Saturday, 20 October 2012

Gabriel's Inferno by Sylvain Reynard

I had heard about the hype and wanted to see what it was about. Usually I would have read for free at Waterstone's, because I rarely ever buy anything except classics and biographies, my books taking up most of my luggage weight at the airport, but it was always out of stock. Since I'm a freeloader this time I actually ordered a brand-new copy. In 2 days I finished it. I had heard about it, of course, that it's a bestseller based on Twilight fanfiction (and I don't condemn peopel for stealing SMeyer's ideas. Her books are so formulaic it's practically history repeating itself. The same repetition went on for Gothic novels in the 18th-19th century.)

And for something based on Twilight, it wasn't too bad. The prose was easy to read, the plot kept sufficiently entertaining (meaning I didn't run around in circles questioning the historical context of 1832), the dialogue at times warm-hearted and even funny. It is shaky because it was meant to be read by simple minds (remember this is romance, readers! and I don't normally dig romance) but overall it was better than Twilight and Fifty Shades.

The plot is about Julianne Mitchell, an American starting her MA course at the University of Toronto. She lives in a horrible studio flat and is lonely. It turns out her professor is the elder brother of her best friend back at school, Rachel. On her first day, she antagonises him and at the same time makes a new friend, Paul Norris, a PhD student for Professor Gabriel Emerson. Paul is obviously interested in her. Julia while she appreciates him doesn't feel the same way. Anyway she antagonises Emerson who asks to see her in his office. She doesn't get to, because she overhears him speaking on the phone in distress. His mother has died. She leaves a note and leaves. Anyway Emerson terrifies her. We learn about her background. Her parents are divorced. Her mother is an alcoholic who screws men around, and her father was too busy for her since he's in local council or something. She has been emotionally damaged and hasn't seen Rachel for some time. Then Rachel comes over to Toronto to see her and her brother Gabriel and the best friends reunite. They go to a club and Gabriel is obviously quite fascinated with Julianne's beauty. Seriously. By the way he's into Dante studies. Rachel and Gabriel are horrified at Julia's poverty so Gabriel gets Rachel to buy Julia a nice bag. Things lead to another, and one night Julia finds that Gabriel is being disruptive in a club called The Lobby. He is on the verge of having an affair with his slutty PhD student, Crista Peterson. Julia takes him back to his flat to avoid the professor-student affair, but he vomits on her clothes and makes silly suggestive remarks.  While doing so, he kisses her and she is thrilled. Because of the vomit on her clothes and she wants him to be OK, she decides to stay the night. Apparently he wants her presence I think. We find out She has had a crush on him for a long time since she was at high school. They met once when she was 17, staying at Rachel's house. Both of them lay in a hammock in the garden and Gabriel called her Beatrice and kissed her for the first time. At that time he was on drugs and thought later that Julianne was a result of a drug-induced hallucination. Back to the present, Julia writes a love note for Gabriel and they both discover each other's obsession for each other. They begin a relationship. This is marred by the fact he's her professor, but then after that term ends he won't be her professor any more so they won't consummate their relationship yet. Some things on Gabriel's secret life - he had this girlfriend once and they nearly had a child together only she miscarried it, etc etc. Julia's abusive ex-boyfriend breaks into the house during her holidays and tries to rape her but Gabriel comes and rescues her in time. The book ends with the term, Julia accompanies Gabriel on a trip to Italy and they finally consummate their relationship.

(Oh yeah in the meantime her grades are marked by Professor Katherine Picton, a retired Dante scholar, so Gabriel has nothing on his conscience.)

