by Barbara Michaels
Megan O'Neill sees it hanging in the sky above the towers of Grayhaven Manor -- a beautiful yet sinister black rainbow, a warning to the estate's new governess to stay away. Yet the warmth and kindness of the Mandeville family banish her fears -- and her hypnotic obsession for her handsome, mysterious new employer blinds her to the darkness within. But desire always has its price. And the shocking secrets enclosed in Grayhaven's walls threaten to pull Megan into the terrifying shadows, never to emerge again.
This is certainly one of the weaker of the Barbara Michaels novels I've read to date. Main characters I couldn't bring myself to like (except for one of them)... Irritating behavior... Characters and episodes that never really led to anything substantial in the plot... Incredible thickheadedness... Yeah, not a favorite.
Random (SPOILERY) Tidbits:
Fair Warning: This goes on forever. Apparently I had a lot to say...
-- The author went to the trouble of writing a foreword justifying the inclusion of a Siamese cat in a story that takes place years before the first cat of that breed was documented to have entered the country. Based on that, I expected the cat to play a significant role, but it doesn't. At all. It could easily have been any old cat-- a tabby, a calico, a black tomcat-- and it only figures in the story twice that I can recall. Totally pointless. I guess the author just wanted to have a Siamese cat in one of her books! After all, she does own up to being "an admirer of cats, particularly Siamese". Not surprising, considering how often cats appear in her books. Fits right in with the interest in Egyptology, too. (g) Myself, I'd rather see more dogs, speaking of which...
-- "The conventional theory that dogs are more inclined than cats to devote their love to a single person is far from accurate; most dogs are genial, undiscriminating idiots, slobberingly grateful for attention from any passerby." Ugh, cat person. ;o) There are some "one-(wo)man" dogs out there, and much more common are dogs that recognize and prefer a select group of people. I don't know as much about cats, but I can easily imagine that, since they are usually more stand-offish in general, they'd be even more likely to bond with a limited number of people. But why in heck describe a dog as an "undiscriminating idiot" if it's friendly with most people? That's just obnoxious.
-- "Scientists assert that [the black rainbow] is a wholly natural phenomenon-- child of storm cloud and full moon, as its bright sister of day is the offspring of sunlight and rain." ... "The rainbow's hues ranged from palest silver-gray to a black deeper than the moonlit vault of the sky-- an ominous portent..." A brief "looking up" hasn't turned up any photos of a "black rainbow"-- just an anecdote or two. Incidentally, the titular black rainbow has nearly nothing to do with the story. I guess you could say that it's a bad omen for the future (at least the next couple of years) of the two characters who witness it, but that's about it...
-- Funny how even though this book was set in Victorian times, while Michaels' novels are generally set in the eras in which they were written (late 60s up to... the 80s? or is it even into the 90s?), she still manages to have a feminist for a heroine. (More on that later.)
-- Funny how the character that seems set up to be the heroine at the beginning of the book is actually the weakest, most annoying character in the story. Well, ok, maybe I exaggerate-- but I do not like Megan. So much so that... I kind of hate the name "Megan", now. (I'll admit, I was already slightly prejudiced against it, based on some of the Megans I've come across "in the flesh".) Megan feels an odd name for the time, too, though that may be only my imagination... Certainly it's not quite so incongruous as a young Victorian lady named, say, Taylor or Jayden.
-- Megan's scheming to win Edmund's attention could be amusing to read-- but it is less interesting when you consider that her interest in him seems to be based on... I don't know, lust at first sight, I guess. We learn very little about Edmund (especially in the first chunk of the book), so it's hard to understand why, exactly, she's so infatuated with him.
-- Lina is supposed to be three, I think, at the beginning of the book. Well, all I can say is that some of her "speeches" seem pretty advanced for a child of that age! The discussion of whether to use "tu" or "vous" when she speaks French, for instance. Nope, don't really believe a normal three-year-old (and we have no reason to believe she's a genius) would speak that way.
-- Still on the subject of Lina, she's one of those characters that hardly seem necessary. The story needed a child for Megan to be governess to, but apart from that... what does she really contribute? She's one of those child characters that seem extremely bratty and annoying, yet somehow everyone can't help but love her. *eyeroll* And then, as soon as Megan is married, she is promptly shuttled out of the story, to be mentioned in passing possibly two times for the rest of the book. Hm.
-- Example of Lina's brattiness: "She returned to Lina's room to find the place in chaos. Every frock the child owned was strewn on the bed or the floor, and Lina was sitting in the middle of the hearth rug, howling with rage, while Rose, the nurserymaid, stared helplessly at her. 'She says she's got nothing to wear,' Rose reported." UGH. This, at the age of three? Spare me a description of darling, thoroughly-spoilt Lina when she's fourteen or fifteen, please.
