Review & Author Interview – The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

I work at a college of science and engineering, and I am surrounded by folk who understand the world as a set of mathematical equations or as a great engineering problem requiring a creative solution or as a fabric woven of nano particles, elements, and covalent bonds.  Sometimes it amuses me to think of all these students and faculty using the power of science and math to make sense of the world – often to attempt to make sense of one another – within a hundred yards of where I sit.  I am not terribly scientific; narratives move me, and I’m rather stuck in my own humanity.  People are interesting to me, and the things people create — literature, music, art, politics, discord, destruction — drive my imagination and rivet my interest.

I loved another of Marguerite Kaye’s books, and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to read this one for review.  The Beauty Within is a blending of two ways of looking at the world – through the lens of art and the lens of mathematics – and it knocked my socks off.

Cover image, The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

First up, the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – Considered the plain, clever one in her family, Lady Cressida Armstrong knows her father has given up on her ever marrying. But who needs a husband when science is the only thing to set Cressie’s pulse racing?

Disillusioned artist Giovanni di Matteo is setting the ton abuzz with his expertly executed portraits. Once his art was inspired; now it’s only technique. Until he meets Cressie….

Challenging, intelligent and yet insecure, Cressie is the one whose face and body he dreams of capturing on canvas. In the enclosed, intimate world of his studio, Giovanni rediscovers his passion as he awakens hers….

Review

When I read The Beauty Within, I was struck by how subversive it is to traditional gender roles and societal norms.  Cressie is a brilliant mathematician who is disinclined to place her fate in a man’s hands; her stepmother Bella, while fully embracing the female role of the time (lie back, think of England, make plenty of male babies), digs in and demands the right to have authority over her reproductive healthcare.  Giovanni is intimately and personally aware of how degrading sex can be when mixed with commerce and how destructive it is to feel that others may have ownership of one’s own body.  Although the focus of Kaye’s writing is always on the characters and how they develop individually and together, these nuances add greater depth to the story and increased my enjoyment of it.  I always love a good love story, but I love one even better if it makes me think and broadens my understanding of the world.  The Beauty Within is just such a book.

This book exists at the crossroads between art and mathematics, two of the languages we can use to describe the beauty of the world.  The story, while a bit episodic, unfolds over a series of painting sessions that result in three paintings using Cressie as the subject.  Cressie and Giovanni both evolve apace with the paintings, each coming into a fuller understanding and acceptance of his or her self, each coming into a fuller appreciation of the beauty within the other.  Kaye’s writing is layered and rich and a little bit decadent, and I can’t wait to read more.  (You should, too!)

Interview with Marguerite Kaye

While I could have written at least a thousand words about this book, how much I loved it, and how I think folk should drop whatever they’re doing and go buy it, that would make for a very long blog post (too long).  Besides, I am very pleased to include an interview with Marguerite in this post, especially because her answers to my random smattering of questions are so engaging.

1.  RwA:  You mention in your historical note that Cressie is based–at least in part–on Ada Lovelace.  What about her life and history inspired you to base a character on her?

Kaye:  I first read Benjamin Woolley’s biography of Ada, Bride of Science, a number of years ago. Ada’s mother, Annabella Milbanke, endured a miserable marriage to Lord Byron, and dreaded her daughter’s inheriting Byron’s artistic temperament and wild, impulsive nature. As a result poor Ada was raised subject to a strict disciplinary regime and an education steeped in logic and reason. I was intrigued by the consequences such an upbringing might have on someone’s personality, and why, unlike Ada, a person might willingly turn to mathematics and science as a sort of antidote to their life. Cressie’s life was turned upside down when her mother died, and then her two elder sisters left home. She turns to numbers, theories, proofs, because they are dependable, they won’t ever let her down. But of course love is one of the most illogical things it’s possible to experience. It can’t be explained, it can’t be rationalised, and emotions are notoriously unreliable. And if you add into the equation an artist, a man who appears to be the antithesis of all Cressie believes in, you’ve got the basis for a very eventful romantic journey indeed.

2.  RwA: How did you conduct your research for this book, particularly your art history research?

Kaye:  Right from the outset, I saw this book very clearly as a sort of contest between art/beauty on one side and reason/logic on the other. I wanted the paintings to define the structure of the story and to reflect the developing relationship between Cressie and Giovanni. The various portraits demonstrate the way their relationship changes their understanding – he of her, her of herself – but I also wanted to show how Giovanni’s art was changed by his feelings for Cressie. At the start, he’s a highly accomplished, much sought-after portrait painter, but his paintings are glossy, perfect and in his eyes facile. By the end of the book, his paintings are much more ‘impressionistic’ and emotional and therefore ‘true’, though he’s not, in the historical sense, an Impressionist since he pre-dates that particular art movement.

