Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon (2012)

When I was in high school, I discovered that if you read books by John Jakes and Judith Krantz, they always had good sex scenes in them.  I like to say I learned everything I need to know about sex from a handful of 1980s trashy bestsellers.  North and South ("Push it in... all the way in... Oh. Yes... She had been wild with the urge to take a man... It had reached her ears that he was a magnificent male specimen..."  Princess Daisy ("His second orgasm was much more intense than the first, coming, it seemed, not just from his penis and his testicles, but from his whole spinal column.  The fourteen-year-old boy lay, momentarily exhausted...").  My love of historical fiction, perhaps, comes from the sex scenes of John Jakes.  I suppose there was Jackie Collins thrown in there as well at some point, and others I can't remember the titles of. These, plus my mother's Redbook, taught me much and little about sex.   I remember various descriptions of vaginas and breasts and womens' public hair (or lack of it) and vampish women who said things like "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"  (I had to google that - it's Lace; who knew - I always thought it was a Judith Krantz line).   As a gay teen, I was trying to find myself in these stories, but I don't remember ever reading a gay sex scene until I was much older.

I was pleasantly surprised and kind of thrilled to get a taste of this in Habits of the House by Fay Weldon. I picked this up because it was supposed to be like Downton Abbey.  It is.  There are even characters named Robert and Isobel, one of whom is some sort of earl (or perhaps a duke).  Every single character in this book could visit or work at Downton Abbey, and fit right in.  Although the Downton characters would, in all likelihood, kick their asses in a fight.  Edith, in her best days (apparently and sadly behind her now, to the viewer's regret) could wallop Rosina the earl's daughter in a cage match and come out without even a broken nail or mussed up marcel.  But there was something far more enjoyable about Habits of the House than mere Downton envy.  It's sexy.  It's not 14 year old Russian boy being trained to have sex by his very own courtesan sexy (I wanted a courtesan of my own, when I was sixteen, only a male one).  But there are perky pink nipples, and descriptions of pubic hair, and a threesome (which the know it all bluestocking daughter refers to as troilism, a word I had to look up and which wasn't coined until the 1940s, a bit of anachronism that bothered me for only a moment before I dove back in).  Actually TWO threesomes, one described in some detail (not Jakes or Krantz detail, but enough), the other mentioned.  Princess Daisy is the grandmother, of sorts, of Habits of the House.  That made it more fun.  Sometimes, especially recently, Downton has a stick up its ass and has lost some of the raw sexuality from the first season.  Thomas will never, ever get laid again.   Edith has sex, off scene, and ends up with a baby out of wedlock, rather than a either a good time, or a dead man in her bed.  Anna gets raped (in Krantz-esque books, don't women get raped and then like it?  That always seemed to the icky, dark side of those types of books; that happened in M.M. Kaye's Trade Winds, a book that otherwise I loved as a young adult).  Habits of the House is the how Downton used to be, with the sex added back in.

As a novel, Habits of the House is simply written, with short, punchy sentences.  The characters are like little prizes in the Christmas cake; as you eat your way through the deliciousness, you keep finding new characters to like.  No one is quite despicable enough to hate - or quite likable enough to sympathize with.  Everyone is a hero, and everyone is sort of a douchebag, which surprisingly I liked - I tend to hate ambiguity like this.  The descriptions of clothes and parties and food and the lives of servants are terrifically fun.  The Prince of Wales is a bloated, lecherous pig who controls every bit of society - which is probably how it really was, both despised and courted (like all princes).  Weldon adds historical touches and figures as sort of icing, to add some credibility to the story, as all good historical fiction writers do.

I tried to read Margaret George's Elizabeth I before picking this book up, and was so disappointed (I don't think I've read a Margaret George I've liked since her Henry VIII book, which I think was her first).  Everyone so flat and boring, and expected.  Queen Elizabeth and company acted and talked and walked like they stepped out of a history book, absolutely expected.  And boring!  Habits of the House did the opposite of this; Fay Weldon took a standard historical plot from the Gilded Age (poor English aristocracy seeking wealthy American heiress) and added enough interest and flavor and color to the characters that it turned into this engaging romp.

Is this trash?  Probably so.  I can't think of much redeeming value here.  It will most likely slip through my brain like water through a sieve, leaving not much behind.  But it was an incredibly enjoyable few hours of reading, and that says something.  Hurray for trash!

Habits of the House (Love & Inheritance Trilogy, #1)Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is this trash?  Probably so.  I can't think of much redeeming value here.  It will most likely slip through my brain like water through a sieve, leaving not much behind.  But it was an incredibly enjoyable few hours of reading, and that says something.  Hurray for trash!Judith Krantz and John Jakes and Jackie Collins visit Downton Abbey; Habits of the House is injected with historical sex and scandal.  As a novel, Habits of the House is simply written, with short, punchy sentences.  The characters are like little prizes in the Christmas cake; as you eat your way through the deliciousness, you keep finding new characters to read about.  No one is quite despicable enough to hate - or quite likable enough to sympathize with.  Everyone is a hero, and everyone is sort of a douchebag.    The descriptions of clothes and parties and food and the lives of servants are terrifically fun.  The Prince of Wales is a bloated, lecherous pig who controls every bit of society - which is probably how it really was, both despised and courted (like all princes).  Weldon adds historical touches and figures as sort of icing, to add some credibility to the story, as all good historical fiction writers do. I'm sure you've read historical fiction where the cardboard characters march out onto the page one after the other.  Weldon, however, doesn't do this to us.  Weldon adds enough flavor and verve, vim and vigor to make this a really rollicking romp!


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