At the Back Fence Issue #277

September 10, 2007

In late 2004 we introduced a series of segments entitled “Authors At Their Best”. Because it’s been some time since we presented such a segment, and because of feedback on our forums, we decided now was a good time to bring the series back. We hope that some of you will be inspired enough by Robin’s column to consider penning a similar segment on one of your favorite authors here at ATBF. If you are, please post about it on the ATBF Forum so we can add you to the schedule – don’t worry, we’ll give you as much help as we can.

Just over five years ago, we conducted a site-wide style poll. Among other things we measured were how widely read certain authors were, and how highly readers rated them. MJP held the distinction of being the author closest to the top of both sets of measurements. Indeed, she held the fifth position in both areas: just four authors were more widely read than she was, and just four were rated more highly by those participating in the poll. Keep that in mind as you read Robin’s column, and we’ll come back to it in our “questions to consider”.

–Laurie Likes Books

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Authors at Their Best: Mary Jo Putney

In the spring of 1998, I fell in love.

I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up late. Obsessive thoughts wracked my days. I felt deliriously happy unless I was parted too long from the object of my affection and then I was frustrated and annoyed. I felt thrilled and had very little sense about who was, and was not interested in hearing about my feelings. I contracted a persistent case of “Mentionitis,” as Bridget Jones called it. My husband and children seemed confused. My friends appeared perplexed. I did not care. I felt no need to indulge them. I had fallen in love with romance novels and among my first seducers were the books of Mary Jo Putney.

That first year of reading romance novels was heady stuff. Not having read romance before, I plowed my way through dozens of excellent books. The conventions of romance – the tortured hero, the Big Misunderstanding, the wallflower heroine – were unfamiliar to me, and I had more patience for romance novel clichés than I have now. I had an easier time remembering plots. But when I began reading Putney’s books, I took on the characteristics of an addict. Not only did I glom compulsively, I worried about running out of Putney’s at some awful future date. I wanted to ration my consumption, but it was hard. Each Putney took no more than two days to read. Fortunately I had an excellent backlist to track down. Putney had her Silk series behind her and was still working on the Fallen Angels when I began reading romance.

Most historical romance readers are familiar with this series. Like Jo Beverley’s Rogues, and a host of other series that followed after it, most of the Fallen Angels were a group of strapping friends who met at school and had a loose connection with one another. A few additional heroes were memorable men who had been introduced in the course of the series and were given their own books.

Strictly speaking the series includes:

  • Thunder and Roses
  • Petals in the Storm
  • Dancing in the Wind
  • Angel Rogue
  • Shattered Rainbows
  • River of Fire
  • One Perfect Rose

Two other books, The Bargain and The Rake, which were originally written as trad Regencies, are connected to the series.

Even now, hundreds of romance novels later, I retain my love of these books. And, I’m not alone in this. Fellow Putney lovers talk about the heroes almost as though they knew them. Speaking with them is like being able to talk about an old boyfriend.

I love lots of Putney books, but as a series, nothing in my opinion, can beat Putney’s Fallen Angels. As Sandy Coleman put it in her DIK review of Dancing on the Wind, “Unquestionably, Mary Jo Putney was an early pioneer in the connected books phenomenon. You can argue whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but more than ten years past the publication of the first in the series, her Fallen Angels books pretty much remain the gold standard.”

Connected books have gotten a deservedly bad rap, in part because as opposed to being linked, many of the characters are practically interchangeable.(For a hilarious take on this, see Blythe Barnhill’s 2002 Purple Prose Parody, entitled Epilogue .) The Fallen Angels series is different. Each hero is highly memorable for his occupation, character and problems. Within the series there was no “typical” Putney hero. They include a widower gypsy, a soldier at Waterloo, a duke dying of a terminal illness (or so he thinks) an artist, and a spy. There is a secondary hero, a surgeon, who was so well drawn I wished he’d had his own book.

Putney took risks with these heroes. While most are tall and handsome, she allowed for far more variety than most writers. Robin, the hero of Angel Rogue, is small and blonde. Clever, funny and kind, Robin can juggle, speak different languages and think up every sort of trick to get a woman out of a tight spot. He’s also the kind of take-charge guy who makes you forget his height in the time it takes for him to change accents. And the heroes actually have occupations! In fact Robin comes back from the war at loose ends, wondering how he is going to fill up his time now that he is no longer a spy.

“Which hero is your favorite?” becomes the inevitable question. Michael, the tragic hero of Shattered Rainbows who falls into chaste love of a married woman before the Battle of Waterloo, tugged at nearly everyone’s heartstrings. Here was a man who fell passionately in love, but was so honorable that not so much as an inappropriate word passed his lips. Catherine, the heroine of the story, follows her soldier husband tirelessly, caring for their young daughter and providing room and board to other officers to defray costs. Putney’s description of the days before Waterloo and the details of military life, are fascinating to read. Michael remembers his friends, the other Angels, in such a way that they are more than celebrity cameo’s advertising for their own books. In fact when I read Shattered Rainbows, I naively hoped that Putney might write a non-romance book about her Angels and their early lives together at school.

