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Book Reviews: Gossip Girl, Les Liaisons Dangerouses, Confession of a Jane Austen Addict

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Cullen and I caught up on old Gossip Girl awhile back, and my love for the tarty little show was quickly renewed. It’s advertised as a hodgepodge of backstabbing and sexual escapades, but … really, really, it is more a cautionary tale.
Or a tragedy. The best intentions aft gang agley, even in the lives of New York’s elite.

My sympathies lie with Blair Waldorf (and not just because I like her headbands, ahem). The supposed queen bitch has a mother so controlling, she tells Blair whom to marry – and when to relapse into bulimia. Blair doesn’t want to put her finger down her throat; she wants to be happy. She wants to be free. & she maintains her precarious position at the top of the food chain by lies and trickery if necessarily, not because she inherently cruel but because she has no other choice. The world available to her is terribly narrow.

Holding on to virginity is the biggest choice she’s permitted – and nobody else cares. But when she votes nay on True Love and gives it up for Sincere Lust, her choice of one night (one limo ride!) sends her into social damnation.
Poor Blair.

But that’s the show. The Gossip Girl book (by Cecily von Ziegesar) … well, fine literature it is not. Well-written it is not. Hell, it’s not even a page-turner, unless you’re interested in sour grapes (“By the end of this book, I will believe I am better off than a bunch of rich kids.”)

It is a story about teenagers behaving very, very badly, sex and drugs and sex and parties and sex and bulimia and drugs and sex and sex and … that’s all.
Representative quote: “And doesn’t she look fucked? I think she’s been thoroughly fucked.” Ah, yes. It’s one high-class novel.

*

On the other hand: Les Liasons Dangerouses (by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)! It’s been a few years since I read it last, and I was afraid that time would have altered my feelings. Hurrah! No. The writing still sparkles, the characters are brilliant and horrible, the plots are inextricable.
It’s the finest epistolary novel I know; maybe the best one ever written. (Marie Antoinette reportedly kept a copy in her boudoir, which speaks perhaps more to the subject matter than to her views on literature.) The plot is treacherous, of course, and wicked, and thoroughly enjoyable, but the real joy is the characters – and their slow, subtle development. The creation of each character is so thorough that, by the end, one can read a few lines from any letter and know which person is writing (and usually to whom).

The sex scenes are great. Modern-day romance novels are never as lovely as this: “He wanted a second kiss; and, I don’t know why, but this time I was quite flustered and afterwards it was even worse than before.”

And it’s funny. Sometimes wickedly (“At the moment I feel grateful to all women of easy virtue, a sentiment which brings me naturally to your feet.”) – sometimes innocently (“I should look at him all the time if I were not so afraid of meeting his eye”).

My only quibble is the super-extended love affair between Valmont and Tourvel – I’m just not that interested in how perfect she is – but that’s a minor problem. Skip the letters, if they bore you. Return to the subtlety and sadness of Merteuil – she’s surely one of the most interesting women in literature. Argue about her fate! Does its severity mean de Laclos hated women? Or is it a sop to the views of society?

It proves, finally, if it needs to be proven, that sex and love and humor travel along the same worn path in every generation – and how terrible love can be – its tenderness and its violence.

*

And (and! and!) Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (by Laurie Viera Rigler, and I must stop reading Jane Austen novels, and novels based on Austen novels, and any and all reviews by readers who “OMG love Jane Austin”.)

It was actually pretty cute (Courtney, a modern woman, wakes up inside the body of a woman in Regency England. Hijinks ensue).
I mean, the subplot was annoyingly vague – somebody saw something sometime, possibly maybe – and the various love interests of the dueling centuries had little separation – and although I read the epilogue several times, I’m not entirely sure what happened – and Courtney’s ignorance of 19th-century social mores was seriously problematic for me, given that she’s read every Austen novel OMG a zillion times & Austen novels make little sense without basic knowledge of that society – and it was written in the present tense, probably to make it more perky? – but on the whole it was light and enjoyable. Good beach reading, as they say.

Also not a problem for me was the Mary Sue-ing going on. Clearly, the author idolizes Jane Austen, but she didn’t try to imitate Austen’s style of writing or characters (thank you, Ms. Rigler), and the quiet parallels between the Regency period and the modern world were not laced with distracting 21st-c feminist voice.

What caught me was the thread of sadness running throughout. For most woman, marriage is means to an end: it is the only way for a woman to gain respectability. Even if her husband is a lout, her worth is maintained: it’s proof she was wanted by a man and that’s all that matters.
That’s pretty grim.
Regardless of time period (says Courtney), most men are assholes –  (“The truth is that [name retracted] is not a man to be trusted, and the truth is that finding him attractive should have been my first clue.”) – but they can’t help it. Men are men are men, and women will assume the blame for it, and men will let them.

“If there’s anything I have learned as a single woman in search of that holy grail, a decent relationship, it’s that I have no right to assume anything. I have no right to assume I am in a relationship with a man, even if that man is someone I’m regularly sleeping with. I have no right to assume fidelity … ”
Ouch.
Still and all, this is a cheerful novel – the bits of lead are quickly, intentionally glossed over, and it takes a somber mood to notice them at all. Whether that’s a condemnation or a compliment depends on the reader.

*

The plights of Blair  and Merteuil and Courtney are alarmingly, terrifyingly similar. (Nothing is changed for women in three hundred years.) They have beauty and oodles of money and old family names, but no choices. Women are still valued on their virginity, on their beauty – all these things that advertise themselves, their value, to men. There is not (yet) any other standard of women’s value.
Ouch indeed.

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Written by jane

June 23, 2009 at 12:05 am

Posted in books., feminism, politics