Friday, August 18, 2017

The Ethics of Caretaking: Kate Hewitt's MARRY ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

I've always been intrigued by feminist debates about gender and caretaking, stemming most likely from my college psychology class readings of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of the same. Do women make moral decisions based on their effects on others, while men make such decisions based on abstract principles? And if so, are women by nature better at caring for others than men are? If such gendered differences in fact exist are those differences the result of nature or nurture? What are the downsides, as well as the benefits, of emphasizing caretaking as a distinctly feminine trait? Do our beliefs about the gendered nature of caretaking limit men as well as women? What if I'm a woman and I hate taking care of others? Might personality, rather than gender, be a better determinant of who will be a good caretaker, and who will not? Kate Hewitt's latest contemporary,  Marry Me at Willoughby Close, had me thinking about all of these debates, in fictional terms.

I've never heard of the term "cozy romance," but if it doesn't exist, it should, and Hewitt's story would be a prime example of it. This gentle story is told from the point of view of twenty-two year-old Alice James, a quiet, diffident white English girl who has spent most of her growing up years in and out of foster care. Having just aged out of the shelter in which she was living, one specifically for ex-foster kids, Alice has been lucky to be taken under the wing of kindly Ava Mitchell, who buys her clothes, helps her with her CV, and even gets her the interview for the new job she starts at the opening of the book: taking care of eighty-six-year-old Lady Stokely, a terminal cancer patient who has chosen to forego any further treatment.

Though she's spent the last four years working in a nursing home, this is the first time Alice will be paid for being the sole person responsible for the last days of another. But she's not entirely without experience; at sixteen, Alice nursed her own grandmother through dementia until her death. But Lady Stokely's stuffy, superior, and quarrelsome nephew, thirty-seven year-old investment manager Henry Trent, isn't very impressed by Alice's credentials—"Tell me, Miss James, do you feel you're qualified to assist my aunt?" (Kindle Loc 253)—and tries to intimidate her into leaving. Yet despite Alice's worries that Lady Stokely has hired her "simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself" (143), Alice finds herself sounding "almost bolshy" during Trent's interrogation, her annoyance at the pushy man pricking the bubble of her usual diffidence. And thus Alice ends up keeping her job, in spite of Henry Trent's obvious preference that she leave.

Lady Stokely wishes to keep as much independence during her illness as she possibly can. And so she asks Alice not to move into her home just yet. Instead, she offers Alice one of the small cottages on the nearby Willoughby Close. Alice has never had a place of her own before, and takes deep pleasure in making her temporary cottage feel like a home—taking care of herself by caring for her small set of rooms. Alice's friend Ava, as well as the other cottagers in the Close, offer Alice furniture, kitchenware, and lots of advice—especially about how she should not fall for the attractive if cranky Henry Trent. Surprisingly, Alice discovers that not all types of caretaking are welcome: "I feel like you—and everyone here, really—are coddling me, almost," she tells Ava. "And while it's been lovely, so very wonderful, to be taken care of for what feels like the first time in my life—I don't want to be . . . well, stifled. I've doubted myself for so long and I want a chance to be myself, whatever that means" (1699). Being cared for is lovely, but just as Lady Stokely already understands, Alice is beginning to recognize that too much care can be almost as much of a problem as too little. She's also beginning to realize she doesn't have to be quiet anymore in order to receive the care she does want:

And she'd actually spoken up to Ava, which was a small thing, but made her kind of happy all the same. Because she'd never been good at that. She'd been so quiet for most of her life, staying on the sidelines or in the shadows, never really a part of things, never brave enough to speak up or out. Maybe, like Ava had said, being at Willoughby Close would enable Alice to finally find her voice.  (1705)

Despite all of the difficulties she's experienced during her young life, Alice's personality is generally a happy one; "she was always hoping for the best with people. Expecting it, even, assuming that people were kind, that things would work out, that it would all be okay" (1142). The exact opposite temperament, in fact, to the one held by the easily irritated, lash-out-first Henry Trent. Henry, it turns out, has had almost as little caretaking as a child as Alice; sent away to boarding school at five, rarely visited by his self-involved parents, still grieving from the death of a younger brother. But he's chosen a very different way to deal with not being cared for than Alice's shrinking violet impulse; Henry protects himself from fear or uncertainty with the thrust of anger. "It wasn't pleasant, but it made him slightly easier to deal with . . . and to feel sympathy for," Alice thinks to herself after one particularly fraught encounter with her charge's nephew (1812).

