Thursday, July 8, 2010
A New Cinderella Tale: Eloisa James’s A KISS AT MIDNIGHT
I’m a fan of romances with fairy tale themes. Teresa Medeiros, Julia Quinn, Anne Gracie, Elizabeth Hoyt, Judith Ivory, Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey—I have fairy tale romances by all of them among my keepers. I have been looking forward to reading A Kiss at Midnight ever since I first read that Eloisa James was writing a Cinderella tale. A favorite romance trope in a novel by one of my favorite romance authors—what could be more designed to delight this reader’s heart? Except—I had this niggling concern. Ever since I researched Cinderella for a grad school paper on Shakespeare’s Cordelia (King Lear), I’ve been bothered by the tendency in American popular culture to apply the term “Cinderella tale” to any story, song, film, real-life relationship, etc. that remotely resembles the fairy tale. I often find myself disappointed, and sometimes irritated, by what I think of as false Cinderellas. How terrible it would be if EJ’s book fell into this group.
I’m happy to report that my concern was for naught.
AKAM is rich in the traditional elements of the Cinderella tale. Heroine with a good and loving heart—check; dead mother—check; absent father—check; heroine as target of step-mother’s venom—check; magical guardian for persecuted heroine—check (Some may disagree on this element, but I’ll argue with anyone that Kate’s godmother is magical.); The Shoe—check. AKAM even boasts a witty transformation of the rats from Charles Perrault’s late-17th-century version, which also adds the glass slipper! EJ acknowledges her debt to Perrault in an afterword. AKAM clearly qualifies as a true Cinderella tale.
The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” I found Auden’s advice easy to follow when I read A Kiss at Midnight. I was captivated from the first page. I was a bit worried about AKAM’s captivation quotient too. I prefer Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella because Cinderella is so good and so patient, so much like the character of Griselda of Medieval fame. (I once won an audible laugh from my Chaucer prof by confessing my loathing for this character.) But EJ’s Cinderella, Kate Daltry, is no patient, submissive Griselda, and she’s no saintly, suffering Disney Cinderella either. In the first chapter the reader sees her as an angry, embattled heroine, who has been the protector of servants and tenants since her father’s death. In fact, it is this concern that gives her stepmother a means of forcing Kate to do her bidding rather than this Cinderella’s meek submission to villainous authority. I loved Kate. From the fierce protector of chapter one to the drowsy princess of the final chapter, she is fully human and wholly enchanting.
EJ adds other twists to her tale as well. Mariana, the stepmother, is appropriately vain, selfish, and vindictive, but she has only one daughter rather than the traditional pair, and this daughter, Victoria, is a far cry from the "mean girls" of the ancient tale. There is a wonderful twist that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the excerpts, you will be prepared for it. EJ’s prince is no closer to the traditional fairy tale prince that Kate is to the angelic Cinderella. I’ve always thought the prince in the usual tale was rather boring. He’s little more than a handsome face, overflowing coffers, and a means to the HEA for the deserving heroine. EJ’s prince, in contrast, is no cipher. Gabriel is arrogant, intelligent, responsible, conflicted, and lusty. The last is important. AKAM is a 21st-century romance novel, after all.
Finally, the feminist in me rejoices that Kate, with her godmother’s help and her mother’s legacy, saves herself. I further rejoice that Eloisa James makes clear that while Gabriel has the power to break Kate’s heart, she can survive and build a life should he make the wrong choice. I rejoice yet again that it is Gabriel who has to prove himself worthy of Kate, not by meeting an externally imposed criterion for beauty (small feet for the traditional Cinders Girl) but by recognizing the supremacy of love.
Can you tell this book filled me with joy? :)
Readers who are fans of EJ’s series may be a bit disappointed that some of the characters in AKAM will not have books of their own. All of the ends are tied up nicely in HEA bows, but I fell in love with one secondary character that I would have been happy to see as the hero of another book. But although it’s her first stand-alone novel, EJ endows AKAM with the intelligence, humor, and pathos readers look for in her books. The story also has the literary allusions, the funny names, and the female friendships that are EJ trademarks. AKAM is distinctly an Eloisa James book, but it’s one with a difference.
I have a tradition of my own that I began with the first EJ book I read. I always note one sentence that stops me cold and sends me back to reread it, sometimes more than once, to glory in its perfection for the scene, for the character. My favorite such moment in AKAM is this one: “He closed his eyes for a moment, and the color of his eyelashes was like the color of regret. With a kind of piercing sorrow, she knew that she would never forget this prince.” Sigh!
I highly recommend A Kiss at Midnight.
I also recommend for other lovers of fairy tales that you participate in EJ’s current contest. Find your dream fairy tale shoe and share it. You can find the details at eloisajames.com, and the prizes are terrific (a Nook for one lucky contestant). And, even if you aren’t entering, go over to the Fairy Tale Shoe Flickr Group to see the fantastic entries. Joining EJ’s fans on Facebook will garner you a second chance at a Nook. The details for the Facebook Fans giveaway can also be found at EJ’s web site.
Are you a fan of fairy tale themes in romance fiction? Do you prefer those faithful to tradition, or do you like to see an author tweak the conventions? What are your favorite fairy tale romances?
Note: In the interest of full disclosure and to appease the FTC, I hereby state that I received an ARC of A Kiss at Midnight at no cost. As most of you know, I’m a moderator at the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board. Neither the free book nor the mod status affected my review of this book.