It's Not Always Thursday

Barrett's Hill - Anne Stuart
”I need no one’s excuses,” I snapped. “My conduct is my own responsibility.” I turned and flounced off, hoping he would stop me.

Whoever came up with #throwbackthursday, I have a feeling this is your fault.

I suppose there are things in our past we’d like to openly reminisce in the interwebz. There’s that godawful photo of you sporting The Rachel haircut, wearing burgundy lipstick, a baby doll dress and DMs in a Four Non-Blondes concert that will always invite shared nostalgia and embarrassed laughter. And if you’re Britney you have this…

And the laughter just dies altogether.

I’m really having a hard time being critical about this book because I imagine this meant to rouse some sentimentality from die-hard Anne Stuart fans to the effect of seeing where everything began. To be fair, I’ve always enjoyed her books to some degree and I think she has a very distinct style… but in Britney parlance, this move feels a little like that head-shaving incident: it happened but shall never be spoken of. EVER AGAIN.

Set in the 1800s, Barrett’s Hill is told solely from the perspective of its heroine Miranda, a self-confessed “termagant, shrew and feminist” who have acquired a small fortune from her recently deceased father. In his desire to have the last laugh, she and her money has been left in the trusteeship of her cousin, the Reverend Kurlew Smathers in Vermont. Packaged into this new life forced into her, is her cousin’s repugnant assistant, Fathimore Wilby, who has taken a liking to her; Kurlew’s perennially soused wife, Elinor and their vapid daughter, Maxine; and an unsolved murder mystery that has involved her inherited family and, because it’s an Anne Stuart book, the enigmatic and insolently handsome Adam Traywick. Expectedly, he was a little stalker-y creepy with a vile background that leads him to be Miranda’s prime suspect and object of lust.

As old secrets begin to be unearthed anew, threatening Miranda’s life, she has to find the murderer among this strange new family she’s acquired before she falls prey as his or her next victim. 

It’s quite hard to be critical of a novel with Dear Gentle Reader as the opening words in the author’s note. Even more since this was written back in the 70s as a fan fiction for some obscure 60s TV series, so the political correctness of certain dialogues, plot points and observations is understandably and expectedly different from what I am used to right now. 

Which is I think the sole reason I managed to finish this.

Because at the heart of the choppy and repetitive plot, the shoddily constructed mystery and lack of any direction in the storytelling was a heroine that is so poorly formed that seeing the story unfold through her eyes became physically painful. Miranda’s probably reflective of what is widely perceived an independent and strong female lead character from the 19th century would be… in the 70s.

How can anyone reading that in 2014 derive any form of joy from that level of abstraction?!

But apart from that, Miranda is a ball of contradicting values: self-confident to borderline arrogant in one chapter then insecure of her plainness the next. This was made more stark by that hideously devised feud between her and Maxine over Adam’s affections which made her rather pathetic, petty and childish. 

I silently promised myself one thing: Maxine was not going to have him. If I had to tie her up and stuff her in a closet she wasn’t going to have him.

The narrative was unforgivably repetitive, with awkward transitions between scenes of ice skating, a Christmas Party, a New Year’s Party and some more ice-related shenanigans. These seem to only serve as obvious excuses for Miranda to display her (not really) charming eccentricities and force a (not really) sexually-charged encounter between Miranda and Adam poorly devised to have him chasing after her. Or worse Miranda getting swept in Adam’s arms to have a make out scene that will get inevitably interrupted by someone. I haven’t seen an allegedly strong, independent heroine get saved or devise ploys to have herself saved as much as Miranda did.

For the past two months I hadn’t been able to do anything without imagining Adam there with me. Every solitary walk, every afternoon spent reading in the study, every waking moment, all were spent with a subconscious desire to be interrupted. And then if by chance I was, I would turn around and be as spiteful and nasty as I could before I ran away.

Whatever evolution this character had was introduced way too little too late unfortunately. 

When the plot was not busy being offensive (Fathimore attempts to rape Miranda and this was not an issue AT ALL in the book, no aftermath to speak of whatsoever, WTF?!) it preoccupies itself with making very little sense. I mean, here’s a radical idea: a little polish and editing? At least maybe not make the characters seem like they’re suffering from short term amnesia or Alzheimer’s? 

There was this point at the end where Elinor confesses to Miranda that it was Fathimore who stabbed Carly, then a chapter over, when Miranda relays this to Adam they were wondering who it was who stabbed and ended up killing Carly. 

(show spoiler)

As of writing, Anne Stuart has 142 distinct works in Goodreads. Any of the 141 will be a better choice than this. 

Review Copy courtesy of the publishers.