And sympathy, unsurprisingly, leads to more tender feelings, in spite of all her friends' warnings. Because Alice can see hints of a more kind, caring Henry behind the snotty aristocratic front he uses to protect himself. Particularly in the way Henry cares for his ailing aunt. But when feelings lead to amorous actions, Henry immediately backs away. Not only does he apologize for his kiss, but, in a real Pride and Prejudice moment, he points to their class differences (Henry is heir to an earldom) to explain why they are "not compatible...for any kind of real relationship" (2310).

Henry's rejection becomes a defining moment for Alice, a moment when she realizes just how little her choosing to stay in the background and please others has gotten her:

The scales had fallen from her innocent eyes. She'd spent her whole life either trying to fit in or to be invisible, and definitely not to make any waves. She'd tried to please everyone, as if that would make a difference to how she was viewed and treated. She'd also tried to believe the best in people because to accept the worst felt like despair, and that could never lead anywhere good. But she'd been wrong all along. She'd been stupidly naïve, and she wasn't going to be anymore. . . . From this moment on she was going to stop looking for acceptance outside herself. . . . Henry Trent didn't think she was good enough for him? Well, he wasn't good enough for her.  (2404-13) 

This newly inspired Alice doesn't betray her personality, or her principles, in the wake of Henry's rejection; she is still, at heart, a caretaker, one who takes pleasure in seeing to the needs of others. But in standing up for her own self-worth, she models for us, and herself, a healthier, feminist ethics of care, one that balances the need for care with the equally important needs for independence and for respect. An ethics of care that can be practiced not only by women, but by men—even, perhaps, by the irascible, but vulnerable, Henry.

Photo credits:
Cozy English dining: Pinterest
I Care: Asmythoughtschange blog
Gilligan's Ethics of Care:

Marry Me at Willoughby Close
Tule Publishing, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Kick-Ass Heroism and Female Self-Determination: Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY series

I'm a longtime fan of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy books, but I'd been annoyed by book #6 in the series, 2013's Magic Rises. Rises relies on an old, often sexist romance novel trope—the big lie to one's partner, for that partner's own good, of course—a trope that almost always strikes me as contrived and anti-feminist. Had Kate and Curran's relationship run its course, I wondered?

So I was chuffed when Andrews (the husband and wife team of Ilona and Andrew Gordon) began a new urban fantasy series in 2014. Since Hidden Legacy would be set in a different fantasy world than Kate Daniels' part-magic, part-mechanical Atlanta, and would depict the beginning of a new romantic relationship, it would give the authors a chance to start afresh, rather than trying to spin new/old drama from Kate and Curran's already established relationship.

After I read Burn for Me, I found a lot to like about the world Andrews had created in Hidden Legacy. As the book's opening explains, "In 1863, in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one's magic talents" (Kindle Loc 45). Those who took the serum manifested magic in quite different ways, but gaining any godlike power was worth it to the governments and the rich who vied to buy the serum. But, as is the way with many newly discovered medicines, the Osiris serum had some pretty nasty side-effects, and the serum was soon banned. But the magic awakened by the serum did not just effect the one who had taken it; it also affected their children, and their children's children. And soon magical families began to form into Houses, creating a society that runs parallel to unmagical human society, with its own laws, institutions, and power struggles.

Burn's narrator, twenty-five-year-old Texas native Nevada Baylor, isn't a part of an established magic House. But its clear that there's some Osiris-taking ancestors in her family tree. Nevada has some powers—she can tell when someone is telling the truth, and when someone is lying—but she's never studied magic, never been taught much about it, and doesn't know the full extent of her own magical skills. She's kept them hidden, not wanting to be forced into becoming a human lie detector for the government or for some powerful House or corporation. This makes Nevada an interesting contrast to Kate Daniels, who has been raised knowing her lineage and the awesome power that she has inherited because of it, and has been training her entire life to fulfill her destiny. Nevada is genetically poised to become a kick-ass magic heroine, but at the start of her series, she's not yet a superpower, not a dominant player in the larger magical world.

Also unlike Kate Daniels, who is a loner at start of her series, Burn's Nevada Baylor is deeply ensconced in family. She lives in a converted warehouse with her two sisters, her two male cousins, her mother, and her grandmother; the elder members of the family all work in some capacity for the detective agency founded by Nevada's father. But now that Mr. Baylor has died, it is Nevada, the oldest of the younger generation, who takes charge of the day-to-day running of the Baylor Investigative Agency. The agency isn't in the greatest financial position, though, and Nevada feels responsible for keeping her multigenerational family afloat. Again, in interesting contrast to Kate, Nevada isn't estranged from her family, but is driven largely by her need to protect and sustain it. Can one be a kick-ass feminist heroine and still be deeply committed to family? I was curious to see how Andrews addressed this often contentious issue.

