Courtney Milan, $2.99
Historical Romance, 2019
Courtney Milan’s Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure is the equivalent of a movie designed to tick off every item on the checklist so that it can walk up to people and say, “Oscar, now!” and people can only nod and hand it over because they don’t want to be seen as sexist, racist, whatever.
This one revolves around two women railing about the injustices faced by them and their fellow sisters in England back in those days, and they are women in their mature years who also do the progressive thing and fall for one another, before going all intersectional and deciding to champion the rights of all the oppressed people in that country. Folks in the romance reading community who fancy themselves social justice advocates first and actual readers a distant second will fall over themselves to lavish praises on Courtney Milan for being so woke, so brave, and so progressive. Words like “cisheteropatriarchy” and other euphemisms for “Fuck all straight white men!” are no doubt meant to be used when reviewing this one. Me, though, I love the first third or so of this novella, and am bored out of my mind trying to slough through the rest of it.
Violetta Beauchamps is unmarried, in her sixties, and is without a job. She had been managing a boarding house all this while, but she was recently fired in a deliberate attempt by her employer to avoid paying her a pension. She decides that desperate times calls for desperate measures, so she hatches a plan to swindle a fellow old lady. You see, there is an unpleasant man in her now former workplace, who never pays up, and she will approach the man’s aunt to ask for payment under the pretense that this man has vouched that the aunt, Bertrice Martin, will pay up on his behalf. The result is an unexpected friendship between a woman from the upper class and a fellow woman from the working class, both of whom find strength and solace in one another in a world that treats them like third-class citizens.
Now, I have nothing against social justice crusades, and it especially makes sense for a story set in the past to be of this sort. The groundwork for a great story is here: both Bertrice and Violetta are well-drawn characters with genuine vulnerabilities and strengths – no one-dimensional strident feminist icons here – and Bertrice’s more outgoing, feisty personality complements Violetta’s more quiet brand of strength perfectly. The author even deftly sidesteps the potentially predatory aspect of a wealthier woman coming on to an impoverished woman who can’t exactly say no by showing me that these two women have a strong, real, and believable relationship that isn’t solely some rescue fantasy.
However, the story soon turns into a tedious and even repetitive tug of war between the two women and the Terrible Nephew, as Bertrice calls him. My issue here is that the Terrible Nephew is deliberately portrayed by the author as a bumbling, one-dimensional villain who lacks the cunning or wit to put up a good fight. Hence, the story turns into an eye-rolling rant instead, as the author lays on the All Men are Bitches thing so hard that I can only wonder whether Donald Trump has personally run over her cat or something. Really, if only the Terrible Nephew hadn’t been a boring Looney Tunes caricature, the story might have provided some suspense of some sort, but no, it’s just the author pointing at me to look at how terrible men are and… I guess I should give them up and start scissoring with brave and stunning intersectional feminists instead? I don’t know, but if the author is going to write a straight romance after this, she is in danger of coming off as being disingenuous. This is the kind of story a romance author writes as a grand announcement that she is going to start writing stories devoid of disgusting straight men from now on.
Also, there is a tonal dissonance here. The author’s depiction of the tug of war with the Terrible Nephew is often farcical and over the top to the point of absurdity, and this kind of humor feels out of place when tone of the rest of the story is more down to earth and even heartbreaking. With the author ramping up the man-hating vibes to levels of a hysterical dangerhair Tumblr blog, the story seems more like a parody after the emotionally draining and cathartic first third or so.
As I’ve mentioned, I have nothing against the issues featured in this one. Life in those days were not kind – to put it mildly – to women, and damn right that Bertrice and Violetta are angry. It’s the execution, or rather, the complete lack of subtlety in the execution. What happened to show as well as tell? Here, Violetta and Bertrice don’t converse; rather, they rant as if they were standing on a pulpit addressing a congregation. The Terrible Nephew isn’t a character as much as a punching bag, and any hint of grace and poignancy in the developing relationship between the two women is soon submerged under the author’s efforts to channel her inner gender studies professor. The author has completely forgotten that she is supposed to tell a story by that point; instead, she is just ranting and raving. The whole thing is just boring.
So no, I am not annoyed by the underlying sentiments behind this story, but damn, I’m really annoyed that an author like Courtney Milan can’t find a way to convey those sentiments in a manner that doesn’t resemble several whacks in the head with a pickax. Shouldn’t authors, you know, author? Otherwise, I may as well save my money and get the same thing from Twitter.