The good parts: It's written in third person, so you get to see the viewpoints of the heroine, Julianne Mitchell, Gabriel Emerson, Rachel, Paul, etc. The first two are the main characters. Unlike Twilight and 50 shades, you don't get a silly self-centred little bitch like Bella or a plain idiot like Ana. Julianne is a sweet, likeable girl, shy and damaged, but not utterly selfish. I do wish that characters wouldn't keep on saying she's kind when there's no evidence for that. But then I recall in reality, there are such people we call nice who aren't particularly generous or helpful, but they never say a bad word against others, they are good listeners and they don't behave badly. On the other hand I know many jerks and bitches who are very nice to their own friends but treat everyone else like dirt.  High school and college isn't what it used to be. Julianne is a top student in Dante studies, which makes her brainier than her predecessors, because at least she bothers to go get a masters and even aims for a PhD (you go, girl!) She doesn't want to bother her parents, she tries not to worry them (unlike Bella) and even refrains from being seduced by Gabriel when he is drunk. Whereas Bella kept on nagging Edward to consummate their relationship and Ana had no qualms losing her virginity to Christian Grey. Now virginity may be a bane in this century (to many people, I don't think so) but innocent shy girls who are still virgins in a sex-obsessed world, and moreover are very attractive, don't simply enthusiastically plunge into their defloration at once. If they do, they're not as innocent as their authors depict them to be. And if they are innocent there would be more reluctance. Julia wants to be loved for herself, not merely as a representation of Beatrice Portinari, Dante's beloved.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Based on Beatrice from Dante's Inferno.

I also approve of the fact that her temperament causes her to have trouble fitting in easily in Toronto. I felt sorry for her but then you recall Bella and Ana complain about being losers but everyone wants to be friends with them, popular girls seek their approbation and lots of men desire them. This does not make them social losers. Even if they hate people they are not losers.  Julia on the other hand is a shy, damaged soul and doesn't seem to fit in well except with Paul who takes a shine to her. Only 2 men seem to be interested in dating her, which is far more plausible than Bella's 4 (I think?) and Ana's 5.  She is also beautiful which may make you think she's a Mary Sue, but she is less a Mary Sue than Bella and Ana. Because she is beautiful it makes sense that 2 men love her at the same time. I've heard of such cases. Whereas Bella and Ana insist on how imperfect and plain they are and yet people are crazy over them. Even the authors try to stress they are not beautiful but it's evident to everyone else they are. So being honest about Julia's beauty is a good thing.

People say the book is cerebral. This is true for a romance novel. There's Raphaelite paintings mentioned, Dante and Beatrice, Graham Greene, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy and excellent taste in music. That being said, EL James does have good taste in music - far better than SMeyer. There isn't anything seirous about these authors, SR uses them to make a witty or amusing point. Which is better than glorifying Heathcliff. Oh, and SR hates Heathcliff, which is one thing good about her. Prepare to be disappointed, because there's no intellectual analysis or deep philosophy. Still, the author obviously is intelligent.

We've also got Paul Norris, the PhD student who fancies Julia. Since there's obviously meant to be a love triangle, Paul is presumably Jacob Black's replacement. But he is nothing like Jacob. He is kind and caring but he does not take advantage of Julia. He makes her laugh and tries to make her happy. He calls her Rabbit, as if there is something cute and childish about her - she is supposed to be innocent, remember?  There is something so protective about him - he is not a sex god like Jacob and Jose Rodriguez from 50 Shades are supposed to be. And he's well-educated.  He doesn't force his kisses on her - it is Julia who kisses him first because she is grateful for his kindness. And when in one incident, Julia's sweater falls off, revealing her bra strap, he replaces the sweater in its rightful position, to Julia's gratitude, instead of leering like a sicko. Not like Jacob and Jose who force kisses on the heroines. I like Paul and I am so rooting for him.
Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday, a Pre-Raphaelite painter.

The bad points. Characterisation. Julia may be better than her predecessors but she doesn't stand out as vivid or suffering or anything. This is a common failure among novelists, which is why most people's novels don't become classics. Since classics are rare this is not really counted as a failing. Also, Paul's interest in her seems too convenient. Why would he be so interested in a loser like her, hanging out with her alone, when he could be with other people? He's a popular, affable guy. Then Gabriel is the typical bad Byronic hero, former drug addict and womaniser and rebel. He falls in love with Julia too quickly and yet they're supposed to share True Love. Gah! Then there's the typical feminine fantasy of the hero spoiling the heroine. Like the fact Gabriel buys designer items for Julia. WTF?! If he really cares for her, he can just buy ordinary good items. There's no need to show off. He even has his own personal shopper and wears designer sunglasses and clothing. What a dandy. It's just like Christian Grey and Edward Cullen who are both loaded. In this day and age we must still voice fantasies about marrying wealthy men. How silly and outdated we are.

