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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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A Mad, Wicked Folly

A Mad, Wicked Folly - Sharon Biggs Waller

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: While I love both ideas in this novel--a protagonist who wants to be an artist despite the fact that it's socially discouraged, and historical fiction about women's rights--the title of this book should have been A Mad, Wicked Series of Convenient Coincidences: Everybody Wins.


Caveat: I'm very close to a person who has trained as an Old Master painter in a four-year atelier. Thus, in terms of this one aspect of the plot, almost no depiction of how classically-trained artists think or work will satisfy me. 


The writing. The language is quite good: it's old-fashioned enough to feel period-appropriate, but casual enough to be accessible to young people. Sharon Biggs Waller lived in England for six years, so her grasp of the British dialect feels authentic. 


The concept. In 1909, Victoria Darling is at a French finishing school, but secretly attending an artist atelier on the side. When she's caught modeling nude for her fellow students on a day that the real model didn't show up, she is expelled from her school and sent home to her parents, precariously close to disgrace. In order to salvage her reputation, Vicky's parents encourage her to accept betrothal to Edmund Carrick-Humphrey, a young man with his own youthful indiscretions to patch over, who seems willing to give her free reign in their marriage. Vicky decides to accept the proposal, hoping that Edmund will allow her to attend the Royal College of Art (RCA), and pay her tuition. But Vicky stumbles on the suffragette movement and a hot police constable, William Fletcher, and she walks a tightrope between finagling what she wants from those around her by seeming to be compliant, while also dabbling in the women's movement and spending too much alone-time with Will. 


The main character. For crying out loud, people on Goodreads, stop flipping out about how unlikable Victoria is! She's young, she's manipulative of the people around her, but that's central to her growth and development as a character. Of course the author knew she was making Victoria "use" the people around her.  


Coincidences. The writing is fairly sophisticated, so here is where the story felt a bit "debut" and unpolished to me: the plot moves along via convenient coincidences.


For example, in the very beginning, even Victoria's conflict is orchestrated without a hitch: the atelier model doesn't show up for work, and the male students refuse to substitute for her, having all taken turns posing before. Etienne, the cause of the model's absence, vomits because of his hangover, so he's out, even though by rights he ought to be the model that day. Pierre disrespects Vicky, so she volunteers to pose, in order to be an equal colleague. In a quick reversal, Pierre does respect her because of this decision, and immediately she's invited out by "the boys" to the inn for drinks after their drawing session, where, again immediately, they seek out her opinion on art. Oops, as soon as she leaves the inn, her friend Lily is waiting to inform her that the gossipy girl at their finishing school chose that very day to peer through the atelier window, and saw Vicky in the buff in a room full of men. Vicky is on the next boat out of France. 


This too-smooth unfolding of the plot continues to happen later: the very first day she slips out of her house through the window to sketch in the city, she ends up at a suffragette rally. At this very first rally, she gets arrested. (Can't we see her drawing a few days first?) And lo and behold, she has been arrested for assaulting a police officer--she happens to have been shoved against the one-and-only hunky, good-guy cop assigned to the suffragette rally (P.C. Fletcher), a young man we instantly know will become a love interest.


At the very end of the novel, after weeks of planning (and seeing only a glimpse of Will Fletcher in all that time), Vicky and her suffragette pals happen to hang political posters precisely on P.C. Fletcher's patrol route, while he's walking the beat. Those ominous footsteps of a constable that we hear pounding behind her as she tries to escape? By now we know they're going to be--coincidence!--P.C. Fletcher, the man who will not only let her go free, but will hide her bicycle in the bushes and also feed her insider information about which beats won't be staffed by the cops in the future, so she can continue her poster-hanging subversion.


And how about the fact that the cop she falls in love with happens to be an aspiring writer, whose two-penny novelettes require illustrations? We know right away, practically the moment we hear he's a writer, that one potential happy ending is for her to make money by partnering with Will. (Really, how likely is it that the big-hearted cop is a writer at all in this period?) How likely is it that her chaperon, Sophie, happens to be a secret suffragette, making all of Vicky's freedom possible--to draw Will in the nude, and to meet his family in the country, for example. In the end, Victoria gets everything she wants, with no gray areas or sacrifice: the likelihood of a spot in the RCA whenever she next applies; a poor, noble, devoted (and handsome) constable as her mate; her parents' eventual acceptance; a money-making career in illustration. This book should be all about sacrifice, but it's not, it's happy-endings all around.