I saw the romance as consisting of three stages, which suggested, in artistic terms, a triptych to me. I’m personally always fascinated by the triptych form, which is used quite a lot by one of my favourite artists, the Scottish painter John Bellany. I am not in any way artistic myself so I had to do quite a bit of research on early-19th century painting methods and materials. The portraits that Giovanni paints are all based on real works that I was familiar with, and which I chose because they matched the change in Cressie wrought by her relationship with Giovanni. My working title for the book was actually The Three Faces of Lady Cressida. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you can find them all on my Pinterest board for the book.

 3.  RwA: I love that your books include some exotic locales — what are some of your favorite geographic areas to write about?  Does your writing change when you change story locations?  Do you ever get to travel in the name of research?

Kaye:  Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of travelling in the name of research – how I wish I could afford to – so I have to rely on my imagination plus a bit of personal knowledge. Aside from my sheikh books, all of my stories are set in places that are familiar to me. I love invoking ambiance, I love incorporating buildings, names, scenery that I love, into my stories. When I’m writing anything set in Scotland, I do find that my style changes because I know it so well. I want to make readers love it as I do, I want them to say, I’d love to visit there – though I do worry sometimes that I sound like a tourist guide! Funnily enough, my sheikh books are often picked out as the most colourful in terms of ambiance, and though I’ve done a deal of research into what the Nineteenth Century Arabian world might have been like, I’ve never been there. Maybe it’s because my home is in one of the wettest parts of Scotland that I can let my imagination run riot when it comes to the sultry heat of the desert.

4.  RwA: I’ve been seeing some headlines lately about romance as feminism, and I wonder if you’d be interested in weighing in on the matter.  Is the romance genre necessarily feminist, being written primarily for women, about women, or is that generalization a bit too broad?  Do you consider your books to be feminist? (I certainly think so, which counts as a compliment from me.)

Kaye:  Difficult one. I write romances because at heart I’m a romantic. I would also consider myself a feminist, though I confess not such an ardent one as I was in my twenties. I write about strong women who take control of their own lives, and who find that love strengthens them and completes them. My heroines would survive on their own if required, they’re not clinging vines, and the relationship between hero and heroine is very much a meeting of equals, though not necessarily in an economic sense (which would be almost impossible, in terms of historical accuracy). My heroines find their happy ever after on their own terms, which don’t necessarily conform to what society requires of them, they are true to themselves first and foremost, and they instinctively rebel against boundaries set by other people. In that sense, which is pretty much my own personal idea of feminism, then they are feminist. But I would be hesitant about claiming any overtly feminist political purpose for my stories because that’s not why I write them.

RwA: (This topic is just too interesting for me to keep out of it…) Oddly enough, what struck me as most feminist about this book was the very lack of any overt feminist political purpose.  Your focus, in the writing, remains on the characters, their development, and the development of love between them — but each character’s acceptance of certain ideas (that Cressie can, despite her non-male status, excel at mathematics; that Lord Armstrong is wrong to so undervalue his daughters and wrong to be so unconcerned about their futures; that Cressie may have a life and a value all her own and may have the choice of how to spend that life), while never drawing the focus of the story, affirms the basic principles of feminism in an understated, and therefore more powerful, way.  This book presents a picture of how the world could look if we stopped seeing feminism as the opposite of patriarchy and instead saw it as a truly egalitarian perspective.

 5.  RwA: What are some of your upcoming and/or recently released projects?

Kaye:  Rumours that Ruined a Lady is the story of Cressie’s younger sister Caroline, and will be out in November. It deals with a very common situation – a woman in the ‘wrong’ marriage –  at a time when divorce was not only extremely rare but almost guaranteed to make a social leper of the woman, no matter how ‘innocent’. Caro is the dutiful sister, the only one to marry the man her father chose for her, but things have gone very badly awry indeed for her – so badly, that the book opens with Caro unconscious and near death in an opium den…

I’m currently working on a trilogy of linked novellas set during the First World War to be released next year, the centenary of the commencement of the Great War. It’s a tragic period in world history but also epoch-changing, which is why it provides such a fascinating backdrop against which romance might flourish. The effect of war on society generally is a theme that runs through many of my books, but the scale of this particular war, the suffering of civilians as well as those doing the fighting, the pace of change, both social and technological, are almost overwhelming. It’s a bit of a challenge (serious understatement!) to write believable romances without detracting from the harsh reality of the war, and I’d certainly say it’s my most taxing project yet, but then I say that about every one of my books!