By book's end, however, I wasn't convinced that I could write about Burn for Me on RNFF. Because the magic-user to whom Nevada is reluctantly attracted appears to be a more than questionable as a feminist romantic lead. The reputation of Connor Rogan, the head of House Rogan, decidedly precedes him. A few of his nicknames: "Mad Rogan," The Butcher of Merida," "Huracan." During a conflict in Mexico (fighting began after magically potent mineral deposits were discovered in Belize and Mexico invaded), Rogan, a Prime (the top level of magic-wielder) used his telekinetic powers on behalf of the U.S. government to destroy entire cities.

A recluse since leaving the army four years ago, Rogan and Nevada's paths cross when Nevada's agency is hired to track down a man linked to Rogan's cousin. And Nevada's interactions with the guy don't suggest that his values and hers will mesh very well. Meet cute as a kidnapping? Ah, not so much:

     "So instead of talking to me, asking for my credentials, or doing any of those things a normal person would do, you decided to assault me and chain me in your basement?"
     He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement. "It seemed like the most expedient way to obtain the information. And let's be honest, you weren't exactly harmed. I even took you home.
     "You dumped me on my doorstep. According to my mother, I looked half dead."
     "Your mother exaggerates. A third dead at most."
     I stared at him. Wow. Just wow. (1954)

Even though Nevada finds Rogan crazy sexy, and wonders if there is anything left of the innocent boy he once was (caught on a video before his first foray into government-sanctioned city destruction), she's not convinced that the adult Rogan takes anybody's interests to heart except his own. She's definitely not in favor of working for him when he offers to hire her company:

     "You are incredibly powerful, and you have a blatant disregard for laws and moral constraints. I'm guessing that you don't think anything you ever do is wrong.That makes you very dangerous and a huge liability in mu line of work. You will break laws and kill to get what you want, and if I manage to survive, I'll be left with the fallout. So the answer is no." (2037)

She's also pretty unhappy about his lack of compunction against killing those who threaten him:

     "You killed Peaches."
     "Of course I killed him."
     I opened my mouth and closed it.
     "Okay," Mad Rogan said. "This is distracting you, and I need you to function, so let's fix this. Which part of what happened is upsetting?"
     I opened my mouth again and closed it again without saying anything. Peaches would've attacked us, possibly killed us, so what Mad Rogan did was justified. It was the sheer sudden brutality of it. It was thew way he did it, without any hesitation. One moment Peaches was there, and then he vanished. No trace of him remained. He was crushed out of existence. He was . . . dead.
     "Let me help," he said. "You've been taught all your life that killing another person is wrong, and that belief persists even in the face of facts. Not only would Peaches have killed us given the chance, but this way I only have to kill one person rather than kill half a dozen of his followers. I saved several lives, but your conditioning tells you that I've done the wrong thing. I didn't. He started it. I finished it."
     "It's not that. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head." But when you shot someone, there was a slight chance they might live. There would be a body. what he did was so complete and sudden that I needed a couple of moments to come to terms with it.
     "Then what is it?"
     "It's the. . ." I struggled for words. "Splat."
     Mad Rogan glanced at me, his eyes puzzled. "Splat."
     "I had briefly considered impaling him with one of those steel poles from the roof, but I decided it would be too graphic for you. Would that have been preferable?"
     My mind conjured up Peaches with a steel pole sticking out his stomach. "No."
     "I really would like to know," he said with genuine curiosity. "The next time I kill someone, I'd like to do it in a way that doesn't freak you out."
     "How about you don't kill a anybody for a little bit?"
     "I can't make that promise."
     Small talk with the dragon. How are you? Eaten any adventurers lately? Sure, I just had one this morning. Look, I still got his femur stuck in my teeth. Is that upsetting to you? (2544)

By the end of Burn for Me, Nevada, doesn't have to kill, but has to rescue Rogan from his own power, a princess kissing a mad sleeping beauty back from the edge of magical overkill. But when Rogan comes calling post-apocalypse aversion, Nevada simply can't reconcile herself to the ease with which Rogan can destroy others, his apparent lack of empathy for other human beings. And the way that he can put her own family members in the line of fire, if that will help him accomplish his goals. Even if it turns out said family members agreed to be used: "I can't be with you, no matter how crazy you make me, because you have no empathy, Rogan. I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about the human ability to sympathize." (5481). Nevada fears Rogan might be a psychopath, or a sociopath, and given his actions in the book, readers can't help but worry she might be right. So when Nevada sends Rogan on his way at book's end, how can readers do anything but cheer?

