Running Press, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-7624-3573-9
Historical Romance, 2009
I hope you aren’t expecting a gay romance that follows the standard romance genre formula in Transgressions because the main couple are not just separated from a huge chunk of the story, reuniting only in the last chapter, but one of the guys, David Caverly, spends a long time sleeping with various other blokes throughout the story. Transgressions makes a better historical fiction with romance than a more straightforward romance novel. You should adjust your expectations accordingly if you insist on reading this book – at the very least, don’t expect this one to conform to what you usually expect in a romance novel.
Spanning a time period from 1642 to 1649, this one is the story of English young men David Caverly and Jonathan Graie. They first meet when David’s strict father brings in the Puritan lad Jonathan to help around the farm. The more flighty and pleasure-seeking David is at first not too pleased with Jonathan’s presence around the farm, but you know how it can be between young guys with more hormonal hot flashes than common sense. Before long David has lost his virginity to a soldier and he proceeds to channel his newfound education on Jonathan, whose religious upbringing soon makes him feel troubled with his desire for David. Before long, a dramatic misunderstanding arises, causing David to believe that he has lost Jonathan so he will leave and become a soldier. Jonathan, believing that he has lost David, soon falls under the spell of a religious extremist leader Matthew Hopkins. Matthew wishes to “cure” him even as the whole gang move from town to town persecuting witches and other heretics.
I was initially worried that I would be subjected to relentless mawkish melodrama typical of the author’s previous works that I have read. However, I am pleasantly pleased to report that, barring an occasional hilariously over the top declaration or two, the story is actually quite restrained here when it comes to melodrama. As a result, the prose is clean, eminently readable, and, if I may say it, bearing some very beautifully written scene here and there.
The problem I have with this story though is that it feels very lightweight as a whole. This is caused by the fact that despite the story taking place in a very turbulent time in England, the author spends way too much time focusing on the characters’ sexual and emotional interactions with various characters. As a result, if the author hasn’t dropped reminders now and then that this story is set in England during the 17th century, I could easily assume that this story takes place in, say, America. I’d love to see the characters interact more with the events around them. The way these characters manage to be so introspective and self-absorbed without much care about the events happening around them make this story feel very unrealistic, as if the characters exist in a bubble.
Also, there is an imbalance in the two story lines here. David’s story is, frankly, dull. He is like a gay Mary Sue character – he is so hot that every guy he meets falls in love with him. The only interesting aspect in his story is seeing how other men react to falling in love with him. David on his own feels dangerously like a wish-fulfillment character who is unfortunately at the same time petty and temperamental. Jonathan’s story, on the other hand, is far more intriguing and heartbreaking than David’s. His “rehabilitation” is not an easy read, but the reward of sitting through the uncomfortable scenes of psychological rape is plenty of bittersweet character growth on Jonathan’s part. This fellow turns out to be a darker, more damaged, but at the same time more tragic and interesting character in the end.
As a result, I feel somewhat dismayed when the author chooses to pair these two back again in the final chapter. Jonathan has grown in someone completely different, while David… well, the author has tried, but David remains a bland and boring character, interesting if only in how other men react to his beauty and sensuality. With David, Jonathan’s pathetic puppy love for David resurfaces, and when that happens, I feel as if Jonathan’s character growth has regressed considerably.
Also, I am not keen on Jonathan’s “thee thy thou thumb” way of speaking. I know, he’s a Puritan, so he’s all thee’s and thou’s, but it really becomes annoying when he’s the only fellow who speaks this way in the book. If the author wants to create an atmosphere of authenticity in this manner, she should have made everyone speak just like people did in those times. Here, seeing Jonathan’s thou’s and thy’s mixed with other characters’ more conventional contemporary style of speaking is just irritating. Put in a few anachronistic words and phrases – such as “orgasm”, which didn’t come into regular use until 1684 – and Jonathan’s “thee thy thou thumb” way of speaking comes off as even more unnecessary.
I wonder how I should grade Transgressions. It’s a well-written book with a few scenes of exquisitely written grace and beauty that caught me by surprise. Still, this book does have its share of flaws, notably in David and the portrayal of love that feels superficial thanks to the flippant “Oh, we’ve changed a lot, but we’re still in love, hurrah!” last chapter that does considerable damage to both characters’ coming of age. Ultimately, it is the story seeming to exist in a bubble with little actual interaction shown between the characters and the events unfolding around them that prevents this one from going any higher on my score sheet.
This is a good attempt on the author’s part, though. I’m quite impressed by how she has made me take back some of my initial assumptions about her writing abilities by the time I reach the last page of this book.