What an anachronistic, boring mess...
Reviewed in the United States on 30 September 2020
What a completely boring, novella's worth of material, set in a confusingly unrelated-to-reality alternate 1890s England. I’ve been getting more and more disappointed with Ms. Milan’s work, but this is by far the worst full-length novel, including her freshman Carharts series.
First, the distractingly wild anachronisms:
In addition to Ms. Milan's distinctly modern sense of humor ("Zomg, a puppy cannon is so random! Lollz”) there were a few really bizarre factual inaccuracies and liberties taken in this book.
I can suspend disbelief as to the origin story of one nobleman, and Jeremy's half Chinese roots, while improbable, are a fine romance plot point. That there is a rural English village that is half Asian, however, goes beyond one improbable circumstance. In reality, there were almost no Chinese people in rural England in 1891, and the idea that they would be there, half of an ancient town, with no real backstory or social issues, is distractingly odd. It also seemed unnecessary. Why did the H&h both need to be Chinese? Why not have a mixed race couple? There were more Indians in England at that point, for example, if the whole cultural outsider tack was important to Ms. Milan. Additionally, Worcestershire sauce, on which the "Unnamed Sauce" in the story seems to be most closely based, was potentially inspired by sauce tasted in Bengal... if the villains are cultural appropriators, why not call out the correct appropriated culture? Doing backflips to explain why they’re both English-Chinese in 1891 felt like Cartman playing racist Cupid.
But that brings me to the other distractingly odd anachronism. Today, it's really common for someone's dream to be bottling their family's secret sauce (see: Shark Tank). A great way, in the 21st century, to market said sauce, would be to get a food truck and sell it on bao to hipsters at a local festival! All of this is not just modern, it's specific to the last 5 years. Just dropping this story line, with no further adaptations, into 1891, is bizarre. Can you even imagine trying to explain this plot to, say, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, or any other actual occupant of 1891?
And one last irritating little inaccuracy: what is a board clip? A Google search says that the clipboard was invented in 1907, and I can find no record of it being called a board clip at any point. That's some pretty stupid-sounding ye olde talk...
But all of this could be chalked up to "fun, if unrealistic!" Except it wasn't fun. TBF, Milan started out with a hamstrung premise for a romance novel: they’re already both in love with each other. Jeremy is even ready to get married, and Chloe is ready to have sex in a time before normal women had access to or education about birth control, so, I’d say pretty all-in. That means falling in love or realizing their feelings storylines are out.
This means that Milan has to either create other internal doubts and/or external circumstances, like Chole’s dad’s feelings or a food product launch, to fill 300 pages.
To make for even less plot, (but more inexplicable anachronisms) Jeremy is super-woke. He’s ready to support Chloe’s dreams and have a duchess who is a niche gourmet sauce manufacturer/distributer, so here too, there’s no drama to be had in reconciling the heroine’s anachronistic feminism/pluck with late 19th century societal expectations and norms. (BTW, Milan has written off the whole, “people in this era weren’t feminists but my characters are” issue in the past to much greater success. For example, in The Suffragette Scandal, she gives the H a poignant combination of worldliness, creative free thought, and loneliness that makes it feel very real when he loves, admires and accepts Free’s overt feminism. The Duchess Affair acknowledges that Robert, the H, would have wanted a wife who conformed outwardly to ideas of femininity, but only so that they could, together, be radicals at home. Her books often created plausible reasons that the the characters could conform to modern cultural sensibilities while in a totally different cultural setting).
And, ok, I understand that Milan has pointed out you don’t need the 3rd act strife - it's often some silly hand-wringing about saying the L-word, and should totally be skipped. But, iunno, a first or second act might have been nice. Though it wasn’t exactly a plot point, there was plenty of handwringing: for some inexplicable reason, Jeremy, who possesses a glamorous title and is one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the country, is like omg, my mom, who wasn’t raised in England, didn’t love being a duchess and went back to China. (Don’t worry though, she did shower him with love and safety, so no chance of some interest or character development there). That must mean that Chloe, who was raised in England, around the glorification of titles, and who is an entrepreneur who could really use the seed money, would *also* hate his title. This, even though she loves him, and it would make her incredibly powerful in her own right. That makes…so much sense?
Milan self-publishes. She makes a big production of how predatory the publishing industry is, and how she’d rather pay her own editors.
I think I’ve found a snag to that…maybe paying your editors directly makes them less critical? Or, maybe picking from people who have decided not to pursue traditional editorial success might not give you access to the strongest editorial pool? I think it’s pretty hard to deny that her work has gotten more self-indulgent, more rambling, more plot hole-ridden, and more wildly anachronistic, since she left traditional publishing. This book is the worst so far in a long list of disappointments.
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