Misfortune by Wesley Stace
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: January 1st, 2005
Format: Paperback, 560 Pages
A young baby boy is being thrown out with the trash. Unwanted and alone a chance of fate has him picked up by the richest Lord in the land, Lord Loveall. Lord Loveall has been mourning all his life for his dear departed sister and when he sees this baby he assumes it to be female and a chance to have his sister back. But Lord Loveall can't just miraculously have an heir, a quick marriage is arranged with his sister's old governess, Anonyma, who has stayed on as librarian at Love Hall to catalog the works of her icon, the poetess Mary Day. Anonyma agrees to raising "Rose" female because the poetess had some interesting theories on gender and Anonyma sees it as an experiment. For many years they are able to keep up this farce, until one day the world crashes down on them and Rose can no longer hide who he is.
The familial vultures swoop in to claim what they have always lusted after. A scandal would be so unbecoming, so Anonyma withdraws... what does she have now that Rose has fled? Rose left in the night without a trace, unable to face what he is. Through awkward sexual awakenings, near death fever dreams, chance encounters, and a twist that you hopefully won't see coming, Rose embraces the odd life that he has been given in this strange world and the companions in his journey who truly love him.
Misfortune is a Dickensian tale with at LGBTQ mindset. Full of interesting incestuous characters I felt that it never quite lived up to it's full potential due to the shifting narrative that, in the end, opted for a shorter, sleeker, story with annoying time jumps, instead of becoming a book of true Dickensian girth. Now I'm not saying that I wanted every detail on Rose's debauched journey to Turkey, but covering such an expanse of time as a fever dream seemed indulgent of the author. In fact, that might be the crux of my problem, the modern sensibilities thrust into this Victorian age by Stace's whim alienates me from the story. Stace says in an interview in the back of the book that he didn't want to be drawn into the trappings of the time period, a carriage is a carriage, not a barouche, not a gig. By having Misfortune be a modern book set in the past he seems to be wanting to make the book more of a post modern statement piece then a quality read.
By breaking convention he is writing a book that will appeal more to those who have never read Dickens or historical fiction while leaving those of us who love 19th century literature and period pieces cold. Coupled with the fact that he pulls a complete Dickensian HEA that was obvious from page one, his tendency to use some literary tropes and abandon others just goes to show that he was gratifying himself instead of his audience, plus exactly HOW was Rose to inherit... she being a she? Many such little questions bothered me throughout. Though my biggest problem with the book that has nothing to do with Stace might just be a side effect of this lack of interest in the historical details. This problem being that the cover illustration shows clothes incorrect to 1820. Yes, I know I should let this go, but the thing is, I remember the day I picked up this book on a table in Barnes and Noble and it was those lovely Regency clothes that sold me on it...
Yet in the end, Rose is problematical to me. Firstly, the sheer self centered delusions indulged by her parents scares the shit out of me. That two adults could contrive to raise a boy as a girl is just wrong to me. I know in this day and age there are a lot of people who talk about wanting to raise their children gender neutral so that they can come into their sexuality on their own. Personally, I think this is bullshit. It takes awhile for children to become aware of things, just look to Rose for an example, and by at least not setting down for them the basics, well, you are going to get one f'd up kid, again, look to Rose. Children need to understand the world around them in order to find their place, wherever that may be. By taking away Rose's knowledge of the world around her with regard to her body, that's just so many levels of wrong. At least her father Geoffroy has some excuse, obviously being insane, but Anonyma, the cold calculated way she sees changing her child's sex as an experiment just makes me want to slap her so hard. While yes, this does lead to some amusing situations, in the end, I felt such sorrow and pity for Rose that at times the book became hard to read.
But the collusion to keep this lie up. Gaw, the rage in me. Personally, the fact that they were able to pull it off for so long makes me a little awestruck. I personally don't see how they did it. I liked that they mentioned that all paintings with genitals shown were hidden, because that was a problem I really had. How, in an English Country House, with the great artwork that is usually in said houses, were they able to keep Rose in the dark? The secluded environment helped, but still, how? Recent studies have shown that people in the 19th century weren't so repressed sexually as we like to imagine. Yes the book has Anonyma lecturing a young Rose on what is private and what is public, and never stripping or lifting of skirts... but still... how? Rose was raised with two other children and they never once lifted a skirt or whipped it out of their pants? That is giving those kids some amazing, I would say unbelievable restraint. Were they sewn into their clothes? Because that's the only way I see this happening, otherwise, I just don't buy it. And if I can't buy this, well, then the book has a major flaw... or shall I just say, it's a flawed book?