Dueling Review, Recommended Read

Dueling Review: Something Fabulous by Alexis Hall (2022)

Holly got an ARC of Something Fabulous for herself, and Erin was like, “You got that for me, right?” Obviously, that meant we had to review this book together. It’s time for a Dueling Review!

Something Fabulous, Book #1

Erin’s Take

Heat Factor: I don’t think I’ve ever read (highly enthusiastic) rimming as the first interlude, and it was a refreshing change of pace 

Character Chemistry: In its essentials, the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one. Or, rather, the rigid one is soft for the free spirited one. 

Plot: A very bad proposal of marriage leads to a road trip of personal discovery

Overall: I laughed, I cried, I laughed some more, and then I sighed with happiness

Holly’s Take

Heat Factor: Unexpectedly explicit about arseholes

Character Chemistry: Utterly irritating, utterly captivated

Plot: Valentine finds himself the villain in a gothic novel

Overall: I found the silly first half a slog, but my heart went pitter-pat in the end


What’s the most pertinent information for a prospective reader:

Erin: Valentine might make your heart break because he’s a sad puppy, but somehow he finds himself in a never ending series of completely ridiculous scrapes with a manic pixie glitter scamp.

Holly: If you want a completely ridiculous plot and over the top melodramatic characters, then this book delivers that in spades. And hearts. And diamonds.

The author says the unofficial subtitle for this book is “Dude, Where’s my Curricle”. Is that fitting?

Erin: Holly, have you actually seen Dude Where’s my Car?

Holly: No.

Erin: Yeah, that did not seem like a movie you would watch.

Holly: WAIT, I HAVE seen it!!

Erin: It’s like, “Dude!”

Holly: “WHAT’S MINE SAY?! SWEET!”

::unintelligible laughter::

Holly: Given that I don’t remember a lot about this movie besides that it’s about two loveable dumbasses who get in over their heads…yes. Dude, Where’s my Curricle is an excellent subtitle for this book.

Is Valentine a himbo?

Holly: No. Definition of a himbo: A himbo is kind, beefy, and dumb.

I did not make this image, but I think that it’s awesome, and I can’t find the credit. Whoever made this, thank you.

Erin: You have to be beefy?

Holly: Yes. Or, okay, we can call it kind, hot, and dumb. But, the key thing with Valentine is that on this journey he discovers that he has not been that kind, because he’s never had to be before. Because he’s a Duke. Being a Duke is his entire identity, until this roadtrip forces him to not be (due to ridiculous circumstances). 

Erin: I agree with that up to a point. He’s extremely sardonic in the opening scene, so yes, he’s not particularly kind. But I would argue that the Duke character in Ten Things I Hate About the Duke is definitely written as a himbo who goes about his romance by learning that he has not been kind in no small part because he just hasn’t ever had to consider anyone else before (like Valentine). The TTIHAtD hero is just so mentally disconnected from reality and muddles along trying to fix things. Valentine also exists on this continuum, though I can’t say he’s quite as, er, ditzy(?) as the TTIHAtD duke. 

The reason I asked this about Valentine isn’t because I do think he’s a himbo, but as time goes on, he comes to see that his understanding of reality is completely disconnected from actual reality. Even after understanding that same sex couples exist, he walks into a room and still doesn’t understand that the women living in the house are a couple. There are so many moments where it’s like, “What reality are you living in, Valentine? You’re not picking up any of the clues that people are dropping for you.” So anyway, I don’t think that he’s actually a himbo, I just wanted to pick apart his characterization as being so clueless.

Holly: So this is interesting because I didn’t read him as dumb. Right? When I think of a himbo I think of Jason Mendoza from The Good Place

Erin: Hahaha he’s definitely a himbo.

Holly: So Valentine isn’t stupid. I read his complete and utter inability to pick up on social clues as part of his self-protective shell. He doesn’t want to see himself and he doesn’t know how so he’s built himself a rigid carapace around himself and it doesn’t allow him to look in and it doesn’t allow him to look out because otherwise the world is too scary.

Erin: I like that.

Did you buy Arabella’s hatred of Valentine? Was it deserved?

Erin: So. Ah. My read on Arabella is that she spends most of the book being too dramatic to take seriously. There is a moment where she says, “Why are you surprised? I said what I was going to do all this time, and then I did it,” and I get that her issue was that she felt so powerless that she couldn’t do anything about her circumstances, but she also didn’t even attempt to take the opportunity to talk things through. Ever. Of course, Valentine also had the opportunity several times to talk things through and he got mad instead. But I so often honestly couldn’t blame him, especially since it all snowballed from Arabella’s behavior in the opening scene followed by her precipitous flight and increasingly dramatic behavior.