6.  RwA: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in any recent research?

Kaye:  Researching the Great War, one of the things I discovered was that the horrific injures suffered by soldiers on both sides forced the medical profession into trying out some radical solutions. A sculptor was employed in one British hospital to make masks for men whose faces were beyond repair, for example. In Lyn MacDonald’s amazing book, The Roses of No Man’s Land, I read that blood transfusions were introduced to British and French field hospitals by a team from Harvard. They required the donor and donee to be placed together in the same operating theatre and involved a warm flask and rubber tubing. Primitive stuff to us, but they saved countless lives.

Once again, I want to thank Marguerite for her graciousness in participating in this interview.  You can bet that I’ll be picking up Rumors that Ruined a Lady, and I’m very interested in reading her romances set against The Great War and will be keeping an eye out for them.  The Beauty Within was released on April 23, 2013 as an e-book and mass market by Harlequin Historical.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Marguerite Kaye, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-book ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.*

Is reality beautiful, or is it just too real?

Y’all know how I feel about romance novels (unless you’re new to this blog and have no idea, in which case, let me tell you: when they are done well, I love them, and when they are done poorly, I hate them with the burning intensity of a thousand suns; in other words, I have a fitting passion for the romance genre), but there are some aspects common to most romance novels that just burn my butt.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the way breasts are handled (ahem) in romance novels.  I think it’s still accurate to say that most readers of romance novels are women.  Most women have breasts.  Why, then, do authors need to describe breasts in minute detail?  There is some variation of description, sure; sometimes the breasts in question are ‘coral tipped globes’ and sometimes they are ‘creamy orbs,’ but they are almost always “perfectly formed” or otherwise “perfect.”  Just once I would like to read a romance novel that describes the heroine’s breasts as “uneven” or “lopsided” or ” a bit droopy.”  Honestly, if we must describe breasts, can’t we at least be realistic about the business?  It’s not as though it actually matters what the breasts look like, anyway.  Men are going to look regardless.

An engraving by W. Ridgway (published in 1878) after Daniel Huntington’s 1868 painting ”Philosophy and Christian Art’,’ U.S. public domain

I went on a bit of a reading binge this week and plowed through Tessa Dare’s Twice Temped by a Rogue, Courtney Milan’s Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed and Unraveled and Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton.  5 of those 6 books use the word “perfect” or “perfection” in describing either the whole of the heroine’s bosom or some aspect of her bosom (her skin, her nipples, etc.).

I know… I’m being silly.  I enjoyed all six books immensely – those three authors represent some of the best talent in the romance genre today – but by the time I got to the sixth book (The Amorous Education), I found myself distracted by the heroine’s “well-shaped and pert, and practically perfect” breasts.  I longed for both variety and reality.

So this is my question: can reality be beautiful?  There’s the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that beholder’s eye is shaped by her culture.  Our culture celebrates artificial beauty: the shellac of makeup, the pastiche of Photoshop.  Women are bombarded with images of ideal beauty, most of which are manufactured in some way.

The romance novels that I enjoy are ones that celebrate women, that give commentary on some of the issues that are of import to women, that celebrate an active and confident sexuality, that break down double standards, that promote healthy relationships with an even balance of power, that are, at their core, rather feminist when you get right down to it.  Is it too pie-in-the-sky for me to hope to encounter, at some point, a book that, in addition to all of these traits, embraces a tad more realism in its physical descriptions (or, better: leaves off the detailed breasty descriptions altogether.  If I need to know what a breast looks like, I can just look down.)?  Does anyone have a good theory as to why there are so many detailed descriptions of lady parts (breasty and otherwise) in books primarily marketed to women?

Check out my guest post on Beauty in Budget Blog!

That’s me… If I see a camera pointed my way, I naturally make that face. It really bugs my Grandpa.  As an aside, I think that’s Joan Didion’s The White Album in my hand.

I’m not very good at taking care of my appearance… it all started with school uniforms, and by the time I got to public school, I didn’t recognize the difference between fashion and crazy.  Who was wearing lace-edged leggings three years past the fad?  I was!  Who was wearing pedal pushers five years before they got cool?  I was! (To be honest, they weren’t actually pedal pushers… they were regular jeans that were just way too short on me because I hit my growth spurt in 6th and 7th grades and grew 11 inches over the two school years… my inseams just couldn’t keep up.)  I sort of gave up on being hip or even marginally attractive.

