Monday, 25 August 2014

Comfort read

If I had a comfort read, this would be it: Kaari Utrio's romantic comedies that are set in the 19th century Grand Duchy of Finland. For excitement, I go for her earlier novels, set in the much less genteel Medieval times. That world is brutal!

Then again, so is the 19th century. The ballrooms may not be battle fields, but the pecking order is rigid and the rules ruthless. This is the time when one's social standing determines everything from the way one dresses to the people one can associate with – and marry. Marriages have little or nothing to do with love: they are advantageous arrangements. Women have precious little independence and extremely narrow roles.

These novels are described as comedies of manners and are often compared with Jane Austen's novels. They do indeed have much in common: ladies and gentlemen looking for an advantageous match; meddling parents and family members; a bit of romance and quite a lot of humour. Some of the characters start off as haughty or stand-offish, but – yes, you guessed it: love changes everything.

The focus is on match-making, but, like Austen, Utrio highlights the dependence of women on marriage to secure social status. There is usually something about her heroines that sets them apart, and they tend to have experiences atypical of (and sometimes abhorred by) the women of their times: they may have received an education available to very few women (e.g. in The Smolny Institute for Noble Girls in St Petersburg) or they may have accompanied their fathers on expeditions where folklore material (such as poems) was collected.

When you pick up one of these novels, you know what you're going to get (therein lies the comfort). There will be bonnets and balls, pride and prejudice, attractions deemed unacceptable... and characters whose love will conquer the obstacles of societal expectations. The historical details are rich and well-researched. The writing is solid – perhaps not the lyrical prose I'm guilty of favouring, but it's vivid and a perfect fit for the characters. The sharp observations are delivered in humorous tones: I always find myself chuckling and smiling when reading these books.

Granted, when you start, you have a fairly good idea of what's going to happen, but how... that is a mystery. Plot twists abound, often involving mistaken identities or exaggerations or ill-intentioned rumours, or misunderstanding arising from the fact that it simply was not appropriate to discuss certain matters (let alone express one's feelings). The final page always leaves me admiring how neatly Utrio ties up every loose end.

This is what a comfort read is all about: as soon as you open the first page, you know you're in good hands.

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