Friday, December 14, 2012

REVIEW: The Darker Side of Love by Anna James (1979)

Since I'm a Victorian theatre junkie, I've been looking forward to this one for quite a while and it delivered more often than it didn't. As with novels about 1910s-1920s Hollywood, I think I'm going to have to resign myself to not finding The Perfect Theatre Novel, pull the stick out of my ass, and lower my standards. Still, this one wasn't shabby. But there were a few things I wish the author had done to make it a richer read.

Katherine Lawrence grows up in Reconstruction-era South Carolina and wants to be an actress. Her family hopes she'll find a nice boy of good family and settle down, but when a group of touring actors pass through town one night, she grabs her chance and runs off with them to find her fame and fortune. In New York, she falls totes in love at first sight with Nick Van Dyne, a rich guy who financially backs all of the touring company's productions, and the feeling is mutual. Even though he's had scads of mistresses, Katherine is The One for him.

But happiness doesn't last long because circumstances force them apart, Nick on the lam from the law for swindling and Katherine becoming a star in London and muse to a bastard half-gypsy aristocrat, lover to a doomed Irish actor, and wife to a wolf in sheep's clothing.

The book flows a lot like an early Bertrice Small epic, with the heroine going through a series of men and heartbreaks (or lucky escapes). The "hero," if that's who you want to call the guy who pops in to collect the goods on the last page, is only around to establish the fated love and serve as a motivator for the heroine to never give in to despair. Well, not entirely. A gal's gotta have a cry now and then, and Katherine indulges herself often.

The first person POV flowed well and was thorough. It reminded me a lot of Victoria Holt, with the reader getting very acquainted with one character over all others and covering every mood and situation the heroine finds herself in - the exciting as well as the more mundane.

Katherine was a good, nice, self-sacrificing person, always attentive to her colleagues and not very temperamental at all unless provoked. She's well-bred and professional and all that mularkey, but so many times I wanted her to forget that she was a lady, sling around some haughty sass and simply be a bitchy diva for the hell of it.

Since Nick was out of the picture most of the time, the author did relent and give us a glimpse of what he was up to in the Brazilian jungle, sort of letting the reader see in which direction his path was going so that when he resurfaced at the end in grand gaslight melodrama style, it wasn't a total and complete surprise. (However, I still had a moment of, "Aha! Fooled me!")

I do love the long separation schtick in these old rippers because sometimes, even though the hero and heroine are together very briefly, there IS a spark and they seem destined for each other and it keeps me glued to their story through thick and thin. I kinda felt it here, but not really as much as I'd have liked. Katherine's theatrical career was much more interesting, and the scenes where she was in the theater or on the stage or involved in a production became the more engaging parts of the book.

When the action moved outside the theater world and into other aspects of her life (such as visiting her hometown, lolling about with the gypsies, etc.), I thought things started to drag. The melodrama was warm more than tepid, which was good, but there weren't nearly as many smokin' crazy moments as I'd hoped. That had to wait for the end of the book when Katherine resigns herself to never finding Nick again and settles for marriage with the "man of good family" her relatives are always harping about and finding out that her life has gone directly into the crapper. This section flew by, not only because it was bodice rippery, but because it shoved Katherine into a situation faced by many actresses of the time who married outside the profession. They found themselves walking a fine line between domesticity and a career with varying degrees of success and failure. Her interlude prior to that with Terry O'Neill, self-sabotaging drunken Irish actor-genius, also ramped up the excitement, with Katherine getting her own wings burnt during Terry's colossal flameout. Such dwama.

The main thing I wanted to see, but didn't, was Katherine set within the actual theater world of the time. This is mainly the gripe of a fangirl who wanted to see more of the historical stars of the era than a mention here and there of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Edwin Booth. Cameos, dammit! Or larger roles! Everyone Katherine interacted with was fictional, and so the story had that otherworldly, "eh, it's all made up" feel to it for me. Her actor-buddies were a jovial and fun lot with their own dramas and problems, so at least they weren't dull. Clara the goldigger star and Johnny the gay romantic lead could have their own spinoff series. The whole Markham gang were bunch of characters.

Due to the minimal use of real-life people and theatres, there weren't all that many occasions for error. Except for one glaring boo-boo. In 1876, the Players' Club didn't exist. It wasn't founded until late 1888, nor do I believe the club put on balls because it was simply a club house for actors with the periodic dinner to rub elbows with important men of other professions. Katherine would have found it hard to get in there anyway, because ladies were only allowed in on Shakespeare's birthday for a celebratory luncheon. At least that's my understanding of the history from the various books and articles I've read. One of my favoritest actor peeps was a main kickstarter of the whole project, so I'm acquainted with the early history.

Maybe it was a blessing that Anna James (really a two-person team, one-half of which is now deceased BTW - trivia for the day) decided to go the all-fictional route, because the stick isn't out of my ass yet and I'd have gotten hung up on counting the beans and ruining the fun, of which there is plenty. Just be aware of the long separation and the presence of lots of shop talk by actors, if neither is your thing.

Overall, a 3.5 to 4. The good points definitely outweigh the meh.

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