Not challenging Victoria enough. The end result of these coincidences is that Vicky is not genuinely challenged in this novel. We're told that she's struggling to achieve her goals, and we do see her working on her portfolio, but at every step the solutions to her problems seem to fall into place for her. Even her betrothed, Edmund, is a reasonably kind, laissez-faire future husband--one who is willing to use his money to pay for her art education. (Edmund has to be sullied in some other way for us not to "ship" him, so we eventually see him being superficial in his character, and limp in standing up to his father: Edmund is poisoned by his wealth, whereas Will's salt-of-the-earth, country background makes him noble and strong.) Some of the readers' complaints that Vicky is spoiled and manipulative are, I think, a misdirected observation that she gets what she needs without trying. Vicky's last line of the novel is "Opportunity is nothing if you don't grab it with both hands." I would add: especially when your opportunity is such low-hanging fruit.

Telling us the mores of the era is too obvious and didactic. I love historical fiction for the way it can teach about another time in context. It's important to trust readers to figure it out on their own, though. Here are a few of the things that were told to us:
--"Women are lapdogs."
--"A woman who loiters rather than continuing to walk through is considered of ill-repute."
--A middle-class suffragette is wearing "a plain suit, called a tailor-made." (Wouldn't the real character in the time period simply say she was wearing a tailor-made?)
And sometimes Ms. Waller nests the "tell" between dialogue:
"Aren't you terrified of marrying a scandalous woman?"
Although Edmund had besmirched his own name, it was easier for a single man to recover from scandal than a woman. But because a married man was thought to be responsible for his wife's behavior, a husband was often painted with his wife's tarry brush. 
But truly, Edmund didn't seem to care a whit.
--The entire character of Lucy seemed to be there as a prop, to teach us how difficult it was to be a woman, and how necessary the suffragette movement was. She was the brave and plucky friend, almost stereotypically so, and when Vicky saw that Lucy's life was in danger because of the hunger strike, it felt like a quick way to give Vicky a turning point in her commitment to the cause. As important as Lucy was as a friend and ethical mentor in this story, I never felt she was a real person.
Victoria's talent vs. training. I liked the way Ms. Waller gave Victoria the drive to acquire important training as a painter. (Hooray for giving your characters passions!) In several instances her friends and family basically say, "You're already good at drawing, why do you need to go to school?" and Victoria gives the correct answer: to be properly trained. The classical ateliers of the time period were quite rigorous, and the tools she would have been given aren't something a "talented" person could achieve without instruction. That said, this book, like many books that feature a main character with a "talent," ascribes a lot of magical ability to the art: Vicky can capture the look of longing in P.C. Fletcher's face so that the emotion feels raw and real to the viewer (and of course we know she is the source of his longing while he's posing). Implicitly Ms. Waller is saying that depicting emotion on faces is somehow separate from the technical training Victoria will receive at the RCA. Vicky is magically talented, and always has been.
A couple of continuity glitches: How does Will know about her time in France? He mentions it while she's trying to sketch him for the first time. And her hands were blistered in the fire while trying to rescue the sketchbook, but she somehow didn't need medical attention for them.
Factual, historical questions I would like to check: How profitable were two-penny novelettes for the author and illustrator? Was there any backlash to suffragettes, in terms of public opinion, due to any of their more destructive protests? Was there disagreement in the movement about peaceful versus aggressive tactics?
The cover. Why, Viking Juvenile? Why must you put a modern ballgown on the cover of a historical novel? Here you have an author who broke her bottom to get all the period details accurate, and then you slap on an anachronistic cover. For the record, this is what fancy gowns of 1910 looked like. Go sit in the corner.
In sum. A quite readable historical novel about a young wealthy woman pursuing her passion for making art during the time of the British suffrage movement.