What happens when an author names her hero Truman? The obvious. Her reader has the plain, geeky, tight-lipped 33rd U.S. president floating in her head as she tries tries tries to conjure the magically engrossing experience that reading a romance novel brings. A woeful, bespectabled, steel-haired figure intrudes into the narrative space. Thus it was with Brenda Novak’s Through the Smoke and her strangely-dubbed hero, Truman. There might be an allegory there, you say? Truman Stranhope, Earl of Druridge, is a True Man, a loyal man, a good man, a steadfast and loving man? Actually, as Miss Bates argues below, more a nonentity.
In her note to the reader, Novak says that her girlhood reading of Jane Eyre informs her return to historical romance, “I love the gothic feel, the air of mystery and … the heart-pounding romance.” Indeed, Miss Bates recognizes that Jane-Eyrean elements are in Through the Smoke: a mysterious hall named Blackmoor, a fire, a scarred hero, the nefarious wife-figure, an ingenue heroine true to her convictions and spunk-full, the cross-class nature of the protagonists’ relationship … even the housekeeper privy to the socially transgressive affair of hero and heroine. It’s all there. And, Miss Bates’ expectations rode high … as she willed herself not to flinch every time she read the hero’s name.
Her expectations were resoundingly dashed by the end of chapter five, but she stuck it out to the bitter end. Though not thoroughly derivative, Through the Smoke‘s plot is initially Jane-Eyre-promising. Set on the “northeast coast of England” in 1840, Truman Stanhope, Earl of Druridge, and bookstore-owner and collier’s daughter, Rachel McTavish, had potential. Truman’s life had been on a precarious course with his cheating wife’s death in a fire that he is accused of setting. Nevertheless, in the two years since, he has not been arrested … most peculiar; but his former in-laws are bound and determined to do so … unless he can prove that the mysterious theft of two Brueghels were the cause of the fire that took his wife’s life and not his cuckolded self. Why he hasn’t been arrested is convoluted and confusing. Yet, it sets up the plot and provides fodder for many many pages of mystery-solving, “he could eventually see through the smoke that clouded the truth, he would know, at last, whether his soul had been worth the fight.” Miss Bates wishes she’d been able to see through the smoke of this novel.
What of our heroine? How does the earl cross classes to encounter her fair self? It appears that Rachel’s father, a man who worked in the Earl’s coal mine, received a large sum of money, purportedly to set the fire. But Rachel is adamant that her father was not involved. When her mother’s illness and death, and her subsequent destitute state force her to seek the Earl’s help, they meet face to face and, even though they are on opposite sides of the social spectrum, attraction is evident! But much prevents Rachel from admitting her feelings: her father’s and brother’s death in the Earl’s coal mine, her mother’s illness and their reduced circumstances … and her sympathies for the unionizing efforts of the miners.
Rachel’s mother ran a bookstore, the only one for miles around, and Rachel has taken over. While the men and women of Creswell were toiling in the mines, Rachel taught herself French and penmanship. Really, it’s a bit much, the reconciling of the miners’ misery and danger-filled lives with the la-di-da miss who doth protest a lot, all the while dusting bookshelves. Though Victorian England saw movements such as those suggested in the novel, this aspect was flimsy, lacking in substance. When the union organizers turn into caricaturish villains, even the final scene’s redemption of one of them cannot save this aspect of the narrative.
And what of our Earl, Truman, and Rachel? Other than machinating union organizers, there is a scheming cousin to the Earl, Wythe. Again with the weird names; his sounds like a river. He drugs Rachel and deposits her in Truman’s bed after suggesting that, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, she shares her “favours” at Elspeth’s, the local bawdy-house. A bizarro love scene ensues with the heroine’s head and eyes rolling back from the laudanum; nevertheless, Truman and Rachel make love, overcome by passion … and when Truman realizes he’s “deflowered” her (gosh, MissB. hates that word), he’s overwhelmed by remorse. Really, he’s pretty nice about it and makes every effort to “take care” of Rachel. The two spend the rest of this endless novel saving Truman from the noose and Rachel from the villagers and unionists and Wythe’s wrath, also falling in love, sharing a bed …
Miss Bates did not have much patience for this novel, especially after the “deflowering” scene. It is adeptly written and clips along at a good pace. When Miss Bates starts talking about a romance novel’s pacing, you know she’s damning it with faint praise. The gist of the matter is that there’s nothing here for the reader to feel. It sets up all the beloved gothic elements, as if there’s a checklist, and then assumes that, by inserting the right ingredients, a perfect dish will emerge from the oven. It doesn’t.
Through the Smoke is functional: it contains all the right actions, says and does all the right things, but exhibits none of the sentiments. Novak functions like a puppet-master, manipulating the strings, moving her figures just so … but up close and personal, the puppets’ eyes are glazed and faces expressionless. There is something utterly lifeless about this novel. It’s disappointing because it had potential: the mining town, the union organizers, the broody hero, the mad-wife, the spunky, bookish heroine. These elements are either left behind, or altered to fit every derivative romantic suspense novel you’ve ever read.
Miss Bates feels a bit of a martyr for having stuck with it till the end and even for writing this review, but at least she can say to her readers that, in the case of Through the Smoke, there’s nothing here for you but “rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Mansfield Park.
Through the Smoke was released on Oct. 15 by Montlake Romance and is available for purchase in the usual places and formats. Miss Bates is grateful to the publisher for an e-ARC via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Miss Bates hated Truman’s name: she found it intrusive and annoying. What heroes’ names have you read that have elicited a similar reaction and why?