Two Feminists Read a Romance Novel: The Heiress Effect, Courtney Milan

Last month, my adjunct sister Kate and I both read The Heiress Effect and discussed it back and forth via email in many paragraphs, with an eye to posting a joint review on the blog based on what we both said about it. I have always been jealous of Teresa and Proper Jenny and their joint reviews, so I am constantly trying to get people in my life to do joint reviews with me. And haHA! I finally conned Kate into doing this.

The Heiress Effect (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is about a woman called Jane who is doing her best to be as objectionable to society as she can. A wealthy heiress herself, she’s determined to stay unmarried until her sister Emily reaches her majority, because she is afraid to leave Emily alone with their uncle Titus, who is constantly bringing in scary quack doctors to cure Emily of her seizures. A member of her social circle, the Marquess of Bradenton, secretly makes an offer to Oliver Marshall, an illegitimate brother of a duke who is seeking to gain political power and someday become Prime Minister. If Oliver will orchestrate Jane’s social downfall, Bradenton will throw his support behind Oliver’s pet project of voting reform.

Kate: Okay, so my first thoughts about The Heiress Effect were about Courtney Milan and how some of her stuff fits into the romance genre a la body image. So I know romance novels today have evolved SO MUCH from the 70s, and even the 90s (yes, I mean less rape), but even today chances are that if you pick up a romance one of two things will happen, 1) the heroine is somewhere on the scale of pretty to impossibly gorgeous from start to finish; or 2) there’s an ugly duckling turned swan thing that will happen. Courtney Milan has not held to this formula in her last few books . . . and I like it!

In The Heiress Effect, Jane is tall, plump, not classically beautiful, and Oliver is totally into all of it. I think it’s valuable to have romances that feature heroines with, to quote Lena Dunham, bodies that their readers can “understand.” Another reason I find this valuable (and this happens a lot in The Heiress Effect) is that when Courtney Milan writes from Oliver’s perspective, she shows women some examples of how men might think lovingly or consider beautiful a body more like their own. She makes sex with a tall plump lady sound sexy in this book, and most films and TV shows would not do that. It’s kind of a huge revelation to most of us when a dude or lady likes something about our body that we have been told is disgusting and vile by pretty much all commercials/billboards/store ads ever. It’s liberating and it makes it a lot easier to say, “Fuck you” to anyone who would devalue someone for not conforming to conventional beauty standards, which, you know, most of us don’t.

Jenny: I totally agree with this. A thing that bothers me in romance novels — and something, not coincidentally, that the romance authors I like the best tend to avoid or downplay — is this idea that everyone’s into the same thing. It manifests itself most commonly in the Dazzling Beauty™ whose looks are such that every gentleman at Almack’s drops his monocle and rushes to claim a dance with her. I just don’t buy it. There have been times in my life when I’ve seen a guy at a bar or whatever and been dazzled by his beauty, but on every one of those occasions, someone else I’ve been with has said, “Him? Meh.” And that is because different people are into different things. Some people are into blondes. Some people are into brunettes. Some people are into petite skinny girls. Some people are into tall plump girls. It is a world of variety.

I remember you mentioned that you didn’t love The Duchess War — did you have the same problems with this one as you did with that one?

Kate: On paper, in theory, I love what Courtney Milan does with this book. The snubbed, illegitimate-ish commoner now made ruthless politician and the socially awkward too loud woman as a pair; she has to learn to love herself and then he has to get over being embarrassed by her because fuck society; the two interesting sub-plots where both characters have to learn to trust their own sisters. My problem with the characters as individuals is that Oliver felt too simple to me, and Jane felt too contrived.

