Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: Wendy Poo-Poos The Rat Catcher
Disclaimer: This book has been out since 1999 and I think I'm the last romance reader on the planet to read it - but just in case....this review will be riddled with spoilers.  Also, I listened to this on audio and one of my chief gripes may be because I listened to it on audio.  I'll be curious to see if folks who "read" this book feel the same way I did about a certain scene.
I'm a sucker for a good Pygmalion story and the premise of The Proposition by Judith Ivory is one that intrigues.  That is, what if My Fair Lady wasn't a lady but a lad?  Our hero is Mick Tremore, affable London rat catcher who finds himself being made over by Lady Edwina Bollash, discarded relation to a sour old distant cousin (a Duke) who makes her way in the world schooling young misses navigating society.  There's a to-do in a tea house which brings Mick to the attention of the twin Lords, Emile and Jeremy Lamont.  The Lamonts like to amuse themselves with various bets and wagers and think it would be great fun to see if Edwina can make over Mick to the point where they can pass him off as a Viscount at her sour old cousin's annual ball.  There's no love lost between Edwina and the Duke, plus she's fascinated by Mick's blend of cockney and Cornish speech patterns - so why not?

So where did it all go wrong?  Well, not a lot happens in this book - at least until the final 5 or 6 chapters.  Mick flirts, keeps calling Edwina "Winnie," takes her to a pub to show her a good time, and wheedles her (and not in a good way) incessantly.  Winnie is conflicted over her feelings for Mick, propriety and wrestles with her own feelings of self-worth.  I know this book is late Victorian, but honestly this felt like a Traditional Regency idea bloated up to give us 380+ pages.  But Ivory can write.  Her world-building is very good.  I felt like I was reading a historical and not a modern piece with characters wearing costumes.  So even though the plot and conflict are a bit thin, the world-building kept me engaged.

There are bigger issues at play here though.  The first major stumbling block I had was during the scenes were Edwina is needling Mick to shave off his mustache.  What follows is quid pro quo.  Winnie is a tall woman with legs that drive Mick wild.  Basically he'll shave off the mustache if she lifts her skirts to show off her legs.  Which in an era where it was a shocking scandal to expose your ankle - you can understand Winnie's horror.  But she wants the mustache gone.  However Mick keeps upping the ante, finding loopholes to create more demands - to the point where Winnie is practically in tears.  On the audio version her discomfort is palpable.  I don't know if I would have had the same reaction had I read the book as opposed to having a narrator read me the book - but Mick basically comes off as bullying a gentle woman - someone raised in an environment where being comfortable with her own body and sexuality was basically unheard of.  It's not forced seduction, but Winnie's state during these scenes made me, as the listener, extremely uncomfortable.  Honestly I can't believe I kept listening, but I did.

It took a while for me to get over all that.  I don't expect my romance heroes to be paragons of virtue, but I do expect them to treat the heroine with some respect.  And those moments where Mick is pressing Winnie, wheedling her, had me squirming in my seat - and not in a good way.

After that unpleasantness, we're back to not a lot happening until it's time to find out if Mick the Rat Catcher can successfully fool the ton at the Duke's ball into thinking he's Michael the Viscount.

And this would be where the book completely jumps the shark.

Judith Ivory cops out.  She totally and completely cops out on this story with the Fairy Tale ending.  Because it turns out that Mick is NOT a Rat Catcher.  He's NOT some working class slob from Cornwall.  OH NOES!!!!  He's actually the long-lost grandson of the Duke who was kidnapped when he was a toddler!

BECAUSE OF COURSE HE IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gee, it would have been too darn messy to have Mick actually BE a Rat Catcher.  To actually have him BE a working class slob and for the author to flex some muscles to figure out how to make the happy ending between a Rat Catcher and a Lady work.  OH NOES!!!!  Let's just make him the long lost heir to a Dukedom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Am I being too hard on this book?  It was written in 1999, published by a major publisher who probably loved the fairy tale ending.  But here's the thing - I don't think I am.  This was just as much of a cop-out 17 years ago as it is today.  I'm sorry, it is.  I want my romantic couple to have to work for their happy ending, not to just have a Dukedom conveniently fall in their laps from the sky.

All of which highlights some amazing (and sloppy storytelling) coincidences.  The Lamonts just happened to find Mick who just happened to be the Duke's long lost grandson and they all just happened to meet Lady Edwina, the Duke's distant, discarded cousin in a tea shop and she just happened to agree to their bet to polish him up.  So on and so forth.

And never mind that the Duke has no love for Edwina and basically calls her ugly and an idiot in front of Mick and HE SAYS NOTHING TO DEFEND HER!  After she's poured her soul out to Mick on how her family ignored her, belittled her and dismissed her her whole life.  No, Mick will just buy her a pretty dress and get back the house she grew up in for her and la de da.

Seriously.  I don't get it.

In fact I really don't get it because over the years one of the few criticisms I've read of this book is that Winnie is a "snob."

WELL OF COURSE SHE IS!!!!  She's a frickin' Lady who has been stuck in society her whole life.

But no mention is made of the mustache scene and the cop-out ending or the amazing coincidences that lead our characters on this whole merry chase.

I have no idea how to grade this one.  I'm so irritated by the glowing love for this book and my visceral reaction to it that this probably should be a D.  But the world-building is too good and the writing too solid for me in good conscience slap it with such a grade.  No matter how irritated I am.

