Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Summer Without Rain By Christie Gordon

Generally, when I dislike a book, I try to find something good about it. Not just something good to say, I try to find some kernel of enjoyment for myself, to hang onto through all the badness. Unfortunately, I don't think I can come up with one good thing to say about Christie Gordon's A Summer Without Rain.

First of all, from a strictly technical point of view, the book is plagued with typos, grammatical and punctuation mistakes and formatting errors. I'd be embarrassed to let my fanfic go out looking like this novel, let alone my professional novel which, presumably I am getting paid for.

Truth be told, I'm not even sure how to characterize the rest of the story. Though I also have a list of talking points I put together in the course of reading the book, there was so much wrong and so much I disliked about the story that I truthfully feel I won't even be able to capture them all or adequately communicate how awful it was.

Let's start here: very early in the book, I thought to myself, "Oh, God. This is a bad yaoi novel."

A short time later, I was looking up the author on Goodreads for an unrelated piece of information (I wanted to know if she was actually from Ireland, where the book is placed) and I saw that she had recently made a blog entry titled "Yaoi versus M/M Romance: What's the difference? Is there a difference?" In the course of her post, Gordon writes: I tend to think Yaoi takes this romantic emotion thing a bit further. Maybe the men don't really act like real men - but dang, we're surrounded by real men all the time, can't we just have some made up men that act how we'd like them to act for once?

To which I thought, and commented to my husband, "I don't want my men to act like this. EVER."

I suppose I should have put a disclaimer somewhere in the earlier paragraphs: though I have nothing against yaoi or fans thereof (I actually quite liked Under Grand Hotel, myself), I am not a fan of the yaoi paradigm. It's purely personal preference, but I don't generally like my men pretty and androgynous, I don't like the rigid bottoming politics/conventions of seme and uke, and I don't like the hysterical high-school level drama and I don't like the crying. My gods, the crying… (I told y'all about how I feel about the crying…)

Though Gordon doesn't really set up a seme/uke relationship between her protagonists, Shannon and Ciaran, in nearly every other way I can think of, she's borrowed the flowery, overly emotional, cartoonish, weepy conventions of yaoi. In fact, it was literally impossible for me to think of Shannon and Ciaran as real people and I could only picture them as exaggerated manga men…though calling them men is a bit of a stretch for me.

That's not a slight against men who have a less "manly" deportment; in the course of the book both Shannon and Ciaran fail to demonstrate even basic behaviors of adulthood, down to small things like the assertion of independence and separation from one's family.

Okay, wait. Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. (spoilers and bile under the cut)

The book is supposed to take place in Ireland, in the 1920's. And though it seems within the bounds of reason that Gordon may have been to Ireland at some point, she doesn't demonstrate any real feeling or knowledge for the land and people she's describing (down to the use of American English over UK usage in many places) to a point where I, three generations separated from Ireland and with only passing knowledge could say, "Oh, god, this is WRONG." Further, I only know the time period because the book's blurb tells me so and because of a one-line mention in the story itself in a moment of exposition where Shannon looks out on "…a typical 1920's Irish village…", a piece of writing so clumsy and awful I felt concussed. Gordon never specifies an exact year and the way the story is written shows an appalling lack of research into the world of the 20s (or economics thereof) and no real understanding of how the mindset then was different from not only modern times, but modern America. Indeed, she falls into the trap of a lot of writers of pseudo-historical fiction, populating it with any number of characters whose mindsets, language and mores are—at best—highly unlikely for their time and place, dovetailing so neatly with our modern sentiments. It's purely a fantasy world, taking what she wants from the time and place, like props, and not bothering herself too much with her many, many anachronisms.

