Author: Wesley Stace
Themes: cross-dressing, family, inheritance, Classical Mythology, Victoriana, friendship, love, identity, growing up, self-acceptance
Plot: Misfortune begins with irresistible details of a bygone era as it unfolds the tale of Rose, an infant boy adopted and raised as a girl, who must abandon the luxury and safety of his beloved home and travel halfway around the world to discover who he really is-and to unlock the secret of his rightful place.
My Thoughts: Once again, I take offense at the very very misleading plot description...but I will try to leave that aside this time.
I found this book to be utterly delightful, at least the first half of it. It was a joy to read; I felt enveloped by the atmosphere of Love Hall, and as confused as Rose her/himself about her/his sexual identity and place in the world. The story of her stunning birth, delivery into the hands of Lord Loveall, and his rearrangement of the world itself around Rose was a touching and joyful story. Even with the darker undertones of his refusal to acknowledge that his adopted child was in fact male, Rose tells the reader about her childhood in a sort of painful and joyous detail. The unraveling of the secret of her gender is excruciating for both Rose and the reader, who can do nothing but sympathize with her confusion. As she is the heir to a vast fortune, her greedy relatives descend upon her, and contest her rights to inherit.
Unfortunately, from there it seemed to become rather muddled and preachy...not to mention any sort of historical realism (or at least suspension of disbelief) disappeared for me at around the three hundred page mark. I also found that a lot of the "sex" scenes were rather unnecessary...and modern and gaudy and just inserted for shock value (oh no! Victorian-ish characters are doing naughty things-like giving their uncles hand jobs and flashing themselves around to turn down marriage proposals!).
What would seem to be the biggest adventure of the book, Rose's running away and traveling the world and debasing herself, are left out except for brief references later in the novel to the fact that she never enjoyed sex herself. This in itself was disappointing, her childhood is given to us in detail, then a huge blank spot where she runs away, sees the world, and comes to the brink of suicide...this seems as though it should be included to me at least.
After this "blank" period Rose founds herself in Turkey, near a pool which is identified with hermaphrodites...and from there is rescued by a childhood friend and returned safely to London. In London she searches for her true family, as her family's "man" continues searching for legal loopholes in order to regain Love Hall.
I don't want to spoil too much, because this really is a book that must be read to be fully understood and appreciated, but I think most people would find the conclusion of Rose's story to be rather TOO easy and TOO coincidental. I suppose in this respect it is very much like a Victorian English novel, where everything falls into place-no matter how nonsensical-and the story concludes with a happy ending for some-and a punishment for the bad characters. Of course...I find I must vent about just one aspect, which is a rather critical point in the book, so don't read the next little paragraph if you don't want spoilers!
Well...as it turns out, Rose had been picked up by a lord from a garbage heap. BUT she was actually a long lost descendant of the TRUE heir to Love Hall. In fact, no other Loveall family member is a true descendant of the legal heir. A stretch, isn't it? Oh, and also that long lost true Love Hall heir is also the mysterious poet Rose's adoptive mother has dedicated her life to...doesn't it all fall into place now?
Naturally, Rose (in skirts and a mustache-as she is to dress ever more) and a whole troupe of rag tag followers appears at Love Hall and put on a performance. I found this to be way over the top and...cheesey...almost had a 1980s/90s teen movie revenge vibe to it.
Am I being too harsh?
Needless to say, in the end Rose finds a happy way to negotiate her sexual identity, her family and friends accept her in skirts with a mustache and wife, and she has a final revenge on her greedy family.
Recommendation: I have mixed feelings about Misfortune. It was fun to read (the first half of the book), it was an adventure, it was unusual. The writing was pretty good, and imagery was wonderful. But...I felt it just spiraled into tackiness and I lost my ability to believe ANY of it. Nevertheless it was fun to discuss, so you may wish to read it just for that!
Random Excerpt: "As she held me in her arms, her mind was suddenly brimming with thoughts of Day and "The Houses of Dead," which told how God, having no sex, provided the mind with no sex at birth. And what was I but her tabula rasa?
That was why, as she drew me closer to her bosom, she smiled (p. 99)."
Similar Reads: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso
Stace, Wesley. Misfortune, a Novel. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.