(As a side note, I mentioned this to a friend and she pointed out: "What's wrong with having designer clothes? It's good. I'd seize the opportunity." That is besides the point. This is plain GLORIFYING designer clothes. I believe we should be trim and elegant but designer stuff is overrated. Seriously. Seeking more sympathy I even vented my frustrations to my dad, who disapproves of designer stuff. He replied, "But don't you women want to marry rich men?" and was shocked when I unleashed my contempt of investment bankers, capitalists and well-heeled businessmen. Seriously, my family doesn't approve of the sort of men I hero-worship: namely, intellectual refined Victorian heroes.)

And why in this day and age does 33-year-old Gabriel wear a bow tie?! None of my professors, even the old ones, wear a bow tie. And some of the language is outdated, like Paul introducing himself as Paul Norris. NO ONE uses their surname nowadays in their first introduction. You learn it over time. This can be rather frustrating, especially when everyone shares the same first name. And you begin to see why the Victorians were on last-name terms.

I like the little touches of chocolat au pain (I think) and the food mentioned. SR is trying to get us interested in Canadian culture and Florence. It's a pity they were not rendered more vividly or described in picturesque terms, as many non-Canadians will be puzzled.

I also thought it shallow that Julia keeps on admiring Gabriel's bum. For heaven's sake, woman, restrain yourself. Even if you do admire his bum, that is no reason why the writer should mention it, or describe how heavenly Gabriel's body is. After several detailed kissing scenes I got bored. This book has put me off kissing, the way D.H. Lawrence put me off sex scenes. I could never enjoy reading a sex scene after reading D.H. Lawrence. Considering I was only 15 or 16 at the time you see what a trauma it is. And all the oh-so-boring descriptions of all the groping that ensues. Thankfully they don't consummate their relationship till the last chapter. But it is still better than 50 Shades which in one book has no less than 12 sex scenes and orgasms. Oh, did I mention that Julia gets an orgasm the first time she loses her virginity? Some people have no understanding of biology. Mind you, instead of 50 Shades' violence, Gabriel's Inferno is more tender, which is a good thing, only it looks so desperately lustful. How unromantic.

Then Paul, who seems to be the only genuinely nice character, gets very few chapters and little development. Pity, I liked him. Did I mention that Christa Peterson wants to have an affair with Gabriel? She is one-dimensional. Her idea of getting him is to bare her cleavage at him and flirt so outrageously that even I have not witnessed personally. She also openly sneers at Julia and says nasty things to her in front of Paul. Women are less obvious than that, please. I've known many snobs and bullies and they treat you with cold disdain and pointedly ignore you. They don't simply say nasty things in front of others. They don't want to seem like a bitch. And other guys won't think them a bitch, particularly not the popular ones like Paul. Here, Paul openly backs Julia against Christa. The whole point in being a popular bitch is that none of the guys who matter think that you are a bitch and they don't hold it against you. Which makes Julia seem Mary-Suish, though still better than Bella and Ana.

There's also the hilarious one-dimensional Professor Ann Singer who once had a BDSM affair with Gabriel (!!!) until he split it up. She wants him again and she also is a sexual predator to Julia (before she tried something on Paul, who reported her). Since the novel is supposed to highlight childhood abuse, drug abuse, blah blah blah these one-dimensional characters don't really fit in. Paul is two-dimensional, Julia and Gabriel a bit better. The Clarks were not too bad. I thought the theme was over-religious but on the whole it's OK since they don't trash atheists or call us sinners.

If you like light matter and lots of kissing, try it. It's certainly better than Twilight and you might end up better-informed if you've never read a piece of art criticism in your life. But if you are a serious romance-hater I advise you to avoid it like the plague. I hear the 2nd book is about university politics and the troubles of professor-student romance, so it should be better. I may find a copy and read it for free. One the stupid bookshops hasn't got one.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, I fell in love with this soon-to-be three book saga. As a result, my husband & I went to Florence Italy in October to celebrate our 40th anniversary.Before we retired, we visited Italy almost yearly.SR ignited many things in me by his writing, which I found beautiful and educational. I'm not terribly fond of some of the romance stories of today, although I liked FSOG. SR writes with finesse, and lets the readers mind invision the love scenes. SR's writing is far superior, and his personality is endearing. Your review was very interesting.