Song of Innocence
I often think that a good writer can take any plot and make a good story of it. Maybe sometimes. Margery Harkness-Casares is a good writer, meaning that her narrative voice is both professional and compelling. But no one, and I mean no one could have succeeded with this preposterous plot. In Song of Innocence the author saddled herself with the kind of a foolish and unbelievable story line that was popular in the late 1970s romance.
This is one of those books with a prologue about an aristocratic baby, whisked away to live with adoptive parents who raise her as their own. Chapter one begins when the uncle of Mignon San Marco, our heroine (who is unaware of her parentage), suddenly dies, leaving the penniless girl to fend for herself alone in the streets of Paris. Though she is only sixteen (and mistakenly believes that she is fourteen) Mignon must become a prostitute to avoid starvation. Her first client is Austrian duke Charles Eugene von Klien, whose manservant picks her up on the street to relieve his master’s “great sexual needs.” This incident was one of dozens that brought me up short. Since when does a duke need to resort to street prostitutes? But I digress.
Charles refrains from having sex with Mignon because she is still a child, though he is powerfully tempted by her. She tries to seduce him, but, being so innocent she is rather clumsy. Finally he leaves her alone for the night thinking that in the morning he will make arrangements to keep her from ruining herself. Though I was squirming in my seat at the thought of this grown man dealing with his sexual arousal by a very young girl, I have to admit it. I could not stop reading. The scene is very well written.
Next day Charles’s nice fiancee comes to visit. Mignon throws a temper tantrum and acts like the adolescent that she is. Apparently she thinks that she and Charles have a relationship because he procured her for sex. Leaving in a fit of pique, Mignon decides that Charles is her destiny. She gets work as a clerk in a bookshop until she can make further plans. (Hold it right there. I thought she was forced into prostitution by starvation and all along she could have found work in a bookshop!)
Much of the remainder of the book (and it has really just begun) concerns Mignon’s adventures trying to reunite with her great love. She makes friends with Charles’s manservant, André and corresponds with him frequently. Then she is rescued by Napoleon and discovers that she is the long lost orphaned child of a French Duke. At the Emperor’s insistence she marries David-Claire, an elderly gay aristocrat, and becomes part of Napoleon’s court.
After chapter upon chapter of separation and an affair with Charles, Mignon’s kindly gay husband, David-Claire, conveniently dies. (He is said to “like young boys.” Is he a child molester? We never know). Mignon is sad when this happens. She has always known that Charles was her destiny but she seems to have forgotten that David-Claire would have to die to make this happen. As for me, by this time I was howling with laughter.
So there we have it.
Mignon is a ridiculously young, too-stupid-to-live heroine, whose asinine behavior is rewarded at every turn. I don’t mind young heroines when they show some maturity but Mignon really did seem child-like. The idea that she would marry a man, even a gay man, with the idea that she would soon commit adultery, left me squirming.
Charles, the hero, seems charming, strong, and all-in-all, very hero-like. He is kind to his sad fiancée, though he feels little attraction to her. My main problem with Charles was that he was a grown man of twenty-nine in love with a very silly young girl.
Kitchen sink plotting is the rule in Song of Innocence, but you do keep turning those pages. (Even when you are giggling.) Both Napoleon and Josephine make memorable appearances. They are described in fascinating detail and, I will remember the author’s rending of these two charismatic figures long after I’ve forgotten Mignon and Charles.
This book is entertaining in the same way that some of those old 1970’s romances were fun to read. Margery Harkness-Casares is such a good writer that I do hope she picks a simpler story next time. I would love to read it.