A stunning debut for author Evie Dunmore and her Oxford Rebels, in which a fiercely independent vicar’s daughter takes on a duke in a fiery love story that threatens to upend the British social order.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Grab a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, a snack, maybe a meal, this is going to be a long one.
FTC disclosure: I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing me with an advance reader copy via access to the galley for free through the First to Read program.
I started the ARC in June 2019, but I just could not get into it. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to DNF it, so instead I decided to put it away for a while and I read the finalized copy this week.
I had to bring this into a Word document so 5 pages and 30 minutes later…
Here goes. As organized by:
The setting and time
I was excited to read this book. From what I had initial read in the description, I wanted to applaud the author for this undertaking. I also liked the cover. Was it going to be a modern take? A fresh perspective? New information? A story of its time? I saw all the potential, but unfortunately I felt it teetering to fulfill all of these ideas at once, and ultimately, I could not connect with the writing or the premise of the story.
It seemed to push to a point but there were too many targets and misdirected energy.
I may have liked it more as a story apart from the women’s suffrage components. Maybe as a regency romance novel or a contemporary romance, even perhaps a rom com for some of its comedic portrayal of sexual innuendos, but not for its message or overall entertainment.
It was probably because the theme/message was contradictory. The main female character/protagonist was contradictory. Her, smitten by a man’s eyes, upset that a man was drawn to her characteristic mouth. The main male character/antagonist, also contradictory. He, taking up a mistress, but also unaware about what that actually entailed.
A Trojan horse maybe, perhaps that was the point, to get people reading about the women’s suffrage movement, disguised as erotica. But I don’t know if with its storyline, telling readers about important social movements during that time and place and coupling it with pervasive sexual scenes was the best way to do so. And I didn’t think it did either of those subjects justice as a stand-alone plot.
When I think back to my women’s studies college coursework and its coverage on women’s suffrage, I am reminded of women who fought for a cause, not taking their eyes off the end goal to achieve a life of great meaning to them. The main female character in this book however, seems to constantly lose sight of that, but perhaps it wasn’t ever really established from the beginning, which was the most disappointing part for me when I first started the book.
My main takeaway half way through the book was that anyone can be blinded by love. Or insidious lust in this case. And I felt it was women’s suffrage that took a back seat, making me wonder why it was part of the story in the first place.
The main female character was so squirrely, so I didn’t know what her intentions were. There was no bantering about the suffrage topic between the two main characters. In fact there was barely an intelligent discussion about the political climate of the time in spite of his high social status and in spite of her personal drive and historical book knowledge. I’m just not sure that this story delivered what it promised; perhaps I didn’t know what was being promised in the first place.
If it’s a nonfiction book, I want to see the facts and a reason. If it’s fiction, give me a glittery storyline that puts me in the place and time, in the character’s head, in a plot with a clearly written and entertaining trajectory. But trying to incorporate both in this way was just messy to me. It was strange to me the scenarios that were chosen to move the story along and for character development, especially the ones that were drawn out in repetition, the sexual ones.
I feel like the sex scenes were the better-written parts of the book, though I still think they could have been cleaned up a bit as far as where they were located in the plot and how they were executed. They were described in a more concrete and creative fashion, as things were happening. Tension, intrigue, desire, attraction, were consistent in both the dialogue and narration. I think this was probably the author’s sweet spot when it came to writing this book.
I don’t believe that every book has to be perfectly packaged complete with a bow. But truly if this story took place in a totally different setting and era, aside from the sex, it wouldn’t seem to matter anyway because the case for women’s suffrage was not explained well.
Even in the concluding chapter and the last lines of the book, the writing doesn’t make for a great admission of what had just taken place, whether in heart, spirit, or in social achievement. There were hints at suppression in the dialogue and narration but not in reference to any issues that were any different than what women would face or fear today, even from a more westernized, modern perspective. I wanted the stories of the suffragettes as uniquely told by them.
And in the author’s note, where the premise of the women’s suffrage movement was summarized, where the bulk of information was, it still did not bring detail to the purpose and what value that education and women’s voting rights brought and how it would have changed the work life, status, and personal relationships among women and men. By its omission, it was more of a disservice to the matter.
The writing was problematic for me. The style as far as narration goes was all over the place throughout the book. Third person omniscient, but the dialogue and narration didn’t reflect that. It wasn’t objective enough.
The pronouns were correct but the narration itself catered to a certain voice(s) that was not a reflection of that third person advantage that most writing should have. It was unpredictable. Between dialogues, the narration didn’t flow well in sentence structure and tone, and was not conducive to support the dialogue it was referring to. It reflected too many voices and I couldn’t anticipate which voice it would take on, making it super difficult to follow.
Sometimes the omniscient narration was in opposition with itself, like it intended to guide the reader in too many directions by also being antagonistic in quality with a sort of presupposition. The storyline just lost so much focus in the narration. Maybe changing the POV to first person would have added some strength in the main character’s attributes and honed it in a little better. Perhaps it just needed a good and thorough edit.
The pattern of adjective followed by noun. Adjective noun, adjective noun. It started to sound like wet water, sharp blade, round circle, loud megaphone. Majority of the similes were unoriginal. Recycled from the present, projected onto the past.
Within just 2-3 paragraphs it read: Holy hell. Cool glare, clean shaven, Nordic-blonde, cropped short, prominent nose, slashes of his brows, firm line of his jaw, polished, impenetrable surface of a glacier. I just would have liked a little more creative description here.