Then there's the prose. Gordon tells, she doesn't show. No emotion is left to your imagination; she tells you exactly what her characters are feeling at any given moment. And no emotion is less than the red-lined, heightened ultimate of that feeling, so that characters are constantly gasping, wide-eyed, weeping, seeping, heaving, racing… Every emotion carries the melodrama of the teen years, when everything is life or death, right now. Bur for such heightened language and flowery language, Gordon actually uses the same adjectives over and over and over, until I started to hate the sight of "beautiful" or, worse "sumptuous". And Gordon commits that cardinal sin of writing m/m by using too many he and hims in a scene that holds two (or more) male characters, leaving readers confused as to who's doing what and whose parts are where. There was further structural failure in the lack of transitions between scenes. Characters who are eating dinner in one paragraph will suddenly be in a car, inches from crashing in the very next paragraph, with no indication that a change was coming, not even some empty lines or a handful of asterisks.

And all this is before I get to the story itself. Like a number of other novels I've read, A Summer Without Rain is a book that feels like it's just wasted potential. First, there's Shannon. Shannon represents the psychologically damaged half of the romantic duo. Molested by his teacher as a teen, he's been an outcast in the village ever since, with Ciaran as his only friend. In some hands, this would be a workable scenario; it's clichéd, but it's a cliché because things like it often happen. The skeeve factor comes in when Gordon keeps having Shannon correlate the sexual abuse with Shannon's burgeoning romantic relationship with Ciaran. It would have been possible for it to be less skeevy if Gordon had set up a more emotional, 'loving' relationship between Shannon and his teacher, Mr. Flanagan, but Gordon goes out of her way to call it 'the molestation' on many occasions (in itself a bit of an anachronism), uses distancing language by having Shannon almost always think of Flanagan as 'the teacher' and has Shannon point out internally and verbally to Ciaran that he didn't love Flanagan and that the only way he got through what the teacher was doing to him was by thinking of Ciaran doing it to him instead. So, on the one hand, we have a clearly abusive, unwanted sexual relationship and, on the other, we have Gordon—through Shannon—setting up a correlation between that relationship and the romantic, loving relationship between Shannon and Ciaran. SKEEVY!

Further, Gordon posits that "everyone" in the town knows about what happened to Shannon—except Ciaran, which would be more unrealistic, except that she writes Ciaran like a brain-damaged five year old, so perhaps it's not all that unrealistic—and, as a result has been alternatively abusive to him or shunning, in particular his parents and the village priest, Father Brennan. Shannon's parents hit all the stereotypes of suspicious, bigoted parents and Father Brennan is the very caricature of an intolerant priest, 'forcing' Shannon into lengthy and repeated confessions of his 'crimes' (another thing that I thought Gordon was going to make something of, because of the way she described the lavish details that Brennan coerced Shannon into revealing, but no. That didn't really go anywhere either).

Going back to what I said about Shannon and Ciaran's apparent lack of manhood… Though I don't remember her giving either boy a specific age, she describes them both as men grown and out of school. However, they both still live at home, seem to have no employment or occupation for their time, other than to run around doing as they please, and they don't seem to have gone through the necessary distancing from their family to assert their adult self or independence in any way. Specifically, the way Shannon looks at his parents and thinks about/describes how he has no choice but to do the things they demand of him speaks of an extended childhood, one where the normal teenage defiance has never been exercised. In a period of time where children under ten are working in mills and factories, etc., I found this entirely unlikely and deeply repellent.

Truth be told, though, she doesn't seem to describe anyone, other than Ciaran's aunt Iona and the various tavern waitstaff they encounter in their adventures as undertaking any kind of work or employment, so God only knows what was going on there. Everyone seemed to have all the time in the world to sit around and do nothing. But I digress.

Shannon is clearly damaged by what's happened to him. He's (naturally) terrified about being outed as a queer, his body language (as described) is one of a perpetual flincher, hair hanging in his face, shoulders hunched, etc. He's described by a number of other people as shy and he has no self-esteem to speak of. His rape—and the subsequent shaming by his peers and elders—has left him badly broken. So it would seem his character arc is clear and his necessary growth into a person with some knowledge of his own self-worth is inevitable. But, no. Gordon gave a brief tease that she was going to actually do something with Shannon's scarred psyche in the brief period of time that Shannon and Ciaran are visiting Ciaran's aunt Iona in Dublin, but the visit is over fairly quickly and Gordon never addresses Shannon's damage in any meaningful way again and she doesn't allow Shannon to make any real strides to finding himself, outside of his relationship with Ciaran.