Final Grade = C-


Mary said...

Oh god, I remember impulse buying this several years ago and not being able to finish it because of issues with Mick. I'm also a sucker for Pygmalion retellings I'm glad I didn't finish.

azteclady said...

Well, you are not the last romance reader to get around to this one--I haven't read it either. In fact, even though I've had at least one of Ms Ivory's novels in the ever growing TBR cordillera, I have yet to read anything by her.

With that said, that scene with the moustache shaving thing? It seems as if the author was playing it straight--way more historically accurate--by showing Edwina being upset, while most romances would use the scene to make it clear just how charming/seductive the hero is, and how the heroine will shed all her inhibitions for her twwwwuuuuu luuuuurrrrvveeee.

However, unless the author also showed Mick backing down, or at least understanding Edwina's point of view/sensibilities, then he's too much of an asshole for me to want to read to the end, and find out that he'll still get the girl, no matter how he hurts her.

Aside: see, unless I'm having a gigantic brain fart, in Pygmalion, there was no magical fixing for Eliza's birth. Of course it wasn't genre romance, but it still irks me that, in romance, we (the artificial totality of genre romance readers) seem to demand the fantasy end.

Second aside: which is another reason (I have a few) why I just couldn't with Heyer's These Old Shades. (Here, I'm pretty sure I stand alone--the praise for that one is nigh universal)

Lynne Connolly said...

Oh, sisters in spirit! I have never said anything about this book before. I enjoyed most of it and even the moustache thing, but when it got to the end, the bit about the long lost heir, I couldn't do it. It wasn't telegraphed, it just "happened."
If the lords had known, and this was their way of having fun (cruel fun but still...) that would have helped. Then the story would have made more sense.
I dunno. I do like some of Ivory's books, and they are beautifully written, but sometimes the plots are a bit off.

Lynne Connolly said...

In fact, the end was such a cop-out that I'm wondering if it was imposed on her.

Wendy said...

Mary: It's nice to hear someone else had issues with Mick. Any criticism I've ever seen on this book seems to be heaped on Edwina.

AL: So you bring up an excellent point, and I think my main issue is that Mick presses for far too long. It came off as totally obvious to me that she was terrified and yet he keeps after her. Eventually he does back down because they don't go "all the way" - but his continuing to press his advantage on her smacked of "let me take this Lady down a peg or two." And I honestly don't know if I got this impression because I consumed this book via audio or if I would have felt the same had I read the book the old fashioned way.

Lynne: OMG, YES! It TOTALLY comes out of left field. I almost slammed the brakes on my car and screamed "You have to be effing kidding me!!!" But I restrained myself.

And now you've got me wondering - because it was SO out of left field, with no major bread crumbs sprinkled during the first half of the book....could it have been imposed upon her? Hmmmmmmmmm.

nath said...

You're not the last one to read it. I haven't either!

The ending would have been a cop-out in 1999, but more "acceptable" I feel. I think that 17 years later, after the numbers of historical or just plain romance books we've read, we are more critical. I just have a feeling we wouldn't have felt as strongly. Plus, I think if it was written nowadays, it would have been better incorporated. Or probably, Mick wouldn't have been kidnapped as a toddler, but probably set out as a teen to be a rat catcher to rebel LOL.

I do like Pygmalion stories too, but good ones are hard to come by :(

Kathryn said...

I read this book but around the time it came out so my memories of it are dim. Ivory's books were hit or miss for me back when she was writing and so I only finished a handful.

I agree her prose was great. She wrote vivid characters, but the problem was I often did not like her H or H and did not see much self-awareness or character growth. And who wants to spend time reading a romance about people that you think are shallow or self-centered, no matter how will written they are?

I'm not sure that the ending would be less acceptable now than in 1999. But now it would be better signaled -- the story would probably be much much more a fantasy, set in history-lite version of England where the characters sound and act in a modern manner, but wear 19th-century costumes.

It definitely sounds like part of the problem with ending is that it doesn't match the feel of the rest of story.

I also want to note the in Shaw wrote a sort of essay sequel to Pygmalion where he strongly argues that Liza and Henry Higgins do not marry mostly because Liza recognizes that she would always only come in 2nd place in Higgins' affections and she was not interested in that. So she marries Freddy and Higgins remains a friend and mentor. Maybe Shaw's right that it's difficult for Pygmalion stories to end up as love stories.

Wendy said...

Nath: I think there's a lot of truth in what you say: "after the numbers of historical or just plain romance books we've read, we are more critical." I also think I need to stop trying to listen to romance on audio. Common enough things that are easier to slide past me while I'm reading are harder to ignore when I'm listening (I'm listening to a romance right now that I think I'd love - but the fact that the heroine is written like A Precious Snowflake compared to the women the hero usually "consorts" with is getting on my last damn nerve.)

Kathryn: And that's the trick with Pygmalion stories. I love them, but in order for me to buy into the romance I need to see that character growth - otherwise the "lower class" character is always going to be at a perceived disadvantage to the "upper crust" character.

Ivory could (presumably still can!) write - but the older I get the more I realize that I'm not a Good Writing Saves All sort of reader. Just as good plotting and interesting characters won't save bad writing for me. I apparently need the whole enchilada.