When I saw that this month’s TBR Challenge was short stories (category romances included), I knew I had to sign up. See that pile of categories up there? Well, there are stacks more like it. I really love category romances from the 70s, 80s and 90s and I live in a place where I have ready access to a lot of them. I love how they provide an insight into the social systems and romantic conceptions of the fairly recent past. So much has changed, maybe even more than I sometimes realize. And I love how they’re a complete crapshoot; sometimes you get a brilliant one and sometimes you get, well, you get The Faberge Cat.
In the past, I read an Anne Weale book I really loved called The River Room. It offered a fascinating juxtaposition of modern setting (for the 1970s) and slightly old-fashioned mores (GR review here). The changing rules around work, gender roles and sex in the 1970s made for inherent conflict that I thought was explored in interesting and romantic ways. The problem is, when you pick up that book and that conflict and try to plop it down the early 1990s, it doesn’t work as well. Mainly because times changed. And people changed. And what seemed a little bit charmingly retro in a book from the 1970s seemed reactionary and unbelievable in a book from the 1990s.
The Faberge Cat had a truly promising start. The heroine, Jane Taunton, is working as a secretary in London and living with an older woman who has taken an interest in her well-being. Her formerly very wealthy and popular landlady still occasionally gets invitations to high-flying society functions, but she is in poor health and can no longer attend herself. So she sends Jane in one of her fabulously gorgeous vintage dresses to attend in her place and hopefully meet an eligible young man. Never mind that Jane is ambivalent about meeting a man.
So far, so good. Well, sort of. The opening scene in the book contains some casual racism and classism that I might have, if not quite overlooked, at least understood better in an older book. But not one from the 1990s. And there’s a hint of “good girls don’t” when it comes to sex. Both issues are nicely encapsulated in this little gem of a passage.
“I ‘ope that don’t mean what it sounds like,” said Anita, with a giggle. “She could get ‘erself into trouble.”
At this she got ticked off by Winnie [sic]. “You’ve made Miss Jane blush with your rude talk. Diner a deux is French. It means to have dinner with one other person, usually a man,” said Mrs. Chichester.
“Is that right? I must try that out at the salon,” said Anita. “Sounds classy, a bit of French. I know some Italian…ciao and arrivederci! Oh, look at the time. I’d better be going. I’m ‘aving diner a deux in McDonald’s with Brad in ‘alf an hour.”
Both attitudes are sadly not so unusual, I suppose, even in some romances today. Unfortunately, it’s off-putting for me and none are things I can just excuse.
Then Jane arrives at the affair and meets the tall, broad-shouldered, better than handsome, steady, intelligent Adam Fontenay, who we are also informed has excellent teeth. I joke, but really it’s quite an entrance. He seems to be an art historian and appraiser. He’s sophisticated, educated and dreamy in every way. He even explains how the gallery keeps the wood furniture from acquiring water rings during parties–with cling film. Initially, I was Adam’s biggest fan. Here’s an example:
“I’m unmarried,” he said. “But even that information can be misleading when so many people live together…and sometimes have partners of their own as well as the opposite sex. If it interests you–and I hope it does–at present I have no close relationship, but those I’ve had have been with girls.”
Unfortunately, things slide downhill rather quickly. Intimidated by Adam’s sophistication, Jane decides to lie to him about who she is, where she lives and what her background is. When he gets a call in the middle of dinner and needs to rush to his father’s side in Suffolk, he leaves abruptly and Jane gives him a false telephone number, assuming their paths will never cross again, secure in the belief that if he knew how unimportant she really is, he’d want nothing to do with little old her.
Because this is a romance, inevitably their paths do cross again when Mrs. Chichester passes away and her rapacious nephew decides to turn out all her lodgers and sell the house. Luckily Jane has an aged uncle in Suffolk who intends to leave her his house and antiques business when he goes and she is able to go and live with him, taking care of him in his last days and trying to revive the business. When Jane runs into Adam again, she does come clean rather quickly, which was a relief. Sometimes those falsehoods drag on way too long for me, a device I’m exceptionally impatient with. Less of a relief was Adam’s reaction. He was perhaps understandably less than impressed with her deception, but nothing explains or excuses what comes next.
“It’s late and I’m tired,” Jane protested.
“So am I…tired of trying to fathom why you couldn’t tell me straight out that you didn’t want to see me again. I’ve been given the brush-off before but never by your devious method. I want to know why you put me to the trouble and expense of calling a number in Florence which wasn’t your number. Was it your idea of a joke?”