Putney’s backlist is full of the same kinds of memorable characters. Peregrine, the hero of Silk and Shadows, is about as alpha as they come. He’s so commanding and almost hypnotically compelling that you wonder how the heroine can bear to be around him when she’s doing mundane things like sleeping. The book features a memorable portrait of the brothel scene in 19th century London, which included such depressing businesses as the selling of fake virgins.

After finishing this phenomenal series, Putney didn’t stop taking risks. The Wild Child featured a heroine who was possibly destined for a mental institution. China Bride had one who was raised in China and predestined to live out her life as a concubine or one of multiple wives, unless she went against all of her training to escape.

Her biggest risk however, probably came with The Burning Point, Putney’s first contemporary. Like her previous work, it featured a hero with a memorable problem. Unfortunately this problem happened to be violence. The hero of The Burning Point beat his wife (the heroine) and is reconciled with her many years later in this book.

Maybe part of the book’s problem was that it was a contemporary. Had it been an historical, it may have been easier for some of us to accept the possibility of reform. As a contemporary, the story simply did not work. Not only was the premise hard to swallow (a wife beater can be heroic), but the long winded analysis strained the patience of many readers. The book is memorable for Putney’s usual outstanding research. You learn a lot about demolition, as I call. But reading about demolition isn’t why readers read romance. The Burning Point was published just a few years after Black and Blue, Anna Quindlen’s memorable literary fiction book, came out. That book describes the harrowing life of a woman who lives in hiding from her abusive husband. To readers of Quindlen’s book, Putney’s must have seemed unintentionally shallow. I know that when I read it, one thought plagued me: If this heroine were my friend, I would tell her to run as far as she could from this guy.

Things didn’t seem to get much better with Twist of Fate, a book about the death penalty. Unlike in The Burning Point, where Putney seemed to be trying to teach woman how to spot abuse (even as she was giving them bad advice on trusting a previous abuser), in Twist of Fate she seemed to be pushing a political agenda. As someone who opposes the death penalty in almost all cases, you would think I would have grabbed this one, but I didn’t. The structure of a romance novel doesn’t lend itself to complex moral issues and I didn’t want to close the book feeling depressed.

The Spiral Path, however, another contemporary, this one about a handsome actor, grabbed me from the first.It was one of my favorite books of 2002. (Its hero also won in our annual reader poll as Most Tortured, and the book itself earned honorable mention for Most Hanky Read.) Putney’s story of two people who are married but barely know each other had me on the edge of my seat and turning pages the same way I did in 1998.

And now we get to the hard part. Its been a while since I’ve read a Mary Jo Putney. My last was Stolen Magic, was a serious disappointment. Part of the problem may have been that it is fantasy romance, of which I’m not much of a fan. But the other part of the problem was Putney’s writing style, which seemed quite different in this book than in her previous ones. The book was full of high blown phrases; what I think of a “romance novel” speak. Putney’s dialogue has sometimes been criticized for sounding to modern. In Stolen Magic the characters sound like a those in many of the old 19th century romance novels. At one point the heroine tearfully tells the hero that she is “increasing.” Naturally the hero is delighted beyond words that his wife is with child. Their financial straights are less worrisome than previously thought and he says, “Oh Sarah, I have found a patron today, but you have created a miracle.”

Okay, I’ll be the first to agree that a new baby is a miracle, but my eyes just rolled with this phrase. It wasn’t just this phrase. The whole book is full of what I think of as gushing. So, for the time being, I have put MJP’s books on hold.

And yet, I have to admit that I was not sorry to see that many readers enjoyed the book, and her more recent fantasy romances as well. When you fall in love with a romance writer, nothing takes away from those first heady years. Someone recently told me that now that she has finished her fantasy trilogy, MJP plans to return to straight historicals.

I hope this is true. Very few romance writers take risks like Mary Jo Putney. She’s a writer with guts. If you’re going to write outstanding books you have to be willing to make a few mistakes along the way and very few romance writers do that.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store.

Questions To Consider:

1. Have you read Mary Jo Putney, and if so, is she now or has she ever been among your favorite authors? If not, can you pinpoint what you didn’t like about her books, and if so, which is your favorite MJP…and why?

2. Do you have any thoughts on MJP’s Fallen Angels series that you would like to share?

3. What did you think of MJPs contemporaries? Do you hope she writes more?

4. Robin felt that one thing that made MJPs books so special was the uniqueness of each of the heroes. What are your thoughts on this?

5. Have you read MJPs fantasy romances? What do you think about Robin’s opinion that her writing style changed with the new books?

6. What do you hope MJP writes next?

7. In our intro LLB wrote that five years ago, MJP was the fifth most widely read author among our readers, and that she was the fifth most highly rated as well. Were to poll again today, where would she fall on your lists in these two areas?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)