As I said above, Ciaran frequently comes across as a mentally-challenged child. He generally plays "the stupid man"; the character who goes, "What's that?", giving the knowledgeable character the opportunity to explain whatever it is for the audience. However, that comes across as clumsily as it usually does, especially as many of the moments where Ciaran plays Stupid Man are at times and with subjects he should already have some knowledge of, as someone who grew up in the village for just as long as Shannon. Ciaran also spends a lot of the book crying. Don't get me wrong, Shannon bursts into tears nearly as often, but, as Ciaran's mother has also recently died, he gets the extra tear allotment. And, as mentioned, I find it completely improbable that Ciaran wouldn't have heard something about what happened with Shannon and Flanagan, if it was as widespread around the village as Gordon implies. Even if Shannon had bottled it up, someone would've said something to Ciaran simply as Shannon's best friend, be it nosily or mockingly or as part of some cruel scheme to rile Ciaran up, the way that kids usually do. Who knows, maybe someone did and it just flew right over Ciaran's dim head. I could actually believe that, with Ciaran as depicted.

Also entirely unrealistic is the way that, although he's never thought of a boy in a sexual way, although he's been sexually attracted to girls all his life, and though he's never looked at Shannon as anything more than his best friend, in six days of traveling with Shannon (and really it's only half that, because they're well on their way to it by the time they arrive in Dublin, never mind the trip back) Ciaran goes from completely oblivious and hetero to hard core butt-sexing, queerer than a three dollar bill, no doubts that it's him and Shannon MFEO forever. Even with the intervention of yenta-aunt Iona of the Sacred Lesbians.

Ciaran doesn't seem to have any overall arc, other than the discovery of his sexual and romantic identity as Shannon's forever-mate. This doesn't even throw him for a momentary loop, so it's an entirely moot point, as far as character development. His decision to be with Shannon isn't really even entirely his own choice; Ciaran rejects Shannon when Shannon asks Ciaran to leave their village with him and return to Dublin, citing the need to stay and take care of his father. It's only when Ciaran's father admits that he's sold the family farm and pushes Ciaran to go after Shannon to live their HEA in Dublin (with his full approval, btw, another bit of unreality that Gordon handwaves with the prerequisite 'your mother and I were always forward thinkers!') that Ciaran chases after Shannon. Though Gordon posits Ciaran as an overly protected mama's boy, sheltered and naïve (oh, so naïve), she doesn't exploit that character trait for growth—Ciaran discovering his independence and maturity—either.

The truth is, Gordon doesn't do very much with her set up at all. Shannon's fears that the straight Ciaran will reject him prove entirely unfounded as Ciaran responds favorably to all Shannon's advances from the very first. Though she gives both boys backgrounds that could have been exploited for growth, she bypasses it for any number of overwrought, tee-hee naughty sex scenes and passionate declarations of love. The background characters have no motivations or lives of their own, existing solely to help along or hinder the dim-witted lovers and vanish entirely from the narrative once they've made their attempt. The obstacles to Shannon and Ciaran's love seem more appropriate for teenage melodrama than the quest of two grown men to find love and acceptance with each other and, as best they can, in the world, and their happily ever after comes with no more effort than the two-day ride to Dublin and a random gay-bashing thrown in for laignappe.

I feel like I've lost my dispassion in trying to describe how UTTERLY LUDICROUS I found this book and how much I loathed reading it. Truth be told, the only reason that I persisted was that I wanted to be able to write this review and I wanted to have the sense of accomplishment of reading all the books I signed up for this month, no matter how awful. A specious pride, indeed, but oh, how I have PAID, people. Oh, how I have paid.

Four days and one book to go.

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