That’s me in the middle, trying to pretend to be 5’4″ (I was actually 6’0″). I was 13, and I had really bad allergies.

Thank God for my friend Teresa, who has never accepted that slovenly homeliness is the best I can do.  And she’s right.  It really does feel good to take a tiny bit of care when selecting my clothing in the morning, and if I still can’t be bothered to brush or style my hair (employing, instead, the ubiquitous floppy pony tail… it ain’t pretty, but whatever), at least I’m moving in the right direction with my sartorial care.  Thank God also that Teresa started her blog about makeup, because I use it as an excellent and entertaining ‘how to be a girl’ reference manual.

And now I can add another plume to my sparsely feathered cap: Teresa has allowed me to write a guest review of e.l.f.’s Lip Balm SPF 15.  Please click on over to Beauty in Budget Blog (right here) to see the review and check out all the amazing advice on drugstore makeup: what’s available, what it costs, and whether it’s worth it.  I love this blog.

God = Love = God, ad infinitum

I’ve been thinking about–I’m hesitant to call it religion, but I guess that’s close enough–religion a lot lately, so I suppose it’s time for another post about it.  I’m not sure what the consolations of religion are for other people–I suspect that it’s different for everyone–but there are definitely consolations for me, and they vary from day-to-day, week-to-week.  The primary consolation, though, is always that my practice of religion helps me stay focused on love, on being loving, kind, generous, and understanding.  It helps me stay compassionate, and I’m happiest in that state.  Looking around at the world, though, I have to admit that there are a lot of people out there who don’t get that sort of thing out of their religion.  They get judgment or anger or a sense of righteousness (paradoxically without actually being righteous…), and I have a difficult time comprehending how all of that could be personally fulfilling.

If we basically get to decide what kind of god we want to believe in–and with the vast menu of church and non-church options available to us, we pretty much do–what does it say about us if we choose to believe in a god who’s a total asshole?  Does anyone really want to be the person who believes that God hates whole sections of the society he supposedly created in love?  Doesn’t it rather take away from the “God so loved the world…” message if he only loved certain parts of the world, but the others can just go to hell?  I just don’t get it.  If love is really the crux of the whole thing, why do we humans get so unbearably focused on hate?

Perhaps I just answered my own question: maybe love isn’t always the crux of the whole thing.  I mean, it is to me, but that’s my choice.

I love it when poetry (because hymns are poetry) sums up what I feel in a manner far more beautiful than I could ever manage.  Here’s the text of the second verse of one of my favorite hymns (“God is love, let heaven adore him” from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982):

 God is love; and love enfolds us
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.

That’s the God I believe in, and maybe it’s all delusion on my part–I’m OK with that, actually–but I’d rather delude myself to believe that beauty and love exist in the world than to believe that all is an awful ugliness.  I know life isn’t nearly as simple as that, and there are as many reasons not to believe in God as there are reasons to do so, but wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple?

Claremont the beautiful

Southern California is not generally known for its beautiful skies.  During the summer, I often cannot see the foothills that are, you will notice, not very far away.  Smog collects against the hills, bringing close, hot, awful days and stunningly beautiful sunsets.  During spring and autumn, however, the two quasi-seasons (for we don’t really have seasons here, at least not proper ones) during which we experience the blessed, if brief, kiss of rain, the smog is occasionally washed away.  Immediately following a rain storm, the clouds begin to break apart to allow the clear, blue sky to show through the cracks.

After the rains, Claremont, CA

If we are very lucky, huge, puffy, white clouds will stick around for a few hours.  I like these clouds because they seem so full of promise.  On those summer days when it is over 100 degrees and the air is dreadfully still, we will often get these huge white (ish… they appear slightly brown when viewed through the smoggy haze) thunderheads burgeoning up behind the mountains, but they are so far away.  The puffy clouds after a rain are close, almost touchable, and are somehow comforting compared to those sinister-seeming thunderheads.  Puffy clouds mean no harm.  One can appreciate their beauty without having to consider the wild, untamed, stark, often violent beauty of nature.

Clouds and construction, together at last.

The picture below shows my favorite thing about huge, white clouds: billowy, blindingly white mottled with lovely shades of gray and blue and pink.

It’s supposed to rain again tonight, so I’m looking forward to more days of beautiful skies.

