So when I started hearing the exact same praise lavished on Sherry Thomas' debut, I felt myself going limp like my three-year-old nephew does when he gets ready to throw the mother of all tantrums in a public place. But I've met Sherry in person (who is really very nice by the way) and Private Arrangements is set in Victorian England. I adore Victorians. Factor in all the buzz surrounding this book? Well, I knew I was going to have to bite the bullet and just read the damn thing.
To all of London society, Lord and Lady Tremaine had the ideal arrangement: a marriage based on civility, courteousness, freedom—and living on separate continents.I'm going to be honest here, I had real problems with these characters for 75% of this story. My notes (yes, I jotted down notes) include such gems as, "selfish," "distasteful," "petty," "manipulative," "unappealing," and "no redeeming qualities." Contrary to what my jottings might suggest, I have never subscribed to the school of thought that protagonists must be "likable" in order for the reader to connect with the story. Just this year I have read and loved books that featured a former porn star who goes on a vengeance-fueled killing spree and an alcoholic reporter who has checked out of her life to swim in vodka. The key is that both of these less-than-stellar characters had "something" that connected me to them as the reader. The porn star had been raped, beaten and left for dead in the trunk of a car (hence, the eventual killing spree) and the alcoholic reporter was unable to cope with her grief surrounding her daughter's murder and the eventual disintegration of her marriage. But Gigi and Camden? Nope. Just spoiled, petty, and manipulative. Frankly, I can think of no two people who deserved each other more.
But once upon a time, things were quite different for the Tremaines…When Gigi Rowland first laid eyes on Camden Saybrook, Lord Tremaine, the attraction was immediate and overwhelming: she simply had to have him. But what began in a spark of passion ended in betrayal the morning after their wedding—and Gigi wants to be free to marry again. Now Camden has returned from America with an outrageous demand—an heir—in exchange for Gigi’s freedom.
Gigi’s decision will have consequences she never imagined, as secrets are exposed, desire is rekindled—and one of London’s most admired couples must either fall in love all over again…or let each other go forever.
Something shifts over the course of my reading. Thomas uses flashbacks throughout the first half of the novel to tell the story of how Gigi and Camden came to be married. Thomas paints in aching, horrifying, and train-wreck-like detail what happens to drive these two newlyweds apart. It was hard to read, if only because I could see the disaster waiting round the bend. As the reader, you know it ain't going to be pretty, but you're held hostage in suspended animation until the characters get to That Big Scene. Certainly Gigi gets exactly what she deserves, and she pays for her sins, but Camden is hardly blameless in the whole affair and the reader is left wondering - how the heck is the author going to resolve this?
It's once we're past the flashbacks that this story began to work for me, mainly because I started seeing Gigi as a woman who wanted nothing more than to put the past behind her and move on. She made mistakes, she paid for them, but now she wants a life. She's tired of living in virtual limbo - and this is something I can get behind. This is something that I, as the reader, can hang on to.
On the other hand, I felt that Camden never gained the same kind of momentum as Gigi. Yes, yes she done him wrong, but we're talking 10 years here. Sooner or later you have to let your anger go or you're the one who ends up looking like an ass. I soon found myself liking Gigi very much and wanting to knock Camden upside the head with something large and heavy. Never mind that Gigi set my teeth on edge for the first half of the story. All was forgiven!
The writing here truly is beautiful. No bleeding eyes. The best way I can describe it is that there is a wonderful flow and rhythm. I never picked up this book and just read one chapter. Two or three would go by without me so much as breaking a sweat, and I positively tore through the last, non-flashback, half. Thomas also gives readers a fantastic Victorian backdrop without resorting to any mind-numbing history-laden info-dumping.
So what did I ultimately think of Private Arrangements? The writing and setting is an A+. Really, one of the most accomplished debut novels I have ever read. Thomas has incredible ability, and I'm anxious to see where her talent takes her. As for the actual story? So strong was my dislike for Gigi and Camden early on, that if this book had been written by a less talented writer - well I'm talking a D folks. And in the end, while they did begin to grow on me a bit like mold in a petri dish, I still wasn't entirely convinced of their romance. Cripes, one little white lie or simple misunderstanding and Camden might take off for another 10 years. Ultimately, I say they elevated themselves to around a C. So great writing, and characters I spent the whole novel being torn over leaves me with....
Final Grade = B
It's a remarkable book. It certainly deserves the praise it has been getting, and I know that I will still be thinking about aspects of this novel a week or two from now. That said, I don't see myself ever rereading it.