-- The similarities to Jane Eyre! First, we have a young governess with no (real) family in the world. Her charge is rumored to be the illegitimate child of her employer. The governess falls in love with the master of the house. Her chief adversary for his affections is a young gentlewoman who is tall, dark, and a fine horsewoman. (Georgina is a more evil version of Blanche Ingram.) Of course, there are many, many more dissimilarities. For one thing, Jane Eyre would never have said to herself, "No. I won't give him up. She shan't have him. Not without a fight." Also, Jane was not Catholic... or a radiant beauty... or a simpleton when it came to men. (g)
-- In Jane Eyre, I don't really believe that Adèle is Rochester's child, but she easily could have been, since he admits that he had a romantic relationship with her mother. I don't like that aspect of the character, but I find it fairly easy to overlook in the character. Meanwhile, Megan's dismissal of Edmund's possible sins makes me disgusted with him and annoyed with her! When the stand-in for Blanche insinuates that Edmund is Lina's father, Megan is not surprised by the suggestion. "She had already begun to suspect that Edmund might be Lina's father. It was very wrong of him, of course. But gentlemen had those inclinations, especially when they were young and high-spirited. The girl had probably led him on. And how good, how noble of him, to give the poor nameless little creature a home and an affectionate family. Such things happened-- but to refer to them was tasteless in the extreme."
-- Edmund's description of how his experiences in the world have changed him don't seem like something a real man would ever say. Write, possibly, but never give spontaneous utterance to. "'The boy who went to battle in his crimson tunic and gold braid died on the dusty heights of Sevastopol-- or perhaps it was in the hold of the ship that brought him home. Half-dead with fever himself, he heard the death rattle in the throats of men who lay all around him."
-- Megan's almost enough to make a feminist of anyone... She longs to go to Edmund and "comfort him with the submissive tenderness Jane had withheld". Submissive? Gross. Oh, and Megan has "important qualities" such as "uncritical adoration". Gag.
-- What was up with religion in this book? I'm not sure what point the author was trying to make... When Jane's locked up, she has a couple of weird moments regarding prayer and God. --And earlier in the book, Megan realizes that "for the first time in years she had neglected to say her prayers. She dispatched a drowsy, wordless thanks to the unseen Powers who were working to help her; what she failed to realize was that, for once, she had not given those Powers a name." ...Uh, oh-kaaaay... So... Is this some sort of statement about a preference for some "ancient-modern Great Spirit" instead of the "traditional" God? Or is it supposed to be anti-Catholic/"Mother Mary"? ...Or... what? I don't understand the point, because it's really never fully elaborated, that I can remember.
-- Oh gosh. Megan's "gray hair" scene. Gag gag gag. She's primping and preening before the looking-glass, when... "Suddenly she let out a gasp and leaned forward, staring in dismay at the gleaming coil between her fingers. Was it-- no, it could not be!-- a gray hair? After an agonized examination she concluded, with a sigh of poignant relief, that she had been mistaken." Thank heaven! Everyone knows that life is officially over once you get a gray hair. You are no longer physically attractive to men and are, in fact, an outcast from society. *sigh* I know she's young. (Nineteen.) But I did find the occasional weird crimped grey hair at about that age, or soon afterward. I probably take this kind of thing too seriously-- the way it's written here, I feel the author may be encouraging us to laugh at Megan's extreme reaction to even a possible gray hair-- but as a young-ish woman who has a sprinkling of greys (which I will continue to cover with dye for years to come, I imagine), it's downright offensive. (And it makes me dislike Megan even more than I already did.)
-- If Megan's infatuation with Edmund is never explained (beyond the fact that he's rich and she thinks he's hawt), her relationship with Sam is even stranger. The longest description we have of the guy (and from Megan's perspective, too) is littered with words like "bovine", "slow-thinking", "heavy shoulders hunched", "big bull", "heavy sullenness", "kind-hearted animal". He hardly speaks, and we know little of him. Sure, what we know is all good-- or supposed to be good, at least-- but he's barely even there, and Megan hardly interacts with him at all. They speak a couple of times (at most), and then he proposes to her. She refuses, and he forces a kiss on her. ("He pulled her roughly to him and kissed her on the mouth. His lips were hard and chapped. The painful grip of his hands was no embrace, but an angry assault. He let her go as suddenly as he had taken her. She stumbled back, one hand nursing her bruised lips, the other groping for support.") Um, no, I don't like that. A "misunderstanding" kiss is fine. I can deal with an "I have no hope of ever winning your love but I can't resist stealing just one kiss" kiss. But when the woman has just refused you and even told you that she's engaged to another man, you do not give her a forceful, bruising kiss. It is not appreciated-- and certainly not a gentlemanly way to behave toward a woman you purportedly love.
-- Incidentally, why does Sam even want Megan? It must be based on her beauty alone, because they've hardly interacted at all.
-- Of course there's the obligatory (in this case, oblique) reference to Egypt. When they explore the long-closed basements, Megan feels "like an intruder in an ancient tomb or a sanctuary where mere humans were not allowed to go."
-- Edmund goes from a nonentity to a despicable monster in very short order. He's so evil that it's a bit cartoonish. How could practical, intelligent, clear-headed Jane-- even as his doting sister-- have taken so long to see his true nature? I'm skeptical... Of course, Megan's even worse about making excuses for him and turning a blind eye to his suspicious behavior.
