern sensibilities thrust into this Victorian age by Stace's whim alienates me from the story. Stace says in an interview in the back of the book that he didn't want to be drawn into the trappings of the time period, a carriage is a carriage, not a barouche, not a gig. By having Misfortune be a modern book set in the past he seems to be wanting to make the book more of a post modern statement piece than a quality read.
By breaking convention he is writing a book that will appeal more to those who have never read Dickens or historical fiction while leaving those of us who love 19th century literature and period pieces cold. Coupled with the fact that he pulls a complete Dickensian HEA that was obvious from page one, his tendency to use some literary tropes and abandon others just goes to show that he was gratifying himself instead of his audience, plus exactly HOW was Rose to inherit... she being a she? Many such little questions bothered me throughout. Though my biggest problem with the book that has nothing to do with Stace might just be a side effect of this lack of interest in the historical details. This problem being that the cover illustration shows clothes incorrect to 1820. Yes, I know I should let this go, but the thing is, I remember the day I picked up this book on a table in Barnes and Noble and it was those lovely Regency clothes that sold me on it...
Yet in the end it's not covers nor conceits that are the root of my issues, Rose is what's problematical to me. Firstly, the sheer self-centered delusions indulged by her parents scares the shit out of me. That two adults could contrive to raise a boy as a girl is just wrong to me. I know in this day and age there are a lot of people who talk about wanting to raise their children gender neutral so that they can come into their sexuality on their own. Personally, I think this is bullshit. It takes awhile for children to become aware of things, just look to Rose for an example, and by at least not setting down for them the basics, well, you are going to get one f'd up kid, again, look to Rose. Children need to understand the world around them in order to find their place, wherever that may be. By taking away Rose's knowledge of the world around her with regard to her body, that's just so many levels of wrong. At least her father Geoffroy has some excuse, obviously being insane, but Anonyma, the cold amd calculated way she sees changing her child's sex as an experiment just makes me want to slap her so hard. While yes, this does lead to some amusing situations, in the end, I felt such sorrow and pity for Rose that at times the book became hard to read.
The collusion to keep this lie up just fills me with rage. Personally, the fact that they were able to pull it off for so long makes me a little awestruck. I personally don't see how they did it. I liked that they mentioned that all paintings with genitals shown were hidden, because that was a problem I really had. How, in an English Country House, with the great artwork that is usually in said houses, were they able to keep Rose in the dark? The secluded environment helped, but still, how? Recent studies have shown that people in the 19th century weren't so repressed sexually as we like to imagine. Yes the book has Anonyma lecturing a young Rose on what is private and what is public, and never stripping or lifting of skirts... but still... how? Rose was raised with two other children and they never once lifted a skirt or whipped it out of their pants? That is giving those kids some amazing, I would say unbelievable, restraint. Were they sewn into their clothes? Because that's the only way I see this happening, otherwise, I just don't buy it. I can't buy it. There's too much suspension of disbelief needed here and that just doesn't work for me.
And yet... if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, not those hanging at Love Hall, forcing Rose into a female role is almost equivalent to forcing any child into any role. While yes, as I've said, I do thing it's important to show kids how the world works but I also think it's important that once they grasp the basics that they be allowed to be who they are. However they want to identity themselves, dress themselves, whatever, it is important to be who you are no matter what society thrusts on you. It is your right to choose your own identity and that is the final message we are left with from Rose. He has this unique upbringing, then the upheaval and identity crisis, but in the end he finds out who he truly is. So in one regard, though I had many issues with the book, I'd kind of like to make any bigot I can find read it because the sorrow and pity that you feel for Rose as he finds himself, that might be the first step to understanding those who don't fit the binary world. So yes, issues with the book, but not issues with the message? I know, it can be as confusing as Rose's situation at times, but sometimes even a book that I just don't engage with can connect and resonate on a deeper level with regard to certain issues. Sure, this book is flawed, but so are all of us.
Friday, July 15, 2016
Misfortune by Wesley Stace