I don’t normally read New York Times Bestsellers in the pulp fiction category. I’m normally a “literary fiction” type who occasionally dabbles in poetry and short stories. That is to say, I’m normally a book snob. During my year reading a 100 books I read some bestsellers and non-fiction, but even then I remained committed to my choice-genre. So when I discovered Beatriz Williams was a NYT bestseller of the pulp fiction variety, I began reading The Secret Life of Violet Grant with an arrogant determination that it would be a “trashy” read. It’s a hard thing to admit, this book snobbery; a harder thing still to confess: I enjoyed, really enjoyed, The Secret Life of Violet Grant. Not just for its heady romance and historic atmosphere (though *blush* I did enjoy the heady romance), but for its exploration of what it means to be a fierce woman who both knows what she wants and is brave enough to demand it.
The twinned chronology that follows the titular Violet Grant and her great-niece Vivian, offers two perspectives on fierce women. The plot of the novel turns on a mysterious suitcase that arrives in Vivian’s possession, belonging – she discovers – to her great-Aunt Violet, who is known, in family lore, to have murdered her husband and run off with her lover in the days before the outbreak of WW1. While Vivian investigates – in the 1960s – the circumstances of this supposed murder – all with the intention of returning the suitcase, if she can – she carries on her own tortured romance with a dashing, but complicated, Dr. Paul.
It really does sound like a pulp mystery and romance. And in some ways it is: there’s intrigue, chapters that end with an echoing “dun dun dun,” there are violent encounters and dashed hopes, tearful reunions (of unexpected kinds) and, of course, comas. These dramatic elements, however, do more than make this an entirely enjoyable read (and they do that quite well), they also underpin the complex questions about what it means to be a woman, more importantly, what it means to be a fierce woman in a society that has expectations of passivity and subjugation.
Of course these are not simply historical questions; and, like all good historical fiction, the novel lets the reader consider these questions in ahistorical ways. By having Violet and Vivian (their ‘V’ names are no accident) mirror one another in decisions, tricks of fate and personality types, the reader can’t help but hear the echoes of the 1914 and 1964 tales, respectively, in the contemporary moment. How do patriarchal institutions like marriage, the university/education, and inheritence limit not only what women can achieve, but what they can imagine as possible? When women do find ways to imagine alternatives, how do we collectively punish women for their desires when they step outside convention? How do we regulate what it means to be a woman in codes of dress, behaviour, interest and desire?
This then is a question to ask myself: what is my expectation of my reading desires that I skirt an enjoyment of historical romance? We’ll save that question for another day, as I do believe The Secret life of Violet Grant is much more than simple historical romance: it’s an exploration of what it means to be a strong, smart, fierce woman. Kinda like me. Just saying.