#BookReview of Unforgivable Love is part of the #20BooksofSummer challenge!

I would like to thank Sophfronia Scott for sending me a copy of her latest novel, Unforgivable Love, published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. The expected publishing date is September 26, 2017.

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At 509 pages, Unforgivable Love is a long novel full of tangles of relationships among several characters. The chapters are told from different points of view, all in 3rd-person past tense. I was very excited to read this book; it’s a re-telling of a famous novel, but now with an all-black cast set in Harlem. Due to all the plot twists and turns, I’m going to use the synopsis on the back of the book to avoid accidental spoilers:

In this vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liasions dangereuses, it’s the summer when Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier and a sweltering stretch has Harlem’s elite fleeing the city for Westchester County’s breezier climes while two predators stalk amid the manicured gardens and fine old homes.

 

Heiress Mae Malveaux rules society with an angel’s smile and a heart of stone. She made up her mind long ago that nobody would decide her fate. To have the pleasure she craves, control is paramount, especially control of the men Mae attracts like moths to a flame.

 

Valiant Jackson always gets what he wants — and he’s wanted Mae for years. The door finally opens for him when Mae strikes a bargain: seduce her virginal young cousin, Cecily, engaged to Frank Washington, who values Cecily’s innocence above all else. If he’s successful, Val’s reward will be a night with Mae.

 

But Val secretly seeks another prize. Elizabeth Townsend is fiercely loyal to her church and her civil rights attorney husband. She is certain there is something redeemable in Mr. Jackson. Little does she know that her worst mistake will be Val’s greatest triumph.

As you can perhaps tell from the synopsis, Unforgivable Love is a big book of plots and schemes and sex. The characters aren’t what you’ve maybe read about the black community in Harlem in the 1940s because these are wealthy people. They don’t have to work; they mainly try to demonstrate who has the most power. Knowing that, I still had difficulty accepting the characters’ motivations.

In the first few pages, we find a teen-aged Mae with her best friend, Alice. Quickly we learn the girls are sexually attracted to each other, but because Alice has unprotected sexual relationships with men, she’s pregnant, which causes her mother to marry her off. This moment impacts Mae forever, increasing her resolve to never be under someone else’s control — including men.

Later, in her early 30s, Mae acknowledges she does want to be loved, despite her cold, calculating personality. But it’s all the work her mother did to make her a “respectable” heiress — trips to Europe, making sure Mae is beautiful, looking for the right kind of man to marry Mae — that has kept Mae safe from real love. Now, this moment is 32 pages into a 509-page book. Thus, readers need Mae thinking about her motivations throughout the book. She narrates her own chapters, so the opportunity is there. Without this thread of complex emotions running throughout the book, it’s easy for Mae to fall into a stereotype of villain.

Val was the most confusing character. He swings from emotional to cold, loving Elizabeth and/or Mae. I never knew which way he was going to go, but I knew the 3rd-person narrator wanted me to dislike him. He ruins women’s lives to “amuse” himself. He makes “subtle calculations” and “measured out time carefully.” He’s like a snake when he lets a woman “marinate in her escape, or what she thought was her escape.” Yet he’s happy that “there were always a few bribable people who had access to her.” I was uncomfortable with a character who both stalks and loves the same woman, but more importantly, I didn’t understand his feelings.

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While I didn’t understand the characters, Sophfronia Scott’s writing was so spot on that in places it warmed me. Young Cecily, who spent a year with her great-aunt and uncle in North Carolina to keep her out of the city and “respectable,” learns to plant and sow, bake and feed, feel the rhythms of nature and her body. Thus, when she’s sexually excited, it’s so fitting that:

When she reached the pinnacle of this exquisite ache she felt herself burst open like a bag of sugar…

Most of these shining moments come from Cecily’s chapters. After a time in North Carolina, Cecily compares her new location to her home in Harlem. In the city:

. . . there seemed to be fewer ways to mark time here, aside from a clock and a calendar. . . . The flowers couldn’t tell her the season because the ones she saw were often forced to bloom out of time. . . The people here were always insisting on their own time — time for drinks, time for church, time for dinner, time to dance, time to play bridge.

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And Harlem did seem like a rather odd setting for Unforgivable Love. Characters spend the most time in the country at Val’s wealthy aunt’s house. Based on everything I know about Harlem, I wanted to read more about what it was like to come off the back of the Harlem Renaissance, which ended in the mid-1930s. In the 1940s, there were riots and black politicians elected. At one point, Elizabeth has a debate with Val about the book The Street by Ann Petry, published in 1946. It’s contemporary, set in post-WWII Harlem. Elizabeth makes connections to the book, but Val says there are none because the main character doesn’t represent their Harlem lives. And I agreed. Even the one club the characters in Harlem visit is cut off from the rest of the city’s culture and people. I wanted more signs that I was in Harlem through characters reflecting on why Harlem is unique. Otherwise, any city would do.

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Unforgivable Love is a reimagining that slowly burns until closes with a bang. There are tangles that remain knotted because it’s unclear how they were tangled in the first place, and the goal to have revenge through manipulated sexual relationships was exhausting to this reader. I gather it makes a difference if you have read the 1782 French classic epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos first.

20 books 2017
This is Book #1 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.
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41 thoughts on “#BookReview of Unforgivable Love is part of the #20BooksofSummer challenge!

