- E. E. Ottoman. A Matter of Disagreement
- Zen Cho. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
How I met these authors
I don’t remember by what chain of linky-linky I found Zen Cho’s work, but I’ve been reading her stories since 2012 or thereabouts. There is free fiction on her site, but really you should buy The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Spirits Abroad, because they are both awesome and full of treasures, and I will be reviewing Spirits Abroad later on, so if you read ahead you will get full benefit of my words of wisdom.
I’m still working my obsessive-completist way through E. E. Ottoman’s oeuvre, following my 2014 discovery of Queer Romance Month and E. E. Ottoman’s moving essay on Why We Need Trans Romance. (Warning: make sure you have hankies/tissues to hand when reading; it moved me to tears. Feelings we’ll all recognize, exponentiated.)
Romance in which the love interest is not the major obstacle
I’m all about interesting characters and world-building, and this is the second time in this series that we’ve brought in historical novels. But then I’m not a Genre Fascist, or even a Genre Dogmatist, and there are lots of interesting things to be learned about world-building from historical fiction.
At 20-25,000 words, both of these fictions are short works that reward re-reading. I’ll tease all of y’all with the first line of each:
A Matter of Disagreement: “Andrea scowled at himself in the mirror.”
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo: “I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.”
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo takes place in 1920s London, in the Bloomsbury literary scene, but from an angle not usually explored: our heroine is Geok Huay (Jade) Yeo, a young writer from Malaysia who studied in London and writes about fashion for one magazine and literature for another. E. E. Ottoman’s A Matter of Disagreement is set in a fanciful steampunk-with-magic universe, but tackles the very real-world question of interdisciplinary rivalry in scientific research. In the aristocratic milieu of Ottoman’s story, research is funded by aristocratic patronage and access to resources is restricted to people of noble birth. The student of French history will notice some familiar surnames. Our hero is Andrea, Lord Ashcroft de Bourbon, a chubby nerd who’s the younger son of an aristocratic family.
Romantic tension in these two stories comes from intellectual differences, class anxiety, cultural differences, and personal insecurity. Bonus points for witty meta touches: Ottoman’s geektastic romantic lead reads his sister’s romance novels. Heroine Geok Huay (anglicized to Jade) reads regency romances alongside her long-term project of reading the classic Dream of Red Mansion.
Romantic protagonists who are bookish and proud of it
Equal parts snarky and sweet, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is Zen Cho’s entry to the hopefully soon-burgeoning genre of Post-Colonial Fluff for Book-Nerds. “Made-up genre of my heart,” Zen Cho writes on her blog, here. To which I reply: My heart too! I want more like this one!
Both stories are truly romance for the book-nerd and/or science-geek. Jade Yeo is one of the funniest first-person narrators I’ve met recently. I’d totally hang out with her for drinks (beer, wine, coffee, tea, you name it I’m there). Andrea’s passion for his work, and his discomfort at large social gatherings, ring true with me. At a real life salon, I’d more than likely run into him while hiding out in the library with my drink.
Both stories turn on the romantic fallout of intellectual judgments expressed in print. Andrea takes issue with the preponderant focus of research efforts on magical clockwork (mechanical animation) rather than older directions in the use of magic. He’s been engaged in a duel of opinions with the leading light of mechanical clockwork, Gregory de la Marche. Meanwhile in 1920s London, Jade publishes a less than flattering review of the latest effort by Bloomsbury novelist Sebastian Hardie, for the relatively obscure Oriental Literary Review, edited by her friend and colleague Ravi.
Jade and Andrea are both forthright, not-as-naive-as-they-look protagonists. Jade in present tense, and Andrea in past tense, each have a relationship that’s mostly about the sex, out of curiosity (Jade) and desire for physical companionship (Andrea).