-- Much is made of the fact that Edmund stops paying for upkeep of the cottages he rents to his mill workers. But when this is brought to the reader's attention, Edmund has been "in control" for less than a year, I think... Maybe a little over a year, then, to be generous. The point is, how much up-keep do these cottages need?! Things shouldn't be falling apart so quickly, unless there was some extremely unusual English hurricane that the author failed to mention.
-- At one point, Jane has a headache: "That was what happened if you were foolish enough to pour over columns of crabbed figures by lamplight." This is not the first time I've seen this mistake in this author's works. There was at least one other book where the same mistake was made multiple times. Sorry to be a stickler, but it annoys me. Incidentally, later in the book, the correct word is used, so maybe it's only a typo.
-- Is this the author's take on North and South? (If so, that's unfortunate, because it pales by comparison with the miniseries. ...I've never read the book, I must admit.) All the stuff about mills and labor rights and unions... Oh boy, a social justice plot... 'Scuse me while I snooze.
-- So... The village people are on their way to the manor house one night, possibly with the intention of killing the scapegoat/witch/Megan-- and Sam says this: "I don't excuse them, but they've suffered so much and are so afraid, they aren't thinking straight." Oh, well, never mind, then. Grah!!! Yeah, I know they've been mistreated-- and now there's this terrible drought... But the guy who supposedly loves Megan speaks this way about the angry horde that is possibly considering taking her life? Good grief! Donald, if you're reading this, I want to let it be known that if an angry horde of ill-educated villagers ever decide that I'm a witch and that they must kill me to bring back the crops (or something), I will not look upon it favorably if you say, "I don't excuse them, but (fill in the blank)". No. There is no acceptable "but" under those circumstances. If you aren't with me, you're against me, etc., etc., and I will be mad at you forever. So just don't do it, okay? Thanks, and I'll return the favor, if they're coming after you instead. ;o)
-- Oh, yay. A pregnancy and a birth scene. My favorite. (How did you know?) Descriptions of a woman's agony during childbirth? Just what I always wanted. (My opinion of the book immediately falls by another 10%.)
-- For an intelligent woman, Jane handles her brother very stupidly. "'You cannot succeed, Edmund. I can stop you, and I will. Never doubt that.'" Whereupon Edmund spins around, villain-style (all he lacks is the black cape and mustache-twirling) and asks what she means. . . .Um, oops. Blah blah blah, he tells her she can't do that, and she brilliantly responds, "'I will do it! How can you prevent me?'" Really, Jane? You're going to practically dare him to stop you? It should come as no suprise that she ends up locked in a tower.
-- No, I'm serious. Edmund locks Jane in an actual tower-- holds her prisoner for days.
-- Jane's feminism... I certainly don't mind that she has an independent spirit, but at some point she sort of... goes off the deep end, imho. "That as the real root of her helplessness. She was a woman. She had been slow to comprehend this because her father has never treated her as an inferior. To all intents and purposes, however, she was a member of a lower class, almost a lower species of humanity-- without legal rights, without control over her surroundings or even her own body. If she accused Edmund of swearing away a man's life and of imprisoning her against her will, he would simply say she had lost her mind; and the great male-dominated outside world would support his cause and accept his word. She hated them-- all of them-- curse their smug, complacent, narrow minds! Even her father had done her no service when he allowed her privileges she could never claim as rights. And Edmund had been a sweet, lovable human being before he turned into a man. ... The realization born that day was never to leave her. It would become one of her most deeply held convictions." Yikes. I know that for most of history, women were liable to be viewed as property (and even if they were loved and treated with respect, ultimately, they were at the mercy of the men in their lives)-- and trust me, I'm glad that's changed (in certain parts of the world, at least)-- but this rabidity is not appealing.
-- More of the same: "'There is a difference between outright, honest slavery and the kind of ownership men have over women. Not all women suffer the injustices I have mentioned, but if they have freedom of choice it is a freedom bestowed on them by the men who own them-- a privilege, not a right. And how limited those privileges are! All professions and trades are closed to us, except the lowest and most degrading... We have no possessions, not even the clothing on our backs-- they belong to the man who owns us.'"
-- After reading several of her books, I have to wonder what this author was like in person. Maybe she was more outspoken in writing than in person (some of us are)-- and it's likely at least partly a reflection of the popular opinions of more highly educated women of her generation-- but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to engage her on certain subjects, including feminism. (Britta the Needlessly Defiant, anyone?)
-- The story picks up a bit once Jane realizes that Edmund is scheming to kill Megan, but it's too little too late.
-- The weird room discovered in the basement? Totally pointless. Evidently this was a tie-in to another book, where the house has been deconstructed, transported across the ocean, and carefully reconstructed in the United States. In that book, the basement room was more central to the plot. But for the purposes of this book, it could very easily have been left out altogether.
-- And so, in closing, not a favorite. I doubt I'll care to read this one again.