. . . . and it is a Christian romance novel called Celebrating the American Woman: Theodosia by Meredith Bean McMath. I can't read this book. I've gotten through the first two chapters, and maybe I'm a snob, but I just don't want to read any more of it. I bought it at a used book store for $1 on a rainy afternoon while waiting to go pick up my kids from some activity. It caught my eye because it's historical fiction (and we know how much I love that!) about a period of time I am quite interested in (the nineteenth century before the American Civil War). I'm not a romance novel reader (I've actually only made it through one in my entire life, probably for the same reasons I can't make it through this one!), but I'm not averse to a romantic story. But it takes more than the romance to satisfy the reader in me.
This story seems to have promise -- a young American woman is spending the summer with her aunt in England to learn social graces and be introduced to the "people who matter" (my phrase, not one in the book). The book opens when she is at tea with the most influential people in town, finds the father's will by accident in the library, and mistakes their youngest son for a servant. The book cover promises that she "stumbles upon a dark family secret" -- normally, my naturally abundant curiosity would kick in, but I skimmed around enough in the last chapter this morning after I decided to quit reading the book to guess the "dark secret" is not really that interesting. The two main characters seem likeable enough. So why don't I like this book?
It's not written very well!!! (Sorry, Meredith McMath, if you're reading this!) (as if, ha ha) The thing that finally turned me off this morning happened while the young hero had stolen to Theodosia's window to apologize for allowing her to go on thinking he was a servant, which led to her humiliation in front of his parents. A nice enough scene to build character. But then OUT OF NOWHERE, the author inserted a lengthy section on Theodosia's relationship with her father and how he never seemed quite pleased with her and how that hurt her. HUH???? I'm no published author, but it seems to me that when you have your heroine and hero together, you squeeze every bit of possibility out of that moment and keep your readers focused on that relationship and wondering how it will turn out. I think it's incredibly disorienting to have the reader's "eyes" focused on one scene and then without warning and without reason to suddenly throw another, totally unrelated scene in front of him/her.
Another thing that bothers me is that there is a bit of a "mostly tell, a little show" style to the storytelling. I like to think I'm an intelligent person. You don't have to tell me Theodosia is insecure in this strange setting and explain in detail why that is so. Show her doing something, and I bet I'm smart enough to pick up by what she does and what she says that she's insecure. I can't take credit for that particular line of thinking -- I've seen that advice in different "how to write" manuals, and as I pay attention to the way something is written, it seems to be good advice. Speaking from my own experience of writing, it takes a lot of discipline from the writer and a certain amount of giving some control to your reader. You have to share the characters and let the readers experience the events of the story rather than keeping all the control for yourself. It's not easy to share, especially when those characters mean so much to you and you want to be sure people understand and love them just as you do. But if you don't let go a little, the readers will never get close enough to the characters to care -- and they'll quit reading.
I feel a bit arrogant to be passing judgment on Mrs. McMath's writing -- after all, she is, according to the back cover, "a gifted novelist" with more than this book published. And who am I? Just another wishful writer, nursing along my own first little historical novel whenever I get the time, insecure that anyone would even want to read it in an environment saturated by "chick lit" and fantasy stories, not even sure I actually WANT to show it to someone else and have to give away my beloved characters. I hope I don't have a beam in my own eye when I'm picking at the speck in hers.
But I'm still not going to read that book.