It was like a dance of characters out of sync with each other and out of sync with the music. And I don’t know if the main female character, as the way she was portrayed in the book, was the best representation for the cause.
From her “bookish” characteristics I was hoping she would offer a little more wisdom in speak and philosophical attributes to her personality. I was hoping that with her well-read background she would have been more of a proponent for education for women and that it would have been more celebratory with victory that role, especially at the conclusion of the book. She didn’t come off as knowing herself very well in spite of the very meaningful, self-reflective pieces that she read. Therefore there was not a complete understanding of the cause or what she would have been advocating for to me as a reader familiar with such references.
It just was a complete mismatch of character to the story that was being conveyed. It just surprised me that she used her so-called beauty and charm to manipulate rather than use her intellect, which contradicted what I thought she felt so strongly about in the first chapter.
The main character backpedaled so much that the momentum of the overall message was lost. In her heart she wanted to leave the estate and also knew that by telling her family she would be ordered back, yet she couldn’t see this or anything else as an opportunity to bank on as a wide-open excuse. As a reader with fresh eyes seeing the internal/external conflict she was faced with, I was not invested in what her draw was to not do everything in her power to move away. As with the title, bringing down the duke, this actually was only achieved after she showcased her sexual side to him, which undermined and clouded what she was trying to defend and bring his attention to in the first place.
There wasn’t a natural progression of human behavior. Again, sexual innuendos read a bit silly. When it came to the writing about the actual encounters, in present tense, it became this weird realization that attraction and sexual desire even existed.
The erotic feelings were where the characters showed the most passion and action for as far as writing goes, but never mind advocating and deep passion for anything political. This somehow made me feel robbed as a reader because I had higher hopes for the premise being centered on the suffrage movement that anything else.
There weren’t enough redemptive qualities to build up the main character relationships to each other after their disagreements.
And there was a lack of depth among the characters. I would have liked to have seen the friendship among the women becoming a little more solidified throughout the book and more focus on them discussing the political issues rather than describing the typical get ups they would wear and discussions about the duke.
The dialogue was unnatural. It also didn’t move the story along like I’d hoped. It didn’t reveal more of the character’s personality or meaningful elements to the story. It was just dialogue, stuck there. There was some bantering between characters, yet as far as content is concerned, the important topics were not discussed to a great extent and the delivery did not take on the tone or persona of each character. I would have like to have seen some distinction there.
It tried to be too many things at once through the story, the characters, the setting. It was mixed up and was so confusing to me. What do you want me to know? How do you want me to feel? It didn’t depict the important elements as important so I wasn’t sure where my awareness was supposed to be.
It incorporated stereotypes for stereotypes, weakening even clichés that were already known as clichés. Neither application added strength to the story.
There was an almost a display of superiority to being an intellectual as opposed to a soft, constrained housewife as described. No draws on either old or modern day strengths of a woman as a caretaker. All the titles that the main female character was avoidant of did not make a good case or even a redemptive quality for the role she ultimately settled in to or bring deeper meaning to what constrained meant in her position whether it was intrapersonal or extra personal. She came off to me as a character who was lazy, aimless, and without a cause.
There were also several references to “feminine” and it came off as too trying to make a solid point about femininity. Then words like primal, prime piece, Neanderthal. Phrases like “He was still a man.” It was presumptuous and a missed opportunity to tell the story and establish a character as a whole person.
I’m not sure if mentioning the Nordic quality and repetition in mentioning such established physical features was where gold was to be found. I’m the type of reader though that likes every word in a book to count, every mention, to contribute something to the story and I just wasn’t sure what type of context or physical/mental/social/psychological description was being conveyed here.
The vernacular. It was a mix of old and modern vernacular. Parts read a bit proper, regency style, like a random word picked from a synonym generator, but they were coupled with a misguided mix of modern tone and words. It was use of old words and the style of delivery that was a little more complicated than what I felt it needed to be.
“Holy Moses” and “holy hell.” Just because certain words/phrases may have actually existed during the time, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were used regularly in expression. Every word we know of today exists currently, but we certainly don’t use all of them. I think mimicking actual writings of the time to help guide the vocabulary of the characters in this book could have helped to build on what may have been more appropriate for the time, even if it was just the modern perception of it.
I typically love literary references but they didn’t show the character’s deeper understanding or further the meaning to the storyline in its relation to women’s suffrage like I had hoped.
THE SETTING AND TIME
Post regency, pre-suffrage. It came off as a fleeting point in time, shadowed by loss of self-control in the sexual arena. Yet neither the setting nor time had any establishment or strength to support the character as to why she came off so angry toward men. Define feminine in this story. Define equality and independence.
It doesn’t clearly articulate these terms, yet there is this presupposition of her underlining hatred for men and her connection to these, which didn’t make any sense to me.
Anyway, all in all, the writing and storyline reminded me of that good old fashion advice, before you leave the house, for those who have a tendency to overdo it, just remove one accessory before opening the front door. There were just too many concepts thrown in there. Too many ideas for one book.
Or maybe it’s like the Matrix. The red pill or the blue pill. If you try to mix them up, you might get purple, but then you’ll suffer from a really bad trip.
The ideas were certainly there, but I would have just liked to have seen them executed differently.
I would be very curious to read more from this author.