There was a lot of holding Valentine accountable as a man in a position of power and how he was behaving. But there was no holding Arabella accountable for her (lesser?) sins, and the entire plot was based on her refusal to even be in the same structure as Valentine. Was her hatred deserved? This is one of those books where I get where we’re going, and I get where we’re coming from, and I get that Arabella has the choice to give people her time or not. But her hatred of Valentine was based on stuff that happened when they were children!

Holly: Let’s talk about the reveal of why she didn’t want to marry him. And I think this is less about her characterization during the plot, because I agree with everything you said about that. But I thought her backstory was an undeveloped part of their history that needed to be fleshed out more, especially since it hit Arabella so hard. On the other hand, given that the book is Valentine’s and he doesn’t think about others, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be more backstory on the issues because he didn’t even know that it happened. It made for a disjointed reading experience.

Erin: I agree with that. I didn’t think of it in that context while I was reading it, but the disconnectedness you’re describing is what I was feeling. It was difficult to fully understand why we went through all the drama to get to that point because it was brand new information. I didn’t have time to become invested in how betrayed she felt.

Valentine as a vessel for discussion of heteronormativity and Christian purity. Discuss.

Erin: So as I was reading, I kept thinking that everything Valentine thinks is from a heteronormative gaze. He walks into a house owned by two women and immediately wonders why the one beautiful woman is a companion rather than married. It doesn’t even occur to him to think that these people may not be living heteronormative lives. 

It also seems like he was able to rely on the social expectation of Christian purity as a mask for his demisexuality. At no point does he say he’s a devout Christian, but he’s moored in the social context of the time. Even with clear external evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t think you have sex before marriage, so there can’t be anything wrong with him. (Except for that niggle that maybe there is?)

Holly: I don’t have anything to add to that.

Where is the romance in this story? How is it revealed?

Holly: I would say the romance in this story is Valentine figuring out that he loves Bonny and has sexual desire for Bonny. It’s revealed through his outrageous jealousy. 

But I think the real turning point is when he’s shut up in the cellar and he and Bonny have had this huge fight because he was an asshole and Bonny is leaving, and he just like, freaks out. He starts screaming for Bonny to not leave him, and then he does something even more out of character and crawls through a window that he is too small to fit through. And his actions finally fit into Bonny’s sense of melodrama. That was the turning point for their relationship.

Erin: I don’t disagree there. At that point I was like, what is this wetness on my face?! I found this book to be very romantic, but the single POV made me wonder how this romance is actually developing. We don’t get a lot from Bonny.

Holly: Well, so, I think that the reason the scene with the cellar is the key moment is that that’s the first time Valentine asks for something instead of demanding, and Bonny says around then, “Oh it turns out that’s really all I needed from you. To be seen as your equal.” Bonny talks about his feelings all the time. Even though I’m not in his head I had a pretty good idea of what he was feeling the entire time.

Erin: Sometimes I finish a book and I think, “Wow, that was so romantic!” And then I think about how it was presented and wonder how I got there. In this case there are moments as simple as Valentine falling asleep on Bonny’s shoulder. Or Valentine’s inexplicable dislike of the ostler. So there are breadcrumbs being dropped, but it circles back to the question of what makes this a romance rather than a journey of self discovery. (More on this in our discussion series this year.) But of course Valentine is going on the journey of self discovery because Bonny forces the issue.

Holly: The flip side of that is that the journey of self-discovery leads him inextricably back to Bonny. 

Bonny had made himself: from books and stories, and hopes and dreams. As Valentine had made himself from duty and fear and mistrust and ignorance. “What have I been without you,” he whispered. “What would I have become?”

He finds himself but he can’t BE himself without Bonny.

Valentine is perhaps the loneliest romance hero I’ve ever read. Discuss.

Erin: I mean, of course I’ve now forgotten every other romance novel I’ve ever read. I agree with this, though, I do. I think this is the first time I’ve read the collected protagonist’s perspective from Hall rather than the manic pixie glitter pirate’s, and with those other characterizations (Glitterland, Arden St. Ives, Boyfriend Material) the narrator is very self aware even as he’s very messy. Valentine is not self aware and he doesn’t project as messy for a long time, so even though he’s being an asshole or self-absorbed or whatever, he’s also just so clearly struggling. Then there are moments when really, honestly, everyone surrounding him is against him. It was heartbreaking! Which made that window scene all the more impactful. Heartbreaking how quickly he found himself sad lonely as opposed to his prior comfortable self-protected lonely.

Holly: Beyond just those scenes of everyone being against him…even in his self-protected lonely life, he has two people. His valet and his mother. 