What could she say? How could she possibly explain?
As she stood there, dumb with embarrassment, Adam put both hands on her shoulders and gave her an impatient shake.
Jane stiffened, her chin coming up and her eyes beginning to flash.
“Perhaps I had a premonition that under the suave veneer there was a bad-tempered boor. Please take your hands off me!”
As he had his back to the moon which was still fairly low in the sky, it was difficult to see the expression in his eyes. But his hands didn’t leave her shoulders. If anything his fingers tightened.
Well, no. Just no. There’s the fact that he demands an explanation, when he really isn’t entitled to anything at all after one date. And then he shakes her. On the next page, he also explains why that was perfectly justified. And frankly this is basically where Weale lost me, though I did finish the book. It’s not that Adam doesn’t have good qualities. He does. And Jane, well, I wanted to love her. I really did.
But it comes out later that she has had a child out of wedlock, which she thinks will keep her from ever getting serious with a man ever again. This is despite the fact that her father threw her out when she got pregnant (she was engaged to the father, but he died in a motorcycle accident before they could marry) and the child lives with her elder sister, who claims the girl as her own. So the child doesn’t live with her, even though Jane wishes she could. And wants her. But the sister isn’t so sure she wants to give the girl up since she regards her now as her own daughter. I’m not judgmental of Jane having had a child–that would be ridiculous. But Weale seems to expect me to be. Like it’s this great and glorious conflict and these men are so very kind not to hold it against her. The whole thing was frankly baffling.
Plus there’s another man, an auctioneer named Dick, who while he is supposed to be the kind, gentle, reasonable, but fairly unromantic foil to Adam, kind of lives up to his name. He’s sly, manipulative and just can’t take a hint. He’s also fairly under the thumb of his mother, despite the fact that he’s a widower with a son of his own and his protestations to the contrary. Jane doesn’t exactly tell him directly that she doesn’t think of him romantically because Jane doesn’t tend to tell anyone anything directly. She gets accused later in the book of stringing him along (by the uncle she’s gone to live with) and honestly, it’s kind of what she does. She thinks Adam might be too much of a rake for her with his fast reputation. But even though she finds Adam fascinating and lovable, she isn’t quite willing to let go of the safety, security and fidelity that Dick promises. So really, no one one is above reproach in the way things work out.
And of course, it all works out in the end. Jane uncle dies, leaving her the house. Adam proposes, having discovered on his own about Jane’s daughter, Jane turns down Dick’s proposal (though only after accepting Adam’s) and all is right with the world. Yay. Except by that point I really didn’t care. None of these characters, except perhaps Jane and Adam’s mutual friend Ros Farnham, a widow and the only voice of reason in the whole book, held any interest for me. Both Adam and Dick were abusive in their own ways. Jane’s uncle was a bad-tempered grudge-holder of epic proportions. And Jane herself was, well, namby pamby and concerned about things that seemed horribly out-dated for the publication date of the book.
I did relent in my feelings about the out of wedlock child storyline somewhat when it was pointed out to me that a 9-year-old child would have been born around 1984. Madonna’s song Papa Don’t Preach came out in 1986, two years later, and even then, it was viewed with some dismay (thanks to Lexxi Callahan for that reminder). But I still can’t help but feel the attitudes and mores present in The Faberge Cat were ones held by a much older generation, transported somewhat clumsily into the 1990s.
While in The River Room (1979), also by Weale, I was presented with a book about a woman who valued her independence, her career and her self-respect, I didn’t get any such impressions from the heroine of The Faberge Cat. She refused to stand up for herself to anyone, getting trampled by her landlady, Adam, Dick, her uncle, her sister, Dick’s mother and virtually everyone else. She never extends herself to acquire Adam, waiting for him to approach her in the last few pages of the book. She sort of stumbles around career-wise, unable to commit to anything. She just seems utterly deprived of agency, which was curious since I felt so differently about the heroine of the book Weale had written 14 years before.
All in all, I’d be willing to give Anne Weale another shot, but I’ll probably stick to the ones written in the 1970s and 1980s from now on. I’m still intrigued by the dichotomy she presents between heroines not quite ready for modern living and the fast-evolving world around them, an historical interest if nothing else. But I think I can safely say I’ll be avoiding her later works from now on.
Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in reading along and I’ll pick a hashtag!