So enough about pop music and the sublimity of the artist/audience connection, right? Let’s get back to discussing books about people falling in love. Men-type people, to be specific.
Here’s a confession unflattering to me: I’ve avoided M/M romance (that is, romance in which both protagonists are male, generally but not always targeted at the traditional – female – romance reader as opposed to a gay audience) because of certain preconceptions I had about the genre.
“These books are not for me,” I thought. “They’re for people who specifically want to read about Men Getting It On With Other Men, and therefore the plot, prose, and characterization will all be secondary to that novelty. Probably there will be just enough story to string from one sex scene to the next. And reading one will make me feel creepy-voyeuristic, and uncomfortable about the commodification of gay love for the consumption of straight female readers.”
(I warned you it wouldn’t flatter me.)
But a little while ago one of my favorite bloggers, Jessica of ReadReactReview, posted this review of Alex Beecroft’s False Colors. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard good things about this book – a naval adventure-romance set in 1762 – but Jessica zeroed in on the moral intricacy/moral heft of the story, and that hooked me in a way no other praise yet had. I ordered a copy.
And darned if it wasn’t just… magnificent. If I’ve ever read a better romance, I can’t recall it.
Book-reviewing isn’t in my skillset, so I would point you to the ReadReactReview review, which in turn will point you to a few others, for some comprehensive discussion on what made this book so good. Let me only point out a few things that particularly struck me:
The wealth of historical detail, and the integration of that detail, were breathtaking. I was convinced Beecroft knew her way around an 18th-century bomb ketch every bit as well as Melville knew his way around a 19th-century Nantucket whaler, and he had the advantage of personal experience!
The prose was meticulous and often exquisite, with attention paid to small moments in between the action-adventure and the progression of the romance. Here, early in the story, one of Our Heroes, Captain John Cavendish, is in the midst of some mundane task when he hears someone playing a flute below:
Resting his crowbar on his foot, John listened, enchanted, as the melody bundled together the sunshine and the spray, ran up into the sky with them and burst in a firework of notes. When the passage ended, John’s cheeks ached with a smile. Thank you, he addressed the empty horizon, and the Spirit who rested between earth and sky, God and man, life and death. Thank you for this moment; for the knowledge that you are here with me.
He’d thought the piece ended, but now it came again; a rush of notes like a dryad shaking out the leaves from her hair. Even the impulse to pray deserted him in the desire to laugh aloud for joy. Only the knowledge that the men would think him insane restrained him from doing so. Instead he padded down on carefully silent feet into the Meteor‘s one gun deck, stalking the music.
The flute-player is of course Our Other Hero, Lieutenant Alfie Donwell. John stands in the doorway to listen:
With a strong love of music, but raised in perfect ignorance on the subject, he could not think of anything intelligent to say. Nor would he have wished to interrupt the piece’s transcendence with mere speech. But its rushes of notes, and the long, strong passages in between, resonated through him like the power of a full spread of sail. As always, his ignorance and the enchantment combined to open up a world of light beneath John’s breastbone, to fill him with awe and incompleteness combined. A sweet torment; for if he was seeing angels dancing, he had not the wings to join in.
And here’s what was a novelty, a welcome one, for someone who’s only read M/F romance until now: Alfie knows from the beginning that he’s attracted to John, but John hasn’t yet recognized an attraction to any man, so there’s a nice buildup of scenes where they’re coming to know and respect each other as colleagues and possible friends, not potential romantic partners. (Because Alfie is decent enough to hang back and not try to push things.)
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. Because of male-female dynamics, you almost never see that kind of pure, unencumbered growth-of-regard in M/F romance. (When you do see it, it’s usually because one of the parties is masquerading as the opposite gender – witness the love-story in Disney’s Mulan, in which by the time the hero recognizes the heroine as a potential partner, the respect and admiration are already in place.)
(God, I loved Mulan. I remember telling my too-young-to-understand daughters, “This is the Disney movie I wished for when I was your age.”)
Digressing about Disney movies = rambling alert! The last thing I’ll say is that False Colors wrestles with big human questions, and makes the case that romantic love, far from being an embarrassing, trivial preoccupation Serious Writers should ignore, is a dignified, substantial, complex part of the human experience, as worthy of attention as any other. I’m just really glad I read it.
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