Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Book Review - Tasha Alexander's And Only to Deceive

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: 2005
Format: Paperback, 321 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Lady Emily is the widow of the Viscount Philip of Ashton, the husband everyone wanted. It was a very convenient marriage all around. Emily needed to get away from her domineering mother and Philip had the credentials to appease said mother and viewed Emily as the apex of beauty, his Kallista. So he asked for Emily's hand and was accepted and promptly went off to Africa and died, leaving her comfortable and independent. Who could ask for anything more? But now Emily is ready to shed her mourning after two long years sequestered away from society. What little society she has been allowed consists of her best friend Ivy, or friends of her husband, like Colin Hargreaves, or her mother. Who is trying to convince her that she should marry. AGAIN! Didn't the marriage to Philip count? Sure he died and they had no children, but the statues she attained should be enough to keep her mother at bay for at least one lifetime. Being a widow is liberating! Why would Emily give that up to be the property of another man she barely knows?

Emily's removal from society has made her realize she can do whatever she wants under the guise of trauma. She can sit in her husband's study and drink port and learn Greek and go to the museum and forge a life for herself that doesn't require a man! Yet she finds, to her astonishment, that her husband was really a fascinating man. A true scholar with a mind teaming with knowledge and a love of art. A man who truly loved her and whom she just thought of as a way out of an intolerable situation. He loved her, yet she didn't love him... then. Following in his steps, learning about his interests and passions, she slowly starts to fall for her dead husband. If only her husband where still alive, think of the conversations they could have because of the new learned woman she has become thanks to the position he gave her. But if, by some miracle, he did return, would he approve of the woman she's become? Would she be willing to accept his flaws, even if they are illegal? But most importantly, how would he view her bevy of suitors?

With Emily and Philip you have a truly interesting love story. Not the typical boy meets girl and then after some problems, they live happily ever after with Emily's mom being a good foil during their courtship. Here we have boy meets girl, they marry, girl loses boy and years later falls in love with who she thinks he might have been. We get to experience all the joys and sorrows of two people falling in love, but simultaneously know that it is doomed. Philip was in love with a woman he put on a pedestal and literally made his goddess, Kallista, and Emily fell in love with a past that never was. Yet Tasha strings us along, making us see the romantic what ifs without initially focusing on what the truth of their relationship would have been given societal constraints. Leading you on, building this epic and tragic love story that you are so completely committed to you totally ignore the fact that it would never work. I was hoping against hope that by some miracle Philip would be alive and that these two crazy kids would make their relationship work.

But the realist in me knew it wasn't to be, and the doubt even seeps into the cracks Emily has been ignoring. The fact that her husband might have been morally dubious is just a catalyst for her to actually look at the reality of her situation. Philip never knew Emily. He saw her as this beautiful creature, renaming her Kallista to be his romantic ideal. He loved the idea of her, much like he loved his art. She's a statue of loveliness to him. But could he love this statue if it came to life? After his death she changed, she became self-reliant, knowledgeable, all the things Victorian women weren't supposed to be. I don't think Philip would be able to rectify his image of her with the learned woman she has become, much less Emily being able to rectify the scholar of her imagination with the big game hunter he was. If he had never gone and died in Africa he'd expect Emily to be a typical Victorian wife. Seen, not heard. Beautiful and his most prized possession. Because two people can easily be desperately in love with each other when they have no idea who the other person is.

While much of the book deals with the heartbreak of falling for someone after they're gone, there is other, more familiar DNA that Tasha mines for Emily's other suitors. I can not but agree with the spot on quote on the back of my paperback edition that says "[h]ad Jane Austen written The Da Vinci Code, she may well have come up with this elegant novel." It's not just the secrets of antiquities that bring to mind Dan Brown's bestseller, or the effortless writing reminiscent of Austen that makes it feel like this book sprang fully formed from Tasha's head like Athena did from Zeus's, but Philip's two friends who are vying for Emily's heart. Or at least her hand. On the one hand we have Colin Hargreaves, with the wavy hair and stoic demeanor of a 1996 Colin Firth, he's a bit of a mystery, but Philip trusted him and therefore Emily does, to an extent. On the other hand we have Andrew Palmer, a delightful conversationalist, a bit of a gossip, and a total flirt, but such a hansom flirt. Yes folks, it's the Pride and Prejudice of it all with Colin being our Darcy and Andrew being our Wickham.

And much like Austen's classic, "[o]ne has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.'' There's a reason Austen tropes work, they are classic. Which is why there are countless retellings and reimaginings, but Tasha does all those read-a-likes one better, because this love triangle isn't the crux of the book. She takes one of the most famous plots ever written and makes it a subplot. She's not out to rewrite Pride and Prejudice, she's out to write her own story, create her own legacy. This book is about lost love, art theft, forgeries, antiquities, education, societal constraints, with a little Jane Austen thrown in. This is why I'm almost of the mind to just delete this paragraphs I've just labored over because while there is this kernel of Austen by just saying that people are going to have certain expectations. They're going to think it's Victorian Bridget Jones or some such nonsense that is in no way what this book is. This is the problem of being a reviewer, you can see what it's like but also what it is on it's own and my purpose in writing this review is not only to discuss my feelings of what I've read but to get you to pick up this book. PICK IT UP! Just go in without preconceptions.

Because this book literally has so much fun twisting and turning what you'd expect from this time period. While Tasha has today's sensibilities she clearly states in her afterward that she wrote it from the point of view of Victorian society, and then as a reader you take great joy as she finds all the loopholes and makes something that is both of it's time and of our time. What I took great glee in was all the art in the book, from classic Greek statuary and vases to the Impressionists working in Paris while Emily was there. While today we view the Impressionists as the greatest artists of that time, at the time they were frowned upon. I felt like for once all those art history classes I took were paying off! But more than that it's the counterpoint of a woman's life proscribed by Victorian mourning with that of the artistic scene in Paris at the end of the 1800s. Constriction versus liberation. Which is very much a theme throughout the book. While Emily is under so many strictures, at the same time she is given a liberty by her status that would never have been conferred on her had Philip survived. Being a widow of means is literally the only way women could have freedom in the Victorian era. To see Emily embrace all that that means is the greatest of joys. It makes you realize how much better we have it and that we need to embrace all that we have because we could have it far worse.


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