Dukes are always brooding and lonely in romance novels, and maybe they don’t even have real friends. But Valentine is estranged from everyone including himself. These other lonely, brooding Dukes are strong in themselves, and Valentine doesn’t even have that. He was just…so sad. And I’m glad he liked Bonny. I would have murdered Bonny within two hours, but I’m glad he found someone to bring some friends into his life.

Hall plays around with conventions of gothic novels. How effective is this playfulness?

Holly: So it’s really over the top. I thought it was a little tonally jarring. Because the first half is just this manic mess of people having histrionic fits in fields and climbing out of windows and whatever. And all of a sudden you realize how alone Valentine is and then it’s a really sad book, also. So it was a weird reading experience for me.

Erin: I feel like the reason Hall is fun to read is because he is able to sort of balance comedy with these really heavy emotions. Everything I’ve read from him was extremely emotional, but there are moments of absurdity or ridiculosity that bring balance to the read. How effective is that playfulness then becomes a “Do you like his style?” type of question, and I really enjoy it. 

Holly: I disagree because the sad starts really low and increases. The manic nutsoness starts high and really decreases. It’s like a very sharp supply and demand chart. 

Except here, D is for Drama and S is for Sadness

By the end, when Arabella has the altercation with Valentine, she’s being dramatic but she’s also being very serious and sad. In contrast, in Glitterland the emotion and ridiculousness are kind of stacked, balanced throughout the book. 

Erin: Regarding the nod to gothic novels, I didn’t even necessarily register it specifically because I haven’t read them. 

Holly: But you’ve read about Miss Buttersworth and the Mad Baron. That’s basically what they’re doing.

Erin: What struck me in terms of playfulness and romance conventions was that Hall was having whole conversations from Romancelandia, raised and addressed at the same time. Such as Hall’s treatment of the idea of Dukes as romantic heroes. Or simple little nuggets about what’s actually romantic behavior. For example:

“He still came.” It was apparently time for a Tarleton foot stamp from Bonny. “That’s romantic. Don’t you think that’s romantic?”

“No.” Miss Tarleton offered a foot stamp of her own. “It is villainous. Chasing someone down when they have quite explicitly fled you.”

“But,” protested Bonny, “he’s proving his devotion.”

So I interacted with this book more in terms of its being more tongue in cheek as opposed to how it specifically plays with tropes or romantic conventions. I think I just interacted with it differently than you.

Holly: I think it was just a little too much silly for me. By chapter 5 I wanted them to tone it down a little. A personal preference. 

Erin: That’s what I was trying to say. I was more likely in this context to be like, “I’m on this ride! Woohoo!”  While you’re more likely to be like, “Alright you’ve made your point.”

Drop a quote

Holly

“‘ Polite and well reasoned’?” Oh God, now Tarleton had gone back to repeating everything Valentine said. “Have you not read a single novel?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know that ‘polite and well reasoned’ are not qualities people look for in marriage proposals.”

“For heaven’s sake”— Valentine tried, and failed, to keep the impatience from his voice—“if we lived life as though it were a novel, we’d spend all our time becoming embroiled in improbable adventures and spouting nonsense about filling our vast and empty souls with joyful aches.”

“Yes,” said Tarleton, “and?”

Erin:

The unexpected thought crossed Valentine’s mind that firelight could be very kind. It swept away the shabbiness of the room, leaving only its cosiness. The small details—the wildflowers that had briefly decorated Valentine, the embroidered cushions, an open book resting on the arm of the sofa—suggesting a space that was not only lived in but loved. 

It gave Valentine the oddest sense of disquiet. Tied to a chair or not, he was relieved to have some shelter from the storm that was still raging with sufficient violence to rattle the shutters. And there would not have been space for him around the table anyway. But watching the others—Peggy braiding Miss Tarleton’s hair, Miss Fairfax with head upon Miss Evans’s shoulder, Bonny punctuating some story with a needlessly exuberant use of his soup spoon—was like watching a painting. 

A world someone else had dreamed up and laid before him. 

Except they all lived and breathed and talked and laughed and hoped and felt. He was the one who sat, still and silent, trapped in his unbelonging.

Final thoughts

Holly: Overall I really enjoyed reading this book. It was an easy read—the prose flows nicely and it’s one fun adventure after the next—but it’s also doing a lot of work. Even though the twee got to be too much for me, Hall is a really evocative writer. Just looking through my highlights I start crying again. And Valentine is one of the most interesting romance heroes I’ve read in a while.

Erin: This book just made me think in so many different directions. But like Holly said, it was an easy read, delightful—but at the same time I was thinking about these political or philosophical thoughts Hall dropped in, and I was also crying. And I joined the Bad Decisions Book Club again. It was midnight and my husband asked, “Are you going to bed?” Two hours later…No. I’m not sure it was what I expected it to be, but it was definitely what I needed it to be. It was delightful. Something fabulous! Boom.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.


Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop


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