Oliver’s obstacle is that he is so single-minded about acquiring power over those who once abused him that he’s willing to do things he knows are wrong and even deny himself the woman he loves. The harm he could do Jane would be social embarrassment, which we already know she’s used to, so when there are scenes with Jane and he’s supposed to sound menacing, like he would really hurt her, I think Milan wants him to seem sexy and dangerous, but he just kind of comes across as an asshole. His conflict with Jane, that she’s too loud and awkward for the future he wants for himself, is so one-note the whole time that when he finally gets over it it felt like it was because it was the end of the novel and the formula works that way, not because the character had really worked through his issues.

Jenny: One thing I think that would have made Oliver’s character and his struggles more interesting is if he were morally compromised to begin with. I enjoyed this about Milan’s previous series — Ash had ditched his brothers as a kid so he was super invested in Saving the Day; that guy in the fortune-telling book was cold-hearted and mean to his brother, etc. — those things felt like real conflicts with stakes. If we’d been able to see how Oliver had made moral compromises to advance his political career in the past, then the threat of him possibly ruining Jane’s life might have felt more real. Because yeah, I agree with you that his conflict was a bit anemic to start with, and I didn’t think it was resolved in a satisfactory way.

And with Jane, I thought that some aspects of her plotline felt inorganic, and other aspects were a lot of fun. Although I did have problems with her and Oliver as a couple, I liked it that Jane could solve her own problems but also felt incredibly relieved to know there was someone who would come help her out. Courtney Milan is obviously writing with a feminist sensibility in a lot of ways, and at times that can be a little heavy-handed. So although I agree that the sudden toppling of all obstacles felt a bit fake, I did enjoy that aspect of Oliver and Jane’s relationship that’s like “You can get by without me but I’ll come if you want someone there.”

Kate: When it comes to Jane, I thought all the things she does and goes through, her social awkwardness, being ridiculed, all of those are things I could relate to, and yet, it felt contrived. At the beginning of the book Jane thinks of her socially awkward pose as something she must do for the sake of her sister because it’s her only means of not getting married. But then she pretty much admits later on that she was just amplifying the things that she felt self-conscious about and that she has essentially trapped herself in this role she’s playing. People do that, they tell themselves stories about themselves, and in this way can trap themselves into playing a role. At the beginning of most romance novels, the heroines are really badly trapped be it by poverty, riches, parentage, evil suitors, etc.. In The Heiress Effect I never felt sure of how dangerous her uncle really was or how dire Jane’s situation actually was because once she found her “inner strength” the message seemed to be, “It was all in my head and I can easily put this to rights because I am Jane, hear me roar!” I liked what I think Milan was trying to do, in terms of showing how we sometimes get trapped in our own neurosis, and it also felt like way too much.

In terms of them as a couple, I was pretty unmoved by their dynamic. I feel bad writing that. I liked the book more than I’m letting on in this commentary! I liked the way Milan played with the reader, at first making us think that it was Jane who’s desperate and has to be saved by Oliver, and then once she’s got her stuff together we focus on how it’s actually Oliver who arguably has the bigger emotional obstacles to overcome. But that means that halfway into the book Oliver decides she’s the best, but she’s just not for him. Oliver pretty much knew he loved her, and Jane knew it as well, so the whole “WILL THEY EVER CONFESS THEIR LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER”, which for me is a pretty integral part of a romance novel, was really lukewarm, and their chemistry as a couple didn’t make up for it to me.

Jenny: I mostly agree with this. One thing I did like, though, about their dynamic as a couple (this is something Courtney Milan does pretty consistently) is the way the heroine always sees in the hero the qualities he likes best about himself that society doesn’t necessarily take notice of, and vice versa. And they’re like, “Hey. You are funny!” (or, really good at strategy! or, curiously emotionally insightful!), and the other person then can’t stop thinking about them. When you have to set it up so that the hero and heroine are obsessed with each other early on, I like it much much better than the standard-issue “can’t stop feeling things in my man-parts” obsession that they’re obsessed with the idea of being seen clearly.

PS this was fun can we do it again sometime?

Kate: Yes please! I really enjoyed this.

Ha ha. See how I have brainwashed little Kate into doing what I want.

Note: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.