The tension in both stories — and by no means are the protagonists’ love interests the true antagonist — comes from layers of social expectation, who is ‘real’ and who is not. Jade, the granddaughter of a Chinese laborer transported to Malaya, constantly meets people who don’t understand why she speaks English so well, or who treat her as a decorative exotic. Her story is told in the form of journal entries and letters, harking back to the original form of the novel; in first person, we live inside her head and watch her use wit and charm as weapons in defense of her sense of self. Both the funniest and the most painful scenes take place between Jade and her very-assimilated Aunt Iris. The opening scene, in a tea shop, deploys chocolate cake and sandwiches in a battle of wits and courtesy that is very definitely about the money underlying all of this, as poor relation Jade outwits rich-but-miserly Aunt Iris.
In A Matter of Disagreement, Andrea is a shy scholar whose brother wants him to get out and about in society to improve their family standing. As a younger son, he does not have access to family money for his research, and he struggles to pay his research assistants, who might be his intellectual equals but are not his social equals. Ottoman deploys a fanciful aristocratic-steampunk setting to talk about interdisciplinary turf wars that are as surely about money as they are about ideas. At a party, Andrea unknowingly comes face to face with the leader of the opposing scientific faction. The social conversation goes swimmingly until each discovers the other’s identity, though Andrea finds Gregory very attractive from the outset. It’s an interesting twist on the usual “love-hate” setup popular in romance.
Jade is an intellectual duelist as well; her scathing review of a lazy effort by novelist Sebastian Hardie gets her an invitation to one of his parties. Hardie has all the marks of the usual romantic male lead, with his School of Heathcliff broody-dude good looks. Jade’s response to him, over their several meetings, is sexual curiosity. Her descriptions of sex are very realistic, funny-because-true, acknowledging the personal-but-impersonal nature of physical connection. She’s by no means swept off her feet, and unapologetically her true love is somebody else. When her casual liaison results in pregnancy, everything gets a whole lot more serious — though the options are not the usual ones, including an invitation to a polyamorous menage. (She turns it down, having no desire for dinner parties every other day, and having to remember everyone’s lover’s name.) She does end up with someone who loves her for her sharp wit and lack of inhibition.
(One of the truest-to-life bits in a novel full of such is the journal entry in which Jade replays an inadvertent gaffe, having casually referred to “sacred cows” in front of her friend Ravi, who is Hindu. The extended cringe after the fact is something that most of us will recognize.)
The bumpy progress of true love
The stumbling progress toward understanding with another person is brilliantly written in both books. The protagonists’ true attraction is evident from the very beginning, if one reads carefully (or re-reads). Money, class, race, and gender expectations are not background assumptions, but central to the struggle to find love without compromising one’s personal integrity. Both protagonists are the “wrong sort,” the people who usually aren’t the main character. Andrea is a short plump man, who loves his books and hates parties. His true love, Gregory, is a trans man who lives up to the manly ideal of his society, but whose personal ambition shows itself in his choice to be a leader in a new field of research rather than a follower in an old one. In parallel with their personal love story, there’s a story of finding one’s true work.
E. E. Ottoman gives us some lovely and hilarious scenes in bed, playing on everything from flowery euphemisms for genitalia to the awkward and imperfect details of the first time with someone you think you might love. One thing these scenes capture perfectly is imperfect, ordinary human bodies transfigured point-of-view a lover. We all know pretty people with ugly souls and vice versa, but the genius of Ottoman’s love scenes is that they say unapologetically “This too is beauty.” That’s the diversity in romance that we all need.
Jade and her friend Ravi are colonial subjects who have to struggle in the London intellectual scene in spite of their personal attainments; they’re physically conspicuous in a decidedly uncomfortable way (“hyper-visible” one would say today).
In neither of these brilliant romantic novels is sex or romance a cure for external problems. Jade’s personal happy ending does not remove the struggle with family expectations, the racial self-consciousness of a colonial subject of the British Empire, or the pressures of dealing with traditional family expectations. She and her husband-to-be are headed home to family conversations over their respective choice of spouse whose intensity is not reduced by the foreshortening of distance. She ends in a cross-cultural romance, just not the one that you think is being set up in the opening of the novel. Andrea and Gregory find a happy ending together, with the social and intellectual tensions of a radically unequal society still very much unresolved.
What I learned as a writer
I am not alone in writing self-aware, well-read protagonists whose romantic struggles take place against the background of larger questions.