Did Andrews get push-back against this depiction of the "heroic" Rogan? Or did they have his rehabilitation in mind from the start? Because book #2, White Hot, spends much of its time proving Nevada wrong, or at least complicating her (and our) interpretation of Rogan's psychology. Turns out he does have feelings, does experience empathy, as the murder of several of his employees at the start of White Hot demonstrates: "There was an awful finality in his voice. I hadn't thought he cared. I'd thought he viewed his people as tolls and took care of them because tools had to be kept in good repair, but this sounded like genuine grief" (White Kindle Loc 765). He evokes loyalty from his people, but is in turn loyal to them, rather than just using them. He does have family he cares for (offstage, but still); he does play by some rules, just rules that are different from the ones Nevada has been used to. And his wartime experiences (which Nevada hears about from one of Rogan's doctors, and which she experiences through some sharing of his dreams) transformed him from a young, cocky, idealistic man, one who was kept carefully protected in "bubble of patriotism" from seeing the destruction his powers had caused, into a man who sees the world in black and white, enemies and allies, and who will do almost anything to not feel helpless.

And, perhaps most importantly for romance readers, he's willing to break one very important rule: wanting Nevada, even though the rules of House society say he should only court and marry a woman whose genetic background will ensure his children will have Prime magic power like his own. Not a sociopath, or a psychopath, but a man messed up by his wartime experiences, a man whose empathy is there to be found, deep under the surface.

But I still couldn't find my way to writing about White Hot, either. Because Rogan has the über-protective instinct characteristic of "alpha" romance heroes, a protective instinct that doesn't sit well with Nevada, nor with a reader who values a female protagonist's ability to determine her own life choices. Rogan buys her mortgage without telling her, to keep her safe from a foe who has been searching for her family for years. He tries to keep her from engaging in job-related encounters that may endanger her life. He even puts his jacket on her when she shivers. "What will it cost me? You keep chipping away at my independence every time you try to 'take care' of me, so I'd rather know the price in advance," Nevada challenges Rogan as she brushes his jacket away (3471). It's not that Nevada doesn't appreciate his way of caring. It's that this way of caring endangers her own sense of self: "You do things for me, even when I specifically ask you not to, because you feel you know better. I'm desperately fighting for my independence and boundaries, because otherwise there will be no me left. There will be just you and I'll become an accessory" (3476). By book's end, Nevada takes a risk and starts a romantic relationship with Rogan, risking both that he will be able to move beyond black and white, and that he will allow her the autonomy she needs: "the only way I'll ever respect his wishes is if he respects mine," she tells Rogan's friend and doctor (5293).

It was only by the end of book three, Wildfire, that I felt able to embrace the series wholeheartedly. Because the relationship arc of book three shows Rogan's gradual acceptance of Nevada's need for self-determination. Aptly, two potential romantic rivals show up on the scene, largely to underscore the this message: Rogan's former fiancée, Rynda, who always turns to others more powerful to keep her safe; and a fellow truthseeker Prime, Garen Shaffer, who wants to marry Nevada so that their kids will inherit their truthseeker genes and power. Rogan and Nevada get into some arguments when Rogan's protective impulses lead him to help Rynda even when she doesn't really need it, a pretty obvious counterpoint to Nevada's self-sufficiency. In contrast, Garen tries to woo Nevada by recognizing how hard she's worked to keep her family safe, and warning her that her life with Rogan will threaten that safety:

He'll put you in danger assuming you can handle it, and he'll fail to notice the moment you can't. I would do everything in my power to keep you from being put into a dangerous situation in the first place, because that's what a husband is supposed to do. (Wildfire Kindle Loc 4250).

Given the conflicts in book #2, it's pretty safe to assume that Garen's courtship isn't likely to prosper. And that Rogan's encouraging Nevada to embrace her power, and take her rightful place in the Magical world by officially filing her family for House status and outing herself as a Prime, is.

Andrews' web site says that Wildfire is "the thrilling conclusion" to the Hidden Legacy series. But the book's epilogue suggests that the real baddies are still lurking, biding their time until they can take Nevada and Connor, and the rest of civilized magical society, down. I for one am looking forward to seeing how Nevada and her family navigate House life and mores, and have my fingers crossed that other romantic pairings (for Nevada's siblings and cousins) might be in the offing in future books. Pairings that will also grapple with the negative implications of the all-too-common overprotective male hero in contemporary urban fantasy romances.