The Liberation of Alice Love and why I bought makeup and painted my nails

Cover image, The Liberation of Alice Love by Abby McDonald

I finished reading this book last week, and I really liked it (with a few reservations).  It’s about a woman whose identity is stolen–along with a whole heap of money–by someone she knows.  Once she discovers the theft and gets over the initial shock and grief, Alice goes on the hunt for clues to how she could have been so blind and who that person was, really.  Along the way, she discovers that expensive lingerie can actually make her feel better about herself, that clothes that fit and flatter are a worthy investment, and that no life is truly safe from calamity.  She also discovers that lying is destructive to relationships and that it’s ok to go on a journey of self-discovery as long as you eventually end up discovering something and calling it a day.

I promised at the beginning of this venture that I wouldn’t do a review blog–there are plenty already out there that do that job much better than I ever could, including my two favorite book blogs, http://lifeand100books.com/ and http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ –but I might as well give in to the temptation to mention a few items that stuck out.

1.  It drives me wonky when folk use words that contain unnecessary syllables.  Hey, “preventative”: I’m talking about you.  “Preventive” isn’t good enough, is it?  No, you’ve got to add another silly syllable in there for shits and giggles.  Well, in this book, Alice doesn’t “orient” herself after stepping out of the Tube station; she “orientates” herself.  And after a rather confusing run-in with the Law (in Italy, no less), Alice is “disorientated” rather than “disoriented.”  Maybe it’s a Brit thing?  Anyway, it was distracting to me.

2.  The ending…  This book had a very Jane Austen a la Northanger Abbey type of ending.  It was as though McDonald just got tired of writing this story and figured she might as well just be done with it.  Maybe I just read too many romance novels, but I found the lack of closure very annoying.

OK, review over.

While I was reading the book, I didn’t completely identify with the main character.  I’m a bit of a control-freak, sure, but I don’t organize my life with the sole purpose of being safe, of being steady.  Alice Love is steady to an unusual degree, and the result is that most of her friends and family take advantage of her all the time.  That doesn’t exactly explain my situation (I’m usually the one taking advantage).  What did resonate with me about this book was Alice’s discovery of her own femininity and the power that is connected to it.  While tracking down the thief, Alice discovers that the woman used Alice’s money to purchase a whole lot of self-indulgent items: fancy lingerie, crazy jeweled dildos (Hi Mom!), beautiful clothes, etc.  Once Alice gets some money back from the bank, she starts buying these items for herself and is able to discover that her formerly stable, safe life was really missing something.

There’s a little teaser line, an attention grabber, on the cover of the book.  “Whose life are you living?”  Throughout the book, Alice slowly discovers that she life she led before the identity theft wasn’t actually sufficient, and she starts to lead new lives until she (maybe?) settles on one–the ending is a bit ambiguous, but I like to believe that she picked a good one.

I had two kids somewhat recently, and I sort of let myself go.  I lost all the preggo weight, but I was still wearing maternity shirts because I couldn’t be bothered to shop for clothes, and my hair had gotten grown-out and crazy, and I never wore makeup.  For a year now, I’ve looked really terrible, because I just haven’t put any effort or energy into looking good.  Hairy legs, caterpillar brows, bags under the eyes, awful toe-nails… it’s a whole package of yucky, and it’s just sad that I’ve been so content to wallow in it for so long.  Whose life was I living?  When I really lay it all out to look at it clearly, the answer’s not a great one.

While I was reading this book, I got to thinking: I used to wear bras that fit and underpants that weren’t falling apart; I used to shave my legs and pluck my eyebrows… why did I stop?  When I look in the mirror, do I ever actually feel pretty?  Don’t I want to feel pretty?  So I went out and bought new underpants (a lot of new underpants), a slew of new bras.  I painted my nails.  I bought makeup, and I even put it on occasionally.  I’ve been attempting to keep my hair under control.  I’ve been shaving my legs a tad more often (it’s such a pain…).  And do you know what?  I feel better.  I feel happier, more female in all the good ways, more relaxed, prettier.

The Liberation of Alice Love is not the only impetus to this random beauty revolution… I also got some great advice from a wonderful friend (and fellow blogger: http://beautyinbudgetblog.wordpress.com/) that forced me to consider some of the motives behind my purposeful dumpiness (Thank you!).  But even though it wasn’t the only reason I’ve decided to kick them nasty thoughts, the book helped to solidify my objective and was entertaining to boot.  If we’ve a mind to pay attention, even silly chick-lit can change our lives for the better.

On a quasi-related note, does anyone else find it annoying that books written by women with female main characters are always considered chick-lit?  Does anyone else find it annoying that chick-lit is always considered silly and shallow?  If a man had written this book about a male character, even with the exact same story elements and character traits, it wouldn’t be called chick-lit.