    1. Well, it’s not hard to follow who is doing what, but the “why” is either missing it so buried that I’m not getting it. Really, it’s a series of people who want to shame or destroy other by using sex. For the more powerful promiscuous folks, it’s WHO they have sex with. For the virginal or Christian folks, it’s how they’re avoiding sex. Those are the two big things happening.

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  1. Love the new theme! 😀

    I’m not really sure of the point of reimagining a book into a different setting and time period – I find they rarely work as society is so different, and I’m wondering if that’s why the motivations didn’t seem to work so well for you in this one. That period in Harlem is so interesting that I feel it deserves a unique plot all of its own…

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    1. That’s a good point! Two elite had clear sources of income: an heiress whose family created a hair product, and a man who owns a night club/numbers running/bootleg alcohol sales. I think in the original version, the characters are part of the French aristocracy. You may have a point. What other retellings have you read?

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      1. Well, most recently I tried some of the Jane Austen retellings, and mostly hated them – society has changed too much for them to work today. And there’s another author whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment who has made a career out of re-using characters and plots from the Victorian era – I thought her first one was quite clever, if a little strange, but then they just began to feel derivative…

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    1. I like the re-telling with the shift in race, too. I was really excited because I’ve studied Harlem (1920s-1940s mostly), but the majority of the novel takes place in a rich lady’s house out in the country. The characters were despicable in a way I didn’t understand. I don’t require a character to be likable at all, but I want to know why they’re doing what they do.

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    1. I don’t have time to squeeze in a French classic right now. I do wonder what it would be like, though. If the premise is revenge and power through sex, how would that be depicted in a novel from the 1800s, when such writing would be shunned as immoral?

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  2. Sounds like that didn’t work entirely well – I think retellings are very tricky and tend to avoid them in books, as either you’ve read the original and it will never be as good, or you haven’t and some bits won’t maybe make sense, because we forgive in a classic what we don’t forgive so easily in a modern novel. Maybe. It sounds like the author is a good writer, though.

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  3. I just purchased Les Liaisons Dangereuses, so I think I’ll stick with that one for now. Like Laila says, the setting of this retelling is appealing, but I might not have the patience to wade through hidden motivations of people who want to control one another.

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    1. I think the motivations might be “just because they can”–but does that exist in real life? Maybe I’m awesome at fencing myself off from jerky people. I hope you review Les Liaisons Dangereuses when you’ve finished it!

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  4. I saw the movie a long time ago – like a really long time ago. I can just barely remember John Malkovich’s evil little grin. More than anything, your review of this book makes me want to read the original. Maybe the “why” is explained better there.

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    1. I would think the motivations would be super bored aristocrats. When I read Victorian lit, I’m super aware that most of their days are filled with trying to fill the day–piano, needlework, singing, changing clothes, arranging flowers, etc.

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  5. Thanks for your review–I would be interested in a book set among the upper class in 1940s Harlem, but it doesn’t sound like there is much in the way of actual setting. If a book is located in a very specific time/place, I like to come away feeling like I’ve really visited it. Think I will give this one a miss!

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  6. Reading this review is like listening to someone debate themselves. I enjoyed reading this quite a bit! But, it sounds like you’re still on the fence about this novel. Is Mae the main character? Is there a MC? There seems to be so much happening in this novel! But I am certainly intrigued by Mae.

    I’ve never heard of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I do love me an epistolary novel. Unforgivable Love isn’t epistolary, however… correct?

    I am unclear based on the above: Have you read The Street? It sounds like you could really relate to that moment.

    Well, that was a bit rambly. But it’s obvious you gave me a lot to think about!

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    1. I definitely was debating myself! Good eye, Jackie! I love reading black lit and I love books set in Harlem. But this book didn’t fit with anything I know about Harlem in the 1940s. The setting seemed arbitrary. Race was a non-issue for a time period that was racially charged in the south AND north. Unforgivable Love is not an epistolary novel, which I’m sure changed the tone a lot. If you love epistolary novels, one of the best I’ve read is Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball. It’s a really fast read, but it’s gorgeous. I have not read The Street yet. It’s on my list. But I can definitely relate to the moment that BOTH characters are having. Val says he can’t relate because they are literally so removed from the life Petry describes. But I also relate to Elizabeth, who says that she IMAGINE herself as the mother, and if she can imagine, she can sympathize. If she can sympathize, she can make small changes. If she makes small changes, maybe others will, too.

      I’m not sure, honestly, who the MAIN character is. We get into the heads of several people: Mae, Val, Elizabeth, Cecily. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Mae’s and Val’s true motivations are unclear, but Elizabeth and Cecily are more self-reflective.

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  7. Sounds like this book had too much going on? Too many POVs? Maybe the author should have stuck with one or two and developed the characters further? Sounds like they were not likable characters…

    It is a pet peeve of mine when a book is set in a particular city but the author doesn’t “set the scene.” I think when you set a book in such a well known neighborhood like Harlem, you almost HAVE to take the time to take your readers there…

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    1. Those are good points, Amanda, and I like your idea of fewer narrators. For some reason, I had not thought of that, perhaps because I didn’t know any of the characters terribly well. In my head, I was thinking I wanted to know more about all of them, but the book was already 500 pages.

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