onsdag 12 april 2017

Page-turners and making a formula work

I have previously whined - here, for instance - when encountering popular fiction that didn't manage to make something of even the most promising page-turning recipes. In view of this, it's only fair to note when I have had the good luck to come across two novels in a row which actually pull off the tried-and-trusted popular formulas they're making use of. When I say they use formulas, I don't mean they're formulaic in the negative sense of the word; rather that you will probably have encountered novels with a similar set-up, but it doesn't matter one jot. One reason plots like these are used so often they sometimes form a whole genre of their own is that they can work extremely well, but only in the hands of authors who know how to handle them.

To start with the slightly more prestigious one, I had a good time with Carol Goodman's The Night Villa. It's not the first novel by Goodman that I've read and enjoyed; you could almost say that you can't put a Goodman down. However, her books have proved strangely blog-resistant, which does not have to be a bad thing at all. If I'd felt terribly annoyed with several aspects of one or several of her books, I could have filled a post about them in no time. As it is, what can I say? It's good, solid, atmospheric, well-written entertainment, often with an added pinch of learning worn lightly.

Goodman's speciality is the surprisingly tricky genre of the past-and-present mystery/romance. What distinguishes this genre is that there are two plots, one which takes place in the present day, and one in the past, either within living memory or in historical times. In the past, there are mostly one or several mysteries to be discovered by the protagonists in the present-day plot, who meanwhile have their own problems - often of a romantic nature - to deal with as well. The two-plots-in-one structure might seem the perfect vehicle for historical tales, but as a matter of fact I often find myself more interested in the modern-day plot when reading novels like these. Goodman's books are no exception. Maybe it's because her modern-day heroines (it's always a she, and I can't say I miss a masculine outlook) are so likeably flawed, while the female protagonist in the past story tends to be someone the modern heroine finds altogether admirable and wants to champion - which in contrary readers like myself prompts the reaction "hang on, she's not as great as all that". The heroine in the past often has a female enemy - there's a distinct "women beware women" feel, especially as the modern-day heroine usually runs into at least one female character who is spectacularly rude to her for little reason - but it has happened more than once that I've sort of seen the female enemy's point. But this doesn't matter much as the attractive settings with an academic and/or cultural flavour and the well-crafted prose suck you in.

In The Night Villa, most of the plot takes place around an excavation in Italy, where scrolls have come to light which tell a story about the goings-on at the eponymous villa at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Characters from the academic world - check. Classical myths playing a part in the story - check. Likeable, flustered heroine with a problematic past - check. Historical female character in need of championing (Iusta, a roman freedwoman unjustly hauled back into slavery by her former mistress) - check. Some whodunnit elements and more than one potential love interest for the heroine - check. Goodman readers will recognise many of the ingredients, but also appreciate the way they're used here. It's not my favourite of her books - I think that would be Arcadia Falls - but it's definitely a good read.

The plot used by Lauren Willig in The Other Daughter is even more familiar: it's the "impostor in high society" story with shades of Cinderella. In the 1920s, Rachel Woodley returns from a governessing post in France to the English village where she grew up, only to learn that her mother has already died of influenza. Matters are made worse when Rachel discovers that far from being dead as she thought, her long-lost father is very much alive. Moreover, he turns out to be an earl who married an heiress and produced two children, among them another daughter, who have enjoyed every privilege which Rachel has had to do without. With the help of the well-born gossip columnist Simon Montford, Rachel passes herself off as a Bright Young Thing in order to get closer to her father and his family and then to... well, she doesn't know exactly.

The best-handled part of the story is the convincing way in which Rachel's feelings towards her parents are described: she wants to hate her father badly but can't quite manage it. It's also reliably enjoyable to see her playing at being a rakish society girl while trying to suppress her no-nonsense governess instincts. But while it's a welcome variation of the formula that her father's family is not hateful (with the exception of his wife) and that Rachel never really comes close to wreaking any revenge on them, it does raise the question what the real purpose with her charade is. The plot is set up as The Count of Monte Christo light, but when it turns out that Simon's motives aren't that dastardly either, I did feel a little cheated. Still, it saved me from feeling guilty about not being too keen on Simon. Here's a man who manages to smuggle a penniless girl into high(ish) society, provides her with the werewithal in terms of frocks and such, is once referred to as her "evil genius" and talks about them having a "business arrangement" (and the synonym of that would be... a deal!). I ought to approve, right? But I was always hard on aristocratic lounge-lizards, and Simon's drawling so-called witticisms and brushings-off of invisible specks of dust got my goat. And then it turns out he doesn't have some immensely clever master plan, so I'm off the hook - I don't have to like him after all.

So there you are, two lightish reads which I had no trouble getting through in spite of a lack of fanciable villains. Is it spoilerish to say that last bit? If so, consider that I might just be too picky. I'm not saying there aren't any villains at all...