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"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Review: The Art of Theft

The Art of Theft The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of the Lady Sherlock series. The way that Sherry Thomas weaves together an emotionally affecting and socially realistic mystery with solidly feminist sensibilities and social commentary is impressive and gratifying. With the first book especially, I felt the kind of well-being I get from books that feed my political and literary/aesthetic sensibilities at the same time. This, I keep thinking, is what political art and entertainment should feel like. Organic. Not didactic, but powerful. Showing, not just telling, but bold.

So I’ve loved this series for several reasons, but especially:
* The deft conceptualization of Lady Sherlock: Charlotte Holmes is a great character because she is challenging in a way that’s true to Sherlock Holmes, but appropriately adapted for the character’s different social position as a young gentlewoman, someone raised in privilege but wholly without power and so desperate for it she's willing to ruin herself to get it. Thomas does a great job of reinterpreting what it would mean to be someone like Sherlock, a genius, but also a woman in a sexist society, how one would have to navigate that differently than any other version of the Sherlock Holmes character. She reminds me a bit of the lead character in The Kiss Quotient —an analytical genius who is socially awkward, though not necessarily on the spectrum and living at a time before anyone ever heard of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. But she does still have relatable desires even if she doesn’t need companionship in the same way as someone more neurologically typical.
* Charlotte’s relationship with Lord Ingram.
* The complexity of the female characters overall, especially Olivia who suffers from terrible social anxiety but is a talented writer and Mrs. Watson, a former actress/former mistress.
* Olivia’s relationship and potential career as a novelist and Sherlock Holmes documentarian.
* Both sisters’ relationships with Mrs. Watson, who’s also on the periphery of respectable society.

That said, on book three, The Hollow of Fear, I realized that I was starting to lose some steam as reader as stasis set in with regard to character development and relationship growth. With each book, the mysteries grow more grand and complex, while the characters barely change at all. The Art of a Theft is the fourth installment and that feeling has only strengthened. This time the mystery is very high stakes; it centers on a black mail scheme involving an international crime syndicate and a power struggle between India and British Colonial power. Meanwhile, our main characters are barely advancing at all. It seems like they’re wading through molasses and I’m stuck with them.

A reviewer on Goodreads remarked that the repeated references to Charlotte's dieting and restricted eating made her cringe. I can understand that, especially in light of her atypical personality and disregard for social convention, the way her size is referenced seems overdone. There is a practical component as Charlotte has noted, however, to her concerns about eating and appearance. She isn’t a wealthy woman; she doesn’t have the budget for a new wardrobe so exceeding a certain size would be a problem, and being considered conventionally attractive is an asset as she recognizes. But the refrain is a bit more prominent than I’d expect.

I find myself getting impatient with several aspects of the series as it unfolds: Charlotte’s self-deprecating mentions of approaching "maximum tolerable chins" is one. Her sister Olivia’s constant anxiety about anything new or different is another with little self-examination is another. Frankly she's making me nervous. Most concerning, the relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ingram is really kind of a mess, and not in an intriguing way.

Compared to book three, in the Art of Theft, the relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ingram may even be in retreat. The situation doesn't seem promising in relation to a happy ever after, but I'm not sure I’m still fully invested in that. Charlotte strikes me as someone who might truly not have conventional HEA type romantic desires if there was space to explore that. I’m not sure what her romantic and sexual identity might be to put it in modern terms. I’d like to hear more about what Charlotte secretly yearns for in her relationship with Ingram, what she misses living a celibate/single life, rather than just reading about what she doesn’t want from him when he engages the topic. It’s a very reactive situation for a dynamic woman.

Collectively, for me these elements symbolize a broader issue. Of course human beings are like this. They get stuck. They repeat the same frustrating behaviors day after day after year. But I’m having trouble discerning which attitudes and behaviors are learned, reflecting social pressure, and which stem from the individuals' true desires. How do I root for them when I don’t know what they actually want?

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